In March of 1954 U.S. government Officials announced that an American hydrogen bomb test had been conducted on Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. In that very same month, Universal Pictures introduced it's own product of the nuclear age - "The Creature From the Black Lagoon."
One of the last original monster franchises, "The Creature From the Black Lagoon" helped the horror genre escape its Gothic roots and head for the atomic age of science-fiction horror.
A creature feature in the vein of "King Kong," the film's story focused on an expedition in the Amazon, where fossilized evidence of a link between land and sea animals has been uncovered. Expedition leader Dr. Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) finds this evidence in the form of a skeletal hand with webbed fingers.
After returning to the states he goes to see his friend Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson), an ichthyologist who works at a marine biology institute. After some persuasion by Reed to the institute's financial backer, Mark Williams (Richard Denning), a small group goes on an expedition back to the Amazon in order to find the complete skeleton.
Reed, his girlfriend Kay Lawrence (Julia Adams), Williams, and another scientist named Dr. Thompson go aboard a tramp steamer called the Rita, which is captained by Lucas (Nestor Paiva), the crustiest of crusty old sailboat captains.
As the Rita heads toward the Black Lagoon, we are introduced to the real star of this iconic Universal Horror picture. The Gill-man, as he would be known by monster aficionados, quickly makes his presence known as he quietly claims the lives of a couple of Lucas's shipmates.
One of the most iconic scenes involves the beautiful Julia Adams swimming in the lagoon in her signature white bathing suit. The creature lurks below admiring her beauty, as we all know the true weakness of any misunderstood monster is the beauty of a woman.
At the end of the film, after trying to take Julia Adams's character back to his underwater dwelling, the Gill-Man is scared off by Reed and sinks back into the depths of the Black Lagoon.
That wasn't the last we would see of Gill-man. In the 1956 sequel, "Revenge of the Creature," the creature is captured and sent to the Ocean Harbor Oceanarium in Florida, where an animal psychologist and his ichthyology student study it.
The psychologist attempts to communicate with the Gill-man, but his efforts are hampered by the creature's attraction to his student. Eventually the Gill-man breaks free from its tank and escapes, in hopes of snatching a new would-be beauty.
The creature begins stalking the ichthyology student and kidnaps her, but is soon tracked down and once again repeatedly shot, forcing it to leave empty handed back to the lonesome ocean.
At this point, the Gill-man had faded into the plethora of science-fiction B movies. The Gill-man's tragic tale was concluded in "The Creature Walks Among Us," which hit theaters in 1957.
I suppose executives at Universal decided that the monster was no longer scary - that we had learned its secrets and shined light on the Amazonian shadows that so eerily shrouded the monster in mystery. They decided to evolve the character... literally.
In this film, the creature is found living in a Florida river and after a vicious struggle, is inadvertently immolated. The Gill-man's burn injuries are so severe that its scales and gills fall off, forcing its captors to perform surgery on it to prevent it from suffocating.
X-rays on the creature show it has begun developing a land animal's lung structure, so a tracheotomy is performed, opening an air passage to the lungs, transforming the Gill-man into an air-breathing, nearly human animal.
This film is completely absurd, and maybe in some small way, is a commentary on the introduction of plastic surgery in Hollywood. The once proud and iconic Gill-man walks around dressed it in a prison jumpsuit as it is carted off to a California estate where it is imprisoned within an electric fence.
The creature eventually escapes to the ocean, where it presumably drowns. Sad, but beautifully poetic, isn't it? The world had changed, moved on even, and the creature no longer had a part to play.
"The Creature From the Black Lagoon" will always hold a dear place in my heart. The Gill-man was my favorite monster as a kid - much cooler than Dracula or Frankenstein, and more fierce and frightening than the Wolf Man. I remember the iconic musical queue as the creature came out of the water, its webbed hand rising to grab the ladder of the Rita. Those claws, razor-sharp and longer than dinosaur teeth, ready to grab scientists and sailors encroaching on its territory.
And so I raise my glass to the prehistoric amphibians of old - the missing links of evolution that graced our silver screens all those years ago, when the secrets of the world were waiting to be found. "The Creature From the Black Lagoon" reminds me of the mystery that used to fill horror and science fiction films... and makes me sad for the lack of it today.