The Creature from the Black Lagoon

Richard Carlson, Julie Adams, Richard Denning, Antonia Moreno. Directed by Jack Arnold. Aspect ratio: 4:3 (full-screen). Dolby Digital 2.0. 80 minutes. 1954. Universal Home Video 20760. NR. $29.98.

The defining screen monster of the 1950s was the "Gill Man" from The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Originally introduced to audiences in 3-D, the scaly beast went on to become a pop-culture icon of the status of Frankenstein's monster from two decades earlier.

Like Boris Karloff's creature, Gill Man captured the public's imagination partly because he was that most likable kind of monster—a sympathetic character trying to defend his home from interlopers. In this case, the intruders are the members of a scientific team trying to find the rumored missing link between fish and man, and they're accompanied by a stunning woman who could set even a sea urchin's heart aflutter.

If you think Creature sounds like a mix of Beauty and the Beast and King Kong, you'd be right. Charged with scripting a tale about "a fish man stalking a science expedition," writers Harry Essex and Arthur Ross drew inspiration from both works. The result was a skillfully crafted thriller with a subtext of unrequited love. Even if the suspense and chills don't quite hold up today (can you name many monster films of the era that do?), the feelings Creature evokes are timeless.

Part of Universal's second wave of classic monster movies, Creature is presented in a sparkling new transfer. The picture is remarkably clean, and it exhibits good contrast and blacks as deep as the titular lagoon. Audio is digital two-channel mono, and it's more than sufficient for the music-heavy soundtrack. (The distinctive three-note trumpet figure heard whenever the Gill Man appears will stick with viewers long after the movie ends.)

Picture and sound quality aside, the raison d'être of this disc, like the others in the series, is the supplemental material. A 40-minute documentary, hosted and narrated by film historian David Skal, is impressive in its thoroughness. Going into detail on everything from the 3-D shooting process to the subtle sexual underpinnings of the scenes between Gill Man and Julie Adams, the swimsuited lead, the program never fails to entertain as it informs. (Did you know that Clint Eastwood's first film role was as a lab technician in the film's first sequel, Revenge of the Creature?)

Skal is correct in his observation that, without Black Lagoon, there would have been no Alien or Predator. Even Jaws is identified as a direct descendent, but the connection amounts to little more than a shameless plug for another Universal film. In fact, every shot taken from a sequel reminds viewers that that film, too, is available from Universal Home Video. I guess there are worse sins.

Frequently overlapping the documentary, but chock-full of trivia of its own, is the running commentary from B-movie authority Tom Weaver. There's lots of meat in his comments—he's quick to point out errors, anachronisms, and inconsistencies—but his delivery is so breathlessly paced that viewers will be hard-pressed to catch it all. Yes, this may be an 80-minute movie, but was it really necessary to compress 150 minutes of material into that same amount of time? Those who put in some effort will absorb 80% or so of Weaver's remarks; others will want to go through it a second time or just let it slide. There's even more special content on this disc, including a gallery of production photos and promotional art, a pair of trailers, and cast/crew biographies.

This is a fun classic that should be welcomed in its DVD incarnation.