Let’s look at Creature from the Black Lagoon, an under-appreciated, beautiful film.
Guillermo del Toro once called the sequence we’re about to analyze the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. He ain’t wrong.
I watched Creature from the Black Lagoon last week on Blu-Ray and could not believe its beauty; the way it captures the human/creature body as it moves through the water.
In the last (and first) installment of “Shot for Shot,” I examined the opening minutes of my favorite movie of all-time, Howard Hawks’ masterpiece, Rio Bravo. Now, we take a look at the scene that inspired films like del Toro’s The Shape of Water and the opening minutes of Jaws.
The 27 minutes prior to the beginning of this sequence concern the arrival of a team of geologists and ichthyologists (I already looked it up; according to Wikipedia, it’s basically fish scientists) to a lagoon in the Amazon, where they discovered the fossil of a hand with webbed fingers. They believe the fossil may help them to understand how sea creatures made their way onto land.
Shortly after their arrival, the team discovers the men tasked with watching over the area murdered. In an effort to better understand where the fossil came from, ichthyologists David Reed (Richard Carlson) and Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) decide to explore the depths of the lagoon. Unbeknownst to them, Gill-man has been watching them the entire time and has taken a liking to Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams), the only female member of the team and David’s girlfriend.
After David and Carl explore the lagoon, Kay decides to take a swim.
Enter: The Lagoon
The sequence begins after Kay disrobes and, just before jumping into the lagoon from the team’s boat, casts a nervous look to her right. Her turn of the head is towards the men who have just left. But, to the viewer, the only one who knows of Gill-man’s presence in the lagoon, the nervous biting of the lip takes on another meaning.
In addition to the more aquatic elements, Jaws borrows from Creature from the Black Lagoon one of the most important tools a filmmaker has in their belt: suspense. Until this sequence, director Jack Arnold has not shown us Gill-man in full. We’ve only seen his webbed-hands, and flashes of his face as he watches the scientists from the outskirts of the lagoon. It is our wondering what this creature will look like, and knowing what exactly Kay is diving towards, that makes the sequence so suspenseful.
Our anxiety as Kay enters heightens by a cut to a view of the boat, with the camera seemingly suspended over the lagoon, capturing it in full:
Kay then dives into the lake, plunging below the surface for the first time.
As she enters the frame, she swims by the net used to trap creatures. Will she become trapped in the lagoon? As she leaves the frame, weeds and other underwater vegetation rises to the surface. It doesn’t seem like this lagoon is the best place to take a swim, creature or not. The last piece of vegetation rising looks like a webbed hand we’ve seen before. When will our creature make an appearance? What ensues is a series of cuts that are a master class in suspense:
Kay swims back to the surface and away from the boat. Then, the same shot from the front of the boat, this time with Kay swimming towards the suspended camera. Then, five seconds of Kay gliding at the lagoon’s surface, shot as if she is in open water:
Though Kay is only a few dozen yards away from land, she is no less vulnerable and in danger than if she was in the middle of the Atlantic ocean. And all we can think about is how Gill-man is somewhere below the surface. And just as we think this, Arnold cuts there:
Whose perspective is this? Gill-man’s? Probably. This seven-second shot is equal parts beautiful and eerie. Kay, beautifully framed, glides through the lagoon. The creature hides. The sequence relies on our own lived experiences, our knowledge of what it’s like to swim in a natural body of water. Who hasn’t made their way into the water and wondered what lays below, and then had to remind oneself that there’s probably nothing too scary under there? That 1% of uncertainty leaves room for fear. Arnold capitalizes on that here; though, in this scene, there is no uncertainty. The camera cuts back to Kay, smiling as she backstrokes and the sun hits her face. When will Gill-man appear?
Right about now. Just as Kay is truly enjoying herself, we return to the bottom of the lagoon, behind some sort of underwater weed.
The camera pans right, following Kay. The weeds obfuscate our view of her. And just as we’re getting our eyes adjusted to the underwater surroundings, taking in the vegetation, something appears on the right of the frame. Guess who?
Gill-man rises out from behind the weeds. We see him for only a few seconds; just as we are able to process what we are seeing, the camera cuts. We must wait longer to see him in full. Again, we are kept in suspense. We cut back to Kay, this time unquestionably from Gill-man’s point of view. Her backstroke accelerates. Does she instinctively sense he is there? Either way, it heightens the pace of the scene. Cut to a terrifying shot of our creature:
What makes this shot so terrifying? Well, I guess that depends on the viewer, but for me, it’s the seemingly empty eye sockets. (Semi-spoiler: As those who have seen the film know, Gill-man has very human eyes. I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like had they gone with an eyeball-less creature.) Plus, this shot also makes me feel like I am in the water too, and the tilted angle makes me feel as if I’m at the bottom of the lagoon looking up as if water is about to run through my nose. Perhaps, that is because that’s what the next shot is:
Whenever I think about the remark by del Toro included at the beginning of this article, I think of this shot. Do I need to explain why?
By all accounts, Creature from the Black Lagoon is not a great film. It’s a classic and loved by those (like me) who think that Gill-man is one of the coolest monsters. The plot and characters are boring and the dialogue has moments that are as cringey as it gets. But, its cinematography is as good as it gets. (Shoutout to the cinematographer, William E. Snyder.) Were it made in the silent-era, I’m convinced it would be hailed a masterpiece.
This is the moment where Gill-man becomes more than just a brutal monster. He is attracted to Kay, and his adoption of the male gaze makes him, at least at this moment, more man than fish-monster. Humanization is a must for monster movies. On some level, the viewer must sympathize with the monster and see their more gentle side, see them as more than just a brute.
Gill-man then decides to follow:
The latter GIF is an example of a false point-of-view shot, which Arnold deploys masterfully throughout the film. It disorients the viewer as if swimming alongside Kay and Gill-man wasn’t hard enough already. (If you’re looking for a great explainer on false point-of-view shots, check out this video essay).
The camera continues to follow Kay and Gill-man as they make their way further into the lagoon. The camera twice cuts to a close up of Kay, who is smiling without a care in the world. Then, comes maybe the best shot of the sequence (have I made this claim about another shot already?):
I mean…need I say more? This shot is not only beautiful, but it furthers the humanization of Gill-man. Just like the scientists are there to observe and learn more about him, he observes Kay. He’s enthralled with her; wants to get closer and learn more. What makes his urge any different than theirs? (I guess the sexual attraction part, but, you know what I mean). After stalking her for a little while longer, Gill-man flees back to the safety of the weeds:
Is he scared of her, just as we are of him? He watches her from the bottom of the lagoon:
Kay does an underwater backflip as Gill-man swims about. They’re not so different; two bodies moving through the water. As Gill-man kicks up weeds, our view of both is obfuscated. If we weren’t paying so close attention, one could almost mistake her for him. Kay twirls some more and rises to the surface of the water. The vulnerability climaxes, with Kay suspended vertically in the middle of the lagoon. Gill-man can now make his move:
What’s a fool-proof way to protect yourself from the monster living under your bed? Make sure you’re completely covered up by the sheets, that your foot is not dangling off the side of the bed. As we know, monsters and ghosts love to grab you by the foot. And Gill-man is no exception. He timidly swipes once at her feet and misses. He tries again, this time rubbing up against Kay.
When the two make contact, something interesting happens: Gill-man flees, not Kay. Kay, not knowing what is below, dives to the lagoon’s bottom and looks around. Gill-man is already behind the weeds. And we’re once again reminded: sometimes, it’s the monster that’s scared.