Saturday, February 12, 2011

The relationship between Sci-Fi and Horror: The Creature

Recently I have been pondering things like the fact that Jaws is still a great movie and how much Science Fiction and Horror go together.  Going back to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and possibly before, there has a been a relationship between Sci-Fi and Horror that works well.  The two genres are not, I believe, wholly distinct from one another.  If we look at them as existing on a spectrum there is significant overlap.  Consider the aforementioned Frankenstein.  Written using the science of its day and possessing social commentary aplenty, the story was also a Gothic ghost story of great skill and interest, spooking readers then if not now.  In the 1950s in the United States comics, magazines, films and television shows all got into the Sci-Fi game, leaving behind the thoughtful writings of Wells and Verne for the Atomic powered horror of giant bugs, alien invaders and pod people.  Still the science was contemporary (for popular purposes) and the subtexts were apropos.  Overt alien invaders from Mars stood side-by-side with allegorical Communist Pod People in the cinematic worlds.

Into this new era of Science Fiction stalked (and swum) the Gill-Man, or, if you like, The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

The eponymous Creature (who I will refer to as Gill-Man for the remainder of this article...probably) is a pre-historic throwback, a leftover missing link between man and fish.  Obviously there is no such thing, nor would there be, but this does not stop Gill-Man from being one of the best Universal Monsters of all time.  This is very important, actually, because Gill-Man is a Universal Monster.  If you do a quick Google search for "Universal Monsters" you will see that the classic team lineup is Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, The Wolf Man, The Mummy (in bandages), the Bride of Frankenstein and the Creature (from the Black Lagoon).  Save for the Wolf Man and the Creature, all of these classic monsters come from the 1930s.  Wolfie was 1941 and Creature was 1954.  What is especially telling is that the Gill-Man is considered one of the gang despite his younger age, lack of 'historical' or 'literary' basis and despite the fact that his movie is really more Sci-Fi than a 'monster' film.

I love the film and I love the character.  The film marks a departure from the norm for a 50's film from a company like Universal, in that it freely speaks of evolution.  The leading man and leading lady, Richard Carlson and Julia Adams, respectively, are a couple, but unmarried and living together, a not uncommon reality any time in history, but not something shown often on the big screen, save when viewing morally inferior 'villains'.  The film was not a typical alien invasion movie or supernatural thriller, but a script about a fish-man that falls in love with a human woman and is attempting to protect its home from invaders.

The Gill-Man is a great movie monster, plain and simple.  An anthropomorphic fish, or a hybrid fish-man, either way the creature is an imposing figure with claws (not present in any known fish), fins and a bass-like gaping maw.  Admittedly his head does appear a bit like a middle-aged dude with a 'skullet' but let's try and remember that he is a fish-person.
Fish people are an interesting choice for movie monster because they automatically look alien to land bound mammals like ourselves.  Consider Admiral Ackbar, everyone's favorite lobster man, or Kit Fisto, whose creature shop genesis is anybody's guess.
Seriously, what the fuck are you?  Squid eyes, catfish chin tendrils, lobster hands...orthopedic shoes...seriously, WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU?
"Yeah, mon, me gots the Space Rasta ting goin on"  Head tentacles.  This is all so wrong.

See, the aquatic provides a sense of alien mystique and cool points.  Except for the lobster man.  There is nothing cool about Mon Cal.  Ever.  And they have breasts.  Mammaries?  On a lobster-catfish-squid?

So cool is the Gill-Man that Macfarlane toys, the experts in when too much is not enough, made not 1 but 2 different sea-creature toys.

Here we see the first one, part of a series (two series to be exact) of monster sets.  Each featured a monster, a setting and either a victim, opponent or supporting cast member.  This was perhaps the most 'high concept' of the monster sets as the "playset" portion uses "wooden" poles to support a plastic 'water' under which the sea creature can be found.  The old diving helmet and diver, armed with a harpoon, completes the scene.  This creature is definitely human in design, evoking the Gill-Man imagery, but is oddly draconic as well.  It is a fine sculpt.

Here is the later sea creature from the later, larger scale Macfarlane line.  This line features sculpts that 're-imagine' the monsters even more, including a very batlike vampire and the most grotesque werewolf sculpt in the history of toys.  Another fine sculpt, this time with hints of alligator in the face and a translucency to the fins.  This creature is also huge.  The severed human head on the hook gives a sense of 'scale' to the beast.

There are many reasons to like the Gill-Man, not the least of which is the fact that I just really dig sea monsters.  Of the classic Universal Monsters, Gill is a great example of what a classic Universal Monster was all about.  He's sympathetic, frightening and photogenic.  The Gill-Man's story is one of doomed love, with his motivation being not the destruction of life, or the unnatural prolonging of his undead existence and in this respect he reminds us of the Mummy Imhotep who sought to bring back his reincarnated love.  Yet Gill-Man is somehow purer than Imhotep.  He only wants the human interlopers to leave his world alone until he meets the girl of his fishy dreams, and it is this smitten fish boy that is the tragic hero of the piece.  Still, he remains a monster through and through with his alien body and mind.  He thrilled audiences for three pictures before leaving the scene for good at the end of The Creature Walks Among Us, but his legacy lives on.  Among the U-Monsters he is unique, for while Frankenstein's Monster and Dracula demonstrate great physical strength and the Wolf Man demonstrates savagery, it is the Gill-Man who alone resides in the water.  He is like the Aquaman of the monsters, but is not the butt of lame jokes on websites the world over.  He also received his own pinball game and was a feature member of the Monster Bash pinball machine from Williams.
Monster Bash backglass

In the Universal Monster band Gill-Man plays saxophone and you will note is the only member with a groupie.  Even in the pinball game the Creature displays his aloof and alien manner, turning down multiple requests to join the band.

As a character that is both a Sci-Fi classic and a Horror icon from the Universal stable, I think that the Creature (from the Black Lagoon) is the perfect iconic figure to represent the genre overlap at its best.  Of course, he is one of my faves, so I'm biased.

Creature from the Black Lagoon available on DVD, 4 stars, go watch it today.
Until next time, keep your Tiki lit.


  1. I think I will have to watch this, based on your recommendation. I don't think I've ever seen it, and if I had, I don't remember, so, negligible difference really. Maybe NETFLIX has it on instant watch.

    I do did that he plays a sax in a rock band. That is just not done enough.

  2. Nice article.

    I think good sci-fi should be scary. Not necessarily blood and gore scary, but at least thought provokingly scary. Although, blood and gore scary is good, i.e. Alien.

  3. Rikalonius,
    Never watched CftBL? Fie and shame upon you. It is especially cheeky that Gill plays sax, considering that it is a woodwind and he got no lungs man.

  4. Stacie,

    I think good sci-fi can avoid being scary when it is trying to show a better way ahead, but the really good stuff is scary init? It's always a warning tale about how muffed up shites gonna be if we don't fix it.