He first showed his webbed and clawed hand on screen back in 1954 as just a quick, chilling glimpse of what was to come. Then, a little later in the story, we saw the entirety of him in all of his glory. To this day the monster design fully realized and put on display in The Creature from the Black Lagoon is still one of, if not the, most elegantly beautiful creature suits to ever grace the screen. Six decades have come and gone, yet there are still few creations in horror that match the total craftsmanship put on display with that suit.
I think that’s one of the things that made The Creature from the Black Lagoon work so well for me when I was younger. A lot of the horror films from that era and beyond, especially with regards to the lower budgeted affairs from the smaller studios, didn’t come across as all that impressive- especially as the monsters became more and more inhuman looking. Some of them were downright shoddy and laughable looking to be absolutely honest about it.
Late night cable television was a parade of monsters that were sometimes more comical than horrible. Sure, many of the films were good, some were even still a little scary despite the shortcomings of the creatures they featured, but the creatures would occasionally be only slightly better looking than something you’d buy off the rack at your local Halloween City. However, the Creature that walked up out of the Black Lagoon stood out the moment you saw him. He didn’t look like a man in a monster suit; he looked amazingly real both in and out of the water.
If you’ve read a book or seen a mini-documentary on the creation of the Creature that’s from the early decades after the release of the film, you’ll likely remember the name Bud Westmore. For the longest time, close to half a century, Westmore was given the sole credit for the design of the Creature, but that wasn’t true. We owe the lion’s share of the magnificence and elegance of the Creature’s final design to a woman named Millicent Patrick, primarily known than as a Disney animator. It’s only been in recent years that she’s been given the credit that she so richly deserves.
The physical creation of the original Creature’s body was the work of Jack Kevan. Kevan had prior film work under his belt, but what may have honed the skills that best served him in the creation of the Creature’s physical form was the work he did in service of those in need during the war years. He had spent a portion of World War II creating prosthetics for amputees injured in the war. The job of sculpting the head was handed off to Chris Mueller, Jr. Once completed and assembled, the Creature suit was a thing of pure beauty. However, in the end, a suit is still just a suit.
What brought the Creature to life were the men who wore that suit. Ben Chapman portrayed the Creature when on dry land or during some scenes where the Creature is walking in shallow waters. His movements and body language gave the Creature a sense of power and menace that made the scenes where it came into conflict with the human cast all the more convincing. But the scenes that defined the Creature in most people’s memories were the ones where the Creature was below the surface of the Black Lagoon. In these scenes and some others, diver Ricou Browning gave the Creature its onscreen life. Browning gave the Creature the thing it most needed to become the perennial favorite it’s become with generations of film fans by imbuing it with an amazing sense of grace and a sense of gentleness. Browning has the distinction of being the only performer to have played the Creature in all three films. Sadly, he also has the distinctions of being the last living actor to wear the Creature suit as well as the last surviving original actor to portray one of the classic Universal Monsters.
These performances didn’t come easy for Chapman and Browning. Chapman filmed most of his scenes in Universal City, California. He was basically stuck in a giant rubber suit for 10 to 14 hours a day in the California heat, causing him to overheat rather quickly. Also, the design of the suit made it near impossible for him to sit down. When not shooting, he attempted to deal with both issues by resting in the backlot’s shallow fake lake and requesting crew to hose him down with cooler water. Browning didn’t have it quite as bad in the cooler waters of Wakulla Springs, Florida, but the demands of filming underwater weren’t without issues. The director felt that there should be no bubbles coming from the Creature’s head, so Browning was forced to hold his breath for three to four minutes at a time while filming, a restriction that went out the window in the later sequel films. Both actors had severely limited fields of vision when wearing the Creature’s head- a situation that was often a bigger pain (sometimes literally) for the rest of the cast dealing with monster limbs blindly flailing about. Poor Julie Adams had her head walked into walls several times during the scenes when Chapman had to carry her since he could only see what was directly in front of him.
The hardships of filming in the suit were, at least for the fans, well worth it though as Chapman and Browning performing in Patrick and Kevan’s suit gave us perhaps the most visually perfect of all the classic Universal Monster creations. Over half a century after first appearing on the big screen, it’s still a creation that looks as real to new viewers as it did to those who saw it for the first time in 1954.
Although I’ve never seen anything official discussed along these lines, several horror fanatic friends and I have long discussed the incredible quality of the Creature’s design as the greatest stumbling block to a remake. An argument can often be made that an updated design might improve the look of some of the older monsters because movie makers and creature creators today have fewer limitations when it comes to creating what we see on screen. But changing the design of a creature that’s damned near perfect will only undermine what makes it work. Then there’s the film itself.
The Creature’s longevity in the hearts of horror fans benefits just as greatly from the fact that its first movie is a great film. The story is basic but excellent, the performances start at solid and go up in quality from there, the direction and cinematography are top notch, and the scenery provided by the Wakulla Springs, Florida location creates a perfect mood and atmosphere for the film.
I’m a huge fan of practical FX creatures and rubber-suited monsters stomping around in films from all over the world. Hands down, the Creature is my absolute favorite when it comes to a perfectly realized monster on film. As a story, the film itself is high on my list of all-time favorite monster movies as well. If you’ve seen The Creature from the Black Lagoon, you’re probably in strong agreement with me on both the merits of the film and the amazing achievement that was the Creature itself. If you’ve never seen the film, you should make seeing it a priority so that you can find out why so many people view the Creature with such affection.
Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek who, while enjoying most everything fandom has to offer, finds himself most at home in the horror, dark fantasy, and science fiction genres. He has in the past contributed to websites like Needless Things, Gruesome Magazine, and others while occasionally remembering to put up the odd musings on his own blog. He’s been a guest on several podcasts from the ESO Network, on Decades of Horror, and on the Nerdy Laser. He is also a regular co-host on The Assignment: Horror Podcast as well as the primary writer for its affiliated blog.