Of all the Universal Classic Horror movie monsters, none have received quite as much merchandise as the Gill Man. Anything you can think of, from pinball machines to shampoo to toys and everything in between, Gill Man was featured on it all – more than any other Universal monster that came before, or since. It’s easy to see why, too; never before had there been such a full-body costumed monster like this one before. Dracula, Wolf-Man, Frankenstein, and the Mummy were all recognizable horror icons in makeup. But Gill Man was an absolute marvel. That he’s lumped in with his cinematic older siblings when he arrived on screen decades later on March 5, 1954, in an age relegated to atomic horror, makes his enduring quality all the more impressive.
The idea for Creature from the Black Lagoon stemmed from a dinner party producer William Alland attended at Orson Welles’ home. A South American guest told of an amphibious humanoid that would surface from the Amazon once a year to grab a young woman from the village before disappearing again. It was a story he insisted to be true. It stuck with Alland, and he eventually wrote up a treatment for the idea, pulling in many story elements from King Kong. Drafts were rewritten and updated by screenwriters Harry Essex and Arthur R. Ross, and Jack Arnold, fresh off the successful It Came from Outer Space, was tapped to direct.
For the group of scientists who travel into the depths of the Amazon to find fossils of an amphibious humanoid, the cast is filled with talent like Julie Adams, Richard Carlson, and Richard Denning. But the breakout star of the film, of course, is the Gill Man. The look and design of the creature came from special makeup effects designer and Disney animator Milicent Patrick (though another artist would take sole credit for her work for decades). From there, a large team of artists and sculptors built the costume. Or rather, two different costumes; one for Gill Man’s land scenes and one for the underwater scenes. Ben Chapman played the creature on land, and Ricou Browning breathed life into the aquatic iteration. Between the very different builds of the actors, and the setting involved, two very different costumes were needed yet the differences couldn’t be drastic enough to be obvious to audiences. Though both had obstructed vision due to the costumes, Browning had the harder task of having to hold his breath underwater for upwards of 5 minutes during takes.
Between the stunning creature design of the Gill Man and the fact that Creature from the Black Lagoon was filmed in 3D, the underwater photography making stunning use of the format, the movie struck a major chord with audiences and spawned two sequels. Like many of his Universal Monster siblings, Gill Man would also receive an appearance with Abbot and Costello. Both the Gill Man and his film were well received by critics, even still to this day. During a decade where atomic monsters and sci-fi horror reigned supreme, Creature from the Black Lagoon was a standout.
Creature is also a film that continues to reverberate with viewers today. Take Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, last year’s Academy Award Winner for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Score, and Best Production Design. Del Toro has always been a champion of sympathetic monsters, and Gill Man is a major source of inspiration. The iconic scene, only 20 minutes into the film, which sees Julie Adams’ character serenely swimming in the Amazon river, oblivious to the creature swimming in sync below her, moved del Toro in such a way that he dreamed of a happier ending for the creature ever since. His 2017 film finally did just that.
As time has changed, so has the perspective on the film. In 1954, the Gill Man was a savage creature that slaughtered his way through the scientists and crew that were there simply to excavate fossils. The piercing music stings cueing moments of stark horror. Now, it’s hard not to sympathize with the monster as the group of humans trespass on his home turf, filling the river with powdered poisons, and casually flicking their cigarettes into the water while he looks up at them from below. All of this to say, that Creature from the Black Lagoon holds up remarkably well, and that the passage of time only seems to give the film new layers.
With all of the talk in recent years about reviving the Universal Classic Monsters catalog, from the now deceased “Dark Universe” to Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, a new take on the Creature from the Black Lagoon is inevitable. But potential remakes for this film is hardly a new subject. John Landis attempted to spearhead a remake in 1982. Joe Dante was even attached at some point in the ‘80s. A not quite “official” take on Gill Man graced the big screen in 1987’s The Monster Squad. Then came the ‘90s, and with it an attempt to crack the remake code by none other than John Carpenter. Carpenter went so far as to hire Rick Baker for new creature designs, but the project eventually fizzled. Peter Jackson, Breck Eisner, and even del Toro himself all tried to get a remake of Creature of the Black Lagoon going, to no avail (though clearly, del Toro found his own workaround).
The Gill Man came after the golden age of the Universal Classic Monsters, yet this iconic creature remains the perfect poster child for the brand. Creature from the Black Lagoon is an enduring classic tale, one that refuses to leave the pop culture collective. Thanks to Milicent Patrick, producer William Alland, director Jack Arnold, actors Ricou Browning and Ben Chapman, and the many artists, cast, and crew that breathed life into the terror-inducing gills of this beloved aquatic humanoid, the Gill Man is a truly timeless icon.