A group of scientists travel to the Amazon in search of a missing link in evolution, only to be terrorized by a fearsome beast that dwells there.
I was completely blown away by this film the first time I saw it. This was one of the first Universal Monster movies I watched, and immediately after watching it, I became obsessed with 1950s monster movies and that eventually led to the older Universal Monster movies as well. It still baffles me that this film looks as good as it does for being shot in 1954 (and also being shot for 3D). There are scenes underwater that have some truly magical imagery; from Julie Adams swimming above the Gill Man, to the Gill Man and the divers wresting in billowing clouds of dirt beneath the surface. This movie also boasts one of the most iconic creature designs ever conceived, right up there with “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” (it’s so iconic that last year’s best picture winner, “The Shape of Water”, based it’s creature design upon the Gill Man). But more than anything else, this is a story of adventure, scientific discovery, and thrills, and it’s absolutely dripping with old Hollywood charm.
“We didn’t come here to fight with monsters.”
After finding a mysterious fossilized claw on the banks of the Amazon, Dr. Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno, “The Searchers”) travels back to his institute where he meets Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson, “It Came from Outer Space”) and Reed’s girlfriend Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams, “McQ”). Maia discusses the fossil with Reed and they decide to mount an expedition to search for any more remnants of the creature, so they take a boat captained by Captain Lucas (Nestor Paiva, “Road to Rio”). Also accompanying them on their crew is Mark Williams (Richard Denning, “An Affair to Remember”), a suave young scientist who seems to harbor feelings for Kay. As the expedition begins, the Gill Man (Ricou Browning in water sequences, “Thunderball”, & Ben Chapman for land sequences, “Jungle Moon Men”) begins to terrorize the company.
So, first off, I really find this story to be a fascinating concept, and it’s made more interesting by the pitch that David gives to the other scientist before they take off on an expedition. He speaks of the idea that finding a link in an evolutionary chain might some day help scientists discover a way to help man further evolve. He goes on to say that if man were to eventually travel to other planets, they might need the ability to adapt and evolve to their surroundings. The reason for David, Kay, Mark and Co’s expedition seems noble, even exciting. As the story progresses and the company make their way deeper into the Amazon, the character relationships unfold and make each character deeper and more interesting (except perhaps Kay, who is simply ‘the girl’ on the expedition- while she does a good job as far as acting, she’s never really given anything to do- she’s just David’s girlfriend and a object of desire for Mark). The characters actually do scientific things like scientists would do in certain expeditions- they dive and take samples, come up with theories for where the Gill man might be, and constantly evolve their plan based on new evidence (vs, for example, the newer Alien movies where people show up on a planet simply to be fodder for the Xenomorph). The Gill Man itself is even an interesting character, and we get to know its personality and some of its desires based only on the way scenes are shot and how the actors inside the suit move. It’s amazing to see how much emotion a man in a rubber suit can still evoke without saying anything or overacting too much. The film also constantly raises the stakes as we draw closer to the end of the film, and while this movie isn’t long, it does certainly move at a quick pace.
Another really awesome part about this movie was the cinematography, and particularly the underwater stuff. There is a decent amount of this film that takes place beneath the surface, and because of that, it feels like we’re shown a whole different world (apropos of an earlier monologue by David comparing underwater to outer space). There are both haunting and ethereal moments that arise from the underwater cinematography. Some of my favorite scenes are when the Gill Man swims below Kay, or when he lurks in drifting curtains of seaweed. The way the light spills down in shifting streams pops even more in black and white; it’s absolutely gorgeous.
This is a marvelous movie with tons of 1950s charm, some cinematography that’s still impressive, and a creature design that’s still influential today. If you’re into Universal’s Monster movies, I absolutely recommend this one- it’s one of the best, and one of my personal favorites (though after this viewing I’m nigh certain that nobody could ever top the brilliance of James Whale’s Universal pictures- “Frankenstein”, “The Bride of Frankenstein”, “The Invisible Man”). I absolutely recommend this movie to everyone, without reservations. It’s a film that could be enjoyed by everyone, even kids in middle school. It’s not particularly scary after all these years, but it’s still as thrilling as ever.
This is part of our 31 Nights of Thrills Series. Not all of the movies we review for this series will be strictly horror, but all will have something to do with the spirit of things spooky or scary. If you like those types of movies, be sure to check back throughout the month of October!
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