Since the release of Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water (2017), much has been said of its threads to Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). An aquatic man-fish, the love of his for a woman, and the beauty of the Other – all aspects of Jack Arnold’s masterpiece that reappear, reinvigorated, in Del Toro’s fantasy. Del Toro’s famous love for monsters frames the homage his film pays to Black Lagoon, but little has been made of what followed.
In 1955, Universal chased the success of Black Lagoon with Revenge of the Creature. The sequel is, arguably, not of the same quality or power of the first film, but it does carry its own merit and subtext. Despite the many elements that link Revenge of the Creature to what features in The Shape of Water – from its visuals to its themes – relatively little has been said of the threads they share. That The Shape of Water owes much to this seldom discussed sequel prompts a consideration of what the film has contributed to a rich legacy. Let’s take a dive back into the depths of the Black Lagoon, to examine the oft forgotten Creature sequel.
Revenge of the Creature sees the Gill Man captured from his Amazon home and taken to the Ocean Harbour Oceanarium in Florida. There, the Creature is put on display with the other denizens of the deep as our characters attempt to acclimatise him to commands and control. Revenge sees none of the core cast of Black Lagoon return other than the titular Creature himself. In fact, we only meet our new protagonists fairly late in the proceedings: animal psychologist Clete Ferguson (John Agar) and ichthyology student Helen Dobson (Lori Nelson).
Part of what fascinates about Revenge of the Creature is its ambiguous commentary. The Gill Man is horribly mistreated. His Amazon river home is blown up as a means to capture him. He’s kidnapped, essentially, and taken to an enclosed, alien world where he’s put in chains. In the name of teaching him, he’s repeatedly jabbed with an electric cattle prod. It’s unclear whether this was Arnold’s authorial intent to make such a scathing depiction of man’s relationship with nature, or whether it’s an earnest reflection of contemporary attitudes. Other than one line (discussed later), the ethics of the Gill Man’s treatment are not discussed. This ambiguity means that the film is either a gold mine for analysis or frustrating for its lack of focus.
That said, given Arnold’s work on It Came from Outer Space (1953) – a film with remarkable themes of trust breaking through fear of the Other – one could be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt; though It Came from Outer Space does have the advantage of a more precise and developed script.
If one is to assign meaning, Revenge of the Creature is a film about man’s abuse of the natural world. Revenge sees the Gill Man crying out in pain when hit with the cattle prod. Irrespective of moral intent on the part of the filmmakers, it’s impossible to watch such scenes and not feel a sense of injustice. It’s a testament to the performances of Ricou Browning (the Gill Man underwater) and Tom Hennesy (the Gill Man on land) that such emotion is projected from the Creature.
That idea of removal from one’s home to a cruel, alien world is central to The Shape of Water. The Amphibian Man is (in a doubtless nod to the Gill Man) said to have been hauled back from South America, and is now the test subject of Michael Shannon’s stone-faced Colonel Strickland. The visual cues from Revenge of the Creature are unmistakable. Both creatures are subjected to electric cattle prod torture, both are kept in chains around their wrists and ankles, and those responsible for their confinement are both poster boys for the post-war all-American man – albeit with differing moral connotations.
The cruelty to which the Amphibian Man is subjected is central to the audience’s engagement to him as a character. We feel for him because Del Toro mercilessly shows us what Strickland, and by extension humankind, is capable of inflicting. The tortured cries of these aquatic characters breach boundaries of Self and Other. They cease to be monstrous. They cease to be Other. Pain, as a horrid tool of subjugation, bonds us with them. This kind of narrative framing is traceable to Revenge of the Creature, both in the physical tools of torture, but, importantly, in the visceral reactions of the Gill Man and the Amphibian Man to their oppression.
Also traceable to Revenge is the concept of emotional connection between heroine and beast. Although the idea of a forbidden love is visually represented in Creature from the Black Lagoon (notably in the gorgeous underwater framing of Julie Adams’ Kay, unaware that the Gill Man swims beneath her), it isn’t explored in the dialogue. Kay Lawrence, the target of the Creature’s affection, has little sympathy for him. Indeed, a scene in which Kay casually tosses a cigarette into the Black Lagoon hardly constitutes someone who cares for the Creature’s wellbeing.
Meanwhile, in Revenge of the Creature, Lori Nelson’s Helen Dobson openly observes, “you know, I pity him sometimes. He’s so alone. The only one of his kind in the world” While the film sadly doesn’t delve further into this discussion, its inclusion is noteworthy. Here is a character who sympathises with the plight of the Gill Man, acknowledging that his situation is one to be pitied. Helen has made a connection on some level. It’s this emotional groundwork that Del Toro fleshes out in The Shape of Water.
Sally Hawkins’ Eliza doesn’t just sympathise with the Amphibian Man, she falls in love with him. Through her lived experience as a disabled woman living in a world that isn’t particularly accommodating, Eliza recognises the denial of the Amphibian Man’s humanity. Through her understanding of Self, she understands Other. She expresses the ultimate act of love, not in her romantic attachment to the Amphibian Man, but in her acknowledgement of his being as worthy of respect, dignity, and humanity.
In Black Lagoon and Revenge, we do not have a character who actively engages with the Gill Man. Helen Dobson expresses sympathy in Revenge but this doesn’t develop to become an active effort to understand or defend him. The Shape of Water takes that sympathy and uses it to frame its lead. Whereas before, we as the audience felt for the Gill Man, Eliza is a character who can act upon what we feel. She is able to defend and care for the Amphibian Man in ways that we wished we could have for the Gill Man. She sees the Amphibian Man’s pain and wishes it to stop and, importantly, she also pines to know him. Del Toro fulfils the destruction of the barrier between Self and Other. Once that barrier is gone, we see a life, a being, a person, that is worthy of acknowledgement – and in Eliza’s case, love. As John Henry Newman put it, “heart speaks to heart”
None of this would be possible without that which Revenge of the Creature or Creature from the Black Lagoon began. Those films, even without the support from characters or dialogue, pull at your emotional core. Due, perhaps, to the dynamics of the mid-1950s or the ambivalence with which it was made, Revenge doesn’t fully develop an explicit dialogue on the mistreatment of the natural world. We are not explicitly told to sympathise with or pity the Gill Man, but we do so because the film, in the truest expression of the visual medium, shows us. We do so when he cries out in pain, or when he writhes in agony, not because Helen tell us that we should.
Consciously or otherwise, we enter The Shape of Water with a recognition of the beauty in Other. We remember the pain inflicted on the Gill Man. Del Toro recognises this (undoubtedly remembering it himself) and constructs a character who will act to defend his film’s monster out of compassion. This character trait makes her immediately endearing, even before Del Toro, writer Vanessa Taylor, and Sally Hawkins add depth. The result is one of his most emotionally charged films, owing much to what began in the murky aquarium of the Ocean Harbor Oceanarium.
What Creature from the Black Lagoon began, Revenge of the Creature developed, and The Shape of Water perfected.
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