CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON: The First Scream Queens
Universal’s monster films have and always will be the basic outline for any and all horror films influencing many filmmakers. My personal favorite is the Creature from the Black Lagoon franchise which is that last of the Universal monsters that came out in the fifties. What I believe is most special about this franchise, besides the awesome creature, is that it is a precursor to what the horror genre excels in and that is its ability to create strong, memorable female characters more than any other genre thanks to its multitude of female creators. The Creature himself would not exist if it were not for brilliant sketch artist Millicent Patrick. If you look at the beginning of the seventies with its first steps toward slasher films we are given the term Scream Queen. These Scream Queens are often the final survivor in a horror film that bests the antagonist by being more clever than her peers. Examples include such greats as Jamie Lee Curtis, Adrienne King, Heather Langenkamp, Sigourney Weaver and Danielle Harris all owe their ability to be badass to Julie Adams who portrayed Kay in the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Kay may have meant to have been a damsel and object of affection, but she was the pioneer of the Scream Queens we hold dear and admire.
Kay is a young female scientist who holds her own against the likes of machismo scientists such as Dr. Mark Williams (Richard Denning) and her love Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson). This was already something to admire in a film post WWII where many women were being told to go back to the roles of homemaker since the men had come back from overseas, a trend that continued well into the fifties. Not only was Kay a smart and adventurous scientist but her work is what put Dr. Williams in his high position in their institute putting her up for a major raise. Throughout the film both Dr. Williams and Reed butt heads over their affections for Kay constantly. She is in a relationship with Reed but Williams is constantly jealous which makes them both very brash in capturing the creature, forcing Williams to violence and actions that would harm the creature’s environment. Kay becomes a point of contention for the two and even becomes an object of affection for the creature. While she is stuck in between this testosterone war, she shows off her calm and collected ideas on how to deal with situations and even decides to venture off on her own to discover the beauty of the Lagoon which is where the creature becomes obsessed with her. Her being the focal point of the creature, crafting a love story and being in a strained relationship triangle with the two doctors is what made her character so integral to the film. While she is intended to be a sort of eye candy at times, it is her character choices and background that help make her more than intended. These characteristics Kay displays as an independent strong woman continue into the next two films as the framework is centered more or less on the same structural narrative with leading ladies that come into more prominent power.
Revenge of the Creature saw it captured in a sea park where it was to be studied and conditioned to obey commands. As professor Clete Ferguson (John Agar) tries to resuscitate the creature from the coma its captors have put it in, we are introduced to Ichthyology student Helen Dobson (Lori Nelson) who has come to write her thesis on the creature. This introduction is one of my favorites as a stereotypical fifties news reporter comes and asks Helen about the creature and what ichthyology is. Helen lays out everything to him and he kind of just stares at her dumbfounded and thanks her for her time. While Kay was a strong female scientist in the original, Helen takes it a little further by being the scientific voice of the movie, giving most of the explanations to the audience of what's going on with the Creature. Of course, once again director Jack Arnold introduces a romantic feud with Dr. Clete and Joe Hayes (John Bromfield) who is also studying the Creature. Clete and Helen end up spending the most time together as they both dive into the cage to teach the creature how to behave. Though they both use a shock collar to condition the Creature, Helen and the Creature both have times where they just stare at one another through the glass of the Creature’s tank as the Creature takes comfort in her loving gaze. What really drives the point of women's rights progressing is a scene where Clete and Helen are lying on the beach talking about life. Helen talks about her studies and how hard she’s worked at them which leaves little time for the simpler things. Talking about how all her classmates are already married with families but her passion for her work has always come first. Clete asks her if a family is what she wants and she replies she doesn’t know. Clete admits he doesn’t know either but he’s a man so he doesn’t have to know. Helen questions the roles of men vs. women and her chagrin for how society dictates how those roles should be. It's an excellent moment that gives a lot of weight to her character in the film. By the end of the film she decides to fall in love and take the relationship route but she still maintains her intellectual prowess. Each film progresses its female lead and while both Revenge and the original end with the leads becoming damsels, the final in the trilogy gives us a super relatable and powerful female story arc.
The Creature Walks Among Us once again uses its lead actress, Leigh Snowden as Marcia Barton, as a focal point for the Creature but with the female lead being an abused housewife instead of a scientist. Jack Arnold decided his assistant director Arnold Sherwood would take directing reigns this time round. Both previous films heavily focused on what mankind was doing to the natural environment as a subtext. Sherwood ran on subtext and focused more on spousal abuse and paralleled it with the Creature itself in this film. Dr. William Barton (Jeff Morrow), a wealthy medical doctor, gets a team together to hunt down the Creature. While the teams in previous installments wanted to study the Creature, Barton has more of a mad scientist idea of evolving and changing the Creature and in turn evolving humanity. His wife, Marcia, from the beginning shows disdain for him and how he operates their lives. She is trapped in a marriage as a trophy wife after being with him since she was seventeen and yearns for more. She has the ability to hunt and shows off her marksmanship and even goes down with the crew in search for the creature while her husband stays on the ship. When she is scorned by another one of the scientists for going down with them, she has one of the best lines, "Taking chances isn't just man's privilege." While she isn't as scientifically savvy as previous leading ladies, she has the most to say about her role in life and goes toe to toe with the rest of the crew in being brave. Once the Creature is captured and "evolves" from gills to lungs is when the two begin an unspoken bond. Marcia fears change in leaving her abusive life. The Creature is thrown into utter confusion and horror as it’s thrust into change. Marcia begins a certain kinship with the Creature as the crew fights over her and Dr. Barton becomes insanely possessive, making the audience question who is the true monster. In a scene Marcia reveals she can play guitar serenading the Creature while he watches, telling her confidant, Dr. Morgan (Rex Reason), how there are many things she can do that people don't know about. The Creature listens intently to her speak of her inability to help her husband’s madness and a beautiful connection is represented in that scene. The Creature is let loose on a murderous rampage and as he escapes so does she. There is an amazing juxtaposition of her conquering her fears and changing her life while the Creature fears change so much it would rather die in the water unable to breath because it can’t cope with change. It seems Sherwood having been on all the Creature films saw the rise of women’s roles in these films and decided to make it the strongest in Marcia’s arc in the series and the backbone of the story.
Being a fifties horror franchise there are still a lot of moments where the man saves the damsel in distress, but each film took another step in the right direction. These films gave us the first Scream Queens that inspired generations of actresses and filmmakers to come to create new and emboldened characters for the horror genre.