Genre: Horror
Premise: A group of geologists in the Amazon stumble upon a fossil of a mysterious hand, and when they go looking for the rest of the body, get more than they bargained for.
About: The birth of an idea! Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa told producer William Alland about a myth he’d heard of a race of half-fish, half-human creatures in the Amazon. Alland revisited the conversation 10 years later, thinking it would make a good movie. He wrote some story notes, which writer Maurice Zimm would later expand into a treatment. Finally, Harry Essex and Arthur Ross turned the treatment into a full-fledged script. Listen to the people in your life, guys. Ya never know where your next idea might come from. What’s interesting about this film is that it was shot and projected in 3-D. However, the year was 1954, and the 3-D fad was dying quickly (hmmm, why does this sound familiar?). The Creature From The Black Lagoon was a last ditch attempt to save the format. However, it didn’t, and most people ended up seeing the film in regular format.
Writers: Harry Essex and Arthur Ross (story by Maurice Zimm, idea by William Alland)
Details: 79 minutes

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When I go through all the old scripts that have been purchased or optioned throughout the years, there are tons that never get made. However, the one genre whose purchased scripts get made the most – BY FAR – is horror. It’s crazy. Almost every old horror script I find on my hard drive has ended up becoming a movie. It’s the friendliest genre to writers out there.

While I continue to look for stuff that hasn’t been made yet, I thought I’d review a horror classic that I hate to admit I’d never seen before. In fact, I was so ignorant of this film that I thought it and “Swamp Thing” were the same movie. I need to work on my water body differentiation. But yes, when I saw this film at the top of Itunes’ Classics list, I thought, “It’s about time for me to check this out.”

For those who haven’t seen “Creature,” it follows fish scientist David Reed and his girlfriend Kay, who go on an expedition into the Amazon with a small crew of scientists to find additional information on a mysterious amphibious hand that David’s old geologist teacher, Dr. Thomas, dug up.

When they get to the dig site, they find that the two men guarding the site have been killed. Hmmm, might a modern-day version of the creature have attacked the men? Meanwhile, David’s getting agitated with one of the crew members, Mark Williams, who only seems to care about money. But since Williams is funding the expedition, David has no choice but to suck it up.

Eventually they realize that the river drifts down into a secluded lagoon, so that’s where they go looking for more fossils. David and Williams do some deep-lagoon diving, where they eventually encounter the creature. At first they want to capture the thing, but when it starts killing their crew members, priorities change. It’s time to jet. There’s only one problem. The creature has lodged a blockade into the only exit. The ship is stuck there. And it’s time for battle.

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Wow, the first thing I noticed about this is how much influence it had on Spielberg. You can see a lot of the same shots that Spielberg uses. The creature’s hand, which we see throughout the first act, might as well be a shark fin. And the creature’s attack on the two natives in the tent, seen from outside, with only a bunch of shadows bustling around, had a distinctive “Jurassic Park” feel to it.

You can also see how this influenced James Cameron. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d used this as a pseudo-template for Aliens, with the financially-motivated Williams a dead-ringer for Paul Reiser’s “Burke.”

But the big question is, does the script hold up after all these years? Yes and no. The first act moves surprisingly fast. Plot points are set up quickly and we’re off to the races without a moment to spare. Of particular interest was a scene where Dr. Thompson picks up Dave from a dive, then shows him a picture of the creature’s hand on the boat ride back to the beach.

The fact that they were combining beats (the ride back to the beach AND intro’ing the fossil to David) is proof that even back in 1954, they were looking for ways to speed the story along. I would’ve imagined that they’d wait to get the character back in a still room with everyone standing around before showing David the picture.

Where the movie runs into trouble is once they start deep-diving into the lagoon to look for the creature. I have to remember that people didn’t have the internet back then. I mean, while I was watching this movie, I was texting, interneting, and doing some work. People just didn’t do that back then. They had all the time in the world. Imagine that for a second. Going to a movie and that was your day. It was what you looked forward to, what you experienced, and what you talked about after. We just don’t do that now.

Anyway, I’m guessing underwater photography was a new toy in 1954 because any time we went underwater, we stayed there forever. How many times can you show a girl swimming and the creature creeping up and barely touching her before swimming away again? According to Creature From the Black Lagoon, a good 8 or 9. Ditto whenever the men go hunting for it. We cut endlessly back and forth between the men and the creature.

I’m guessing 1950s audiences were more tolerant of this because their attention spans were longer. But you can’t get away with that today, and it’s not just for technical reasons. It’s for story reasons. The longer you show something, the more used to it the audience/reader gets. So if you’re going to show us 50 shots of the creature on the first dive, we’re going to get used to him. And the more used to him we are, the less afraid of him we’ll be.

“It” did a nice job of this. When Pennywise comes, he comes in forms other than a clown, he’s hidden behind balloons, we’ll hear him but not see him, he’ll pop up then disappear immediately. Even in the famous opening scene, we’re only seeing his eyes. This is important. If we get used to Pennywise, he won’t be as scary.

Another issue here is that there was zero attention paid to character development. I don’t know if that was common back then, or just common in creature-features. Citizen Kane had some pretty stellar character development and that came out 13 years before this did.

But it really hurts the movie as it goes on. This is important to remember, guys. If all you’re doing is moving the plot along, it’s a bit like moving chess pieces. Things are happening. We’re getting closer to a resolution. But we feel strangely detached, and eventually bored. To keep the chess analogy going, tell us something about the people playing. That’s how you make a chess match truly captivating.

I remember an old girlfriend of mine who HATED basketball. Thought it was so dumb. She’d actually get mad at me whenever I’d watch my beloved Chicago Bulls. “I don’t see why you care so much about a bunch of guys throwing a ball in a hoop,” was a common argument-starter.

Finally, one day, I sat her down. “You don’t understand,” I said. “You see that guy there? He doesn’t believe that our coach is any good. So half the time the coach gives him a play, he ignores it. And you see that guy? He was once the worst guy on the team. But now he’s knocking on the door of being the best. Our best player, that guy with the buzz cut, is feeling that pressure. He’s afraid of being supplanted. So he doesn’t pass that guy the ball. And that guy? Our center? He’s so badly injured that he shouldn’t be playing. But he has to or else he won’t get a contract extension and probably be out of the league next year. If you watch him closely, you can see how much pain he’s in.”

She became fascinated. These weren’t just “guys throwing a ball in a hoop.” These were real people with problems and conflicts and drama! Which equals entertainment! I couldn’t keep her away from watching games with me after that.

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Getting back to Lagoon, there wasn’t a more boring relationship in the last 100 movies I saw than David and Kay. It was the single most agreeable couple I’d seen on film (tip: agreeable is a BAD WORD in screenwriting). I guess no one was breaking down walls to write captivating female characters in 1954. Still, this was a major reason why the movie lost steam. We simply didn’t know enough about these people to care about them.

Which leads us to the dialogue. Most of it was written to either move the story forward (“We need to go to the lagoon!”) or to pose theories (“This could be the link between man and fish we’ve been looking for”). You’re going to have to do those things in every script. But dialogue should primarily be used to explore character.

And by that, I don’t mean each character should spout off a 50 line monologue about who they are and what their life philosophy is. I mean you need to create unresolved issues between characters and each dialogue scene should make us feel like we’re getting a little bit closer to resolving the issue.

In another water based movie, Dead Calm, a husband and wife haven’t resolved the death of their child. It’s hanging there in every scene, even if they’re not talking about it. So we know that, eventually, we’re going to get a resolution to that. That’s how you explore character.

Anyway, this was more fun than I thought it would be. But because I live in 2017 and not 1954, there were only so many things I could overlook. Still, it’s worth checking out if you have 80 minutes.

[ ] What the hell did I just watch?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the watch
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Something only stays mysterious if you give us bits and pieces of it. If you give us the whole thing and you keep showing it to us again and again, we’re going to get used to it, and eventually, bored of it. Both filmmakers that I named in this article – Spielberg and Cameron – know that well, as their films Jaws and Aliens do a magnificent job of only showing us bits and pieces of the monsters throughout.

  • Bitches!

    First comment, bitches!

  • JakeBarnes12

    First commenter gets a free iPad, right?

    • Bitches!

      Almost, bitch!

      • http://insideechenrysbrain.typepad.com/inside_the_brain_of_ec_he/ E.C. Henry

        Well played.

  • PQOTD

    Okay – ‘fess up – was it Jake or Bitches who wuz first?

  • Thomas Anderson

    Has anyone been watching Mindhunter? I’m 4 episodes in and I’m hooked. Trying to pace myself while watching it cause I’m enjoying it so much.

    • Emotionoid

      I binge watched the whole season. It was intense and gripping especially ed kemper scenes. This season was more about character exploration and development rather than plot. Loved it. Highly recommended for those who love those engaging character conversation scenes.

  • PQOTD

    So glad Dead Calm got a mention. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, it’s a little terrific thriller with Sam Neill, an incredibly young Nicole Kidman and Billy Zane – just the three of them.

    • Scott Crawford

      Did you know that Orson Welles tried adapting the same novel?

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Deep_(unfinished_film)

      His version was closer to the book I think. Terry Hayes made some better changes. Hayes, best known for his work on Mad Max, went on to become one of the top rewriters in Hollywood; I was watching one off his rewrites the other day, VERTICAL LIMIT. I believe he now writes books.

      And Nicole Kidman WAS young at the time, but was shown how to walk taller to make herself look older.

  • Scott Crawford

    I liked that story about how the story came about… here’s another one… THE OMEN.

    Producer Harvey Bernhard was having dinner with another producer friend Robert Munger. Munger, a born again Christian, was telling Bernhard about the Anti-Christ, the son of Satan, and how he could have been born a few years ago and he would now be a small child…

    Bernhard, who was only half listening to Munger, finished the rest of his dinner and rushed home to write notes on this idea.

    Bernhard then hired screenwriter David Seltzer, the uncredited writer of Willy Wonka among others, to write the screenplay. Seltzer decided to set the story in London because he fancied going to London (Switzerland was also considered as a location). Then he began research.

    Seltzer learned about the 666 (6 being the imperfect number, the opposite of 7) and the theory that the son of Satan would be born into the world of politics. He named the main character Jeremy Thorn (later changed to Robert) after the disgraced British politician Jeremy Thorpe.

    Seltzer was impressed with the British crew when he visited the set of the Italian graveyard. In the script he had written that there were rats crawling around the tombstones (a neat detail) and sure enough they had rats on the set that day.

    Fed up with being asked too many inane questions, Seltzer told one reporter “I did it (wrote it) strictly for the money” which led to the film’s detractors claiming Seltzer disowned the film. Not really true… he wrote the novelization and went on to write other horror scripts like PROPHECY and THE EIGHTEENTH ANGEL. And even though he didn’t write the 2006 remake, the script was so similar to his that HE got the solo credit (again).

    But even if we take that “strictly for the money” quote literally, what’s wrong with that? He’s a professional doing a job… not every screenwriter loves the movies they’re asked to write but go and do the research, the research helps craft the story if like this it’s an original script, and you just do the best job you can.

    But it all started with having dinner with a born again Christian.

    • http://insideechenrysbrain.typepad.com/inside_the_brain_of_ec_he/ E.C. Henry

      So you’re saying I’ve got a chance…

  • carsonreeves1

    Also saw The Babysitter over the weekend. Thought it was much better than the script. I mean, it’s far from perfect. But there was something entertaining about it.

    • Scott Crawford

      Can people stop pissing on McG just because he calls himself McG. He may not win an Oscar but actors like him and he can make entertaining movies.

    • Lucid Walk

      They definitely fleshed out the lesser characters. And the kid who plays Cole? That kid is going places.

      • carsonreeves1

        Yeah, he looked familiar. Has he been in something else?

        • Lucid Walk

          No idea. But after that, he should be in Stranger Things

          • carsonreeves1

            Yeah, that’s what I was thinking. He looks like one of those characters.

  • http://insideechenrysbrain.typepad.com/inside_the_brain_of_ec_he/ E.C. Henry

    Wow, Carson GREAT review. “I don’t remember ever watching the original “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” After reading your review, I got a hunger for it now.

    Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago in the mid to late 70s I saw TONS of horror/monster movies from the 60s and 70s. Most of them it seams to me were pretty lame, you basically watched the movie so you could see the full, monster reveal at the end.

    You are SOOO RIGHT in pointing out that the more times the audience sees the monster the less scary it becomes. THAT is a good lesson to learn for all the writers of horror out there. Hold back full view of the monster. Build up anticipation. Make the audience want to see more. Use their own imagination of the horror causing the horror to grow. Yeah, it’s kind of a cheap trick, BUT it works!

  • Lucid Walk

    So I’m guessing Carson’s reviewing three more Halloween scripts before Friday’s Black Box.

    But which three?

    I’d go with Fright Night (1985), Evil Dead 2, and An American Werewolf in London.

    • carsonreeves1

      There will be script reviews most likely. But who knows?? :)