“I can tell you something about this place. The boys around here call it “The Black Lagoon”; a paradise. Only they say nobody has ever come back to prove it.”
Fort Lauderdale, Florida in the early seventies was a wasteland. Civilization was only along the beach. A few miles west there was nothing but endless grasslands and swamp.
I lived for the monster movies that played every Saturday after the cartoons ended. Creature Features, with its blood-drip letters and a crude line drawing of Lon Chaney in his iconic role as The Man in the Beaver Hat, became my weekly touchstone. For a few hours each weekend, I escaped our cramped little family home and got lost in a world of the macabre.
There was a gator-filled canal just a block from my house. So, naturally, the neighbor kids and I spent many an afternoon playing there. It didn’t matter that deadly things lived under the surface of the black water, or that potentially un-deadly things lurked in the overgrowth of the cemetery on the opposite bank. That just added to its allure.
Several ancient Banyan trees grew along the banks to our side, and their heavy limbs dripped with red, snakelike vines. We took turns swinging, Tarzan-like, over the water.
When my turn came, I jumped out with a wild roar, and when I reached the top of my arc – my vines snapped. I crashed into the dead center of the canal and sank quickly into the weird, murky green. It was so quiet under the water. Blackness surrounded me, and the only light was just a hazy little circle rapidly shrinking above me. Did I mention I didn’t know how to swim?
As I remember it, I didn’t feel panic, just a sense of awe at how weird the world suddenly was around me. How dark, smothering, and immense. My head flashed with images, and my lungs began to tighten. I knew what to do. It was simple really. I’d seen the greatest monster do it and I just figured I’d do what He did. So, I swam like The Gill Man.
To swim like The Gill Man, all you do is flutter your legs like seaweed and roll from side to side almost like you’re dancing. You then alternate your arms, grabbing at the water and pushing it behind you. Bubbles burst from my nose and mouth. I followed them upward toward the patch of sunlight.
My brother and his friends were wading in, but I went under again and began my crude Creature-swim toward them. When I got close enough, they grabbed me, and yelling all sorts of rude things – butt face, moron, buttocks, dumbass and chimpanzina – pulled me to the shore.
So, basically, thank you, Ricou Browning, for saving my life in 1973. I owe you one.
The 1954 masterpiece “Creature from the Black Lagoon” was the one horror film that I connected with on a visceral level. I loved all monsters, yes, but Dracula, The Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s Monster and his Bride, while most assuredly icons, were aloof, and still kind of…… bad. They were all iconic friends, but they didn’t resonate with me the way the Gill Man did.
I loved his alien world of the Amazon jungle. I loved his home – The Black Lagoon – and how mysterious and forbidden it sounded. The Creature’s world didn’t consist of foggy moors, Gothic castles or desolate alien moonscapes. No, his world was a familiar landscape. Fitting, since all three films were shot just north of my beachside stomping grounds in Wakulla Springs in the Florida panhandle.
Most of all, I loved the Gill Man with his bulging eyes and fluttering neck gills, clawed catcher’s mitt hands and his long, webbed feet. As terrifying as he looked, he was also strangely graceful and beautiful as he sculled and finned through the water. The iconic scene, where he stalks Julie Adams as she swims just feet from the safety of The Rita is one of menacing beauty, and is my personal favorite from the film. She, the damsel in peril, swims at the surface, while he – several feet below, stalks her with a deliberate and graceful backstroke. It is exciting and terrifying.
When he strokes one dagger-like claw along her foot, and the brilliant Hans J. Salter score rises in a skin-tingling flourish of high brass, we thrill at this forbidden moment for it reminds us that the membrane between chaos and order is very thin indeed. He just glides effortlessly along, pure grace, power, and malevolent determination.
The Creature is more victim than predator. He is a noble beast fighting for survival. For every malevolent Jekyll and Hyde, Dracula, and Im Ho Tep, you have your King Kongs, your Godzillas, your Frankensteins, your Wolf Mans, and all your strangers in a stranger land scenarios. Innocents with villainy thrust upon them.
The human heroes of the film, notably Whit Bissel and Richard Denning, bring the fight to the Gill Man. He is a threat because he is the Unknown Other. Worse still, and perhaps the real reason for their murderous ire — he dares to fight back. It is Manifest Destiny at its worst. The film ends with the Creature defeated. In its sequel, “Revenge of the Creature”, he is studied in a Florida, ocean-side tourist attraction. In the third and final film, “The Creature Walks Among Us” his saga ends when he finally returns to the water, and possibly, to his beloved lagoon. But even after being turned almost human, he never forgets his wildness, and is not tamed. The joke is ultimately on his captors, and to paraphrase the old margarine commercial, the moral here is: It’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature…
I teach swimming these days. I still live in Florida, where drownings claim more lives than car accidents, and teaching water safety is not just a job and a free health club membership – but a personal mission. After nearly drowning in my own lagoon, it makes sense.
My clients joke that I’m part mermaid – but they’re wrong. I’m not a Mermaid – I’m too grumpy and antisocial. I’m a grumpy loner trying to make sense of an increasingly senseless world, and I sure as hell don’t take kindly to people who try to impose their visions of manifest destiny on me. I’m still that seventies Monster Kid who wants to live in the worlds of fog, shadowed castles, buzzing laboratories, dank crypts, and yes – deadly jungle lagoons. Don’t tread on me and all that. I’m the Gill Man.
I just wish my house had more underground caverns and mood lighting.
I met Ricou Browning at a horror con several years ago and talked swimming with him. He seemed genuinely perplexed that a middle aged fan girl would want to talk about his swim technique. But it truly amazed me that he did the first film in a rubber suit and without a breathing apparatus. He would be underwater for several minutes at a time, something I found quite unnerving. He told me his time as a Weekee Wachee merman had prepared him for the task.
I told him the story of the banyan trees and he laughed. I thanked him for saving my life. I also thanked him for turning me into a swimmer and a lover of water and horror films and he smiled as he shook my hand, saying, “Glad I could help…”