I'm sure we all remember that scene near the beginning of "Jaws," in which a young woman is swimming in the ocean shallows alone. When the camera angle cut to an underwater view of her legs and that ominous music intoned its Stygian warning, we all shivered together. Spielberg was tapping into one of our primal fears - the fear of what might be lurking just below the surface of natural bodies of water. When we dangle our unclothed legs in the ocean or in a lake, in the back of our minds we can't help wondering what might touch them, and whether we would scream if something did.
Actually, that memorable "Jaws" scene had, in fact, been done once before, and even better, in a fifties horror film called "The Creature From the Black Lagoon." The creature referred to in the title, the Gill-Man, was an amphibious life form, possessed of legs with which to walk on land and yet equipped with gills for breathing underwater. Knowing that Spielberg had borrowed from "The Creature From the Black Lagoon" for his adaptation of Peter Benchley's "Jaws," I felt as if some sort of circle had closed when I heard about a TV-movie based on a Benchley book called "Creature" in which there is an amphibious monster. If you caught the Benchley TV-movie and are interested in seeing the films that undoubtedly inspired it, look for these titles on home video.
"The Creature From the Black Lagoon" (1954). When a fossil hand is discovered in the Amazon area bearing indications that the hand was webbed, an expedition is sent up the Amazon to follow up. What they're hoping for are more fossil remains. Instead, they stumble across a living specimen. Its form is roughly humanoid, and yet it breathes through gills. The Gill-Man is none too happy about having the solitude of its sleepy lagoon disturbed by these human intruders, and generally reacts with hostility. On the other hand, the creature seems fascinated by the expedition's female member, Kay (played by Julia Adams). Before the danger is known, Kay dons her bathing suit and goes for a swim in the lagoon. Director Jack Arnold uses this sequence to create the creepy scene I referred to earlier, the one Spielberg would pay homage to years later in "Jaws." As we watch Kay swim from underwater, we see the creature swimming along underneath her. He doesn't attack, just keeps pace with her and watches her, entranced. Eventually, as King Kong had done with Fay Wray, the beast steals away the beauty, thus sealing his doom.
"Revenge of the Creature" (1955). Actually, of course, the creature didn't really die. Only poor box office numbers can truly drive a stake through the heart of a good movie monster. In the sequel, a second expedition to the Black Lagoon succeeds in capturing the Gill-Man and bringing him back to civilization. He is held in captivity to be studied by ichthyologists. Needless to say, he eventually gets away, leaving a trail of havoc in his wake. Once again, the poor old thing finds his head turned by a pretty face, this time a female researcher played by Lori Nelson. He has her in his clutches and is making tracks for the ocean and safety when for the second time he is gunned down by humans who are willing to put up with anything from the scientific find of a lifetime except stealing their women.
"The Creature Walks Among Us" (1956). The Gill-Man didn't really die, but of course you knew that. The third and final film in the series presents us with a truly offbeat variation on the original premise. When the creature's gills are burned away in a fire, it is discovered that he does have lungs after all. The remainder of the film shows us how the creature becomes increasingly "humanized," with a nasty piece of work played by Jeff Morrow reminding us that being human is not necessarily all it's cracked up to be.
By the way, the first two films of this series were shot in 3-D. You won't find them that way on video, but if you ever have the opportunity to attend a theatrical screening of either in 3-D, don't miss it. Underwater photography and 3-D make for a fascinating combination.