This Universal creature feature from 1954 follows a marine biology expedition to the Amazon where the titular merman does to the crew what The Mummy did to the Dark Universe.
This aquatic King Kong adventure was released in 3D (a fad that sank in the last century too) but has stood the test of time through solid production values and a compelling story, even if its sexual and scientific politics are outmoded by today’s standards, albeit acceptable by Dark Universe standards.
The team includes two scientists with the names of British comedians – Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson) and Dr. Mark Williams (Richard Denning) – and a woman called Kay (Julie Adams) who is apparently a scientist but not a doctor (even for sci-fi that would be too far-fetched), her contributions limited to swimming around and being the subject of affection for every man in the movie, whether of the hu- or mer- variety.
An unintentional parallel emerges between the chauvinism of the male characters and the gentler kidnapping of Kay by the Gill-Man, alongside the intentional message about the real monster being man’s greed, embodied by the ambitious, money-minded Dr. Williams. The film treats the manphibian with a degree of sympathy but positions him firmly as a monster, in a way The Shape of Water delicately subverted in its tender treatment of both the creature and the woman he loves.
Despite being marine biologists the characters display little concern for the Amazonian aquatic life, dropping poison into the river in order to drug the Gill-Man, eliciting further unintended giggles courtesy of the groggy froggy. For the most part though, the effects are surprisingly effective, the well-designed creature costume beating 1982’s Swamp Thing in terms of fishy realness – even though the lack of respiratory system meant that stuntman Ricou Browning had to hold his breath for four minutes at a time.
The underwater photography lends deeper credibility to the black (and white) lagoon, amounting to an entertaining swamp romp that lacks the heart of The Shape of Water but mermantarily pulls you in. As for the Dark Universe remake – don’t hold your breath.