There can be few decisions upon which more depends than the choosing of an appropriate name for one’s offspring. I speak advisedly, given my own name, of course. You don’t want to choose something currently ‘trendy’, for fear of said fad dying on its behind almost instantly; neither does it seem particularly wise to pick a favourite celebrity – fair enough, surely even the most fervent devotee didn’t name their newborn ‘Rolf’ but imagine if such a wayward choice were to come to pass – unthinkable consequences. Names of a seemingly religious bent seem relatively safe – from Mohammed to Matthew, the sheer weight of history does at least carry some safety, if not inspiration. So much to consider – future nicknames; unfortunate initials; the sudden recollection you have a relative by that name; ease of spelling – a veritable minefield. All of which leads us to the following poser – why is the boat in Creature From the Black Lagoon called ‘Rita’?
The obvious answer that springs to mind would be that it’s named after Rita Hayworth, though it seems a tad disrespectful to name the asthmatic, chugging boat after the great actress. Was Rita ever a sexy name? It’s a jarring and unfortunately comedic sight to skip from the stunning underwater Gill-Man scenes to see the redoubtable Rita as the fearless scientists’ sanctuary. The crew are oblivious to this nonsense, content to (of course) partake of a quick smoke at every available opportunity, pipes still being the authoritative prop with which to muse and pontificate. Despite the steamy corridors of the darkest Amazon, everyone looks strangely refreshed throughout, the light-coloured slacks clearly repelling the heat and humidity in a way only trousers worn by scientists ever could.
CFTBL falls between several of the pillars the earlier horror films Universal had erected as the acceptable standard by which all future horror films would, up to this point, be judged. It lacks a big-hitting lead actor – Richards Denning and Carlson are fine B-movie fare, neither daring to exhale for fear of their beer gut revealing itself, but are left playing dull, affection-deflecting characters who clutter up Rita and completely and unnecessarily torment a monster who was minding his own business. Far better is Julie Adams, given a lot to do and coping admirably, cleverly electing to take repeated dips in the no-doubt leech and anaconda-ridden lagoon in order for the Gill-Man to save her from the lecherous crew. She clearly knew what she was letting herself in for, thoughtfully arming herself with one of cinema’s pointiest braziers.
The titular Creature is a brave attempt by Universal to add a completely new monster to its canon, based on the rather slender and unpromising concept of what the film’s natives describe as a ‘man-fish’. Though brilliantly designed, there’s nothing nightmarish about Gilly. A relic from the Devonian Age, there is nothing of the supernatural, no intention to prowl urban streets at nightfall, not even the finger-pointing atom-age warnings carried by the beasts of Them! or the dangers of what might fall from the sky and cause havoc. He’s also given a name, ‘Gill-Man’, which has never really stuck in the general public’s collective mind.
It doesn’t help that CFTBL came at a time when Universal had developed an unfortunate knack of lampooning itself, not only with a perverse habit of churning out sequels, but also a string of Abbott and Costello films. To muddy the waters, as it were, yet further, it was lumbered with the novelty of being shown in 3D – the narrative and character development feels forever of secondary importance, all froth and no substance. This is all the more galling as the above-water scenes look decidedly tame and not at all unexplored.
I’ve only ever come across lagoons in films – the black one and the blue one. No matter what colour you make it, it seems a peculiar setting for anything at all – a shallow body of water. There’s probably an ITV programme about fishing that would suit one nicely but a horror film? CFTBL has that peculiar 1950’s trait of feeling more archaic now than films from the 30’s – cameras threaten to unbalance the boat, such is their huge size and science is over-explained to presumably give the film some gravity but always comes across as hackneyed and daffy. Indeed we learn little from the whole experience of watching the film, one which heralded the end of Universal’s dominance of horror. We shouldn’t venture where we’re not wanted. Science and religion don’t mix. Great care should be taken when naming boats.