“Even I…have heard the legend of a man-fish.”

Creature from the Black Lagoon Poster

Creature From the Black Lagoon  (1954)
Directed by Jack Arnold
Written by Harry Essex and Arthur Ross
Starring Richard Carlson, Julie Adams, Richard Denning, Antonio Moreno, Nestor Paiva, Whit Bissell, Bernie Gozier, and Henry Escalante
79 minutes, Rated G

Wide Screen World: Creature From the Black Lagoon

I hadn’t considered it until two weekends ago, but I am hard-pressed to remember what the last movie that I saw in a public theatre might have been. I’ve thought hard about it since it first came up, and I simply cannot remember. I even attempted to cheat by perusing the backlog of Mashley at the Movies to see what might have been the last new film I podcasted with them. According to their archives, I saw a few films without Matt and Ashley because the last new film with them (at least before Bill and Ted Face The Music) was Knives Out. Back in November. Surely, I’ve seen a movie since November, right?

The Rise of Skywalker? I’m sure I saw that. I remember taking my children to see Spies in Disguise. I also took them to see Playing With Fire. All of these movies were released in 2019, though. I am downright positive that I saw something in the month or two of 2020 before the pandemic started. You know, in the few short weeks that we were still allowed to go to the movie theatres? Whatever it was, it must not have had much of an impression on me. I have no recollection of what it could have been.

I began trying to remember what this elusive piece of cinema was as a result of actually going out in public for the first time since whenever the hell it was to see an honest-to-goodness movie. It was not a new movie. It was a classic. A double-feature, in fact. Two childhood favorites, one of which I had not– until Friday, September 25– ever seen on a big screen before.

I saw these movies at The Harvest Moon Twin Drive-In Theatre, one of only 9 drive-in movie theatres still left operating in my home state of Illinois. This particular drive-in sits on the south edge of the town of Gibson City, Illinois. This is a source of pride for me as Gibson City is my hometown. I graduated from high school there. My mother still resides near there. I have many memories of various excursions to this venue over the years. This one, the most recent one, is one of the most special to me because it ended a movie-going drought that I hadn’t quite realized yet was affecting me as emotionally as it was. It’s been easy to tell myself that I am perfectly content to watch movies in the comfort of my own home because I didn’t really have another option.

Since the pandemic began, The Harvest Moon has found a respectable second-wind showing older films. With nothing new to show, they’ve made nostalgic classics– especially those from the 1980s– a newfound bread and butter of sorts. They’ve limited the number of vehicles that can attend one screening, which allows for easier social distancing with more space between parked cars. They require masks (and I did, while attending this past weekend, see an employee of the venue request that a patron put a mask on correctly). It is certainly safer being outdoors in the open air than it would be in an auditorium with recycled air. It would seem that what has had a negative impact on multiplexes has allowed a second-life for drive-ins.

To get patrons in the Halloween spirit, The Harvest Moon spent the entire weekend showing classic monster movies from the Universal Studios vault. Over the span of four days, they showed Phantom of the Opera, The Wolf Man, Dracula, The Invisible Man, Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy, and Creature From the Black Lagoon. Paired together into double features onto two different screens, the truly ambitious could have made arrangements to see all eight movies on four consecutive nights. I know a couple of people who did just that, but, given the time constraints of personal life, I was only available for one night of “creature features.” The choice for me on which night to attend was an easy one: I have wanted to see Creature From The Black Lagoon on the big screen for about as long as I can remember.

I saw this movie for the first time on a Saturday afternoon in 1984. I had just turned eight years old, and I had no idea what I was watching. All I knew was that I was bored and that the black-and-white movie being shown on our local affiliate had people scuba diving in it. The dialogue that I had captured to this point suggested that the characters were explorers and scientists and that they were on an expedition through the Amazon. It struck me as being very reminiscent of the works of H. Rider Haggard, whose vast collection of action/adventure stories and novels had become a recent pleasure of mine. Even at such a young age, I was impressed by the film’s underwater photography. I was utterly riveted for about twenty minutes. Then, the Gill-Man ( as the creature has come to be called over the years) emerged from an underwater cave and I had the bejeesus scared right out of me. Eight is way too young to need a new beejesus, and I was still, at this point, fairly traumatized from having seen Poltergeist.

I’m foggy on the details from there, it having been so long ago, but I do recall officially watching the entire movie with my father after my parents had divorced. I was still pretty young, but I have a vague memory of being told that if I didn’t think King Kong was scary, then the Gill-Man was small potatoes. My father, for his part in this, was probably grateful to be watching something other than King Kong. I had already worn out more than one VHS recording of that particular movie. My father also happened to be right this time: knowing in advance that this movie had a monster in it, and knowing exactly what that monster would look like when it finally arrived, went a long way toward assuaging any fears I had while viewing. My reaction to seeing the film in its entirety for the first time was actually quite the opposite– I adored the movie and watched it four or five times before my father had to take us back home to our mother. An obsession of sorts was born.

What’s unique about this film, in retrospect, when compared to other films that I loved in childhood, was that I don’t have a recall of watching this movie over and over and over. I had a handful of movies at the time (King Kong among them) that I watched ad nauseum. Movies that I had seen so many times that I could quote them from beginning to end. Movies that were used by my mother as rewards for good behavior. Movies that, if not allowed to watch them, were handy punishments for bad behavior. Movies like The Muppet Movie or Raiders of the Lost Ark. Don’t even get me started on Star Wars. The Creature From the Black Lagoon was a movie that I loved, yes. It was a movie that I often cited in conversation as my “favorite film”. It was a movie that I often used as a launch pad for my own short stories and writing. I had toys and posters and comics that I had collected over the years. But I don’t recall watching it over and over and over and over again. I can only actually recall sitting down to watch this particular film approximately a dozen times before I finally acquired a DVD of it about ten years ago. Was it less available to me than other films I loved and watched on repeat? Perhaps. Does the fact that I didn’t “wear it out” somehow make it more special in adulthood when the opportunity to view it arises? Probably so. I will say this: there was no question in my mind as to what night I would be attending the monster movie screenings at The Harvest Moon, regardless of what arrangements would have to be made in order to attend. The Mummy was certainly tempting, but I was just this side of chomping at my bit to finally see Creature From the Black Lagoon on a big screen.

It was glorious. There’s, admittedly, something cheesy about the apocalyptic chords of scary music being struck whenever we get a brief glimpse of the monster, but I think the straight-forward story holds up fairly well. On the big screen, the underwater sequences are tense and impressive. One sequence in particular– in which The Gill-Man swims underneath Julie Adams, admiring her as he keeps pace with her strokes through the lagoon– is particularly breathtaking. The make-up effects for the monster are just as impressive, and I was delighted to see that, when enlarged, there was no noticeable flaws in the design. It strikes me now, some thirty-six years after seeing it for the first time, this almost-seventy-year-old movie was way ahead of its time.

In the past, I have had only two other opportunities to see this film on the big screen. The first was in the fall of 1995. It was a part of a monster movie marathon similar to the one at Harvest Moon. The film was showing in Bloomington, Illinois, and I could not make arrangements to get out of work in time to drive the hour west to arrive on time. The second was in the summer of 1998, and it was– as strange as it is to say– the beginning of the end of my first marriage.

I never proposed to Michelle. Not officially. I had no opposition to getting married, but there was never a romantic gesture of asking her to be my wife. There was never even an engagement ring. The decision to actually get married was somewhat off-the-cuff and, honestly, happened without me realizing it.

Michelle’s family was a military family, and she had spent a good portion of her life being moved around from state to state as her father was bounced from military posting to military posting. I met her in her junior year of high school through the good offices of a mutual friend while she was living in Champaign. I was a Senior. We began dating the following summer. The summer after she graduated high school, her family was moved to Fort Bragg, halfway across the country in North Carolina. Michelle spent her first year of college in Valparaiso, Indiana. However, during that first year of college, financial circumstances for her family changed and they could no longer afford out-of-state tuition at Valparaiso. They, naturally, wanted her to come live with them in North Carolina and finish her education there.

Michelle and I discussed at length the possibility of her moving back to Illinois to finish her schooling in social work at the University of Illinois. Her parents couldn’t afford out-of-state tuition here either. The only way that they were going to allow her to attend school in Illinois was if she paid for it herself. Further research revealed that she could declare residency in Illinois if she lived here for four years, but Michelle didn’t want to wait four years before she could return to school. I suggested never even mentioning that her family had moved away– she did move here in 1993, after all, and had a high school diploma to prove it. Logical thinking on this suggestion reminded us that it was common knowledge that they had moved– and when– since they had paid out-of-state tuition for her first year in Indiana. After weeks of research into the options, we realized that she could still claim residency in Illinois with me– because I had never left the state– but we had to be married to do it. In this manner, it would appear that the out-of-state tuition was still out-of-state, just a different state than the actual money came from (ie., North Carolina, her parents). The conversation– a phone conversation; Michelle was still in North Carolina– ended with the decision that we were getting married.

At the end of August, 1996, I took a Greyhound bus from Champaign, Illinois to Fayetteville, North Carolina. There, we rented a U-Haul, which we packed full of Michelle’s belongings. After a couple of days of visiting with her family, we then drove back to Illinois, where we moved Michelle into an apartment on campus that she shared with the friend who had introduced us to each other in the first place. The following November, at her grandmother’s house in Missouri for Thanksgiving, I saw the dress that Michelle planned to wear at our wedding. Our wedding date was set for the following May.

It should have occurred to me at the time: for Michelle to declare residency with me, wouldn’t we have to be living together? Something else that should have occurred to me: she’s declaring residency with me because we’re married when we are not, in fact, married yet. It’s easy now to see what my mother was suspecting all along– there is a good chance that I was maybe being taken advantage of. Signs of this began showing up right away– obvious signs that I was either oblivious to or ignoring. At the time, I was enrolled at Parkland College and enrolled full-time, employed part-time at Comfort Inn. Soon, I was enrolled in school part-time and working two jobs to make ends meet so that she could go to school undistracted. It was “decided” between us that she should finish her more important university work in sociology before I completed my less important work in theatre. Another thing that should have occurred to me: why was I paying for her schooling?

I do think it’s important to note that I was not at all unhappy with Michelle at this time. I was, however, beginning to lose myself. I had no time for theatre anymore, for starters, and there was always a resistance on Michele’s part to not being included with me and my circle of friends. Time with my family was, effectively, put to a halt because holidays were always spent traveling to see her family, whom we couldn’t see whenever we wanted. Everything in my life became for her, because of her, and about her. It’s actually shocking to me now that I tolerated it.

At any rate, we married in May of 1997. The weekend before our wedding, we had to fly to North Carolina to attend the wedding of her sister because her sister was Michelle’s maid of honor. Her sister was pregnant out of wedlock. Michelle’s uber-religious and scarily-conservative parents would simply not allow her to participate in our wedding while she was sinful with child. On this, I tried to stick up for myself. I fought the stupidity of it. I was convinced by Michelle to stand down lest her father decide to not pay for our wedding ceremony. I relented.

After our wedding, our routine continued as it was. Again, we were not unhappy. I was not unhappy. The thought that maybe I didn’t want to be married was never on my mind. But there was a distinct disparity between which one of us got their way from day to day that was beginning to cause arguments. I was having trouble letting go of this resentment I harbored toward her parents, resentment spawned by the idiocy of stealing Michelle and I’s nuptials with a shotgun wedding. Despite our mutual comfort with one another, the cracks were beginning to show.

Through hard work and a crazy summer schedule, Michelle managed to graduate from the University of Illinois with a degree in Sociology in three years. By this time, it was the spring of 1998. I was finishing up my Associate’s degree as well (a graduation that I was unable to attend because it’s scheduling clashed with an event for her work at Center for Women In Transition), but I had already been accepted into the University of Illinois to continue my work in the fall, so I was biding time, believing that things would improve once roles were reserved. They did not improve. They got exponentially worse.

The issue that killed us began before either of us had actually graduated. This issue was pretty specific: the number of female friends that I had in my circle. In early 1998, Michelle took a job as a counselor at The Center For Women In Transition, a job which required her, mostly, to work evenings and overnight. Between her and her parents, it was considered improper for me to have so many female friends when I was a married man. As a result, Michelle was beginning to put restrictions on who I was allowed to see and spend time with whenever she wasn’t around. Joie was okay because she was dating Doug. Mandy was okay because she lived in the same apartment building and was friends with both of us. Veronica? Yeah. She was not okay.

Veronica was a female in a couple of my acting classes. She was a part of my circle of theatre friends. Yes, she was very attractive, but that had nothing to do with our relationship. Veronica and I had a very casual chemistry together and were often paired up for exercises in acting classes. I directed her in several short pieces, and once wrote a piece for her. We got each other. Our relationship in theatre was very symbiotic. This didn’t matter to Michelle.

What mattered to Michelle was that Veronica was a female. It was the source of arguments before marriage, but it was downright combative afterwards. Eventually, it became about more than just Veronica. It was almost any unattached female in my perimeter that wasn’t pre-approved by her. It became a question in my mind of whether it was a matter of Michelle maintaining control of me or not trusting me to be faithful to her. It solidified into an issue that we couldn’t even discuss rationally.

In the summer of 1998, the opportunity to see Creature From The Black Lagoon arose again. It was a remastered 45th-anniversary print that was making its way around the country in various art-house theatres. The film, a film that had been discussed many times over the years as a favorite film that I would like to see larger-than-life, was slated to play at an art-house cinema in Peoria, Illinois. Veronica had invited me to go. The discussion with Michelle about making the trek an hour-and-a half away from home with a female that was not her went just as about well as I should have expected it to. Michelle was, in fact, incredulous that I even had the nerve to ask. She cited various reasons– some of which, such as not having extra money to afford the ticket, would have made sense had I not been able to see right through them. In the span of the argument that ensued, she went from excuses to convince me that I didn’t need to attend to hostage negotiations to prevent it (she refused to hand over the car keys). I actually invited her to go with us to see the film, but it wasn’t a film that she was interested in seeing. She proceeded to argue that I shouldn’t even want to attend the film without her. Our argument over this began to get more and more ludicrous from there as she repeatedly tried to make the claim that my interest in something that she wasn’t interested in doing was somehow a flaw in my character. To wit: our interests should be mutual and neither one of us should give two pickles for something that was of no interest to the other. I then began to hear about all the sacrifices she makes– the movies that she saw but had no interest in, the amount of space on our VCR tapes consumed by shows I recorded but she didn’t enjoy. The argument was beginning to be downright deranged. Eventually, as her unmerited reasoning began to get more and more circular, she decided that it would be acceptable for me to to see the film, but that she did not want me to attend the viewing with Veronica. She admitted that she was suspicious of the time I spent with Veronica, and, while she did not outright accuse me of cheating, alluded to the possibility that I was grooming Veronica, keeping her around, storing her on a back burner. Michelle acknowledged that she could tell that I was miserable in this marriage (a factual tidbit that she never once acknowledged might have been because of her) and that she believed– quite ardently– that I had so many female friends so that I had a stable of choices to option when I eventually got sick of it and moved out. I was utterly gobsmacked.

At this point, I was left with little choice than to acknowledge my own unhappiness. Unhappiness with the lack of control I had over my own life as a result of this marriage. Unhappiness with the lack of trust in me when I had never given her any reason to have such a low opinion of me. I was never, however, given a further opportunity to dive too deeply into these complaints before I was ambushed with a litany of faults in my character– most notably the strange assertion that I didn’t want to be married because I was too much of a child to act like a grown-up. At some point she stated that she never knew what to believe from me because I was “a good enough actor” to make her believe whatever I wanted her to believe. Is she saying that if I were cheating, she wouldn’t know because I was a good enough liar to hide it? Was I somehow being gaslit into believing that the problem in our marriage was me?

I spent the night of that argument at my mother’s house; it was the one place I could think of that couldn’t somehow be eventually held against me. I moved out of our apartment completely a month or two later because life in our quarters had become unbearable. If I wasn’t walking on eggshells to avoid scrutiny of my every action, I was being accused of sabotaging everything by intentionally being distant and aloof. Her new tactic became to attempt to convince me that I knew deep in my heart that our marriage was salvageable, but that I was too stubborn and hellbent on being right to let her win. It seemed reasonable to her that I would rather sacrifice everything and be unhappy then concede her a victory in the name of happiness.

I filed for divorce in October of 1998.

I spent a good deal of time thinking about the events I have just shared with you, reminding myself of them, in the days after my trip to Harvest Moon. I had attended the screening with Jeff, a friend that I have made at work. Jeff is a very talented independent filmmaker and our tastes in film align to an alarming degree. It’s almost as if, in regards to movies, we sometimes share the same brain. He has also been a fan of Creature From The Black Lagoon since childhood, and he was also bursting at the seams for this opportunity to see a childhood obsession on the big screen for the first time. As we stood in line at the drive-in for the hamburgers we had ordered, he mentioned how he thought it strange that the chance to see this particular film had never come up for him even once in all these years. I told him that the chance had come up for me a couple of times in my life, but that I had been unable to avail myself of them for whatever reason. He asked, innocently, “Why not?” And I had no idea what to say.

I am not ashamed to admit that I was a bit emotional about seeing Creature From The Black Lagoon. My love for this movie is so enduring that the rolling of the closing credits was almost a physical weight off of my shoulders that brought the beginnings of tears to my eyes. As I drove home from the drive-in, my thought process was multi-layered. I became officially aware to myself that the pandemic had stolen something from me that might never be adequately replaced. I found it ironic that my hometown– a town that I visit infrequently and, for the most part, avoid– had given a little of it back. And I was grateful, not only for friends like Jeff, Matt, and Ashley (they we were there– we took a few moments between features to check in and say hello) who understand why a night like this might have been important to me but for the knowledge that when my trek home at the end of the night was finished that it would be to the driveway of a home that I have built, to the nest of a life that I have built with the union of a loving wife whose respect and support for me is mutual.

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