Here’s my TF&G Column for Oct. 2004. I’m a huge fan of the Creature from the Black Lagoon and in fact have a tattoo of the “Gill Man” as a tribute to Ben Chapman, a man I had the honor and privilege of knowing who just happened to have played the creature in the out of water scenes. Here is a cool interview with Ricou Browning who did all of the underwater parts. Enjoy this week’s cool spooky blogs.
IN 1954, Universal Pictures released one of the greatest horror films of all-time, The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The classic film told the story of an archaeological expedition into the Amazon that uncovers a living fossil that refuses to be brought in alive and terrorizes the team as they fight for their lives in this remote corner of the world.
Last spring, I had the opportunity to meet Ricou Browning, the actor who did the underwater scenes of the creature for the film. Two years prior, I had met Ben Chapman, the actor who did the above water scenes of the creature and he told me both he and Browning were going to be at a horror convention I was already planning on attending.
I was excited to see Chapman again and visit with Browning. My original plans were to go to Florida and try to put together a dive with Browning, but that did not work out. I thought a story about diving with the “Creature from the Black Lagoon” would be a lot of fun. Still, I did have an opportunity to interview the man, who had some interesting things to say about the classic film, but the sport of diving that many readers of this column and I love so much.
CM: This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Back then, did you ever think people would still be talking about that movie in the twenty-first century?
RB: Oh, we had no idea. To us it was just a job and a monster movie. It is amazing to realize this film has a bigger following now than it even had back then, and it was a big hit.
CM: How did you get the job as the creature?
RB: A friend of mine called and wanted me to take these people from Universal out to Wakulla Springs, where they filmed all of the underwater scenes. A very wealthy man privately owned this place and he did not let anyone harm it. The place was in excellent shape and looked like something from prehistoric times, with super clear water and all kinds of life. While out there, they wanted someone to swim in front of the cameras to see how it would look on film, so I did. Then, a few weeks later, I get a call asking if I wanted to be the creature in the underwater scenes, and I said, “Sure.” The rest is history.
CM: Tell us about your experience working on the film.
RB: It was a lot of work and took several months. At first, they built this costume and did not like it. They thought it was not quite what they were looking for. Then when they got what they wanted looks-wise, I had to swim with it and make some alterations. The suit made me very buoyant, so we had to put weights in the chest plate and in my thighs. Then we tried to put goggles on the suit and that did not work out because they protruded too far from the face. So, I had to swim with the naked eye. In addition, the costume would not allow for an air tank, so I had to free dive.
CM: How difficult was swimming with this costume with only your naked eye?
RB: Well, for one thing, the water was not as clear as it appears on the screen. The tannic acid from the plant life stained the water, and that is what gives it that “Black Lagoon” look. At first, it was quite a challenge, but then I got used to it and it became easier.
CM: How deep were the springs? In the film, they appear almost abyss-like, never ending.
RB: The deepest spot is like 100 feet deep, but the deepest we ever filmed was probably 48 to 50 feet. That is the part where I come up and drag the girl underwater and am supposed to take her into the cave. We filmed all of the underwater scenes in Florida, while the rest took place on the lot at Universal Studios in Hollywood. Julie Adams was the beautiful girl you see in most of the film, but the underwater and swimming scenes you see from below were with Ginger Stanley. She did all of that amazing swimming you see and was the woman that I worked with.
CM: Were you surprised when you saw the movie? It was not just another monster film, but also something that was very well made and stands the test of time.
RB: They certainly did a great job with it, and I am proud to be associated with the film. I have just now started to do horror and science fiction conventions, and have had a good time meeting with the fans. It is amazing to have people come up to you from all ages that are such big fans of the creature.
CM: What other projects did you work on?
RB: I worked on many, many projects, including the original Flipper movie and series. In fact, I [did some of the writing] on the original Flipper story and contributed to 39 of the television episodes. I also worked on two Bond movies, Thunderball and Never Say Never Again.
CM: Many of these underwater scenes involved sharks. What was your experience working with sharks?
RB: We learned how to use sharks, although we were all as careful as could be. We would film out in the Bahamas and had this boat with a well inside. They would catch sharks, and open up a slip in the back of the boat that led into the well, and bring the shark in. Then we had this huge pen built to keep the sharks in [where we would] film. We would de-hook them and put a rope on their tail with a loop. They were fine, and then we would put a hook through the loop and slow them down, and let them settle to the bottom. Then two divers would go in on each side and they would grab the shark, and then gradually swim the shark out where we were shooting.
CM: You mean someone had to lead the shark in the water?
RB: Yes, and we used all kinds of different sharks—lemon sharks, bull sharks—but we found that tiger sharks worked the best. You would let these big sharks go and, hopefully, they swam the right direction. Tiger sharks usually swam straight, which is why we liked using them the most.
CM: Did you ever have any problems with the sharks?
RB: We had some close calls a few times, but nothing ever really serious. One of the nurse sharks we were working [with] bit one of the guys’ flippers.
CM: I am still trying to picture someone escorting a big tiger shark underwater.
RB: It was quite a sight.
CM: I heard a story about you, a giant grouper, and a mannequin. Can you relate that?
RB: Sure. Many times, we would go out and spearfish or set lines to catch food for the set. We were fishing for sharks, and we caught a small shark, and a monstrous jewfish ate the shark and got on the hook. We found him the next morning, and with a crane lifted him aboard ship. We had been using a girl mannequin with blonde hair for some underwater scenes, and it was still on the boat. So, we stuffed it down in the mouth of the jewfish as we went into harbor to see what people would do. And, boy, did we ever get a reaction! Everyone thought we had found a killer jewfish.
CM: Thank you for your time. It has been quite an honor talking with the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
RB: No problem. Thank you.