Friday 26 June 2015

The Creature Chronicles: Exploring the Black Lagoon Trilogy

Lagoon But Not Forgotten

The Creature Chronicles:
Exploring the Black Lagoon Trilogy
by Tom Weaver, David Schecter and Steve Kronenberg 
McFarland & Co Inc
ISBN: 978-0786494187

You know, I don’t read that many books on movies these days. Heck, with this busy blog to write and maintain I barely have enough time to read maybe more than 30 books a year, period. I usually manage to get to read 5 or 6 books about some aspect of movie production in a year but I have to say I’ve mostly been less than enamoured with the style of writing on most of them, these days. A lot of them somehow seem to get their facts wrong or completely muddled and I, as a casually interested party, am left wondering why I know more about certain aspects of a subject than a person who’s spent three or more years of their life researching a subject thoroughly. How do these little errors sneak in? I remember 20 odd years ago having to complain a few times at the old Museum Of Moving Image in London (MOMI - now sadly deceased) because some of their stuff was labelled up incorrectly... and that was just on the little bits about their displays that I personally knew about. There seems to be a curious carelessness in some of the research done on film over the past 20 or more years and I think that’s crazy.

Of course, the flip side of this is that, every now and again, there’s a release on the market waiting to be discovered which is a real gem of a book about movies where the writer gets pretty much everything right. These tomes are a real help to anyone with an interest in studying the subject, if you happen to luck into reading any of them. Tim Lucas’ epic work on Mario Bava, All The Colours Of The Dark, for instance, is the first and last word on that director, as far as I’m concerned. Or Kier-La Janisse’s invaluable book House Of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (reviewed by me here), which is a wonderful book to have and sparks the imagination to such an extent, movie wise, that it... you know... it leads to harder stuff (you will be trying to track down movies which really are hard to get hold of once you’ve read that particular book).

I’m pleased to say that Tom Weaver, David Schecter and Steve Kronenberg’s late 2014 publication The Creature Chronicles: Exploring the Black Lagoon Trilogy is just such a book. It’s well researched, engagingly written and, although you might at first think it’s fairly pricey (ok, yeah, it is), it’s more than value for money and there’s a deceptively large amount of information squeezed into its pages because, although generously illustrated with lots of rare stills from the production of the original trilogy - Creature From The Black Lagoon, Revenge Of The Creature and The Creature Walks Among Us - the type size is fairly economical and there’s absolutely loads of good stuff crammed in here.

The bulk of the book is written by Tom Weaver as he diligently takes you through the pre-production, production and post-production of each film. There are also contributions by Kronenberg, as various little factoids compiled into a chapter at the end of each film’s section and, between the two of them, Weaver and Kronenberg also give a good indication of how the movies were marketed and received by the general public at large. And then there’s David Schechter’s magnificent contributions. I’ve always been a bit of a fan of Schecter but... I’ll get back on about him a little way further down in this review.

So, after a forward by actress Julia Adams, an actress who most fans of the first movie will certainly know of, unless they’ve been overdosing on rotenone for any length of time, The Creature Chronicles: Exploring the Black Lagoon Trilogy starts right at the beginning with the genesis of the idea that William Alland, the producer who most people will recognise as the faceless, camera eye actor in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, used to get the ball rolling. Weaver then introduces us to fairly lengthy summaries of various different incarnations and drafts of the script until we get something a lot closer to the final movie. When he does this for the first film, it does start to get a little lengthy but it’s worth persisting with because the research is backed up by evidence and, where he’s had to piece together clues on certain aspects of the screenplays, he lets you know about it so you are absolutely sure that everything he has researched is 100% accurate. What helps all the way through with this is his brilliant, conversational writing style, with lots of asides for jokes and slanted observations... which is what I would more expect from Schecter (and we’ll get that too). So it’s all very easy to read and digest and the research informing it is fantastic.

He then follows up by taking you through the casting process for each film with lengthy information about the cast members, including the titular creature and its design, of course... then, as I said earlier, into production and finally through to post-production. Followed by the same method of presentation for the other two movies too.  All of it, of course, embellished with wonderful stories which have come straight from the mouths of the people he’s been talking to and interviewing for decades... and which he’s used for this book. Now, like anyone you are interviewing many decades after the fact, various people are going to contradict each other’s accounts of the situations that arise at times but, where that’s happened, he flags it up, shows all the angles and then takes his best and, I suspect very educated, guess at the truth behind some of the trickier issues.

And then there’s Schecter.

I’ve been reading David Schecter’s lengthy sleeve notes for years on the wonderful soundtracks he puts out for his label Monstrous Movie Music. He is an absolute expert at talking about the scores for these films, which he does in a chapter for each movie in this book, and he really should know... after all, his reconstruction and recording of some of the music of Creature From The Black Lagoon is easily the finest and most authentic on the market and his skill in researching and identifying various reused cues by various composers and also flagging up where certain cues had been reused in other films, is phenomenal. Not to mention his jokey humour, in the same kind of vein as Weaver’s... oh, wait, I said I’m not mentioning it. It was a real joy to read about the various contributions by composers such as Hans J. Salter, Frank Skinner, Henry Mancini etc and how they all fit into the mix with one or all of the films in the trilogy. This is fantastic stuff and, to be honest, the main reason why I wanted to grab a copy of this lengthy volume.

That being said, the whole book is a joy to read from cover to cover and I can’t imagine a more informed and thorough tome on the subject than the one we have here, written by people who obviously love their subject and are not afraid to show it. The wealth of material is absolutely amazing and a lot of it was new to me. I was getting really angry about some of the actors in the movies who had conducted themselves with less than stellar behaviour over the course of their lives but... well it was all a bit of an eye opener for me, I must say. There’s even a section in the book dealing with various attempted remakes of the film over the years, which were nipped in the bud before they got green lit. This involves a look at the scripts for various ventures including one written by the creator of Professor Bernard Quatermass himself, Nigel Kneale. It also shows you where and in what form these remakes ended up as when elements were recycled or evolved into other movies, which is very interesting to say the least.

And there you have it. The Creature Chronicles: Exploring the Black Lagoon Trilogy is easily one of the most valuable books on film I have in my library and an absolute treasure trove for people who, like me, have a special fondness for the Universal horror films of yesteryear. Particularly, for those who like the titular creature, who is pretty much the last of the studio’s big, mascot monsters (along with the Frankenstein monster, Dracula, the Wolfman and The Mummy). If you read just one new book on film this year, and you have a passion for the particular period being covered, then make it this one. It’s almost unputdownable (yeah, I just made that word up but it’s cool... deal with it) and it very much seems to be a labour of love for the three writers involved. Don’t let this one pass you by.

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