Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Creature from the Black Lagoon - in 3D

With all the hype about 3D, and the arguments as to whether it's just a fad by movie-makers to get us into movie theaters and upgrade our TVs, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that it's been around for a long time, over half a century before Avatar and Coraline.

Being the movie buff I am, I've seen quite a lot of old horror movies that were originally made in 3D, but I've only ever seen them on TV in 2D versions. Generally, they look like normal movies except for the obligatory shove-a-rock-in-your-face effects that look dumb when they're not in 3D. I never expected to see any of them in 3D, and certainly not on a big cinema screen. I'd mentally consigned them to little more than forgotten curios.

I can't really describe how excited I was when I found out that the Enzian, my local picture palace, was showing Creature from the Black Lagoon in 3D. I've loved the movie since I was in my early teens, and I fondly remember reading my uncle's film magazines and books as a kid, and seeing stills of the oh-so-not-scary Gill Man.

Made in 1954, Creature was the first underwater 3D movie. Despite a bunch of Googling, I can't find out anything about the kit they used to film it. Given that the standard underwater camera featured in the film is an enormous brute, I can't help wondering what the 3D version would have looked like. I'd never really thought about that before, but it must have been an interesting technical innovation. Apparently there's a remake on the cards, due to be shooting this year.

What I didn't know is that the underwater sequences were filmed right here in Florida, at Wakulla Springs. I suspect I was the only one in the audience who didn't know this, and I only found out when Ginger Stanley, the stunt swimmer who did the actual underwater work, told me. OK, me and a couple of hundred others. She came to the screening, despite being 79 years old, and talked to us all afterwards. She's a wonderful lady, and having her there really made the evening.

The 3D part of the movie generally worked well. The in-your-face bits were a bit cheesy, but where it worked best was simply to separate foreground and background. Even though it looked odd, since everything had a bit of a blueish-greenish-greyish-pinkish cast thanks to the funky old-style 3D glasses, it felt somehow more alive than the same thing in 2D once you'd got used to it. Being a 1950s movie, it had comparatively slow editing, little camera movement, hardly any rack focus, and constant shot sizes, so you didn't get that jerky feeling that comes with some recent 3D movies, where you get disoriented by being hurled from wide shots to extreme close-up and then being whirled around. It felt natural, as if everything was just that little bit more tangible. In many ways, 1950s cinematography is more suited to 3D than modern film style. In Avatar, and other recent movies, the slower bits worked well, but the action sequences don't, and I suspect film-makers will have to go back and look at films like this to see what we can learn from those early 3D experiments.

I'd have to rank this as one of the three best movie experiences of my life, right up there with seeing Abel Gance's Napoleon with a full live orchestra in 1983, and seeing the Lon Chaney version Phantom of the Opera last year with a live organist in Selwyn College. It's not the greatest film ever, far from it, but it was something I never thought I'd experience, and enjoyed far more than I expected.

I'm still smiling.


John Molloy said...


My first experience with the creature from the black lagoon was a plastic model I made when I was like 9. My aunt bought it for me and my cousin helped me assemble it. But the best thing about it? The parts of the model that glowed in the dark. How cool was THAT for a nine year old?

And this is in 3d? Excellent.

(still a fairly crappy movie though - like my favourite crappy movie: The Petrified Forest)

anaglyph said...

Yes, I have a soft spot for Creature too. I first saw it in 3D about twenty years ago in a flea-bitten rep cinema in Sydney. What a great time we had!

Now that all the cinemas seemed to begetting decked out for 3D, it should be totally possible to release these old films in a new high-quality polarized version rather than the far-from-satisfactory anaglyphic (blue & green) technique of the original releases. Technically it would be very simple to achieve. I'd love to see House of Wax again, and It Came From Outer Space and Dial M for Murder (it's not well known that even Hitchcock was handed down the imprimatur from the studios to climb aboard the 3D train, even though he wasn't really enamoured of it. Having said that, he really used it well in Dial M and I highly recommend you see it in 3D if you haven't. It shows how a master thinks about new techniques - he actually manages to incorporate the 3D-ness into the storytelling, rather than merely use it as a fancy gimmick).

These films would look stunning with some new tech behind them. I wonder if anyone's thinking of doing this kind of thing. I guess when 3D tv becomes all the rage they'll be digging through the archives for anything that is suitable...

anaglyph said...

Oops - anaglyphic - I meant blue/green & red, of course.

Matt Kelland said...

John - I had that model too. Great wasn't it?