By Carl Kozlowski
Sam Borowski has had a love affair with monster movies for most of his life. Yet it took the tragic events of 9/11 to spur the creation of his dream project: a documentary celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Creature From the Black Lagoon.
Even though Borowski’s Cinematic Heroes production company is based in Staten Island, N.Y., he relied on the resources of Universal Studios’ corporate archives in Universal City and was allowed to shoot portions of his doc Creature Feature: 50 Years of the Gill Man on the Universal Studios lot.
“I was looking to get a specific feature funding for a film and we lost it with 9/11, when I lost a friend as well as my investor,” Borowski recalls. So I was doing script rewrites for hire to keep my head above water when a memorial parade of bagpipers came by my home at five in the morning. I met a documentarian named Matt Crick who was filming them and told him I wanted to do a doc on Creature since the 50th anniversary was just over two years away and we had time. The guy came aboard and brought equipment, and we got [actor] Keith David to narrate.”
According to Borowski, Creature was significant on several film-history fronts, including the fact that when it was shot in 1953, it was the first movie to be filmed on two locations at the same time. Outdoor scenes focusing on the creature and the lagoon were shot in Florida, while interior scenes that focused on the other actors were shot on the Universal backlot.
The creature itself was created by Milicent Patrick, the first woman to design movie monsters. The film, written by Academy Award winning writer Arthur Ross, was one of the first 3D features ever made and the first to shoot underwater scenes in 3D. The results of such innovation was a stellar gross (in 1954 standards) of more than $3 million, and two sequels.
“If there wasn’t a Creature, there might not be a Predator, Alien, or any monsters like we’ve seen today,” says Borowski. “Any monster in a rubber suit owes Creature a debt of gratitude. Its grosses were so strong that it helped move Universal out of receivership and put them in the black again. And the sequel, Revenge of the Creature, featured the first on-screen speaking cameo appearance of Clint Eastwood.”
Borowski and his partners traveled nationwide to interview devoted fans of the film, attending events such as the Monster Bash in Pittsburgh and the annual Creature Fest held in Wakulla Springs, Florida, where the creature scenes were originally shot. Among the Hollywood luminaries admitting their own devotion for the Creature in the doc are actor Benicio del Toro, with other interviews including Arthur Ross, modern horror-makeup whiz Tom Savini and the actor who played the creature itself, Ben Chapman.
Such attention is impressive for a film whose makers even admit in the doc was a “cheap B-movie throwaway” before unexpected taking off. Part of its success was due to the creature’s sympathetic, humanlike quality.
“Most people root for the creature because the people come into his territory and take the bones of a relative,” explains Borowski. “He’s not just a brutal monster killing people, but a guy defending his land. And the creature wants love from a girl, like everyone else.”
The 83-minute, DV doc is still in its work print demo phase. With its use of production photographs to establish a Ken Burns-style tone, the documentary has drawn praise from various industry professionals. The filmmaker’s passion for films—established as a boy, when he lived four blocks from the home used for the Corleones in The Godfather—shines through in the final product, making the doc accessible to people outside the Creature cult.
“If I hadn’t gotten up early to watch bagpipers, I never would have met Matt,” says Borowski. “Sometimes things are just fate, I guess. We’re just people who love movies and we hope it shows.”
By Carl Kozlowski