In Wellington there exists a not-so-secret society of film lovers, who congregate every Monday night from March to November at the temple of cinema that is the Embassy. We worship at the silver screen: art-house, international, classic, and occasionally cult cinema. Founded in 1946, I remember my father going off to his Film Society evening in the early 80s before I even really knew what that meant.
At one point the screenings were held up on the Wellington Polytechnic campus (now Massey University). I joined in the heyday of the Paramount era (sniff – we still miss you. And yes, those are rescued seats in our lounge). After a brief stint in the most uncomfortable seats in town, at Soundings Theatre in Te Papa, WFS happily landed at the Embassy, and has been rewarded with record membership numbers. Long may it thrive.
In this age of Netflix and everything on demand, there is something special about gathering in one place for a single screening of a film. It’s like the excitement you get at a premiere – the shared experience, the feeling of being part of something.
I must confess that my worst nightmare is to find myself on a committee, trying to get a group of people to agree on something. So I salute the wonderful committee members, led by our president Caroline Garratt, who produce a wonderful programme, year after year.
Tonight, the year started brilliantly with Creature from the Black Lagoon, remastered and in shiny 3D.
The Universal logo looms out at us and a voiceover intones, “In the beginning there was the void.” Matter collides, the universe is created and we zoom in on planet Earth. This bombastic sequence exists mostly to show asteroids zooming through space in 3D, but pretty soon we land in the Amazon jungle to find Dr. Maia inspecting a large webbed hand jutting improbably out of a rock face. As if this wasn’t funny enough, at this point a late-comer makes her way along a few rows in front, giving half the cinema a view of someone seeming to duck under the giant hand coming out of the screen.
Eventually we meet our hero, David, played by Richard Carlson, and Julie Adams as the plucky girl scientist Fay – in what must be a nod to Fay Wray, the beauty carried off by the original beast King Kong.
Now this is a classic B movie, and if you were at uni in Wellington in the 90s, it was also a pretty classic pinball game. Yet I don’t know why it doesn’t merit a line in the lyrics for Science Fiction Double Feature, the opening song for the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Maybe Richard O’Brien couldn’t find a rhyme for ‘lagoon’.
In terms of B movies, it had everything. It had the obligatory screaming female, dramatic swimming, trigger-happy brutes, and a monster evoking both pathos and horror. It was possibly an early entry in the canon for life-threatening tension generated between profit and science, eventually mined so well in the Alien series. It even had a lengthy and serious speech about the value of marine research – although not much actual scienceing is seen in the movie.
Fay in particular does not get much to do, apart from an extended and balletic swimming sequence where the creature mimics her from below, like some male monster from the id. And the gender politics are pretty much what you might expect from 1954. Although in a sub-plot involving rivalry between her boss and her love interest, a minor character does ‘lean in’ to explain to her that the boss owes his career to her. Now, he has taken his eye off the ball (What part of ‘keep watch’ don’t you understand?) and will end up in the next scene swathed in bandages in full-on Mummy mode. But perhaps his life was spared because he leaned in?
Certainly we presume it is Fay who sets the monster on fire, thereby saving his life? But the impact of the lamp is not shown. To be fair, this is probably more for safety reasons than anything else, but it does leave her with very little agency.
Another major character is the score, which basically telegraphs when the monster is about to appear. The music is generally overpowering, presumably because it’s hard to make swimming dramatic. But they do their best.
The captain of the boat, Lucas, is a fun and more well-rounded part than most ethnic characters get to be in these movies, standing up to the main bully to assert his authority to beat a sensible retreat, backed up with the casual flick of a knife.
The plot is functional, taking us deep into the Amazon jungle, and really just providing an excuse for some stunning underwater photography and endless shots of people swimming towards the camera, firing spear guns at the camera and generally poking anything at the camera to give the punters their money’s worth for 3D tickets.
The story sloshes to a close when the monster abducts Fay and takes her to his secret cave hide-out. Tracked down, the monster attacks David and just in the nick of time, the Professor and the Captain show up firing.
David, who never wanted to kill the monster anyway, holds out a restraining hand to the two with guns, and the monster wades into the water and slips to a dignified end in the depths, sinking immobile to the bottom, with the coup de grace absent even though it would have been the humane thing to do – conveniently leaving the door open for a sequel or two.
Ah, 1954, when they hadn’t quite figured out how to end a movie with a soft landing after the big scare – bang, the monster is “dead”, boom, THE END rolls up on screen.
One of the eventual sequels was notable for featuring a very young Clint Eastwood as a scientist with a mouse in his pocket. There’s never quite been a remake, although Guillermo del Toro wanted to make one. Turned down for an official remake, he went off and made The Shape of Water – reimagined as a love story. Ah, 2018. The year fish sex won big at the Oscars.
And that’s what we’re here for. All the campiness, bewilderment, exhilaration and transcendence that cinema can produce.
Film Society, we love you. To all my friends – please join! Roll on another banner year.