Monsters and predators have haunted Hollywood since the early 20th century, coming to life on the silver screen with the help of actors and special-effects designers. From early adaptations of Bram Stoker's Dracula and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to the fantastical projects of Guillermo del Toro, the genre has succeeded in pulling in audiences. A recent book takes a look at the history of the half-fish, half-human horror known as Gill-man in the 1954 American monster classic Creature from the Black Lagoon to uncover the master behind the mask.
With The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick (368 pgs., Hanover Square Press, 2019, $26.99), Mallory O'Meara has endeavored to recover the special-effects designer Milicent Patrick from near-obscurity as the first woman to have "ever designed a monster for a major motion picture." As O'Meara relates, beyond a few photographs of Patrick posing with the amphibious disguise, there was almost no record of her contribution, and the head of the makeup department, Bud Westmore, was the only one to receive on-screen credit. "[Patrick's] rise, fall and disappearance behind-the-scenes in Hollywood is the type of story films are made of, the type of story that needs to be told."
O'Meara approached her subject with the fervor of a devoted fan. In addition to working on her second book, Girly Drinks, a historical look at women across the world making and imbibing alcohol, she also hosts the literary pod-cast "Reading Glasses" beside her co-host Brea Grant, who is also a filmmaker and actress. O'Meara's horror movie enthusiasm led her to become a producer at Dark Dunes Productions, a Los Angeles-based production company, for which she produced the feature film Kids vs. Monsters. So when O'Meara learned Patrick's story, she felt a personal kinship with her. "Hearing about a career beset by sexism, I could easily put myself in her shoes." O'Meara could relate to developing a career in a male-dominated industry where her own position was constantly questioned or belittled, as when O'Meara describes one instance when a male colleague assumed that she must have been sleeping with her boss for a spot on the team.
The Lady from the Black Lagoon is as much a biography of the little-known monster-maker as it is O'Meara's search for her. "Her contribution to cinematic history soon sank into a black lagoon of its own," O'Meara writes. "The only people who remembered her were...