Guillermo del Toro is happy to praise the inspirational source for this truly weird film, the 1954 classic low-budget horror, The Creature from the Black Lagoon. In it, an intrepid group of unlikely looking ‘scientists’, led by a hairy chested boat captain, search for and trap a half-man, half fish, an amphibious creature living in a south American sea water lagoon. Cinephiles will note the story’s ‘jungle’ and ‘lagoon’ are firmly staged in a Hollywood studio.
On finding the creature they exhibit an unscientific attitude by shooting at it, and it takes its revenge by capturing the only woman aboard their boat, a buxom blonde. (Hollywood monsters always go for the blonde.) Del Toro has modelled his monster on the classic tale, but with today’s advanced prosthetics and animatronics he gives us something more plausible than a tall guy in a painted wet suit and some flippers. And on this occasion the creature takes a shine to a brunette.
In a 1960’s underground research station where everybody goes around in white coats, two cleaners discover the latest inhabitant to be incarcerated is an amphibious human hybrid that cannot speak, needs immersed in water at all times, loves eating hard boiled eggs, and is shackled by the neck until the station’s military generals can decide what to do with it. Those quirks except the last are shared by the woman who takes such an intense interest in his well-being. (The creature proves he is male.)
I repeat, this is a weird story, so I shall begin by letting del Toro spell out its meaning.
“On a certain level the idea is just gathering everybody up who can be represented as the other, quote unquote, all the invisible people coming together to rescue this creature that can either be a monster or a savior or a lover or a god. It was very important for me that with the antagonist, to understand him a little but also see that for him these people don’t exist, they are negated and invisible. That’s for the plot aspect of the movie, but more importantly to make the love story about something more than just a couple falling in love. It’s about also being able to see those other people and love the otherness, love the difference.”
I hope readers are the wiser for del Toro’s explanation for I am not. Perhaps the actor playing the monster can cast some light on the subtext.
6′ 3″ Doug Jones says four hours it took to be transformed into the character each day wasn’t so bad – relatively speaking – in comparison to how much longer it took to embody creatures in other collaborations with Del Toro, including Pan’s Labyrinth, the Hellboy movies and Crimson Peak.
“It’s a challenge; there’s no question about it. Any role that I do under crazy makeup is a role like any other you have to play. When you’re playing otherworldly creatures, what gets added to that is layers of foam latex and rubber makeup, silicon products and whatever else. Then that emotional state has to come through those layers of makeup. That’s my challenge.”
Well, I am still none the wiser, but the film is a wonder to behold.
The press release tells us Del Toro spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money to help conceptualize the creature’s costume before production began. Thankfully the picture got made! I am sure he will get his investment back many times over.
There is no doubting del Toro’s fertile imagination. But after each film you grow more used to his ways and his techniques, and in The Shape of Water you can almost predict what happens one scene to the next. That pre-knowledge, that familiarity blunts this film. It is still engrossing. Magical, thrilling and romantic to the core, this is a fantastical tale with moral undertones.
Del Toro seems able to handle most genres, from horror to science fiction to gothic melodrama, but as 2006’s brilliant Pan’s Labyrinth made clear, his politics give his work a stronger punch than the conventional genre filmmaker. Only this time I couldn’t quite fathom (excuse the pun) quite what he was getting at, except to say he doesn’t like authority, or fascism.
Elisa Esposito, (Sally Hawkins) begins her working day with a hot bath and a bout of auto-eroticism. She is a mute. She has two best friends in whom she confides, her apartment neighbour, aging out-of-work illustrator, Giles, (Richard Jenkins) and her cleaner partner with whom she shares her shifts, Zelda Fuller, (Octavia Spencer). Giles is really a sign writer with ambition but keeps getting his best work rejected. Zelda is married to a bed fart lazy husband who doesn’t do the dishes. The two women share a life that lacks passion and affection. It isn’t a surprise Elisa is attracted to the Amphibian Man against all reason, and after initial distaste, Zelda offers to help her kidnap it to put it back in the sea.
The wonder is how the actors commit themselves to this outlandish plot making us believe it too: Michael Shannon as the representative of brutal government authority, Richard Jenkins her gay neighbour yet to show his sexuality, and Michael Stuhlbarg as a compassionate scientist with a stricken conscience. But I suspect if it was only a two-hander, Elisa and the creature, we’d still believe it.
Hawkins, Oscar nominated for Blue Jasmine, broke through with Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky and had an earlier success this year with Maudie. But the conviction she brings to Elisa is of a higher order and she accomplishes it without speaking a word. If anything is guaranteed to get you an Oscar it is playing a cripple, a deaf mute, or an alcoholic.
Written by Del Toro and former “Game of Thrones” producer Vanessa Taylor, the film doesn’t waste any time immersing us in its heady mixture of the strange and the familiar. Stylistically it is perfection. Not an image, not a set design is out of place. Everything is harmonised. Danish cinematographer Dan Laustsen, working with Del Toro for the third time, shoots everything in a low light, and begins with an arresting image, Elisa asleep floating in water in her apartment.
Living across the hall is Elisa’s friend Giles a struggling commercial illustrator whose meticulous paintings are gradually being replaced in ads by photography. He and Elisa share a love of similarly outmoded vintage Hollywood movies, which is a good thing because their apartments are located above a classic old-school movie palace called the Orpheum. In one bound del Toro pays homage to films of old and monsters too.
For his B-movie Del Toro gives us a stereotypical villain in the unnerving Michael Shannon, who exemplifies authoritarian menace, never without his electronic cattle prod, (he calls it an “Alabama howdy-do”) used freely to keep the creature he calls “an affront” cowed and in line. His alter ego is scientist Dr. Robert Hoffstetler. As played by the protean Michael Stuhlbarg, Hoffstetler is a cold war spy who pays the price.
Once Elisa is drawn to the creature’s cries of pain we are sucked into the story, and just about able to take its two hours and a bit stretch. Del Toro creates a woman entranced by the creature and not as in old horror movies, repulsed or shocked by it. As shot by cinematographer Laustsen, the film co-ordinates light and colour to create a cohesive imagery composed of an almost infinite variety of greenish hues.
Shape of Water, is Beauty and the Beast under water, or Red Ridinghood and the Wolf with scales on, or King Kong in your swimming pool. It took home the Golden Lion at Venice – well it would. Venice has a lot of water in and around it. It has its fair share of clichés, a laundry basket used as an escape, an insider siding with outsiders, the lonely individual who breaks the habit of lifetime, and no critic has questioned why such a top secret establishment has such lazy security, but for all that and more it survives intact.
I left the cinema feeling it was not del Toro’s best, yet impressed at its attempt to show racism, fear and intolerance whether unwanted authority or refugees moved in next door. At least, that’s what I think it’s about for it is a truly weird movie.
- Star Rating: Four
- Cast: Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins
- Director: Guillermo del Toro
- Writer: Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
- Cinematographer: Dan Laustsen
- Composer: Alexandre Desplat
- Rating: 15
- Duration: 2 hours 3 minutes
- RATING CRITERIA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?