Welcome Back Guillermo
As Guillermo Del Toro’s take on Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954) finally emerges its scaly head from a dark whirlpool of what-if’s and could-have-beens, have a look at Del Toro’s unrealized projects page on Wikipedia. Don’t you feel lucky that we got him writing and directing The Shape Of Water and not some of the tens of unsuitable franchises or unnecessary reimaginings that seem to follow him wherever he goes? I know I do.
Like an indecisive friend at a costume party, I never knew what form the next appearance of Del Toro would take. Divisive at even the best of times, GDT’s work of late hasn’t impressed me much. For all the clanking robots and neon madness of Pacific Rim, it felt childish and ultimately pointless, a waste of my time and his talent. For all the lavish sets and vivid colours of Crimson Peak, it was a drab, dull experience, jarringly unenjoyable in spite of all the technicolour ghost story promise.
I feared the worst. I honestly feared he had gone the way of Tim Burton. Overindulgent, over-stylised pap that will sell a few Pop Vinyl toys from films unlikely to ever become classics, a long shout from his stylish, vivid earlier work. Think of darkly colourful and unique moments like The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy. He even made Blade 2 a far better film than Wesley Snipes: Vampire Hunter ever deserved and championed the much-loved Ron Perlman in the process.
So comes The Shape Of Water. As a movie fan, 13 Oscar nominations? Wow, that’s good. As a monster movie fan? WOW! This is the monster movie we really needed. Much has been said of how impressive this movie is, and probably far more eloquently than I ever will, now it bobs around happily in the spotlight of the Academy Awards.
More than Just a Monster Movie
Of course, it deserves better than the term ‘monster movie’, I’ll admit that – it is made with such an affection for the Creature that the original sequels weren’t (The Creature Walks Among Us and Revenge of the Creature, like many Universal sequels, were pretty guff and did little to help the integrity of what was a fairly corny franchise, to begin with), The Shape Of Water has elements of horror, romance and intrigue mixed delicately like watercolours.
With the flood of Del Toro’s occasionally overwhelming visual style and fantastical elements dialled back to create a gentle trickle of reticence, The Shape Of Water somehow manages to simultaneously float gently beside the beloved classic Universal monsters and among the revered Oscar bait. Beautiful, gentle, sensual, touching – all those pleasant words serve to describe The Shape Of Water. This is more than just a monster movie; it is the sort of well-told fairytale that cinema was made for.
A tale of a lonely woman, who enjoys eggs and bath time, finds a kindred spirit and begins to somehow fall in love with a fish-man (a lovable, unconventionally handsome leading-fish-man, to give the creature designers their due), and it just works so well, in spite of the slightly strange concept. Love is not loving which alters when alteration finds, as Shakespeare said, and none truer when even a hunky merman gets your heart beating and pulse racing. Such a weird place for such a sweet love story, but hey, like many cases when true love works, it just works.
From the dreamlike underwater opening, it just feels like so many right choices were made. Del Toro’s vision, for not being so overblown as sometimes his movies can be, gently washes over us like waves at a shoreline. The plot is simple, and some may even say it’s a little bit predictable. Familiar story beats, an admittedly saccharine vibe and the classic “Free Willy” storyline mightn’t exactly be groundbreaking or edgy, though maybe some cinema-goers just want a decent film that fills a couple of hours nicely and pushes the right emotional buttons while we’re there. It’s not too much to ask. Bit of excitement, bit of romance, bit of nostalgia. Lovely.
The Princess Without Voice
Del Toro’s vintage-retro style lends itself well to the 1962 setting – between Eliza (Sally Hawkins) and Giles’ (Richard Jenkins) warm, comforting love for classic cinema, and the chilly and looming future-fear of the Cold War. In his own almost-absurdist way, Del Toro takes the time period of the movie to make a simple, effective point about how important it is to simply be a decent human being, regardless of the situation.
As he says himself, “if I say once upon a time in 1962, it becomes a fairy tale for troubled times. People can lower their guard a little bit more and listen to the story and listen to the characters and talk about the issues, rather than the circumstances of the issues.”I also liked that we aren’t dragged out of the fairytale by big Hollywood names or notions – there seems to be an inherent sense of trust that Del Toro knows what he’s doing, and the lack of any jarring “this feels like studio interference” moments shows this. Plus, Del Toro has this knack for taking lesser-known “that guy” character actors and showcasing their often overlooked talents.
The perfectly cast Hawkins is humble and lovable as always in her role as the mute Eliza, an endearing and believable, if unconventional leading lady, while the Del Toro regular Doug Jones plays the part of the Amphibian Man perfectly – he was, of course, probably best known as the strangely similar, egg-eating, ichthyo–sapien Abe in Hellboy.
The Lanky Mime who Never Fails to Impress
That said, there is rarely an occasion when the lanky, mime trained Jones doesn’t impress. Uniquely built and eager to suffer silently under makeup and prosthetics for his art (this was, according to Jones, a comparatively ‘easy’ appliance that took ‘just under 3 hours’), and in ways, to me he harkens back to Lon Chaney or even Boris Karloff, and I do hope this is his breakthrough, much like with Karloff in Frankenstein (1931).
I’d like to think, maybe off the strength of this, Guillermo can finally cast Jones as the monster in his long rumoured take on Frankenstein (and what a year it would be to announce that!)… I mean, I know who I’d much rather see tackle our beloved pantheon of monsters going forward. Grisly as the Universal Monster pantheon could be – robbing graves, vampire bats, werewolf attacks, arms torn out by the root – they had a strange, ethereal beauty to them, all mist and solid black shadows.
The slightly washed out colour palette, though not his intended black and white, helps The Shape Of Water maintain a feel of classic movie beauty. The Amphibian Man is such a beautiful creature, and when the bioluminescence kicked in, I was awe-struck. This is one gorgeous looking movie.
A Film About The Beauty of Monsters and the Monstrosity of Men
It’s not all plain sailing though – there are a few particularly grisly moments played entirely straight, and the main antagonist Strickland is perfectly cast with the saturnine Michael Shannon taking a role that was presumably written as “THIS IS FOR MICHAEL SHANNON”. (NB: Turns out, I was correct – both Hawkins and Shannon were GDT’s first and only choices).
That man is an acting treasure. Like the legendary Christopher Lee or the ubiquitous Christopher Walken, I feel you can literally slot Shannon into any film, even as a cameo or small role, and it will improve it. That craggy face and quiet intensity haunt the show with a classy menace that has become his established style – the man can even make crunching boiled sweets scary.
And though our motley crew of heroes are seen as outcasts in their time – Eliza is disabled, Giles is gay and her best friend and reluctant cohort Zelda (Octavia Spencer) is black – it is the upstanding, by-the-book Strickland who is clearly twisted and unhappy, unsatisfied with his lot in life, despite all he apparently has going for him – wife, kids, teal Cadillac, good job. His bigoted and arrogant worldview is painted none too subtly, and, cliched to all hell as it may be, he is in fact “the real monster of the piece”, and plays it with relish.
He vehemently hates “The Asset” for a multitude of reasons, and it is this consuming hatred and spite that leads to a rotten outcome. Admittedly, Del Toro at times paints his political and social agendas unsubtly with thick strokes, and it shows. The more cynical may roll their eyes and scoff at the affection for The Shape Of Water, but well, let them, the miserable sods. There’s an honest, adult reverence for love, joy and wonder in this movie, and that’s never a bad thing.
Overall, The Shape Of Water is one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time, worthy of the many accolades it has earned so far. Sure it’s soppy, and sure it is a bit of a daft concept, yet it feels relatable and heartwarming. A more adult-oriented story than any of Del Toro’s previous work, this one focuses less on the fears of childhood and growing up, and more upon the fears of adulthood and growing old, or worse still, growing old alone.
This is one to sit down on a rainy evening and get comfy too, like cinematic comfort food. In a year when we were somehow expected to digest Tom Cruise in The Mummy, all gnashing teeth and CGI lunacy, this is just the uncomplicated palette cleanser many monster movie fans wanted that radiates a love for the genre, a love for romance, and overall, a love for great cinema.