For Love of Monsters

Of the main Universal lineup, the creature from the Black Lagoon has been the monster least frequently re-adapted in other movies. We’ve seen plenty of variations of Dracula, to say nothing of the countless other vampire movies out there. Frankenstein gets reborn every few years, and homages to him and the Bride are commonplace. The mummy has been successfully (and unsuccessfully) remade. The wolf-man also got a remake and has a whole pack of other werewolf movies to keep him company. The gill-person has been paid far less tribute, with a few notable exceptions like Abe Sapien in the Hellboy movies.

Given that Guillermo Del Toro – an avowed fan of the Universal monsters – was the director of those two movies, it’s quite appropriate that he should give us the definitive modern take on the creature in 2017’s The Shape of Water. He may also have made the final successful reinterpretation of a Universal icon.

The basic premise of the movie is well-known: woman falls in love with a creature who is a clear take on the creature from the Black Lagoon. The slightly longer version is that a team of people on the edges of society band together to protect each other and the creature from the real monster, a walking incarnation of toxic white American masculinity. In the mid-century U.S. society, dominated as it is by company men and the nuclear (white) family, our human heroes are a woman who can’t speak, an older gay man fighting for professional relevance, a black woman relegated to janitorial work, and a Russian spy who’s too good-hearted for his field.

The lines are cleanly drawn. Good characters are clearly good, evil characters are clearly evil, and the creator’s viewpoint is never in doubt. This is not a story of tortured antiheroes or moral complexity.

Of course, one doesn’t watch a Del Toro movie for narrative ambiguity. No, one watches a Del Toro movie for two things: visual splendor and a clearly active imagination. In both of those respects, the movie is a clear success.

The creature’s design is a triumph. Del Toro’s insistence on using practical effects keeps him grounded and real in a way too many computer-generated beings aren’t. Frequent Del Toro collaborator Doug Jones brings the creature to life with his trademark ease, including a few moments of collaborative homage where Jones’s performance and Del Toro’s shooting call back to the original denizen of the Black Lagoon. (For example, the way the creature’s hand reaches out of the water and settles one finger at a time seems a direct shout-out to similar moments in the original.)

The rest of the movie is gorgeous, too, as one expects of Del Toro. Color sets tone, draws attention, and reinforces character. The camera’s attention and movement keep the audience stimulated, seeing the expected in unexpected ways or adding the fairy-tale-esque sensation common to many of the director’s more personal projects like Pan’s Labyrinth. Tributes to movies of the past exist in big and small ways, including the movie theater under our protagonist’s apartment (big), the way her apartment itself is shot (small), and the bold injection of a black-and-white song-and-dance number daydream sequence (very, very big).

In other words, The Shape of Water is in conversation with cinematic history, and the discussion spans genres and eras. This particular combination of big-R Romantic sensibility with B-movie aesthetic touches and children’s-story morality is exactly the kind of thing one expects from Del Toro.

If anything, that is the movie’s biggest weakness. We are never not aware that we are watching Del Toro play out his personal interests on the screen. For those who share his interests and delight in the way he combines them (as I do), that makes the movie a delicious treat. What it doesn’t have is the same emotional intensity as Pan’s Labyrinth, which remains Del Toro’s best work to date. For those who aren’t down with Del Toro’s genre mash-up and love notes to the silver screen, I would imagine the movie is rather less successful.

In its clear moral stance, it’s clear what this movie’s answers to the monstrous questions are. Both the man and the monster at the center of Frankenstein contain various shades of monstrosity, as do the characters around them, which raises the questions of what makes someone a monster and who the real monster is in the story. By contrast, the societal Others of The Shape of Water are largely virtuous (with occasional moments of anxiety or trepidation), whereas the villain of the piece is wholly monstrous. In other words, while the visual language of the movie is fantastic, it isn’t as satisfying a monster story simply because the questions barely even warrant being asked.

The end result is a movie that does give us an undeniably effective reinterpretation of the creature from the Black Lagoon, rendering future movies that attempt the same less likely to meet it bar. Just like the 1999 The Mummy gave us a movie so good that future mummy movies were unlikely to live up to it, The Shape of Water can be seen as closing the book on the creature from the Black Lagoon. Given that few, if any, Dracula or Frankenstein movies have matched the originals and that the werewolf story has been so effectively told in movies like An American Werewolf in London and Ginger Snaps, I would argue that 2017 marks the end of good reimaginings of the Universal icons for the foreseeable future.

Are there great monster stories yet to tell? There most certainly are! For the time being, though, I wouldn’t expect a film based on any the classic Universal monsters to be better than the movies we already have. I’ll be happy to be proved wrong, but I don’t think I will be anytime soon.

The last stop in our tour, then, will be a full-on monster mash with non-canon takes on Drac, Frankenstein, the wolf-man, the mummy, and the gill-man: 1987’s The Monster Squad.