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.

Crossing the Threshold

The last of the popularly recognizable Universal monsters, the titular Creature from the Black Lagoon swims across the threshold between two eras separated by one of the most transformative inventions of humankind. While the rest of the Universal crew have their roots in literature and folklore, mostly from Victorian Britain, the amphibian is simultaneously yet another version of the exotic Other and an avatar of Atomic Age cinema. For as much as the creature is associated with the rest of the Universal pantheon (or panmonstron?), its literary roots are closer to the pulp fiction of the ‘20s and ‘30s than Victoriana, and its countenance is at least as similar to the B-movie monsters of the ‘50s and ‘60s as it is to anything portrayed by Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester, or Lon Chaney, Jr. in the ‘30s or ‘40s.

The plot is straightforward enough: a group of scientists, aided by a boat crewed by locals, heads to the Black Lagoon in Brazil in search of any fossils or other finds that match up with an amphibious claw found not far away, only to be tormented by a living example of the species. The body count rises, the creature covets and eventually kidnaps the one woman in the group, and the surviving men must confront the creature and find a way to escape. Along the way, we’re treated to a visually fantastic movie, featuring lots of underwater work and some – to continue deploying a word I’ve already overused – iconic monster design.

Like The Mummy or The Wolf Man, this movie can’t be traced back to a pre-existing story. However, the Victorian era did feature mummy stories and werewolf tales that could serve as inspirations for their respective movies. Very little in that era would lend itself to an archaic, bipedal fish-thing in the neighborhood of the Amazon, although the theme of explorers finding more than they expected certainly has parallels in the works of Jules Verne, among others.

Verne’s stories would be followed by the pulp tales of Lester Dent, Walter Gibson, and others, who gave us Doc Savage, the Shadow, the Avenger, the Spider, and other adventurers. The mysterious Amazon, and of Central and South America generally, provided a frequent source of material. Creature from the Black Lagoon would fit comfortably into this storytelling tradition, moreso than the Gothic and romantic moods of its predecessors at Universal.

In addition, the U.S.A.’s use of two atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending World War II and ushering in the Cold War, would end up influencing film across the world for decades. While Japan would give us Godzilla and the rest of the mega-monster kaiju, American theaters would be treated to a seemingly endless succession of nuclear-generated monsters. Some of these would be humanoid – see The Beast of Yucca Flats and any number of similar creatures portrayed by the likes of Tor Johnson – and others, like the giant ants of Them!, decidedly less so. As the Atomic Age grew to incorporate the Space Age, alien visitors from other worlds would join the party.

The rubber-suited variations from these movies share an aesthetic heritage with the amphibian, who debuted roughly nine years after the bombing of Hiroshima. The image of a humanoid monster holding a woman while a rugged hero-type strives to save her is an archetype of the era, and one which Creature from the Black Lagoon enacts as well as the best of them. The only thing setting the amphibian apart from the rest of the ‘50s B-crew is their origin as a Devonian leftover rather than a mutated byproduct of fission.

In this, the creature is more like Dracula or Imhotep, a woman-craving Other from somewhere outside western Europe. Whether eastern Europe, Egypt, or South America, one common idea across these movies is the threat outsiders pose to white, English-speaking women. Unlike any of the other Universal Six, however, the amphibian has no apparent human heritage. Its existence is not the product of a curse or mad science. Instead, it is something older than humanity, something which has been lurking in the dark wilderness.

And still, like the best of the monsters, there is something sympathetic about the amphibian. It did not ask to be disturbed, nor does it understand what rules it is trespassing when it first engages with humanity. Once humans as a group are revealed to be a threat, the creature does what it thinks is necessary to defend itself, while also showing discernment in its treatment of the interlopers. Its fascination with Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams) produces tenderness, while the toxic Mark Williams (Richard Denning) earns its wrath. One can see parallels between Frankenstein’s creation, especially in the first movie, and the amphibian.

(A note: Throughout this post, I am referring to the eponymous creature as “the amphibian” rather than the more common “gill-man.” While the creators likely intended the creature to be read as male and its feelings toward Kay as romantic or sexual, nothing in the movie demands such a reading. As such, I find an interesting exercise in imagining additional variations on the story where the creature is female or of an entirely different sex or gender and/or where its/her/his interest in Kay is platonic. Those interested in a strictly male romantic/sexual reading are invited to return in a few days for the post on The Shape of Water.)

One other narrative hallmark of most Universal monster movies to which this movie falls prey is the reductionist treatment of non-western Europeans and the working class, as the boat’s local crew are for the most part ill-served by the story and their largely one-note depictions. One can see variations on this all the way back to the played-for-laughs working class characters of Dracula, the peasantry of Frankenstein and Bride, and of course most Egyptian, Middle Eastern, and African characters in The Mummy and Roma characters in The Wolf Man.

At the end of our tour of the major Universal monsters, this is also a good time to dwell on the advances in movie-making between Dracula and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Fewer than 25 year separate a movie that was still learning how to take advantage of sound (even to the point of wariness about the use of music) from a movie originally released in 3-D with extensive use of music, practical effects, and underwater photography. Whatever common or problematic narrative patterns the movie might fall back on, it remains a tour de force of innovative production.

Thus do we conclude an exploration of the main canon of Universal monster movies. There are certainly other, less well-recognized films and derivative sequels in the mix, many of which are worthy of revisiting in their own rights. They, however, are out of scope for this project.

Our final pairing will be, as already mentioned, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. Before Halloween, I’ll also tackle at least one monster mash-up movie in The Monster Squad. I may also try to sneak in another Penny Dreadful recap or two, as well as a reflection on some less successful mash-up movies like LXG: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Van Helsing. Tell then, just keep swimming monster fans!