The Shape Of Water, The Shape Of Recognition


“The Shape of Water” was named Best Picture by the Academy, a first, if you consider the film a science fiction piece. It took 90 years but the Oscars finally got around to recognizing science fiction in this category. It seems logical to conclude it is a science fiction film, it was inspired by 1954’s “The Creature From The Black Lagoon.” The Creature was dismissed by many critics but loved by fans, myself included. It’s influenced classics from “Jaws,” “Alien,” and “Predator.”

Director Guillermo Del Toro has expressed his inspiration and affection for the film on more than one occasion. A close look at “The Shape Of Water” confirms the influence of the Creature. The look of Del Toro’s character, dubbed “The Asset,” is very similar to the Creature. Del Toro’s character is less fearsome and more sympathetic but there is no mistaking the homage. Like the Creature Del Toro’s Asset hails from the Amazon and is tortured by would-be scientists. The Asset is a prisoner, just as the Creature was in the 1955 sequel, “Revenge Of The Creature.”

What drew Del Toro, and so many fans, to the Creature? To me it’s a morality tale. The Creature is living a peaceful life until a group of scientists invade his home. The Creature sees them as a threat and responds with violence. Audiences in the fifties saw the Creature as a single-minded monster but a closer look better informs his motivation. The Creature attacks or kills only men. When confronted with the lone female, the now legendary Julie Adams, the Creature shows a tender side. This may be chivalry or a variation on the beauty and the beast theme. The lead scientist, a macho Richard Denning, pumps a harpoon into the Creature at the first opportunity, over the objections of the more enlightened colleague, sci-fi stalwart Richard Carlson. In essence this is a declaration of war and it’s seen through to the inevitable, tragic conclusion. I can only speak for myself when I confess a fondness for the Creature, not unlike that for King Kong. The Creature is a misunderstood so-called monster, acting in a way that is understandable. Man is the invader, the predator, the attacker.

Director Jack Arnold created a stunning visual work, this is significant when one considers the film was shot in black and white. An early scene wherein the Creature mimics Ms. Adams swimming has been interpreted as a symbolic sexual encounter. It may be a courtship ritual, or simply curiosity on the Creature’s part. Hans Salter’s classic score infers the Creature is a menace, much like the shark in “Jaws.” Arnold utilized many underwater shots, especially in the swimming sequence that would influence Spielberg’s masterpiece.

The Creature is considered the last of the classic Universal horror monsters. That puts him in the distinguished company of Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Invisible and the Wolfman. It harkens back to a time when horror was more than a maniac in a hockey mask. The old monsters may seem hokey by today’s standards, but they hold up. How else to explain a pending remake of “The Bride Of Frankenstein” or last year’s failed reboot of “The Mummy?”

Director Jack Arnold also helmed “It Came From Outer Space (1953) and “The Incredible Shrinking Man” (1957). He would later find work directing episodes of “Gilligan’s Island,” maybe he felt at home on the lagoon set. As a director of classic 1950’s films, Arnold’s place in film history is as assured as Ms. Adams’s legendary white bathing suit.

“The Shape Of Water,” is vindication of the maligned sci-fi genre. Classics like “The Day The Earth Stood Still, “The War Of The Worlds,” “Planet Of The Apes,” “2001, A Space Odyssey” down to Star Wars and Star Trek have never been taken seriously by the Academy. Whether this is an exception or a possible new understanding remains to be seen but it’s heartening that the monster can get the girl and the award as well.

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