Welcome back to my column; the fourth column of the New Year; I hope you enjoy it. Please let me know one way or another!
In 1954, in case you missed it, a new 3D (polarized) black-and-white movie, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, came out. It was in the “monster movie” category, so only devotees really got to see it at the time. (In fact, I didn’t get to see the 3D version until sometime around 1980 in anaglyph: red/cyan or red/green. Later, I got—and still have, though I can’t play it on an LED TV—a 3D “shutter” version for my CRT 26” TV.) It’s now available in Blu-Ray, but I’m waiting for the price to come down from its present $26 or so.
It starred Richard Carlson as Dr. Reed. Carlson was in a lot of SF movies in the 1950s. (This was around the time Forry Ackerman started agitating for the use of “Sci-Fi” instead of SF, hoping that the new “hi-fi” systems would help cement the use in the public’s collective mind. Nowadays, most non-fans can’t tell the difference between SF and fantasy, and they all fall under the general category of “sci-fi.” Forry would be so proud.) Julie Adams played Kay Lawrence, and Richard Denning—another one who was in a lot of ‘50s SF—played Dr. Williams.
The Creature (Figure 1) was supposed to be, like the coelacanth, a holdover from prehistoric times. An expedition to the Amazon, led by Dr. Reed and financed by Dr. Williams, sets out to capture the creature after a fossilized hand of one was found in a clay bank. The creature sees Kay swimming in the lagoon and appears to be captivated—the underwater scenes in 3D, with the creature (often called “The Gill-Man”) and Kay swimming in synchronization, remain among the best 3D sequences ever produced, in my opinion.
There is never any evidence that the Gill-Man is anything but a primitive aqua-hominid species, but he is clearly intelligent. After being captured and escaping, the Gill-Man takes Kay to his lair, there is a fight, and the Gill-Man is ostensibly killed. Nobody made any attempt at communication with him at all. The movie spawned several sequels, none as good as the original.
In 2004, a movie based on Mike Mignola’s comic series Hellboy was produced, with Ron Perlman as Hellboy. Another character, played by Doug Jones, was Abe Sapien, a fish-man similar to the Gill-Man, but this time an intelligent, cultured, English-speaking person (Figure 2). He wore a water-filled collar around his gills, but must have been able to use oxygen to speak somehow. Abe (still played by Jones) was in the second movie, Hellboy: The Golden Army, as well. In both movies, he was an integral part of a supernatural team that fought supernatural threats to the U.S. and the world, though it’s not clear why he was considered supernatural rather than a natural being. (As a side note, Perlman was the spittin’ image of the comic Hellboy; it’s a shame he won’t be doing any more of them, as I enjoyed the heck out of both movies and it’s a role he appears to have been born to play. The Goblin Market in Golden Army was amazing, by the way!)
In 2017, Guillermo del Toro, who’s brought us (as director) such genre movies as Mimic; Pan’s Labyrinth (that one was kind of hit-and-miss for me (though the graphics were amazing); Hellboy I & II; Crimson Peak, Pacific Rim and more, brought to the screen a terrific movie called The Shape of Water. Although some of his movies didn’t really resonate for me, which caused me to approach this one with caution, I had nothing to worry about. In my opinion, TSOW is a classic genre movie, and I hope they never devalue it by writing a sequel or rebooting it.
Briefly (trying to spoil as little as possible), the story is this: An amphibious biped (Doug Jones, who else?), who looks like a cross between Gill-Man and Abe Sapien, is discovered in the “Amazon muck,” and captured and brought to the United States in 1962, or thereabouts. It’s Cold War pre-Civil Rights America, though the first protests are beginning to attract police with firehoses and dogs; African-Americans are definitely second-class citizens—as are, to a great extent, women. It is brought, in an armoured chamber, to a secret research area in Baltimore.
Its captor is government agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), who says the creature was “worshipped as a god by natives,” but who feels it is less than human, like “gooks and Commies.” It is tended to by Dr. Hofstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who has a secret, but who feels it is both beautiful and precious, scientifically; Hofstetler would do almost anything to protect the creature.
Strickland reports to General Hoyt (Nick Searcy), who calls it an “asset,” and who wants its secrets before the Soviets get the information on how to live underwater, and who feels it’s better learn those secrets from vivisection. (In case you haven’t heard this word before, it’s the dissection of living animals while alive. The practice has fallen into disrepute.)
The facility is cleaned by two women, Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) and Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), who have a special bond. Zelda is African-American and Elisa is mute. She has three parallel scars on each side of her neck; we never learn where they came from or whether they’re related to her muteness. The two women are despised and dismissed by Strickland, who is jingoistic, sexist and racist to a degree that sounds incredible in this more enlightened age. (That last part was written in a sarcasm font; I hope it comes across when published.)
Strickland considers the new Gill-Man just an animal, and likes to torture him with a cattle prod; at one point, the Gill-Man retaliates by biting off two of Strickland’s fingers. Zelda and Elisa are brought in to clean up the blood, and Elisa finds Strickland’s fingers, which are surgically reattached. She (Elisa) begins to be curious about the Gill-Man.
Elisa lives alone in an apartment above a movie theatre; she can only get to sleep with a mask on, and every morning she bathes and relieves her loneliness by herself in the bathtub. She is friends with her next-door neighbour, Giles (Richard Jenkins), who is a freelance commercial artist, and who is losing his last customer (an ad agency). He has 3 cats, and it’s hinted at that he’s gay, another reason Elisa would bond with him, as social outcasts—and being gay in 1962 would make you one—often stick together.
The Gill-Man may be the last of his kind (like the Creature from the Black Lagoon); he is abused and alone. Elisa, though she has the two friends Zelda and Giles, is also alone and lonely—but she discovers that, over time, she and Gill-Man can communicate. He is more than an animal; he learns a certain amount of sign language, and the two develop a bond, though their bonding must, of necessity, be kept secret from everyone else. But the deadline for vivisection is looming, and General Hoyt is anxious to get the secrets wrested from the asset. Elisa determines on a secret plan to rescue Gill-Man from Strickland. And here I must stop describing the plot and the action.
But this movie is more than just a “monster movie,” as was The Creature From the Black Lagoon; this movie is about “who is a monster?” Is it Strickland, himself a creature of the society he lives in—and the job he so eagerly partakes in? Is it Hoyt, who feels that the ideals we all share in as human beings are just something to pay lip service to? Is it the Gill-Man himself, who reacts to torture by biting off Strickland’s fingers, and who instinctively lashes out with his claws when he feels threatened?
There are other characters, too—Russians who are running a spy inside the secret laboratory, and who order their own asset to kill the American asset to keep its secrets from becoming known to the Americans. (Remember that the Russians condemned a dog, Laika, to die in outer space in order to claim the first animal “spaceman.” Of course, the Americans later did the same with Ham, a chimp, if I remember correctly.)
This is probably not a movie for young people unless they are somewhat mature; it contains full-frontal female nudity and hinted-at masturbation, a certain amount of violence, and some profanity—both verbal and in sign language. (On the other hand, I’m not big on sheltering kids from life; I feel a lot of today’s societal problems stem from not letting kids make mistakes and get down in the dirt as kids.) You will have to make that determination yourself.
Love, loss, and loneliness; men and monsters. (Not to mention nudity and nictitating membranes!) This movie has a lot to offer the thoughtful SF fan; All the main characters—Strickland, Elisa, Zelda, Giles, and Dr. Hostetler, are extremely well acted. In a genre filled with too much CGI and not enough plot, this movie stands out. The plot and CGI are equally balanced (in fact, the CGI is very subtly used here). No wonder it’s been nominated for so many awards! I give this movie a considered four-plus thingamajigs. ¤¤¤¤+
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