Review – Creature Comforts (“The Shape Of Water”)

Writer/director Guillermo del Toro remembers watching the classic Universal monster movie, The Creature From The Black Lagoon and wondered why that creature never got the girl. Oh sure, he terrorized her and took her away for God knows what, but they never had a relationship. Well, here’s his take on that scenario.

It’s 1962 and Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is about to go her to dull, uninteresting graveyard shift job as a janitor at the Occam Aerospace Research Center in Maryland. She’s mousy, a mute, and lives alone above a practically vacant movie theater. Her only friends are her next-door neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), a brilliant commercial graphic artist, but a lonely gay man, and Elisa’s friendly and chatty co-worker, Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer). Life is just a boring day-in, day-out repetition for Elisa. . .until one day the institute brings in something very odd for studying. An amphibious gill-man creature caught in South America (played by Doug Jones).

The creature’s ‘handler’ and the man in charge is Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), a thoroughly despicable dick with a penchant for eating rock candy and masochistic hatred for the creature. After an accident in the lab, Elisa stumbles upon the creature (I’ll call him “Gill”) and feeds him, striking up a friendship with him with daily food rations and music. Noticing this unusual behavior from the shadows is chief research scientist, Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is also a secret ally of Gill. . . and a secret undercover Russian agent as well.

As the weeks go by, Elisa teaches Gill sign language and the two begin to trust each other, but all good things have to end. Enter the soulless General Hoyt (Nick Searcy) who demands that Gill be killed and then autopsied for study! Uh-oh! With no time to loose, an elaborate scheme is hatched to get Gill out of the institute and into the bathtub of Elisa’s small apartment. Even after all that, Elisa plans to get Gill back to the ocean and freedom has problems: Elisa has fallen in love with Gill and it looks like the scaly monster has done the same.

Meanwhile, General Hoyt wants that creature back NOW, Strickland has gone ballistic in his fervor to find the escaped Gill, Dr. Hoffstetler is having difficulty with his Russian comrades, and Giles has noticed something weird going on with his hair. It all boils down to a dramatic, if surreal conclusion that is pure fantasy. Shot almost like a 60’s movie (except for all the gratuitous nudity, sex, F-bombs, and violence) director Guillermo delToro, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Vanessa Taylor, utilizes a unique color pallet to show the intensity or beauty of each scene. Red for danger, blue for love, you get the idea.

The extraordinary parts of this movie isn’t so much the remarkable talent and searing performances by Shannon, Hawkins, Jenkins, and Stuhlbarg, but actor Doug Jones who wears that incredible gill-man creature bodysuit, looking alot like Abe Sabien’s cousin from the Hellboy movies. Jones has made a career playing monsters and aliens that it’s a wonder what he really looks like! I must say it’s a good thing that the color, lighting, and exceptional performances are all dazzling, because that script’s simple story just meanders around and slows down to a crawl, while delToro explores the characters.

This is all very well and good, but not when the plot suffers for it. Look at del Toro’s Hellboy 2: The Golden Army where the plot zipped along while still introducing and explaining different characters. I’m guessing he was going for a more artistic look this time around, rather than his usual full-on sci-fi/fantasy world. This is one of those beautiful-to-look-at, but not-much-to-chew-on-afterwards movies. Don’t get me wrong, del Toro has made a fine movie here, I just needed a little more meat with my potatoes.

 
The Creature Walks Among Us (1956)
*
*

It’s odd that, in Universal’s Classic Movie Monster Universe (Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolfman, etc), that The Creature from the Black Lagoon never got a remake, reboot, or a reimagining! What’s up with that?

In part three of the trilogy, the Creature (or Gill-man, as he’s called) is about to face some harsh times. Wealthy mad scientist and wife-abuser Dr. William Barton (Jeff Morrow) is on a mission: capture the elusive Creature and subject him to a diabolical experiment. His wife, Marsha (Leigh Snowden) hates him, his friend, Dr. Thomas Morgan (Rex Reason) thinks he’s deranged (but brilliant), and horn-dog Jed Grant (Gregg Palmer), the first mate aboard the floating luxury yacht & make-shift hospital, has the hots for Marsha.

After getting some blood samples of Gill (I’m gonna call the creature Gill–sounds better), Dr. Barton is convinced he can alter nature by transforming the sea creature into a humanoid. Well, they don’t have long to wait as, on their second outing, Gill attacks and is badly burned in the process. Taking him aboard the yacht, they discover Gill has a sort of lung system and is breathing on his own. This, plus all the fire burned away his scales and now he looks more human. Excited that he’s cracked the evolutionary ceiling, Dr. Barton ships the poor creature from Florida to California and to an outside cage.

But just as Gill is settling in and losing his thirst for blood, things go bad. Dr. Barton, in a jealous rage, kills Jed and attempts to pin the death on Gill. Gill, however, really doesn’t like being a scapegoat, and goes after Dr. Barton with all the fury of the Hulk. He does show mercy to Marsha and Dr. Morgan, the only two that showed him kindness. After giving Dr. Barton his just desserts, Gill walks away to the sea and to his certain death.

Arthur Ross wrote this dull screenplay, even though he penned the comedy masterpiece, The Great Race. The story is simplistic and trite and never really gives any one-two punch, like the previous horror pictures Universal was renowned for. For a monster as formidable as the Creature, his ‘transformation’ and death at the end was a tragic let-down. As for John Sherwood, this was only his fourth movie as director (his forte was assisting directing), and he did a passable job, given the source material.

The REAL credit goes to Ricou Browning who, for three films, swam in that ridiculously tight rubber monster suit underwater and risked his life to make a monster movie. It’s funny but, as I said, no one ever remade or rebooted this movie, but that doesn’t mean no one tried.

There have been no less than NINE attempts to remake The Creature from the Black Lagoon, like in 1982 with John Landis (Blues Brothers), John Carpenter (Halloween) in 1992, Peter Jackson (LOTR) in 1995, and even Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters) in 1996. Guillermo delToro took a crack at it in 2002, but decided to make his own version with The Shape of Water in 2017 (see above review).

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