“You may think, “That thing looks human.” Stands on two legs, right? But – we’re created in the Lord’s image. You don’t think that’s what the Lord looks like, do you?”
A couple of years ago I talked to Joe Dante about a variety of subjects. One of them was The Creature From The Black Lagoon. Dante along with several other directors like John Carpenter had once been attached to a remake of the Universal classic. I asked him why it never worked out. He told me it was the suit. We agreed that no one could ever improve upon the original design and that the temptation would be to go computer-generated and that would be a bit of a shame no matter what it looked like. Andy Serkis has changed my mind a bit over the years but along came Guillermo del Toro to restore my faith in the idea of a man in a costume, once again. del Torro is a self-avowed fan of the Universal horror films and has thrown his hat into the Creature ring in the past. Universal didn’t quite see it then. They had their own Dark Universe plans. Now I’ve had the chance to see The Mummy as part of the Dark Universe and was instantly underwhelmed. But after seeing del Torro’s The Shape Of Water I think it’s time Universal took another look at their Creature From The Black Lagoon plans. Bang it here to listen to that Joe Dante chat: Joe Dante Interview.
It’s the height of The Cold War and Elisa (Hawkins) is a mute, lonely woman who works as a cleaning lady at a secret government installation that has just received it’s latest “asset” for study. Elisa and her friend and co-worker Zelda (Spencer) are shocked and frightened when the project’s security head, Richard Strickland (Shannon) rushes from the secure lab bloody and missing a couple of fingers. They are rushed into the lab to clean up and Elisa endears herself somewhat to Strickland when she finds his fingers during the clean-up. But the real connection she makes is with the “asset” himself. It’s an aquatic creature found in the Amazon and brought here to study under fears the Soviets want to get their hands on him for their own studies. Elisa feels empathy for the creature almost instantly. She ends up bringing her lunch to the lab on a regular basis and shares eggs with him all the while teaching him sign language. All of this, of course happens without Strickland noticing until Elisa and Zelda conspire to rescue the creature who is now scheduled for dissection. With the help of a scientist with a conscience Dr. Hoffstetler (Stuhlbarg) they manage to sneak the creature out.
The film takes place in the past but it also takes place in a bit of a different world. del Torro washes the film with deeply saturated colors that add to the fairy tale element of the piece. There’s always this sense of once upon a time throughout the film. There are obvious elements of Beauty And The Beast in the dynamic between the two. It’s also a very quiet film. The relationship between Elisa and the creature plays out in sign language and wonderfully nuanced facial and body expressions. The real magic is the incredible chemistry played out between them in almost complete silence. The score contains equally magical tones and melodies that add a bit more to the emotional center that is this relationship. It’s easy to get carried away in this world.
The cast is quite brilliant. Elisa has a neighbor who is a commercial artist. Richard Jenkins is rather compelling as an elderly man who is very much a child in the presence of Elisa. She cares for him and makes sure he eats and takes care of himself. It’s a nicely played symbiotic relationship. While he depends on her she is starved for attention and needs someone to take care of. So there is a nice chemistry going on from the beginning of the film between Sally Hawkins and Richard Jenkins. He ends up drawn into the rescue operation and the guardian angel for Elisa and the creature. Of course, there’s Michael Shannon who has shown himself to be quite a talented actor. This performance harkens back to his role of a neurotic Federal Agent. We see those jarring violent outbursts that appear so normal for this character. I can easily see these guys as the same character. He’s under fire to get the creature back and is so self-important that he can’t really see a mute cleaning lady as the culprit. It certainly has to be a foreign strike team.
The suit design is something special. It’s an original design that certainly draws its inspiration from the Universal Creature. Doug Jones is the man inside the suit. He’s made quite a career out of bringing these elaborate suits to life. del Torro has used him often, most notably as Abe Sapien. Jones works a lot and this kind of performance is why he does. It’s got to be hard to make such an emotional creature out of a suit, but he does it to the point that you easily forget that it’s a suit and accept the creation as a character with feelings and motivations. In a way del Torro and Jones get you to actually feel what Elisa feels for the creature.
del Torro has tried the big budget anchor films and they tend to not be his best work. This is an example of what he truly does well. This fairy tale kind of story and world plays right into his own abilities and style. I love the Cold War 1960’s atmosphere which is just a little bit “off”. Just enough to take us out of a real world. del Torro’s film creates wonderful little nuances to color that world even more into a special kind of fantastic place. Eloise lives above a theatre that shows movies 24 hours to nearly empty rooms. There’s a chocolate factory on fire just down the street. del Torro is a product of that early film and television era and he uses these screens to accent the story he’s telling. Pay attention to the television and film screens inside this movie and you’ll be treated to a world just that much more fantastic. There are elements like a pie shop that artist Giles keeps visiting to make an impression on a worker there even though the pies are horrible. The film is loaded with these kinds of quirky moments and characters that you find yourself paying attention to every bit of it.
Yes, at it’s heart this rather dark fairy tale is a story of love and self-discovery. The relationship between the two gets rather a bit too graphic for me, at times. There is also a look inside of Elisa’s mind that recalls the old MGM musicals that was over-the-top, in my opinion. It’s when the film stays on course with these odd circumstances that it approaches complete genius. del Torro has tried the mainstream thing and it’s not the place where he can tell the kind of story only he can tell. He tells dark fables. “We can’t ask him to be anything else.”