Director – Guillermo del Toro
Cast – Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones, David Hewlett, Nick Searcy, Stewart Arnott, Nigel Bennett
Release Year – 2017
Reviewed by John of the Dead
I know we are pretty early into 2018 but The Shape of Water has been my most anticipated film of the year. Of course, it took long enough for the flick to reach theaters in my neck of the woods (it technically debuted in 2017). Going into this film I was mostly curious of one thing: how is the horror (if any) going to be. I have heard from some that this isn’t a horror film, which didn’t surprise me after seeing the direction Guillermo went with Crimson Peak. However, how could a film centered on a seemingly mythical (and dangerous) creature not fall into the horror genre? Well, after viewing this piece I can say that it falls into the genre for me. Is it devoutly horror? No. This is a romance drama with elements of horror, and these elements are so well-executed that they cannot be ignored. Once again Guillermo del Toro has graced us with his writing and directing excellence. Nominated for 13 Academy Awards, The Shape of Water is a groundbreaking genre film that I suggest to those wanting a wholesome and visually stunning experience…with good elements of horror.
Set during the early 1960s, a lonely mute janitor at a top secret research facility finds solace in the most unlikely being – an amphibious, man-like creature undergoing a cruel experimentation. Eager to free the mythical beast, she finds herself battling a brute military agent and relying on the unlikeliest of allies to accomplish this love story.
This story is obviously influenced by Guillermo’s love for the classic horror film Creature from the Black Lagoon, but he makes this his own. From the start we are enveloped into the world that is Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins; Godzilla)’s life. Since childhood she has been a mute, an because of this she has always been alone. She lives with her platonic friend Giles (Richard Jenkins), and aside from him her only other confidant is her fellow janitor Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer). She spends her days masturbating every morning and working her job overnight. I’m sure some of you can relate. It doesn’t take long for her to come across the creature, and she immediately feels empathy for the life it is not living. She too can relate to being misunderstood, but most importantly, the creature understands her life. It doesn’t judge her faults nor does it see her as anything other than herself. This is the bond she has been looking for, it just so happens to come from an amphibious creature.
Her bond with the beast is surprising, but also inspiring. Del Toro’s emphasis on fantasy in his films will come into play here, and it works. Without the fantasy element I don’t know that he would be able to sell this relationship. Their bond is authentic and Guillermo pushes the boundaries by refusing to keep things PG. This relationship contrasts well with the relationship the creature has with its handler, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). They don’t have a good relationship. Strickland’s high-end cattle prod and missing fingers will tell you so. The conflict arises from the terrible plans Strickland and the US Government have in store for the creature. This means the lowly Elisa must come up with a plan of her own to get her lover out of danger. She lacks the skill set to accomplish such a thing, but she has the drive and just the right amount of friends to at least make an attempt.
Del Toro’s direction is spectacular and is largely responsible for making the relationship between Elisa and the creature feel authentic. The story is well-written, but it needed to be brought to life in a way only Guillermo can accomplish. This character-driven experience is complimented with great performances from all involved, which lead to Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, and Octavia Spender receiving Oscar nominations. Michael Shannon is equally great, doing what I feel he does best: being a stone cold personality. The bulk of the film takes place in two locations, with the sets providing amazing atmosphere. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen achieves immense results, and he too found himself nominated for an Academy Award. At the end of the day we all want to know about the horror, right? Well the horror’s purpose isn’t typical. Del Toro isn’t trying to scare you. There are definitely some tense scenes with the creature, and people do get hurt and killed. Nonetheless, this won’t be your usual creature feature. Instead, Guillermo metamorphs the sub-genre into a love story that is heavy in passion, empathy, and good people doing what is right despite insurmountable odds.
Overall, The Shape of Water is a fantastic experience worthy of the praise it has received. You should now that the horror takes a bit of a back seat here, but you can rest assured that Guillermo del Toro delivers when the time is right.