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The Shape of Monsters? March 11, 2018

Posted by guestposter in Uncategorized.

Thanks to Joe Mooney for this very welcome post.



I’m never too interested in the Academy Awards, but I was glad to see the success of “The Shape of Water” and particularly for its director Guillermo del Toro . He has consistently been an interesting director (and writer) and has been responsible for a number of really interesting movies in his career. I saw his first movie “Cronos” in 1993 at a Dublin Film Festival, and have seen most of his cinematic output since. He was the natural choice for the two movie adaptations of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comic book character, a perfect blend of the supernatural, mythology, a Lovecraftian cosmic threat and real world evils. His 2015 “Crimson Peak” was a fine Victorian penny dreadful style yarn with the visual flair of Mario Bava and Roger Corman.

“The Shape of Water” was nominated for 13 Oscars and scooped four, including Best Picture and Best Director. It has been described as a boy meets girl love story / monster movie, and tells the story of a relationship which develops between a cleaner and an amphibious humanoid being held in captivity at a research facility during the Cold War era. For the director it is probably something of a dream come true – for just as Peter Jackson relived his boyhood thrill of a favoured movie so too would Guillermo del Toro. However, while Jackson would essentially remake King Kong, del Toro has reimagined “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” , altered his fate and righted a cinematic wrong that stood for over sixty years.

The 1954 movie came as a late entry in the legendary ‘Universal Monsters’ series of movies. Having had massive success with a number of classic franchises – Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolfman, Mummy etc the studio were looking for new ‘monsters’ and thus the ‘Gillman’ was born. The story follows a team of scientists into the Amazon on an expedition to capture a legendary amphibious humanoid creature they believe to be a prehistoric ‘missing link’. The poor creature is minding it’s own business at home in the Black Lagoon when the team show up and dynamite his environment, shoot at him repeatedly with spear guns and poison the water and ultimately leave the creature for dead. Scientific imperialism at its worst. The movie also plays up the most primordial of human fears –“They’re after our women”, as the creature takes a shine to the hot, curvy wife of one of the scientists. SPOILER ALERT – this was 1954, so the monster definitely does NOT get the girl, and we are spared the logical conclusion of such inter-species romance. The movie ends with an ambiguous scene, as the creature sinks to the bottom of the Lagoon, possibly dead but maybe not … depending on box office returns and the demand for a sequel.

There were in fact two sequels- “Revenge of the Creature” (1955) and “The Creature walks among us” (1956). Neither is as effective as the original. The second sequel is interesting however as it obviously resonated with del Toro and is echoed in “The shape of water”. The creature does indeed ‘walk among us’, as he now has been captured and is held in a scientific facility in Florida. He is experimented on, and the real villain of the piece is a human who attempts to frame the poor Gill-man by throwing a murdered man’s body into his enclosure. No more sequels were forthcoming, and the last we see of the creature is the sight of him walking off into the sea.

In the initial movie at least the creature is really effectively portrayed. Its design was based on 17th century nautical woodcuts, the rubber costume is realistically designed and the underwater sequences were shot with a professional swimmer in the suit, with the movement well portrayed. Its physical appearance and movement would be a major influence on the Amphibian in Guillermos movie.

When I saw the initial trailer for “The Shape of Water” I at first thought it was a spin-off from the Hellboy movies. One of the supporting characters in these was the amphibious Abe Sapian (also portrayed by Doug Jones), and the similarities are not coincidental. These two illustrations from the Mike Mignola comic book show not only the physical similarities but also share some of the themes expressed by del Toro.

During his career, Guillermo del Toro also very notably wrote and directed two movies set against the background of the Spanish Civil War and the fascist Francoist regime:

“The Devil’s Backbone” (2001) is set in an orphanage where evacuated Republican children have been sent for safety away from the war. As the victory of the fascist forces becomes inevitable, there are other dangers present – an unexploded fascist bomb is lodged in the yard (a relic of a Nazi air raid) and the ghost of a young boy wanders the corridor. Very well made and atmospheric, the movies tag-line states “The living will always be more dangerous than the dead”.

“Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006) is set in 1944, where following the Falangist victory Spain is living under a dictatorship. More of fantasy movie than horror, the story see’s a young girl discover a secret realm populated with bizarre and sometimes grotesque creatures, and through her actions they start to cross over into the real world. The political message is very clear, as the real villain of the story is her father, a Spanish fascist officer, who despite the horrific creatures she encounters HE is the real monster.


In a 2006 interview conducted with Mark Kermode at the British Film Institute (BFI) in London, del Toro outlined his thoughts on the two movies and their setting:


“Devil’s Backbone was a movie that tried to create a microcosm of the Spanish civil war…I tried to use an orphanage as the classic haunted building of gothic romance and use the ghost story to prove the same thing that I wanted to prove in Pan’s Labyrinth, that is the only real monsters are human. And the only thing you have to be afraid of is people, not creatures, not ghosts.”

The Mexican born director also offered a very clear and sharp analysis of the isolation of Spanish Republicans in the years after the Francoist victory, ironically abandoned by other Nations as Europe was engulfed in a War nominally against Fascism:

“It was a moment when Spain was alone, completely alone in 1939. Because everybody else was trying not to upset the balance in Europe, tiptoeing around Hitler. So the republicans were alone. Mexico offered help and offered to receive emigrants from Spain and sent weapons and ships and things. After tiptoeing so much around Hitler, the civil war ended in 1939 and six months later Hitler invaded Poland. 1944 was important because once again the resistance in Spain was fighting on the side of the allies to ensure that the outcome of the Second World War would not be in Hitler’s favour. They sabotaged the tungsten mines in Galicia in the north of Spain, the main source of material for the building of panzer tanks in Germany. So they were sabotaging these and fighting in France in hopes that after Normandy the allies would turn their gaze upon them and take down Franco. That never happened.”


Last year I had the privilege of visiting the Morette Graveyard in the French Alps, which contains the remains of 105 members of the World War Two Resistance movement. They all died in 1944 fighting Nazi and collaborationist forces. The graveyard was created when 18 Resistance members were killed and against German wishes to dump them in a mass grave, the local Mayor insisted they receive a proper burial. In the months that followed other Resistance fighters who died in the region were brought here for burial. Amongst the fallen heroes resting here are a number of Spanish Republicans who fought and died alongside their French Anti- Fascist comrades.

Their sacrifice was not in vain, as later that year this was the first region to be freed of Nazi rule by French Forces, two weeks before Allied troops could reach the area .However, the hope of many that Allied forces would continue their anti-fascist campaign and roll on into Spain was never on the agenda.


Apparently these two movies were designed to be part of a trilogy which would use the Spanish Civil War as the back-drop, but so far the concluding entry has not emerged. However, A recent project that the writer / director was attached to sounded promising, but apparently has now been shelved. Pinocchio was an Italian novel first published in the 1880’s, and of course most would be familiar with the Disney version, but can you imagine a version directed by del Toro, set in Italy during the rise of Fascism there? It now appears that this stop-motion animation adaptation is not going ahead, disappointing news as the potential product could have been fascinating, and according to del Toro   “the idea was to do Pinocchio during the ascension of fascism in Italy, with Mussolini. It was a good time to discuss the idea of being a puppet or being a human”.

This dark version of a children’s classic is unfortunately the latest ‘dream project’ planned by the writer / director that never materialised. He had previously discussed an adaption of HP Lovecrafts “At the Mountains of Madness” but this too is now unlikely to materialise. If anyone could get that vision of cosmic horror successfully onto the big screen it is him.

Among the upcoming projects his name is attached to is a remake of the rarely seen 1947 crime/horror hybrid “Nightmare Alley”. The original starred Tyrone Power as a hustler in a travelling carnival, pulling con jobs, seducing women and gradually descending into a world of murder and gruesome horror. The carny setting and a cast of grotesque characters along with a plot driven by human greed and evil will provide fertile ground for the director’s unique vision to emerge.


Guillermo del Toro is a visionary director and hugely imaginative writer. He has remained true to his roots in the realm of the fantastic, often a drawback to a long term career. While I ultimately have little regard for the Hollywood awards industry, I am glad to see a ‘genre’ director receiving such recognition.


Two final images, a poster and blu-ray cover by comic book creators Mike Mignola and Guy Davis, both associated with Hellboy and the Abe Sapian character .





1. dublinstreams - March 11, 2018

but did you believe the love story Joe?


Joe Mooney - March 11, 2018

You know Dublin … I’ve seen better beauties with more brutal beasts so I can believe anything !


dublinstreams - March 11, 2018

but do you understand why they are together? there wasn’t enough time given to the love or lust story. BIt wierd to rescue somebody from prison and torture and then have sex with them.


EWI - March 12, 2018

BIt wierd to rescue somebody from prison and torture and then have sex with them.

I’m wondering where the implicit comma is in that sentence(!).


2. GW - March 12, 2018

That’s a great review Joe of a film I thoroughly enjoyed. I was certainly far more engaged by it than by Three Billboards, for example.

In a quiet way it was a politically radical film, and I must look out the first of his Spanish Civil War trilogy.

The other great transhumanist (in a different way) love story of the last comple of years is Ildikó Enyedi’s On Body and Soul. And the only love story I know set in a slaughter house. Highly recommended.


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