A new work by Guillermo del Toro, a screenwriter and director famous for his sophisticated fantasy/horror films and television productions, has just been released. His films, even those with comic book-like characters, are definitely adult fare. Highly inventive, often dark and tense, and with fantastical monsters, ghosts and vampires, his films are often set against a background of political authoritarianism. Del Toro grew up in Mexico, but left after the kidnapping/ransom of his father and now lives in Toronto and LA. His work reflects an earlier career in special effects. His first feature film, Cronos (1993), was a highly inventive horror film set in Mexico about the quest for eternal life that put the then-29-year-old director on the map.
Since then, del Toro has made a total of ten films. His most brilliant are both dramatic and Gothic: The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), both set in Spain during Franco’s dictatorship. Backbone got excellent reviews and Labyrinth won a number of international honors, including three Academy Awards, most notably for best foreign language film His latest, The Shape of Water, is essentially a fairy tale, but a reversal of the traditional Beauty and the Beast. It opens with a surreal scene of a furnished room filled with water, and in it, a sleeping woman, also floating, all seen from underwater. A narrator then tells us about a princess without a voice. Elisa, played by Sally Hawkins (Maudie, 2017) in the performance of a lifetime, wakes up in her inner Baltimore loft, takes a bath and gets dressed for work as a night cleaner in a secret underground government facility that is distinctly creepy. The time is 1962, the height of the Cold War, and paranoia is rampant. Although her hearing is perfect, Elisa cannot speak. Her closest friends include an older advertising artist who lives in the same building and Zelda, her fellow cleaner, played by the always wonderful Octavia Spencer, who understands Elisa’s sign language.
The lab has just been given a vaguely human, amphibian captured in the Amazon, which was clearly inspired by Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), an iconic American horror film. The creature is held, chained, in a large tank, and often subdued with an electric cattle prod. Frightened when she first sees him, Elisa soon becomes fascinated. The head of the secret lab, Strickland, played by Michael Shannon, is a menacing intelligence agent who is determined to discover the creature’s capabilities, especially any that might be useful in the Cold War. His boss is a five-star general, right out of Dr. Strangelove. Strickland comes to us more by way of a Douglas Sirk film with a perfectly coiffed wife and well mannered children, all 1950’s-attentive when he comes home from work. In what is surely an unintended comment on sexual harassment, now so very much in the news, Strickland comes on to Elisa. Part of del Toro’s genius here is to take familiar retro characters and put them into a recognizable fable, one that becomes increasingly dramatic and tense.
Del Toro tends to use the same cinematographers, Guillermo Navarro and Dan Lausten, for many of his films, so Water looks similar to his earlier horror films with the artificially lit underground lab and the many nighttime scenes, both inside and out on the streets of Baltimore. The tones are dark and increase the sense of dread. At the same time there is a pervasive dreamy quality here, including Elisa’s dance dreams. It seems clear that del Toro has used a group of disabled or marginalized people (Elisa, Zelda and Elisa’s gay artist friend) to emphasize their vulnerabilities to a straight powerful Strickland. The performances are all memorable, including Doug Jones in a fish suit. He will easily take the Golden Gill award this year. The Shape of Water is a Golden Globes nomination for best dramatic film and seems likely headed for at least an Academy nomination for best film. By all means, try to see this on the big screen.
Running time: 119 minutes. Screening at the Embarcadero, the Alamo Drafthouse and the Kabuki here in the city and at the CineArts in Palo Alto. Not yet playing in Marin and the East Bay. Ciao, Ian