The Referential Brilliance of 'The Shape of Water'

Shape Of Water

A comprehensive guide to Guillermo del Toro’s unique cinematic influences.

Newly minted Best Director Guillermo del Toro has always worn his inspirations on his sleeve. Whether it’s Hammer horror films or the work of Akira Kurosawa, del Toro has been vocal about the influences that have helped him craft his own fantastical and transportive features. The Shape of Water, which also just took home the Oscar for Best Picture, is perhaps his most explicitly referential film to date, an ode to the magic of cinema and a reimagining of classic genre conventions.

In The Shape of Water, del Toro’s myriad influences culminate in a singular tale about otherness, oppression, and the radical power of understanding. When the filmmaker was a child, he saw Creature from the Black Lagoon and admired it as a love story. In The Shape of Water, he reimagines the monster horror genre by giving the film’s amphibious creature a romantic happy ending, rather than a death sentence.

The film’s conceit — human woman falls for fish man — is also modeled after the familiar tale of Beauty and the Beast. But in the character of Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), del Toro seeks to create a new kind of fairytale princess whom we as an audience can relate to and feel for, rather than simply admire for her superficial traits.

Beyond its evocative plot, The Shape of Water also sprinkles in subtler references that could easily escape viewers’ recognition. Throughout the film, sequences from Golden Age musicals like The Little ColonelConey Island, and The Night in Rio are filtered through Richard Jenkins’s character’s television set. Visually, del Toro also alludes to Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes with the cathedral-style window in Elisa’s apartment and employs striking color palettes like that of director Douglas Sirk

Elisa’s daydream sequence is modeled after the enchanting numbers of dancing duo Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and much of the film’s camerawork was inspired by Singin’ in the Rain director Stanley Donen. By packing The Shape of Water full of cinematic allusions and homages, del Toro communicates his own love for cinema as well as Elisa’s, and hails its timelessly transportive and communicative power.

In the below video essay, ScreenPrism unpacks the many influences that permeate The Shape of Water, from movie musicals to Biblical epics. See how many of the references you caught while watching the movie.

Writer, college student, television connoisseur.