The return of Gill-Man, and why fantasy is the political genre we need and deserve right now.
Late last month, Guillermo del Toro unveiled his Cold War fairy tale The Shape of Water at the Venice Film Festival. It was, by all accounts, “one of the most emotional festival debuts in recent memory.” After receiving equally glowing praise at Telluride this weekend, Shape currently boasts a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes and is being heralded as del Toro’s masterpiece—a genre-defying B-movie that is also, somehow, an homage to old Hollywood and “a shimmeringly earnest and boundlessly beautiful melodrama.” It’s a film that is, in del Toro’s words, “in love with love, and in love with cinema.”
Shape sees Eliza (Sally Hawkins), a mute cleaning lady at a government research facility, forge an unlikely bond with a captive aquatic humanoid, portrayed with supreme elegance by the “dazzlingly prostheticized” mime god Doug Jones. This is familiar territory for Jones, who played the amphibious Abe Sapien in both del Toro’s Hellboy and its sequel. In addition to an aesthetic resemblance and a shared love of egg-eating and vinyl records, both creatures are, Jones explains, “the last of [their] species…natural [anomolies]”; supremely sensitive, intelligent, and alone.
It’s a similarity that points less to Shape being a secret Hellboy prequel than to del Toro’s wholehearted adoration of film, monstrosities, and the tender point at which they intersect; to stories where freakishness and love are delicately, often tragically, intertwined—to Creature from the Black Lagoon.
John Landis (in attendance and in tears at Shape’s Venice premiere) once interviewed del Toro for his tome ‘Monsters in the Movies.’ When asked who his favorite monsters were growing up, del Toro replied: “Frankenstein’s creature—the Boris Karloff version—The Gill-Man, and the monster in Alien.”
“In fact,” clarified del Toro, “these are still my favorite monsters.”
While touring del Toro’s personal curiosity cabinet, Variety’s Peter Debruge remarked that Shape—“an amphibian-man romance with a human”—marks the culmination of a lifelong dream for the director. Like so many before him, del Toro’s name has been gingerly, if persistently attached to a Black Lagoon remake. But for whatever reason, “he could never crack it”—“genre got in the way.” While I don’t want to imply that Shape is a direct remake of Black Lagoon (it isn’t), they do share a more elusive family resemblance; a similarity that recognizes and confesses the empathetic power of Jack Arnold’s 1954 classic, and then some.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t crystalline moments of narrative resonance between the two films. Both Black Lagoon and Shape’s creatures hail from the Amazon—a space mythologized into a Lovecraftian reminder that the Earth too, has secrets. Both films personify the violence of attempting to divine something’s internal logic through the scientific method, be it Richard Denning’s harpoon gun-fuelled obsession with physical proof or Michael Shannon’s baton-wielding enthusiasm for vivisection. Most strikingly, both films weave threads between their creatures and outer space; that next to the cosmos, water holds the most mysteries. And then there’s the grotesque suggestion implied in Black Lagoon and made explicit in Shape: that cracking the creature’s complex respiratory system might prove handy for interstellar travel.
Like King Kong and Wolfman before him, Black Lagoon’s Gill-Man is an outsider who, like so many of us, is considered monstrous for misunderstanding rules that weren’t made with him in mind. “He wasn’t really all bad,” murmurs Marilyn Monroe, emerging from the theatre in The Seven Year Itch, “I think he just craved a little affection, you know, a sense of being loved and needed.”
Being loved and needed is fundamental to Black Lagoon’s Creature. When the Gill-Man swims under the unsuspecting Kay, mirroring her movements, curious and unafraid, it is one of the most poetic moments in cinema history. It’s only when provoked—when the geologists invade, when Kay flicks her cigarette into the lagoon when the scientists sully his waters with Rotenone—that he acts like the monster we expect him to be. “He was a really nice guy—they were interlopers, they came to his home,” explains Gill-Man actor Ben Chapman.
Producer William Alland envisioned the Gill-Man as a “sad but beautiful” grotesque that “would frighten you, but because of how human it was, not the other way around.” For both thematic and practical reasons, the Creature’s humanity had to be expressed in an entirely physical sense. Through the unsettlingly graceful articulation of limbs and dextrous hands, through an unblinking gaze that is at once accusatory, wounded, and inquisitive. The credit here falls to Milicent Patrick, a former Disney animator whose key role in one of cinema’s most artful and original monster designs went unrecognized for over half a century. Del Toro rightfully considers Patrick’s Gill-Man “the apex of a man-in-a-suit design;” a moss-green, full-body, air-tight molded rubber sponge that allowed stuntman Ricou Browning to make the Creature both otherworldly and recognizably human underwater.
Black Lagoon’s first sequel, Revenge of the Creature (1955), saw Gill-Man relocated to a Florida tourist trap. In addition to Clint Eastwood’s film debut and some gratuitous Cold War-mandated propaganda, there’s a design feature that’s worth noting: aquarium observation windows that allow the heroine to stand face-to-face with the swimming Creature, just turning her head as he presses his hand against the glass. It’s a poignant and often-imitated visual—which, per-lackluster sequel rules, has been expertly razzed by Mystery Science Theatre 3000. The third and final follow-up, The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), saw civilization attempt to tame the Creature after he is badly burnt in a freak “being abducted from the Amazon, again” accident. In order to save his life, his captors perform reconstructive surgery that renders him more human, which counter-intuitively makes him lonelier than ever.
Despite his impact on the cultural conscience, Gill-Man has the fewest credits of any Universal Monster. Instead, knock-off pretenders to the throne emerged; ostensibly paying dues while flagrantly misunderstanding what originally made the Creature such an evocative presence. Some, like The Monster of Piedras Blancas (1959) and Beach Girls and the Monster (1965) leaned into Black Lagoon’s camp, and half a century later, Frankenstein vs. the Creature from Blood Cove’s concluding beach showdown confirmed Gill-Man’s status as silly schlock.
More troubling still, are the films that have latched on to the predatory nature of the Creature’s affections. The watery-eyed creatures from The Horror of Party Beach (1964) are so obsessed with women that they attack a female-shaped mannequin. In Zaat (1971), the fish-man Leopold abducts not one, but two unconscious, half-naked women. Humanoids From the Deep (1980) features straight-up inter-species sexual assault. And Brett Piper’s They Bite (1996)—itself framed around a film-within-a-film called Invasion of the Fishfuckers—offers more of the same, shocking no one. In Black Lagoon, there are absolutely elements of aggression in Gill-Man’s fascination with Kay. But ultimately, the film inflects that fascination, however misplaced, with ambiguity—leaving room for both sexual desire, and a hungry, over-eager need for companionship.
There seems to be a vibrant and revolutionary reciprocity in Shape. Where every other character views the Creature as a monster, Eliza “recognizes something very familiar in him.” In the trailer, she signs: “when he looks at me, he doesn’t know how I am incomplete—he sees me as I am.” Instead of swimming below the other, imitating their strokes, falling in love with a silhouette, del Toro positions his lovers on common ground: outcast, speechless, and open to possibility.
Set in 1962, Shape is concerned with the fear of difference—be it homosexuality, race, or disability—and the violence such fear begets. “When Americans talk about America being great again, I think they are dreaming about what was in gestation in 1962,” del Toro remarked to the Venice press corps. “I’m Mexican and I know what it feels like to be looked at as ‘the other’…the first political act we have [to do] right now is to choose love over fear.”
Monsters like Gill-Man ask that we reject the notion that difference is terrifying; that we confess kinship and embrace that “there is beauty and humility in imperfection.” Fantasy isn’t just escapism for del Toro, it’s a political genre, a means of navigating a world that feels increasingly willing to hate and to persecute. Creature from the Black Lagoon is a story of difference being destroyed by human contact, by an arrogant refusal to recognize oneself in abnormality. The Shape of Water seems to offer a counterpoint, and naturally, del Toro says it best:
Fairy tales were born in times of trouble, in complicated times—when hope felt lost. I made The Shape of Water as an antidote to cynicism. For it seems to me that when we speak of love—when we believe in love—we do so in a hopeless way. We fear looking naïve and even disingenuous. But Love is real—absolutely real—and, like water, it is the most gentle and most powerful force in the Universe. It is free and formless until it pours into its recipient, until we let it in. Our eyes are blind. But our soul is not. It recognizes love in whatever shape it comes to us.
The Shape of Water is set to premiere domestically December 8th.
P.S. I am aware of the Black Lagoon reboot slated for 2019, to be penned by the dude who wrote Aquaman. I am confident del Toro will beat the Dark Universe at its own game, which is, at this point, the creative equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. xoxo.