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The Shape of Water and enduring appeal of women falling for movie monsters

PUBLISHED: 17:19 15 February 2018 | UPDATED: 17:20 15 February 2018

Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito in The Shape Of Water. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox/Kerry Hayes

Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito in The Shape Of Water. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox/Kerry Hayes

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From Beauty and the Beast to King Kong, women have been falling in love with otherworldly creatures are a cinema staple. As Oscar front runner The Shape of Water opens why are we so obsessed with monsters in love?

Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito and Octavia Spencer as Zelda in The Shape of Water. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox/Kerry Hayes Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito and Octavia Spencer as Zelda in The Shape of Water. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox/Kerry Hayes

“She decides nothing can stand in her way. As soon as she senses their connection, not trying to help the creature would be a kind death for her,” says Sally Hawkins of the unlikely love story at the centre of Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water.

A gorgeous, erotically-charged but deeply unusual love story, the Mexician director’s fantasy, which is in the cinemas this weekend, is the frontrunner in this year’s Oscar race with 13 nominations in total, including Best Picture.

In a secret government laboratory at the height of the Cold War, a mystery-shrouded amphibious creature hauled up from the dark, watery depths is being studied by scientist to understand the psychic connections he has with humans, reflecting back both aggression and fathomless love.

Mute cleaning lady Elisa becomes emotionally attached to this merman, using sign language and music as a crude yet effective form of communication. They eventually fall in love and the cleaner hatches a hare-brained plan to smuggle her web-footed paramour out of the facility so he can be returned to the wild.

The script, co-written by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, doesn’t sugarcoat the unlikely central romance between Elisa and the carnivorous merman (played by Doug Jones).

“It just seizes her by the heart and there’s really nothing else she can do,” says British actress Hawkins, who has been nominated for trhe Best Actress Oscar for her role as Elisa. “She just knows she has to save the day. I think it can overtake you when you’re in that frame of mind.”

King Kong from 1933 starring Fay Wray. Photo: Radio Pictures King Kong from 1933 starring Fay Wray. Photo: Radio Pictures

Elisa and the creature falling in love evokes memories of what is a recurring theme of films from the silent era onwards — women falling in love with otherworldly creatures; whether it be Beauty and the Beast or King Kong, Dracula or Phantom of the Opera.

The basic story of a “beauty” falling for a “beast — a romance between a captivating young woman and a creature monstrous on the outside but wanting to be loved within — is ubiquitous enough in films to be almost its own subgenre.

The Shape of Water certainly falls within it, though the origins of this storyline arguably go back much further to Greek myths and folktales.

Jean Marais and Josette Day in La Belle et la Bête. Photo: DisCina Jean Marais and Josette Day in La Belle et la Bête. Photo: DisCina

Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête, a sublime adaptation of Madame Leprince de Beaumont’s fairy-tale masterpiece Beauty and the Beast, is a toutchstone for the beautiful girl melts the heart of a feral but gentle beast film storyline, even if subsequent Disney version have toned down the beat into a recognisable Prince.

There have been three versions of King Kong too — notable the 1933 version starring Fay Wray — though is none of them as the romance with Kong ended happily ever after.

Of all the iconic screen monsters, The Shape of Water perhaps most closely echoes the heartbreaking piscine amphibious humanoid from 1954 monster movie Creature From The Black Lagoon. Directed by Jack Arnold, it starred Ben Chapman (on land) and Ricou Browning (underwater) as the inimitably tragic Gill-Man, the last of his prehistoric species. At once dangerous and forlorn, reviled and yearning, the Creature touched audiences even as it scared them.

Julie Adams and the Gill Man in Creature from the Black Lagoon from 1954. Photo: Universal Julie Adams and the Gill Man in Creature from the Black Lagoon from 1954. Photo: Universal

Del Toro, who has openly cited the film as an influence, has said: “When I was six-year-old I watched Creature From The Black Lagoon. I saw the creature swimming beneath Julie Adams, who was swimming above in a white bathing suit. I felt like I fell in love with her. What’s more, I fellin love with thre creature too.”

Del Toro notes that each of his film’s characters, no matter their place in society, is grappling with love in different circumstances.

“There’s a pure love between Elisa and the creature, but government agent Strickland (played by Michael Shannon) is also trying to love, though we experience that his love is brutal, and Elisa’s neighbour Giles is looking for a love frowned upon in that time, and Elisa’s best friend Zelda is in love with a man who does not deserve her love.”

Poster for Creature from the Black Lagoon from 1954. Photo: Universal Poster for Creature from the Black Lagoon from 1954. Photo: Universal

The journey of Elisa from loneliness to a heroine who takes huge risks for love are made all the more extraordinary because the role is almost without words.

Rendered mute by a childhood trauma, Elisa communicates in sign language, but she is able to express herself effusively when she encounters the strange aquatic creature.

When she first read of the script Hawkins fiound it powerfully but it sparked a few anxieties. “It was so moving. It was interestingly familiar to me, yet it was like nothing I’ve encountered,” she said. “I felt like Elisa was a deep part of me, or like I knew her in another life. I also felt it was the ultimate romantic fairy tale.

Michael Shannon as Colonel Richard Strickland, Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito and Octavia Spencer as Zelda in The Shape of Water. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox/Kerry Hayes Michael Shannon as Colonel Richard Strickland, Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito and Octavia Spencer as Zelda in The Shape of Water. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox/Kerry Hayes

“It’s so rare that you get a role that asks you to put it all out there. Where it’s about unadulterated expression and words are not needed, and you have the freedom to express so much through your eyes, breath and body. That is Elisa.”

Taking a role that exists on the border between human, animal and myth is Doug Jones, who utilises both a prosthetic costume and an extraordinary knack for physical expressiveness to bring the creature to life.

Having previously worked with Del Toro on Pan’s Labyrinth and the Hellboy series, like Hawkins, he never imagined he’d be the lead in a love story.

Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito in The Shape Of Water. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox/Kerry Hayes Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito in The Shape Of Water. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox/Kerry Hayes

“Even though he’s this freak of nature, he has an angelic kind of quality,” he observes of the creature. “He comes into people’s lives and he seems to expose and amplify whatever is going on inside a human being.”

As he seeps into Elisa’s life, emotions unspool for both of them. “Their communication is by necessity beyond

words, entirely based on vision and feeling,” Jones muses.

Falling For The Monster

King Kong — Three versions of this story (1933, 1976, 2005) have managed to make the idea of a woman falling in love with a giant gorilla kind of sweet. Like Frankenstein’s monster, Kong is a misunderstood softie who just wants a little companionship.

Phantom of the Opera — Lon Chaney stars as the horribly disfigured Phantom who falls in love with a beautiful prima donna in this 1929 horror classic. Romance blossoms when he holds her hostage in his lair amid the catacombs of Paris.

La Belle et la Bête — Jean Cocteau’s 1946 adaptation of Beauty and the Beast is a cinematic fantasy materpice e with unforgettably romantic performances by Jean Marais and Josette Day.

Nosferatu — F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent horror classic in which Ellen disocovers the only way to defeat a vampire is for a woman who is ‘pure of heart’ to distract them through the night. So she opens her window to let him in.

The Creature From the Black Lagoon — 1954 monster movie, cited by Guillermo del Toro as a direct influence, features female scientist Kay Lawrence who whilst she doesn’t fall for the creature, she is most sympathetic to his plight.

Starman — Del Toro has made no secret of his affection for John Carpenter, including this 1984 sci-fi romance, in which an alien visitor (in the humanoid form of Jeff Bridges) falls for kind widow Karen Allen.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula — Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 rendition is viewed close to Bram Stoker’s 19th century novel, but the half-man half-beast love story between Dracula and Mina is entirely invention.

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