“The Shape of Water”: satire, period drama, and more than ordinary horror; in fact, a love story

Guillermo del Terro’s lastest auteur-isch tour de force, “The Shape of Water”, is indeed a cutting social satire of the social and political values of rival “power structures” in the 1960s.  It’s also good horror, and it’s a love story. And it is a period piece.  I worked at the old NBS in Washington DC in 1963-1964 (before there was a UDC) and it really looked like that in the underground tunnels.

The basic premise is a bit concocted. In a secret research facility near Baltimore, the military (read NSA at Fort Meade) holds a captured “alien”, a scaly biped creature with gills and lungs who has to stay under water, discovered in the Amazon, and maybe an extraterrestrial alien. I will accept nothing less.

Maybe the creature is superman. The US wants to send him into space. And at the height of the Cold War, the Russians (and their inside implants) want the alien dead.

The autocratic civilian head, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) plays his world of Trump-like powers.  Among his chargelings are two proles, janitors who bow down to him: Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and the mute Elisa (Sally Hawkins). Strickland treats them with racial remarks that even make a modern audience cringe, and (for Elisa) sexual harassment – and the movie was shot before the recent scandals.

One day Elisa finds the creature (Doug Jones).  After a series of mishaps, Elisa binds to him and the second half of the movie is taken up with her arranging his escape into the Chesapeake Bay, at high tide and after a fall thunderstorm.

Shannon plays well the typical bureaucrat who believes you get things only by intimidation and control. But so does the general  (Richard Jenkins), who near the end warns Strickland about winding up in an alternate universe of “shit” with his own future cosmic existence undone.  Bullies win in this world.

The film mentions other events in the geopolitical environment, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and Sputnik, but I didn’t hear mention of the Kennedy Assassination. So maybe the time is early 1963.

Back in the 1960s there was a late Saturday night movie program “Chiller”, of mostly monster movies, where typically you didn’t see the monster until two-thirds the way in.  I can recall “The Werewolf”, “Blood of Dracula”, and “Invasion of the Animal People”.  Or try “Donovan’s Brain”, or “the Undead” or “The Disembodied” (or “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, a real classic). Then there was also “Creature from the Black Lagoon”.  This film doesn’t quite fit those, because you see the monster early, and he really isn’t a monster, although he fights back with his fingernails at Strickland.  So I could wonder about “Roswell” (1994, or even “Six Days in Roswell”, 1999), or “Fire in the Sky” (1993, about Travis Walton). I could also suggest that Terro could have taken a hint from “An American Werewolf in London” (“The Monster Movie” in 1982) or “Wolfen” and allowed Strickland a full decapitation at the end.  Maybe for a few seconds “you know you’re dead”.

The story is by the director and the script was written with Vanessa Taylor.

A Sense of Wonder from Mathieu Le Lay on Vimeo.

Before the show we were treated to Mathieu LeLay’s  “A Sense of Wonder”  The short appears to he filmed in the Canadian Rockies.

Name:  “The Shape of Water
Director, writer:  Guillermo del Torro
Released:  2017/12/18
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed: Angelika Mosaic, 2017/12/14
Length:  105
Rating:  R
Companies:  Fox Searchlight
Link:  official

(Posted: Monday, December 25, 2017 at 11 AM EST)