Thursday 12 December 2019

Breathing life into a classic monster

Guillermo del Toro's multi-Oscar nominated The Shape of Water pays tribute to the great Hollywood sci-fi films of the 1950s, themselves inspired by a swell of paranoia among Americans, writes our film critic

Otherworldly: Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in The Shape of Water
Otherworldly: Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in The Shape of Water
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

With a whopping 13 nominations, The Shape of Water is looking the likeliest film to dominate at next month's Academy Awards. It may also be the narrow favourite for the prestigious Best Director and Best Film Oscars, especially now that Guillermo del Toro has won the Director's Guild of America's Best Feature award. Only once since 2002 has the DGA award not predicted the Best Director Oscar.

It was released here this week, and is a boldly imaginative film that evokes the classic sci-fi B-movies of the 1950s. Sally Hawkins, whose performance has earned her a Best Actress nomination, plays Elisa Esposito, a mute woman who works as a cleaner at a mysterious government laboratory in Baltimore. It's the early 1960s, communist paranoia is at its height, and the scientists whose toilets she cleans are up to God knows what.

Elisa and her world-weary friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) are mopping the floors one day when they see a large metal tank being wheeled into a cavernous laboratory. It contains an unknown species discovered in a South American river, a humanoid amphibian that a sinister army colonel called Strickland (Michael Shannon) wants to dissect.

The Russians are keen to get their hands on it as well, and things look grim for this exotic creature until Elisa starts bringing it boiled eggs at lunchtime, and playing music to it. Using sign language and soulful gazes to communicate, they form a bond that will eventually head in a surprisingly intimate direction, and when Elisa finds out the creature is about to be killed, she hatches a desperate plan to liberate it.

Guillermo del Toro's film is delightfully otherworldly, and inventive, and is less about the Cold War itself than the feverishly allegorical science-fiction movies and TV shows it inspired.

His primary inspiration was Creature from the Black Lagoon, a seminal 1954 monster picture that greatly influenced the Mexican director when he first saw it on television as a boy. A kind of King Kong for the nuclear age, Jack Arnold and producer William Alland's picture told the story of a scientific team who are conducting research in the Amazon when they discover the fossil of an amphibious man.

What they don't know is that one of these creatures still lives, a large, clawed predator that will kill if cornered. As members of the team begin dying horribly, the creature becomes besotted with Kay (Julie Adams), one of the scientists' girlfriends, and during the film's climax attempts to make her his submarine bride.

He is ultimately foiled, but when Del Toro watched it, he rooted for the creature and dreamed that it and Kay's interspecies romance might someday be consummated. In The Shape of Water, he makes it happen.

Creature from the Black Lagoon was among the first and most influential of a new breed of monster pictures that reflected and fed off the paranoia and societal contradictions of the time. In one sense, the 1950s was a golden age for America, which had emerged relatively unscathed from the most dreadful war in mankind's history.

The United States was now the world's most powerful economy, and affluence was spreading to the middle class. But the stultifying conformity of suburban life was already being resented, militarism was undermining democracy, and meanwhile there was the spectre of a powerful enemy to the east, and the underlying threat of nuclear Armageddon.

The world had witnessed America's grim demonstration of nuclear might at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the slow drip of illness and deformity that had followed. But those bombs were squibs compared to the terrifying ICBMs that replaced them in the 1950s, and could wipe out entire cities in an instantaneous blinding flash.

This prospect must have seemed unthinkable to ordinary people, who put it from their minds in order to cope with everyday life. But their sublimated fears found expression in the febrile sci-fi B-pictures that became hugely popular through the 1950s.

While one shouldn't overdo one's sociological analyses of these films, which were for the most part made fast and geared towards the mass market, they hit home precisely because they gave physical form to people's free-floating fears, and created monsters that were almost comforting in their banality.

The 'Gill-man' in Black Lagoon was utterly alien, an insidious being that posed a threat to American virtue as represented by the unfortunate Kay. A still larger threat was posed by the giant dinosaur wakened by nuclear tests in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, a 1953 film enlivened by the special effects of Ray Harryhausen. A test blast in the Arctic Circle defrosts a 30ft carnivorous dinosaur which swims south in high dudgeon to lay waste to Manhattan.

This raging beast was Armageddon personified, and would be followed by many other nuclear monsters, like the radioactively enhanced giant spider in Tarantula (1955), the monster locusts bloated by irradiated vegetables in Beginning of the End (1957), or the poor soul who shrinks to the size of a doll after being exposed to radioactive mist in The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957).

The Japanese were the world's leading experts in radioactive trauma, and in 1954 Toho Studios released a film that was similar in theme to The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms but had far more cultural impact. Godzilla told the story of an ancient sea beast that trashes Tokyo after being unleashed by nuclear tests. It was a big hit in Japan and the US.

When 1950s American audiences weren't worrying about the bomb, they had nightmares about alien invasions. Space travel was still at the planning stage, but the prospect of it raised a deep fear: what if there was something up there, preparing to attack? Claims of UFO-sightings multiplied, assisted no doubt by the horror films that depicted extraterrestrial invasions.

It Came from Outer Space (1953), War of the Worlds (1953) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) all dramatised alien invasions that were either accidental, hostile or sternly admonishing. In World Without End, astronauts on a routine reconnaissance trip around Mars get stuck in a time dilation and return to Earth hundreds of years later to discover it's been devastated by a nuclear war.

Though inspired by the space race, these sometimes trashy but often very inventive films were driven by underlying paranoia about America's cushy life being threatened by 'alien' invaders who spoke a different language and had diametrically opposing values.

That fear of communism would get way out of hand courtesy of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee, a hysterical and subversive campaign brilliantly if obliquely satirised in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Don Siegel's 1956 classic about aliens that replace people with dead-eyed replicas. A film that might have been interpreted as a fear of communism was really an eloquent denunciation of totalitarian practices at home.

So in a way the 1950s really was a golden age, if not for America then for American horror, which expressed more completely, perhaps, than any other art form the anxieties of the post-war generation.

There was poetry in those monster movies, and The Shape of Water pays an eloquent tribute to them.

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