It's a safe bet that most people never came out of "The Creature From the Black Lagoon" thinking, Gee, wouldn't it have been great if the monster and Julie Adams ended up together?
But Guillermo del Toro isn't most people.
Instead, he's a singular artist, someone who grew up in love with the then- unwelcome stepchildren of pop culture -- monster mags, comic books, H.P Lovecraft stories, Godzilla flicks.
And then synthesized then into something else - both familiar and unique, weird and utterly romantic.
Many of his films - "Crimson Peak," the "Hellboy" pictures - have been fish-out-of-water tales, but his latest takes that literally. In "The Shape of Water," set during the early-'60s Cold War, the American military have brought back from the Amazon a scaly humanoid, able to breathe both air and water.
They figure his amphibian biology might be of some use is preparing astronauts for the rigors of space travel. They'll know better once they vivisect him.
What they don't know, however, is that a mute, mousy cleaning lady at their top-secret scientific installation feels something for this creature. First, it was curiosity. Then it was pity. But now it's something l like love. And having never felt it before, she's not going to let it go now.
Sally Hawkins is Elisa the voiceless woman, Doug Jones is the amphibian, and both peculiar roles play to their particular strengths.
Hawkins - so marvelous in "Happy-Go-Lucky," "Made in Dagenham," "Blue Jasmine" and this year's "Maudie" - is expert at giving marginalized, even victimized women a survivor's core of strength. A gentle, radiant decency, too - movies about saints went out of fashion long ago, but if anyone was ever casting a film about a truly spotless spirit, Hawkins would fill the bill.
And although Jones isn't known to most movie goers - like the more famous Andy Serkis, he's largely a motion-capture artist - he's a mime of sensitivity and delicacy. He's worked for del Toro before -- he was the fearsome Pale Man in "Pan's Labyrinth" -- but this watery role clearly reprises the graceful Abe Sapien of the "Hellbox" series.
Both leads are marvelous, and they're supported by a fine cast that includes Michael Shannon as a formidable military man, Octavia Spencer as another cleaning lady and Elisa's one friend and Richard Jenkins as a gentle, aging loner.
All are playing to type, or at least to types they've played before. But instead of getting lulled into laziness by the familiarity, they draw on their experience of what's worked, and what hasn't. There isn't a single wasted moment, a too-large gesture.
Del Toro, of course, is even more broadly steeped in movie history, but he invokes it without wallowing it.
Yes, there's a quick aside here to "The Tingler," if you're observant; an even more fleeting one to the Lon Chaney "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." (And of course the central situation is from "The Creature From the Black Lagoon" - or, perhaps more accurately, the first sequel, "Revenge of the Creature."
But nothing is overdone. We get all the half-remembered touchstones of a baby-boomer childhood - Jell-O desserts and black-and-white sitcoms, massive Cadillacs and the cha-cha-cha. Yet del Toro recreates the era without fetishizing it; he shows us TV clips of the heroic John Glenn but of civil-rights marches, too
And when the creature is under attack, who comes to his defense? A gay man, a black woman, a disabled woman, and a Commie spy. (That the life they're saving is that of a Latin American immigrant is, believe me, not coincidental, either.)
"The Shape of Water" is such a gorgeous, deeply felt movie I wish that del Toro didn't still have some of his schoolboy urge to gross us out. Violence (and sex) are part of this story, but that doesn't mean we need to see quite so much pus and blood and sadism (or a housepet brutally killed). But if del Toro didn't have that hunger to occasionally provoke, he wouldn't be del Toro.
And no one else could have this beautifully weird, strangely romantic story.
Ratings note: The film contains sexual situations, nudity, graphic violence, strong language and animal abuse.
'The Shape of Water' (R) Fox Searchlight (119 min.) Directed by Guillermo del Toro. With Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer.
THREE AND A HALF STARS
Stephen Whitty may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @stephenwhitty. Find him on Facebook....Read more