5 ways in which The Shape of Water subverts the classic monster movie tropes

Contributed by
Dec 10, 2017

The Shape of Water is yet another example of Guillermo del Toro's penchant for turning history into fantasy. Set at the height of the Cold War in America, the movie is a love story between a fish-man (Doug Jones in the usual latex suit) and a mute woman (Sally Hawkins) working in a top-secret government facility -- only del Toro could tell such a bizarre story and make it work. It's a modern-day fairy tale that serves as a love letter to the classic B-grade monster movies of the 1950s and 1960s. 

But where those old movies were thinly veiled parables for the looming threat of nuclear devastation and the fear of a Soviet invasion, The Shape of Water puts an updated spin on these dated themes. It makes us take a long hard look in the mirror and identify the real problems that we bring upon ourselves, whether they be societal, interpersonal, or environmental. Here are five ways in which the film subverts the iconic monster movie cliches and morals. 


 

The monster

Yes, there's a monster, but just not the one you were expecting. Doug Jone's enigmatic fish-man of the Amazon does bring back fond memories of the 1954 3-D movie The Creature From The Black Lagoon. But the real monster in The Shape of Water is man and all his prejudices, fears, and insecurities. Del Toro highlights sexism, racism, homophobia, and xenophobia much more than he does the idea of mutually assured destruction. He is as vicious to his fellow man as he is to the monster. The creature, with his healing powers, wants to do good while the Americans and Russians just want to torture and vivisect him before discarding the remains.

The damsel in distress

One of the oldest tricks in the monster movie handbook is that the creature goes for the innocent, unassuming, and attractive woman. As such, there were these sexual undertones of the creature defiling the female. Here, the roles are reversed as the woman not only saves the monster, but falls in love with him. Moreover, the classic screaming and scantily-clad actress on the old posters becomes a mute woman in The Shape of Water.

Wayward science vs Productive science

B-movies like Them! and It Came From Beneath The Sea are over-the-top warnings of the Atomic Age where radiation makes things grow and glow. The promethean idea of irresponsible science was usually the source of the monster. When it comes to The Shape of Water, however, the monster is a means toward scientific discovery rather than a result of one. The secret installation wants to learn about his dual breathing mechanisms so they can one day put a man on the moon. Nevertheless, there's also a commentary on destroying the environment in the sake of science as they ripped the fish-man unceremoniously out of his habitat and plopped him in the middle of Baltimore.

The movie's conclusion

In the '50s, the feature would end with the dead monster lying amidst the ruin of the destruction it casued as the military celebrates its victory. Not here, though. Del Toro lets the monster best the army and win, escaping into the ocean, so he can return home. Not only that. He also gets the girl instead of some actor with rugged good looks. 

Beauty becomes a beast

Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, The Amazing Colossal Man, Monster on the Campus, and I Was a Teenage Werewolf. All of these films are examples of humans turning into monsters because of radiation or science experiments gone awry. They kill a bunch of people, topple some buildings, and at the end, they usually end up dead, returning to their normal appearances or sizes. In this case, the main character dies and then comes back to life as a monster at the very end as a testament to movie's moral that being different is not indicative of being evil.