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Why The Shape of Water’s Golden Globes win is a landmark monster moment

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Jan 8, 2018, 9:45 AM EST

Since the dawn of cinema, monsters have loomed large. At every turn, from silent films to the birth of talkies to the beginning of the blockbuster era, tragic freaks and evil creatures have sold out theaters and united audiences, even in the most fraught and divided times. From Nosferatu to Netflix, monsters have transcended showbiz trends and generational changes ... but have nonetheless been denied a place of honor at Hollywood's most prestigious awards shows.

That all changed Sunday when Guillermo del Toro won the Golden Globe for Best Director for The Shape of Water, beating out the likes of Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, and Christopher Nolan, patron saints themselves of sci-fi. The victory was not just a triumph for del Toro, but for the entire genre altogether. Because while it would have been easy to downplay the film's Creature From the Black Lagoon-inspired amphibious humanoid and say that del Toro won for creating a stunning period parable, the filmmaker devoted much of his acceptance speech to elucidating his lifelong love for monsters.

"Since childhood I've been faithful to monsters — I have been saved and absolved by them," he told a cheering audience. "Because monsters, I believe, are patron saints of our blissful imperfection."

In that moment, del Toro was not only accepting the first major award for directing a movie about monsters, he was making a major contribution to the legitimization of a scorned genre. Monster movies so often tell incredible stories about outcasts, persecution, and sociopolitical terrors, but for nearly a century, they have been largely kept in a cinematic ghetto, seen as money-makers and crowd-pleasers but assigned little artistic merit.

Sure, fortunes have been made by producing cheap, cheesy, and empty thrillers about menacing freaks, but every genre has its rubbish, and the bad stuff is all the more likely to be churned out when an industry refuses to take seriously the brilliant work that's been produced.

The only other major category wins for anything resembling a monster movie were the Golden Globes handed to The Exorcist in 1974 for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Screenplay. And even that success was isolated; the movie was nominated for 10 Oscars and only won for screenplay and sound editing. That set an unspoken precedent that's largely been followed ever since: The best monster (and science fiction) movies get deserved recognition in plenty of below-the-lines categories, for sound and design and visual effects, but get left out of the most prestigious, public-facing awards.

Even the incredible accomplishments of movies like Alien and Jurassic Park, both genre-bending movies that were achievements in storytelling and embedded with social commentary, were reduced to a few technical awards. Those awards were well deserved, of course, but most definitely an incomplete acknowledgment of their import. Superhero and sci-fi movies have largely faced the same plight (Avatar's wins in 2010 stand alone), despite providing an increasingly vast majority of the industry's profits and public excitement.

Independent and traditional art films largely need awards recognition to thrive, and so it's important that they receive it; I have long covered the indie film scene and know just how vital it is for so many reasons, and place its health right near the top of issues facing the entertainment industry. But such a big imbalance come awards season is still notable, because some genre movies are equally thoughtful. Exclusion from awards discussion has long sent a loud message to moviegoers and critics, declaring that monster movies were without serious artistic merit.

That facade is finally crumbling. There have been several indications that the industry is starting to respect the monster movie for more than its earning power. George Romero's seminal zombie film, Night of the Living Dead, is being released by the Criterion Collection next month, where it will join more than two dozen Godzilla films, which were given that prestigious stamp of approval last year. The political messages embedded in the Godzilla movies were often overlooked, and they were instead both marketed and received as campy, non-serious larks.

As far as blacklisting in the entertainment business goes, monster movies being left in the cold is a minor transgression — unequivocally, the industry needs to reckon with far more pressing and human abuses and exclusions. The Golden Globes on Sunday largely dealt with injustices of infinitely greater importance. That is without question. Yet, for generations of filmmakers and fans, The Shape of Water's win will still quietly mark a quiet watershed moment in a larger era of new respect for genre art.