Kim Morrison dives into two creature features to explore how sub-aquatic relationships might offer a way of decoding real-world romances…
Monsters falling in love with human women is something that pops up in the horror genre quite often. From King Kong climbing the Empire State Building with Ann clasped in his hand or Dracula romancing Mina while keeping her fiancé locked up, we’re used to seeing monsters trying to build these relationships, and usually failing.
But in 2017, Guillermo del Toro brought us a love story of a different kind with The Shape of Water. There’s no denying that the tale and creature design are heavily influenced by the 1954 classic Creature from the Black Lagoon. However with Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) del Toro shows us that atypical relationships can work in different circumstances.
In Creature from the Black Lagoon, Gill Man (played by Ricou Browning in water and Ben Chapman on land) spots Kay (Julie Adams) standing on the shores of the river and immediately wants to pull her underwater with him. He knows nothing about her, apart from the fact he registers her as different from the men in the group he’s willing to slaughter at the drop of a hat. He’s also not interested in Kay consenting to these encounters either, as she screams loudly every time she sees him, and clearly wants nothing to do with him. In fact, at one point she sets him on fire and he still comes back for more. Gill Man is the king of not taking no for an answer.
The way Elisa and Amphibian Man meet and bond is completely different. Elisa is immediately interested in him, but she knows she has to earn his trust, especially considering the way other humans have been treating him. She brings him snacks, shares her love of music with him and visits him every day in a place where he feels terribly out of place and lonely. The fact that Elisa initiated the relationship is also important because it’s so different to what we’re used to in these types of films.
Gill Man knows nothing about Kay when he suddenly becomes obsessed with her. He is fetishising her for her body and – presumably because he appears to be the last of his kind – he doesn’t have access to any aquatic women. Kay could present a chance to continue his race and provide companionship in the lonely lagoon, but really he falls for the idea of her, rather than Kay as a person.
Fetishising is present in The Shape of Water as well, but this time it comes from Strickland (Michael Shannon) toward Elisa. Elisa is mute, and when Strickland finds this out he is obsessed with her. While having sex with his wife he covers her mouth, telling her he wants her to be quiet while they make love. He later tells Elisa that he can’t stop thinking about her, even though she’s not much to look at. He likes the scars on her neck and the fact she doesn’t speak. Again, Strickland knows nothing about Elisa as a person, but he has picked an element of her he is obsessed with and pursues her based purely on this.
Elisa mentions that one of the things she loves about Amphibian Man is he doesn’t see the things that she is lacking and instead only sees their similarities. Strickland thinks he’s a white knight riding in to rescue Elisa by telling her he doesn’t mind her differences, but instead he’s only drawing attention to his own ignorance.
Aside from already having a boyfriend, and showing no interest apart from the scientific in Gill Man, a huge reason that Kay and Gill Man’s relationship wouldn’t work is that she cannot breathe underwater. While we see Gill Man walking around on land and hanging out in his grotto, he seems most at home underwater. Kay loves being in the water swimming, but she’s never going to feel at home there. In fact, it’s more than likely she’ll drown before Gill Man registers that anything is wrong.
Elisa, however, is clearly very comfortable in the water. The film opens with her dreaming about floating in an underwater room as she sleeps. A regular part of her daily routine is to submerge herself in an overflowing bath and masturbate. Her world is bathed in green, from her outfits to her décor to the walls of her workplace. She is at home in the water, which may explain why she’s so drawn to Amphibian Man in his aquatic pod in the first place.
One of the times that Elisa and Amphibian Man have sex, Elisa floods the bathroom to almost the ceiling to set the scene for their lovemaking. While it’s partly to ensure that Amphibian Man is comfortable, it is also so Elisa can be in her happy place. Pleasant dreams and masturbating are two of the most relaxing things on the planet, so it’s clear why Elisa would want to replicate this surrounding when she gets intimate with Amphibian Man.
Another key difference between Gill Man and Amphibian Man is the way they communicate with their intended partners. Gill Man has no real intention of communicating in a meaningful way with Kay. In fact, he clearly ignores all the signals she gives him and only follows what he wants. He kills everyone around her, constantly tries to get on the boat to be near her, and even blocks the river so they cannot leave in the hopes he’ll be able to steal her away from her boatmates.
For Elisa, communication has always been a problem because she cannot speak and uses sign language. She has a close bond with friends Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and Giles (Richard Jenkins) but other people often don’t make the effort required to connect with her. Amphibian Man, however, is keen to start communicating as quickly as possible. Elisa signs the word for “eggs” the first time they properly meet, and Amphibian Man is seen practising sign language when he’s alone. Being unable to speak to the humans around him, Amphibian Man knows how important it is to be able to convey your needs, and with sign language Elisa offers him a way to speak to her and deepen their bond.
While Strickland finds Elisa interesting because she doesn’t speak, he quickly becomes enraged with her when she furiously signs insults at him and he can’t understand. At this moment, she has the upper hand and he no longer feels in control of the situation. He has no interest in effectively communicating – just like the Gillman – and is only looking to get what he wants out of the situation.
Perhaps the most iconic scene in Black Lagoon is when Gill Man finally manages to snatch Kay and jumps into the water with her in his arms. This is the moment where it seems like Gill Man has won, as he steals Kay away, probably to her death had she not been rescued.
The ending of The Shape of Water is very different, as Elisa lies mortally injured after Strickland attacks the couple. While Amphibian Man wants the couple to leave together, Elisa knows that isn’t possible, and they are willing to part to ensure that each of them is able to live the best version of their lives.
However, when the police show up and Elisa is about to die, Amphibian Man scopes her up and jumps into the canal with her. Instead of dooming her to death, Amphibian Man uses his healing powers to bring her back to life. His powers also open the scars on Elisa’s throat, turning them into gills, allowing them to finally be together and safe.
These two scenes highlight why one couple would never work and why one couple was meant to be. Gill Man and Kay jumping into the water only highlighted their differences and how he was intent on being with her no matter the outcome.
Amphibian Man and Elisa’s jump into the canal however shows that the pair may be more similar than they even realised, and fully cements their relationship. The appearance of Elisa’s gills – formed from the scars she got as a child when she was found abandoned in the river – suggest that perhaps her affinity with water and instant connection with Amphibian Man could be due to a past life that she can’t remember. In a world where they both feel out of place, Amphibian Man and Elisa are able to find each other and return to the water together, where they both feel at peace.