When a film wins Oscars everyone writes about it. I’m not that bothered by Oscars but I’m glad that del Toro won something and I’m pleased the production design team got a gong. I loved the mix of songs in the film but I didn’t really notice the score – perhaps I will next time. Above all, however, I’m saddened that Sally Hawkins wasn’t rewarded. She is an extraordinary actor, capable of anything. I think that The Shape of Water is a love letter to cinema from a film lover who remembers the movies he watched with his grandmother. I’m not sure why The Story of Ruth (US 1960) is the film showing in the cinema when the creature stands in the stalls. It was a Fox film so the rights weren’t a problem. I’m assuming Guillermo saw it as a child. I watched Mr Ed on TV as a teenager so I was taken back too.
I guess most of you will know that the film is about a mute cleaner, Elisa Esposito (‘Esposito’ was originally a name given in Italy to abandoned children). She is looking for love and finds it with an amphibious man captured by US intelligence and threatened with vivisection in a search for ideas to prepare human physiology for the space race. 1962 is an interesting year to choose for the film’s time period. I’ve heard del Toro discussing why he chose it. At the height of the Cold War (the year of the Cuban missile crisis) and before the major breakthroughs on Civil Rights, those historical references are well used to underpin the narrative. The Cadillac showroom and the suburban family home reek of the immediate legacy of Eisenhower’s affluent, aspirational and conformist 1950s. The Cadillac also introduces teal as a key colour which emphasises the blue-green spectrum in the ‘facility’ where Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and Zelda (Octavia Spencer) work as cleaners and where the creature (Doug Jones) is incarcerated. But I think that the selection of songs is the most intriguing. 1962 in the US is often considered to be in that dead period between the brief re-appearance of Elvis on his return from the army and the arrival of the Beatles in 1964. It wasn’t dead, but pop music wasn’t as dynamic and exciting as it had been and would soon become again. Pop music was for kids and The Shape of Water is for adults and especially for adults who feel they have lost out and for whom passion and romance seem better represented by the sound of Alice Faye in 1940s movies or Andy Williams as a ‘grown-up’ singer in 1959. Everything in the film seems to me to fit together perfectly. It’s a fantasy but it is perfectly coherent and ‘real’ in terms of its cultural references.
The classification for The Shape of Water is interesting. The US ‘R’ rating seems excessive to me but Guillermo del Toro has said that he wanted to make a film for adults. I was surprised by the film’s lack of prurience in showing a naked Sally Hawkins, but I’m sure she agreed to it because it is beautifully presented and completely in line with the character’s other actions. The film does have its moments of violence and I felt that the most violent actions were those with direct cultural references – such as the use of the electric cattle prod by Strickland (Michael Shannon) and arguably the most ‘difficult’ scene, the same character’s violence in making love to his wife. Perhaps an ‘R’ rating isn’t as excessive as I thought? On the other hand, the film has a ’15’ in the UK with 15/16 common across Europe (lower still in France) and the highest rating of 18 can be found in Russia and South Korea. I’m not sure what all of this means, except possibly that Guillermo del Toro has more of a European sensibility than a Hollywood one. I wish he’d make Spanish-language films again.
My constant referencing of del Toro doesn’t mean that I under-estimate the other creative contributions to the film. Vanessa Taylor was the co-writer and Dan Laustsen the cinematographer. All the design team deserve congratulations and Doug Jones and the VFX team create a wonderful creature based around the concept introduced in Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon (US 1954). All these contributions are important but it is del Toro’s overall vision which holds the film together. I’ve no idea how the film is performing with younger audiences. Perhaps they prefer the fast action of superhero movies, but the slower pace of del Toro’s narratives is more to my taste.
I’m amazed to see that IMDb lists the estimated budget at $20 million. I would have guessed twice that amount (is it lower because there are no so-called ‘A list’ stars?). Even if it was $40 million, the film is heading for profit – and seemingly for an International Hit. North American box office has been less than stellar but overseas the film is starting to rack up good figures and it should reach at least $170 million in total worldwide. Another triumph for Canadian facilities I see, since the whole film was made in Ontario in 2016. Sally Hawkins must know quite a bit about filmmaking in Canada by now as she was in the Maritimes the year before shooting Maudie.
I realise that I haven’t acknowledged that The Shape of Water is a fantasy drama. I don’t like most pure fantasy films, but I love del Toro’s films because they speak about the ‘real world’ so elegantly.
The success of The Shape of Water has raised the possibility that Guillermo del Toro may be able to find a studio prepared to support him with the $35 – $40 million he needs to make his ‘darker’ version of Pinocchio set during the rise of fascism in Italy in the 1920s. It’s intended to be an animation for adults. It still seems unlikely that an American studio will come though with the money but it would be good if they did.
Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak is a companion piece for his early films The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del diablo, Spain-Mexico 2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno, Spain-Mexico-US 2006) and the film he helped to produce, El orfanato (The Orphanage 2007). But whereas these films combined the ‘gothic romance’ with a Spanish Civil War story via various rich metaphors, del Toro’s new film is essentially a re-working of a classic gothic romance narrative set in the early Edwardian period. Compared to the earlier films Crimson Peak is even more beautifully conceived and designed but unfortunately does not carry the same powerful political message. It does, however, offer a worthwhile commentary on the gothic romance and the presentation of ‘phantasms’.
The narrative involves an English ‘gentleman’ and his sister, Thomas and Lucille Sharpe (played by Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain), who visit Buffalo NY where Thomas seeks investment funds from the banker Carter Cushing. Thomas wants to build a mechanical extractor for the deposits of red clay on which his family property sits in the wilds of Cumberland. The blood-red clay is valuable for firing high-quality tiles but is also threatening the foundations of the great old house and seeping through the ground like blood. Thomas and Lucille leave America without investment funds but with Cushing’s daughter Edith (Mia Wasikowska) as the new Mrs Sharpe. They return to the great gothic mansion where the rest of the narrative plays out.
Once in the UK, Crimson Peak becomes more focused on a three-way power struggle in the classic gothic house with strict colour coding of costumes and fantastic attention to mise en scène, lighting and cinematography. The background to the production suggests that del Toro had been trying to make the film for a long time, but that he hung on until he found backers prepared to let him have the $50 million that he knew would be needed to create the spectacle that he wanted to create. This passion for the project is evident in the number of promotional videos that accompanied the film’s release, including one in which del Toro himself takes us through aspects of set design and the SFX needed to create his ‘phantasms’ – creations that are part digital effect and part traditional effects work (see the clip below).
I went to see Crimson Peak on a large multiplex screen, primarily to immerse myself in the production design and the richness of del Toro’s imagination. I wasn’t sure what kind of narrative to expect and I’m still not sure why I didn’t enjoy it more. Everything about the production is first class, including the three central performances. Del Toro’s ideas are gloriously realised in the set and I enjoyed the presentation of the phantasms. The film was shot in Canada and the one feature that didn’t work for me was the presentation of landscape. The mystery is why del Toro and his co-writer Matthew Robbins chose ‘Cumberland’ as the location for the house – and then presented it as an isolated house on a featureless snow-covered moor, so that it could really have been anywhere. There is a strong sense of landscape in British gothic stories set in the late 19th and into the 20th century. Think of The Hound of the Baskervilles, Hitchcock’s Rebecca or the more recent The Woman in Black. The landscape doesn’t have to be ‘factually correct’ but it should resonate with the story in some way. I seem to remember that del Toro shot in Northern Ireland on the Devil’s Causeway for Hellboy 2, so he has had some experience of the possibilities. Perhaps I’m just complaining because I want to see Cumbrian landscapes – I don’t worry about the Spanish locations in the earlier films, but that’s because they do seem to be part of the overall presentation of the Civil War.
Crimson Peak didn’t find the large audience that might have justified its production spend. I think that’s partly because gothic melodrama/romance is currently out of favour and is only acceptable as part of a package in which the potential horror story is strong enough on its own. By mixing the two in the way it is done here – appealing to two different audiences – del Toro has not really satisfied either. I suspect that the focus on the production design has meant that the script received less attention than it should have done. Thinking back, the ingredients are there for a great melodrama – there are narrative elements about childhood and parenting that might have come from a Wilkie Collins novel – but somehow they don’t cohere.
Perhaps Crimson Peak will become a cult film through theatrical revivals – I’m glad I saw it on a big screen.
Guillermo del Toro introduces one feature of his elaborate studio set:
. . . and here’s another:
Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish-set films are discussed in Chapter 4 of The Global Film Book.