The latest from Guillermo del Toro is a mix of the old-fashioned and the modern. The Shape of Water follows a fairy tale romance between a mute cleaning lady working in a government lab and a humanoid sea creature. Set in 1960s America amidst the backdrop of the Cold War, it pays tribute to Hollywood’s Golden Age, particularly its musicals and its monster movies while also showing influences ranging from melodrama to silent comedy.
Below is a mix of 10 movies to watch after you see The Shape of Water including some directly reference works plus films that I find relevant and worth recommending.
Beauty and the Beast (1946)
The fairy tale as old as time, or at least that seems to be, is one of the most influential stories for Hollywood fantasy romances. A man or woman winds up in love with a non-human creature in spite of the latter’s physically differences, sometimes with happily-ever-after results. As far as actual adaptations of the 18th century story, Disney may have the most iconic version but this Jean Cocteau and Rene Clement film offers its greatest cinematic translation.
Del Toro told Variety of the fairy tale’s influence on The Shape of Water:
“The idea was to create, through fantasy and science fiction forms, a new type of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ in which the beauty is someone you can relate to — not a perfect princess. And the beast doesn’t need to transform to find love.”
Typically the happy endings in movies like Beauty and the Beast do involve the non-human creature becoming human. Sometimes, though, it’s the human character who is transformed or at least somehow made to fit the other’s world. We see this satirically done in Shrek, but before that there’s Splash with the main character able to breathe underwater in the end (though only when he’s with his mermaid girlfriend), and now in del Toro’s film, Hawkins’s character, Elisa, is given gills in order to live happily ever after underwater with her amphibious lover.
Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (1948)
Long before Splash, there was this little-remembered movie that similarly reimagines the “Little Mermaid” story as a modern romantic comedy. William Powell plays a man who, while vacationing in the Caribbean with his wife (Irene Harvey), catches and falls in love with a mermaid (Ann Blyth). Hijinx ensues when he puts the beautiful creature in his hotel bathroom and attempts to hide her from the missus.
The genders of the main characters here are reverse from those in The Shape of Water, but in this movie the female is also mute, save for her singing voice heard at the end — somewhat akin to the title creature in “The Little Mermaid.” Also, spoiler alert: unlike del Toro’s movie and Splash and the Disney version of “The Little Mermaid,” there’s not quite a happy ending for the strange affair of Mr. Peabody and his fish-tailed lover.
The Red Shoes (1948)
Among the influences on The Shape of Water are the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, with this being one of his absolute favorites. “Lush Technicolor extravaganza,” he called it in a tweet last year. “One of the most beautiful, poignant films I’ve seen. Perfection.” He added in a reply “This film has, over the years, become a bigger and bigger influence on the way I view filmmaking. And my stories.”
More than just being an influence on his latest, though, The Red Shoes is explicitly referenced in the design of Elisa’s apartment with its arched windows, as del Toro acknowledges in another tweet from this year. Red is also the color assigned to Hawkins’s character in the movie’s color palette. Allusions to the Powell and Pressburger movie Black Narcissus can also be seen in the cinematography of The Shape of Water.
Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)
One of the more obvious homages of The Shape of Water is made to this classic entry into the Universal Monsters canon. But the connection isn’t just that both movies involve an amphibian man. Del Toro has cited a specific inspiration from Jack Arnold’s creature feature: the scene where Kay (Julie Adams) is swimming and being stalked underwater by the title character, Gill-Man (Ricou Browning). Here’s what he told the LA Times at the Venice Film Festival this year:
“I’ve had this movie in my head since I was 6, not as a story but as an idea. When I saw the creature swimming under Julie Adams, I thought three things: I thought, ‘Hubba-hubba.’ I thought, ‘This is the most poetic thing I’ll ever see.’ I was overwhelmed by the beauty. And the third thing I thought is, ‘I hope they end up together.’
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, del Toro reveals that he loved the design of the Creature and also took to ‘shipping Gill-Man and Kay together in fan-art drawings where “I had them eating ice cream, on a double bicycle, having dinner…” After growing up and becoming a filmmaker, he pitched Universal on his more romantic take on this movie but “they didn’t go for that.” So, he made The Shape of Water instead.