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By Jake Watt
11th January 2018

With Guillermo del Toro winning the Golden Globe for Best Director, 'The Shape of Water’ is being hailed as the merman-mute woman Cold War romance movie that you never knew you needed. The film’s origins can be traced back to when del Toro was 7 years old, when he watched Jack Arnold’s ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’ (1954), the horror movie about a gilled man captured by scientists in the Amazonian jungle.

“The creature was the most beautiful design I'd ever seen,” he recalled. “And I saw him swimming under [actress] Julie Adams, and I loved that the creature was in love with her, and I felt an almost existential desire for them to end up together. Of course, it didn't happen.” So young del Toro made it happen, sketching the fish-man and his love interest over and over again. “I had them eating ice cream, on a double bicycle, having dinner,” he said.

Super weird story, Guillermo... but sympathy for The Creature (or Gill-man) might be a little less strange than it sounds. For example, in Billy Wilder’s classic 1955 comedy ‘The Seven Year Itch’, Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell come out of a theatre showing ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’. Monroe expresses some sympathy for the Gill-man, saying that it was not really bad and “just wanted to be loved”. Flash forward to 2017, and people are swooning over the superhero Aquaman (Jason Momoa), inexplicably re-imagined from the comics to the screen as the superhero with the most obvious sex appeal in 'Justice League'. It seems Hollywood has been pushing a pro-merman agenda for quite a while.

Here are seven other films that explore aquatic relationships...

1) Splash (1984)
Director: Ron Howard

While driving down the PCH near Malibu in 1977, Brian Grazer - then 25 years old - thought about what it would be like to meet a mermaid and fall in love. For seven years, he was turned down by most Hollywood studios until he revised his pitch for ‘Splash’ to be more of a love story between a man and a mermaid.

The fantasy rom-com - which earned an Oscar nomination in the Original Screenplay category for screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel – proved to be the breakout role for Tom Hanks ('The Post') as Allen Bauer, a man who falls for a woman, Madison (Daryl Hannah), who tries to hide the fact that she is a mermaid walking around New York City, and the mythical creature Allen came across as a child.

Horrifyingly, in the United States, the name Madison (the mermaid having named herself after Madison Avenue) went from the 216th most popular name for girls in 1990, to 29th in 1995, and 3rd by 2000 due to the film’s cultural impact.

2) Dagon (2001)
Director: Stuart Gordon

A boating accident runs a young man (Ezra Godden) and woman (Raquel Meroño) ashore in the decrepit Spanish fishing town of Imboca, which they discover is in the grip of an ancient sea god, Dagon, and its monstrous half-human offspring. Overacting ensues.

This very gory Spanish horror film directed by Stuart Gordon (‘Re-Animator’, ‘Fortress’) is actually loosely based on legendary author H. P. Lovecraft's novella 'The Shadow Over Innsmouth' rather than his earlier short story 'Dagon' (1919). Both are part of the author’s Cthulhu Mythos, using its motif of a malign undersea civilisation of fish men, the Deep Ones.

Guillermo del Toro is a well-known H.P. Lovecraft fanboy and very badly wanted to adapt the story ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ into a film in 2006 - it isn’t a stretch to think that he would be influenced by Lovecraft’s fish creatures when he created his own for ‘The Shape of Water’.

3) The Big Blue (1988)
Director: Luc Besson

Director Luc Besson (‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’, ‘The Fifth Element’) grew up with parents who both worked as Club Med scuba diving instructors and spent much of his youth traveling with them to tourist resorts in Italy, Yugoslavia and Greece. Influenced by this, as a child he planned to become a marine biologist until an accident left him unable to dive. Acknowledging that his life plans were turned upside down, Besson wrote on a piece of paper all the things he was still able to do. In his words, “I saw that I loved writing, I loved images, I was taking a lot more pictures. So I thought maybe movies would be good.”

With beautiful underwater scenes and a languid score composed by Éric Serra, Besson’s film ‘The Big Blue’ is a heavily fictionalised and dramatised story of the friendship and sporting rivalry between two leading contemporary champion free divers in the 20th century.

Jacques Mayol (played by Jean-Marc Barr, ‘Dancer in the Dark’, ‘Dogville’) is involved in scientific research into human aquatic potential when he is called upon to compete against his childhood friend, the cocky Enzo Maiorca (played by Jean Reno, ‘Léon: The Professional’). Both men set no-limits category deep diving records below 100 metres.

A large part of the film involves Mayol's fictionalised relationship with his girlfriend Johana Baker (played by Rosanna Arquette, ‘Pulp Fiction’, ‘Crash’) and her struggle to reconcile that her lover, with his dolphin-like physiology, may truly belong in the depths of the ocean.

4) The Bermuda Depths (1978)
Director: Tsugunobu Kotani

This is a weird film.

Orphaned college dropout Magnus Dens (Leigh McCloskey) returns to Bermuda to find the cause of his father's mysterious death years before. At the Bermuda Biological Station, he finds Eric (Carl Weathers, ‘Predator’, ‘Sandy Wexler’), a friend and colleague of his late father, and joins him on a quest for gigantic sea creatures. He also meets Jennie Haniver (Connie Sellecca), who was once his only childhood friend, and learns the legend of a young woman who had sold her soul centuries ago and is said to live deep in the waters of the Devil's Triangle.

One can't help but note the similarities with ‘Splash’, but this is a much darker, more uneasy blend of science fiction and mystical fantasy, co-written by Arthur Rankin Jr of Rankin/Bass Productions fame (he created stop-motion animation features such as ‘Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer’, ‘Frosty the Snowman’, and ‘Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town’).

A Japanese / American co-production, the special effects (by Tsuburaya Productions, most famous for the ‘Ultraman’ franchise) are dead ringers for ones from Japanese “kaiju” giant monster movies, complete with blatant miniatures in the water tank shots. The giant turtle even looked a lot like ‘Gamera’ in some shots.

5) Ponyo (2008)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki

The plot of this Japanese animated film focuses on a goldfish named Ponyo (voiced by Yuria Nara) who befriends a five-year-old human boy, Sōsuke (voiced by Hiroki Doi), and wants to become a human girl.

Hayao Miyazaki (‘The Wind Rises', ‘The Tale of the Princess Kaguya’) said his inspiration was the Hans Christian Andersen story 'The Little Mermaid', but his inspiration was more abstract than a story. The seaside village where the story takes place is inspired by Tomonoura, a real town in Setonaikai National Park in Japan, where Miyazaki stayed in 2005. Miyazaki was intimately involved with the hand-drawn animation in ‘Ponyo’. He preferred to draw the sea and waves himself, and enjoyed experimenting with how to express this important part of the film. The level of detailed drawing present in the film resulted in 170,000 separate images - a record for a Miyazaki film.

‘Ponyo’ is essentially a children's love story, driven with monomaniacal ferocity by Ponyo and Sousuke's pure mutual affection. Composer Joe Hisaishi underscores this intensity, calling up mighty swells of strings to accompany Ponyo's first ascent to the surface, and later evoking Wagner's 'Ride of the Valkyries' in a stunning sequence where Ponyo chases down a speeding car while running atop a cascading tsunami of gigantic fish.

6) The Mermaid (2016)
Director: Stephen Chow

Liu Xuan (Deng Chao, ‘The Breakup Guru’, ‘Duckweed’) is a wealthy and arrogant businessman who uses sonar technology to disrupt the sea life in a wildlife reserve he has purchased. Neither Xuan nor the rest of the world is aware that the wildlife populace also includes a race of merpeople. Many of them are injured by the sonar, and the remaining mermaids take up residence in a waterlogged ship, plotting revenge out of sight (not unlike the Penguin and his circus henchmen in ‘Batman Returns’). The group sends mermaid Shan (Lin Yun) as a “honey trap” to capture Xuan’s affections and hopefully leave him vulnerable to be murdered by the merfolk, but she develops actual feelings for the man she’s supposed to destroy.

A relatively straightforward comic love story/environmental parable, the slapstick style of comedy of Stephen Chow (‘Shaolin Soccer’, ‘Kung Fu Hustle’) is evident throughout the movie, which is basically ‘Lust, Caution’ (2007) meets the documentary, ‘The Cove’ (2009).

7) The Lure (2015)
Director: Agnieszka Smoczyńska

This Polish horror musical film tells of two mermaids (Marta Mazurek and Michalina Olszanska) who emerge from the waters and perform in a Warsaw nightclub. One falls in love with a man, and gives up her tail, but loses her voice in the process, while the other hungers to dine on the human population of the city.

Beautifully filmed, with original creature effects, a real sense of menace, boobs, and a fantastic musical score, Smoczyńska is another filmmaker who wanted her film to be a retelling of 'The Little Mermaid', and developed her idea of mermaids from tales of the 14th to 16th century that described them as the sisters of dragons (and hence made them part monstrous). She likened the mermaids to immigrants, abused by the locals (used in the sex industry) on their way to their real goal: America. She added that they represent innocence, yet their odour and slime recalled girls maturing, "they menstruate, they ovulate, their bodies start smelling and feeling different."

‘The Shape of Water’ is released nationally in Australia on the 18th January 2018 via 20th Century Fox Film Distributors. Read our review here.

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