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I went to see this with big_daz on Wednesday night at the Everyman, Leeds. It's the second new release I've seen in the cinema this year, which is already more than I manage some years in total. If there were more films like this to go and see, that would be very different.

It is framed in multiple ways as a fairy tale. One is the two bookended voice-over sequences which begin by describing the main character, Elisa, as a princess and end by talking about her happy ending. They turn out to be voiced by her neighbour, who has spent his life painting advertising posters but is quickly being made obsolete by the camera, who keeps his television permanently tuned to old black-and-white musicals and comedies, and who ponders whether he was born too early or too late. That is, we are being told a story by a man disconnected from reality whose job is to sell fantasies. Elisa herself we first meet fast asleep on her couch, sunk deep into a watery dream-world, while throughout the film sound and light from the cinema over which she lives leak up into her apartment, and at one point she herself breaks out into a black-and-white song-and-dance routine to voice the love for the creature which she cannot speak. Perhaps some time in the decade before 1962 (the film's dramatic date) she has sat downstairs watching Creature from the Black Lagoon, absorbed its soundtrack in her sleep, and been living it in her dreams ever since? Later on, she returns the favour, sending the watery by-products of her own fantasy romance dripping onto customers nodding off in the auditorium below when she floods her bathroom to turn it into an aquatic playground. In fact, between her voicelessness and the fact that she was both found by water as a baby and ultimately finds her happiness there, she may as well be the Little Mermaid, on land only ever temporarily while she finds her prince.

All these markers of fairy-tale status are of course crucial cues in allowing us to accept the extraordinary story of a romance between an ordinary woman and a humanoid amphibian with magical powers. But they also allow us to enjoy another kind of fantasy alongside it: that of a bunch of underprivileged outsiders successfully sticking it to The Man. Elisa is mute. Giles, her ageing advertising-designer neighbour, is gay. Zelda, her best friend at the facility where they work, is black. And infiltrated into the facility's team of scientists is 'Bob', aka Dimitri, a Russian spy who has come to feel as strongly about science as he does about the motherland. Meanwhile, The Man himself manifests as Colonel Strickland, the facility's authoritarian, racist, misogynistic boss, who tortures the creature as much for fun as to learn anything from it and who takes the decision to vivisect it rather than trying to study it alive without it even occurring to him that this might be something to pause over, let alone actually doing so. In all this, he's the successor of Dr Mark Williams from the original film (LJ / DW), but much more starkly militaristic and exaggeratedly nasty. And boy, is it satisfying to see him out-foxed by our plucky band of misfits, pulling off the creature's liberation from the facility while he can't begin to imagine that they could even be capable of any such thing.

This might all sound rather heavy-handed, except that each character is drawn with such humanity it's impossible not to believe in them. In fact the entire story is approached with the same utter seriousness which makes Hammer's dark fairy-tales just as compelling. No-one here has their tongue in their cheek, or behaves like an avatar standing in for a particular social group. Instead, each has their own inner turmoil and believable home-life (Zelda's lazy husband, Dimitri's careful ironing), including Strickland, whose career trajectory still doesn't quite satisfy his perfect all-American wife. On both sides of the balance, it's important that these characters aren't clichés and don't jump straight into their assigned roles. Elisa's friends need a lot of persuasion before they'll help her rescue the creature, while we see the system that creates Strickland in the even less sympathetic General Hoyt above him, and in how easy it is for a smarmy car salesman to talk him into buying an expensive Cadillac in a colour he doesn't like.

The film is also dripping with deeply symbolic detail, which likewise might have seemed over-done if it weren't for the fairy-tale framing and the believability of the characters. Most obvious is the colour-palette, all muted, swampy greens and blues in scaly patterns to suit the aquatic theme, but also to set off occasional departures the more starkly - like the red dress and shoes which Elisa is suddenly wearing the day after she and the creature have found out how to express their affection physically. Perhaps next most obviously, the oppressive machinery of capitalism. Vents and pipes above the creature's tank resemble not only the original Gill-Man but also (to me at least) the Machine-Mammon from Metropolis (1927). Elisa, Zelda and their co-workers are slaves to the facility's clocking-in system and CCTV cameras. And when the creature staggers into the cinema below Elisa's apartment, he finds it showing scenes of slaves working in the mines from The Story of Ruth (1960).

shape-e-23118.jpg Machine Mammon Metropolis.jpg

The cinema complex itself is called the Orpheum, perfectly underpinning Elisa's use of music (and boiled eggs) to win the confidence of the creature - though she plays it jazz on a portable record player rather than singing to the lyre. The facility is called the Occam institute, which drove me to Wikipedia - I know the basic principle and couldn't see how it might apply to this story, but found my answer in the biology section, where it turns out that it has featured quite heavily in debates around evolution and the matter of whether or not any animals share human-style psychology. There we are very much amongst the concerns of del Toro's story. Finally, in case it wasn't clear enough how rotten Strickland is, he spends most of the film with two of his fingers, severed by the creature after one too many electric shocks and reattached by surgeons, blackening and reeking as the attachment fails and they die on his hand. Towards the end, in one of several body-horror moments which had me squirming in my seat and putting my own fingers over my eyes, he acts out just how literally he has gone to pieces by pulling them off and throwing them at the terrified Zelda. I'm sure there is much more besides.

Nothing quite stops the niggling world-building questions bubbling up. Like, if the creature is 'from the Amazon', why does it seem to need saline water and return quite happily to the ocean at the end? And how exactly would its ability to switch between lung- and gill-based breathing systems be any particular help in the Space Race, as both the Americans and Russians seems to think? But ultimately none of these matter next to Elisa's coy, satisfied smile and the electric blue lights flickering across the creature's body. For that, everyone involved deserves my profoundest thanks, and I only hope the cinema industry as a whole is watching and learning.


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