Why 'The Shape of Water' Oscar Win Is Historically Creepy

How the release of 'Creature from the Black Lagoon' connects.

Universal/Fox Searchlight

Exactly 64 years ago in 1954, Julia Adams swam across the Amazon river while a misunderstood sea creature lurked beneath. The sea creature was in love with her, and the film inspired a young Guillermo del Toro to eventually make The Shape of Water as a kind of homage. That film just won the Oscar for Best Picture on Sunday, March 4, 2018. Creature from the Black Lagoon was released on March 5, 1954.

It’s poetic, and just a bit eerie is that del Toro won almost 64 years to the day that his biggest and most obvious inspiration was released. (Sure, technically, Creature premiered on February 12, 1954, but it was in wide-release on March 5, 1954.

But how is Creature like Shape of Water? The plot for Creature is as “classic monster” movie as it gets: On an expedition to the Amazon to investigate the origins of a bizarre fossil — a hand with webbed fingers — a group of American geologists become victims of a murderous humanoid amphibian they come to know as the “Gill-man.”

Sally Hawkins in 'The Shape of Water.' (2018)

Fox Searchlight Pictures

In an interview with Inverse back in November, actor Doug Jones, who played the fish-man in del Toro’s film, said The Shape of Water was “birthed” from del Toro’s love for Creature. “That was his early influence to make movies in general,” Jones said. “He fell in love with monsters early on.”

The scene that caught del Toro’s attention happens 20 minutes into the film, where Julia Adams — who plays Kay Lawrence — swims while the Gill-man follows several feet below. “It was a beautiful and terrifying scene,” describes Jones, “And [del Toro] said it was in that moment he fell in love with both of them. He had a crush on Julia Adams, and he had a crush on the creature.”

Jones said del Toro’s infatuation went beyond the screen, “to the point of drawing doodles of Julia Adams and the Gill-man holding hands on a beach or riding a bicycle or having a picnic. These were drawings he actually did.”

'Creature from the Black Lagoon' (1954)


With The Shape of Water, del Toro “wanted to make the movie, finally, where the monster gets the girl. He created a world and two hearts that would actually make it possible to work.”

Now, Creature is the basis for an Oscar-winning film. But its legacy doesn’t end there. Among its achievements behind the scenes were its remarkable underwater feats, as well as its intentional framing suited for its 3D theatrical release.

Ricou Browning, who played the Gill-man, recalled in a 2013 interview about shooting underwater without an oxygen tank. “I remember the difficulty doing it,” he told NJ.com. Looking through the eyes of the mask was “like looking through a keyhole,” and underwater, “everything is blurred.” Luckily, the crew shot the Julia Adams scene while swimming downstream, which helped propel Browning without too much effort.

Browning also had to swim without an oxygen tank, as the suit would have been too bulky with one. The actor relied on breathing tubes held by four “safety men” who were stationed outside each frame.

“The cameraman would give me a signal that he’s ready. I would breathe from the hose, and then I’d let him know I’m ready for the scene. I’d let go of the hose, give it to the safety man, go into the scene, hold my breath, and do the scene … holding my breath,” Browning explained. “Then I would go to another safety man on the other side of the frame, and get another air hose to breathe from.”

Creature from the Black Lagoon was shot in 3D, so many of the shots are framed with 3D in mind. Several times Browning’s Gill-man “reaches” for the camera, not unlike how today’s movies from James Cameron or Marvel are framed. Though 3D films were waning by the mid-’50s when Creature was released, the film was released in polarized light format, which meant audiences saw the film with gray glasses — like today’s real3D — as opposed to the inferior red and blue lenses.

Now, all Guillermo del Toro has to do to complete the circle is to get a special edition of Shape of Water together, only this time, release it in 3D.

For those eager to see what inspired this year’s Oscar winner, Creature from the Black Lagoon is available on Amazon, Hulu, Vudu, iTunes, Google Play, and other paid streaming services.

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