This Is a Movie Review: With ‘The Shape of Water,’ Guillermo del Toro Re-Molds the Classic Creature Feature According to His Vision

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CREDIT: Fox Searchlight Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2017.

Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, David Hewlett, Nick Searcy

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Running Time: 123 Minutes

Rating: R for Penetration From a Monster, Both of the Variety That Causes Massive Bleeding and Frustrated Profanity and the Kind That Results in Ecstasy

Release Date: December 1, 2017 (Limited)

If you are a fan of ’50s and ’60s creature features but wish that they concluded with the heroine and the monster consummating their love, then it should be not surprising to discover that you have a kindred spirit in Guillermo del Toro. With The Shape of Water, there is now proof of that truism in feature-length form.

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute woman working as a custodian at a government research facility in 1962 Baltimore when an amphibious humanoid referred to as “The Asset” (Doug Jones and a bunch of movie magic) is brought in from South America. With a condition that renders her an eternal outsider, it only makes thematic sense that Elisa would be drawn to The Asset. Now, my natural inclination would be to push against such a longstanding trope, but when one half of a coupling is a fantastical being, symbolic meanings are hard to avoid. And in this particular case, Elisa and The Asset’s attraction does appear to go deeper than their shared general abuse at the hands of society. Words cannot capture it, but it is undeniable that they see the world in compatible ways.

There are plenty of other sci-fi B-movie hallmarks blown out to full intensity to provide color around the monster shagging. As a colonel in charge of The Asset, Michael Shannon runs around barking orders at everybody, and I’m not sure if that’s more of a B-movie trademark or a Michael Shannon trademark, or just the perfect marriage of the two. As the lead scientist with a secret identity who wants to preserve The Asset, Michael Stuhlbarg gets a two-for-one deal of nuclear era tropes. Octavia Spencer, as another custodian and Elisa’s closest friend at work, does not necessarily fit into the mold of a classic creature feature character, but her presence is invaluable. And being that this is mid-century America, Richard Jenkins plays the tragically closeted artist; his story is saddest when he is no longer able to have any of his beloved diner-fresh slices of pie.

But this is Elisa and The Asset’s story through and through. Everything else is important, but in the grand scheme of things, they are all just in service of the lovingly shot, artfully composed, and almost too indulgent (but not quite) sex scenes. Let’s just say that Sally Hawkins is not shy. But hey, when you find love that is this real and unbridled, you owe it to yourself, like Elisa, to be rid of all timidity.

The Shape of Water is Recommended If You Like: Creature From the Black Lagoon but wish it had been more explicitly romantic

Grade: 4 out of 5 Slices of Key Lime Pie

This Is a Movie Review: The Bye Bye Man

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the-bye-bye-man-library

This review was originally published on News Cult in January 2017.

Starring: Douglas Smith, Cressida Bonas, Lucien Laviscount, Doug Jones, Carrie-Anne Moss

Director: Stacy Title

Running Time: 96 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Nearly R-Level Gore and Scares, Plus a Few Bare Butts

Release Date: January 13, 2017

They say that true character comes through in a crisis, and The Bye Bye Man interprets that maxim to mean that its characters should be as boring as possible when introduced. But once the titular demon creature ramps up his tactics to maximum frights, everyone suddenly becomes at least halfway interesting. But the first act is a textbook example from the School of Banal Horror Set-Ups.

Three University of Wisconsin students – Elliott (Douglas Smith), his girlfriend Sasha (Cressida Bonas), and best bud/third wheel John (Lucien Laviscount) – move into an off-campus house with some creepy old furniture together. They throw a housewarming party that is defined by bros calling each other “bro” and playing beer pong. Their distinct lack of any definable personalities persists, as creepy shadows start going bump in the night. In sum: I do not care what happens to these characters, and the blank slate of a villain does not entertain me.

Just as The Bye Bye Man is about to lose me completely, though, it finally shows its winning cinematic hand. Disorienting angles and warped set design bring you into the world of the title bogeyperson. The Bye Bye Man’s (Doug Jones) deadly tactic is a sort of mental virus spread by the utterance of his name. If you hear it, you are stuck in his grasp, suffering hallucinations that play on your most paranoid fears. The mind tricks are filled with several instances of sly humor, which is where the film most excels. The Bye Bye Man is more about the twisted laughs of manipulation than the soul-crushing weight of ominousness.

When I first heard of The Bye Bye Man, I though that its patently silly title would be a major liability. But it turns out to actually be its biggest strength. It is plainly ridiculous that anyone should be scared to say or hear something as goofily alliterative as “the Bye Bye Man.” And that is indeed how most of characters initially react, but that plays right into The B.B.M.’s trap. This flick is well worth seeing in a packed theater; every utterance of “the Bye Bye Man” is bound to simultaneously provoke genuine dread and exasperated laughs at its stupidity.

The Bye Bye Man is Recommended If You Like: The Final Destination series, the spider walk scene from The Exorcist, the original Evil DeadHalloween

Grade: 3 out of 5 Demon Dogs