In the charm stakes, he’s hardly Cary Grant, but the goofy-looking amphibian in The Shape of Water upholds a tradition of monster movies that have captured the public’s imagination since the early days of cinema.
Guillermo del Toro’s genetically-modified story of love blossoming between his merman-like star and a mute human underscored the popularity of the genre on Sunday, with Oscars wins for best picture and director.
The old Universal creature features, modern Japanese ghost stories and innumerable gorefests involving the undead in various states of decay might trouble even the sturdiest constitution.
But the monster movie straddles numerous genres other than horror — from comedy and fantasy to science fiction — and Del Toro is capitalising on cinema’s love affair with the cuddly, loveable end of the market.
“Monsters aren’t always frightening or evil. The monsters of Pixar’s Monsters Inc. and certainly the title character of Harry and the Hendersons were charming and sweet,” writes John Landis, director of “An American Werewolf in London” (1981), in his book Monsters in the Movies.
“Even the most famous monster of them all, the Frankenstein Monster as portrayed by Boris Karloff in Frankenstein, is vulnerable and sympathetic.”
Paul Wegener’s 1915 German silent film The Golem is widely regarded as the first creature feature, while Nosferatu, still one of Germany’s most iconic horror films, came along seven years later.
US filmmakers got the bug in the 1930s, producing a series of German-influenced gothic tales about Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy and the Invisible Man.
Spool forward a few decades and Jurassic Park (1993), Cloverfield (2008), Troll Hunter (2010) and Del Toro’s own Pacific Rim (2013) have all proved critical and commercial hits.
King Kong (1933), perhaps the most popular behemoth of them all, has become a cultural icon through various Japanese and US movies, with the most recent iterations, King Kong (2005) and Kong: Skull Island (2017), recouping more than $1 billion worldwide.
Other milestones include the stop-motion monsters of visual effects guru Ray Harryhausen, from Mighty Joe Young in 1949 through Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and Clash of the Titans (1981).
Harryhausen’s dinosaur flick The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) ushered in the wave of 1950s creature features capitalising on the nuclear paranoia of the age.