Gill-man, the legendary movie monster who first appeared as the titular antagonist in 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon, is set to enter a new stage of evolution in 2018 with the release of Guillermo Del Toro’s hotly tipped The Shape of Water.
Del Toro’s passion for the original Creature from the Black Lagoon is evident in the family resemblance between his new iteration and its forbearer, and in the key elements of DNA they share: their Amazonian origins, their role as genetic links between land and sea dwellers, and their tragic fates at the hands of science. But it's also clear that the director, no stranger to creating sympathetic depictions of otherworldly creatures, has taken a typically inventive approach to the monster’s conventionally-received mythos when crafting “the asset” at the heart of The Shape of Water. Here, the Creature has been repositioned as an unlikely romantic lead, and Julie Adams' screaming damsel has been replaced by Sally Hawkins' mute caretaker in a fantasy drama that’s seemingly more fairy tale than fright fest.
As audiences prepare to fall in love with Gill-man - perhaps as they never have before - we’re diving back into the murky depths of the monster’s past to uncover its influence on the creature features of today.
Though regularly counted among the canon of Universal monsters that defined much of Hollywood’s early golden age of horror cinema, Gill-man has proven more camera-shy than his prolific peers and boasts a reputation within the genre that exceeds his fairly limited filmography. Beyond his 1954 debut, the creature featured in two sequels - Revenge of the Creature and The Creature Walks Among Us - with further film appearances limited to cameo and supporting roles. The most notable of these is perhaps in The Monster Squad; Fred Dekker's 1987 remixing of the Universal monsters legacy that sees Gill-man join forces with fellow alumni Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, the Mummy and the Wolfman.
While the rest of the squad had appeared in various crossover titles in the past, this reunion was a first for Gill-man who's always been something of an outsider in Universal’s menagerie of terror. His first appearance came towards the tail end of the studio’s long-running horror cycle, some two decades after the likes of Dracula and Frankenstein, and was released in 3D just as the fad for the format in the 1950s flickered out. Despite his inauspicious beginnings, Gill-man did not flounder: Creature from the Black Lagoon would recapture the menacing magic of Universal’s best horrors and its star would join the ranks as one of the studio’s most iconic creations.
Much like his predecessors, Gill-man’s appeal is grounded in a characterisation that refuses to brand the Creature as wholly monstrous - while his victims, muscle-bound, harpooning-wielding scientists, are never shown to be entirely blameless. On dry land and under threat from the research expedition that has intruded upon his isolated habitat, Gill-man is ungainly, ugly and violent; but the film’s impressive underwater sequences also show him to be elegant and eerily beautiful. In a memorable scene, the Creature pursues the beautiful Kay as she enjoys a swim in the lagoon: the familiar musical cues and the proto-Jaws staging suggest something horrific, but the sequence ends on a note of timidity as the monster flees after brushing Kay’s ankle with his hand, his curiosity and longing unfulfilled.
The tragedy of this longing and the scientific world's cruel indifference towards it are the aspects of Gill-man's legacy most readily identifiable in The Shape of Water. Del Toro's story of an asset abused by insensitive captors and a woman deprived of conventional language promises to be a fitting homage to Creature from the Black Lagoon and its niggling undercurrent: is the Gill-man a monster, or is he simply misunderstood?