We’ve Loved Monster Movies Like “The Shape of Water” for 100 Years

Culture Watch
tags: The Shape of Water

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

The hit movie The Shape of Water, set in Baltimore in 1960, that won the Oscar for Best Picture last night, is about a science laboratory girl who cannot speak who falls in love with a monster, a “Merman” from the ocean captured by the government. The success of the The Shape of Water is not unique. The screen, stage and television are booming with old-time monsters these days. They are crawling and stomping from theater to theater, with a few stops at wide-screen television, scaring the daylights out of everybody. Some are new but most, like the Merman (Creature from the Black Lagoon trilogy in the 1950s), Frankenstein and those madcap dinosaurs from Jurassic Park, are back from their historical roots.

America has always been obsessed with monsters in entertainment, back to 1931’s Dracula and Frankenstein movies. There have been more than 70 Frankenstein movies and plays and over 100 about Dracula in some form. The latest, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, just opened Off Broadway at the Signature Theater in New York. Netflix is debuting a new series, The Frankenstein Chronicles. SP Books, in London, is producing a facsimile copy of the original Frankenstein book, with Shelley’s notes and changes, this spring to mark the 200th anniversary of its publication. Dr. Frankenstein’s creature is not the only old chestnut being resuscitated. Godzilla is another. There have been more than 30 Godzilla movies and New York’s Japan Society just screened that film again and, on another evening, added a lecture on the film. The big guy from 1950s Japan will be back again next year in Godzilla: King of Monsters.

How about King Kong, one of the all-time champion monsters? He starred in Kong: Skull Island two years ago and is slated for a return in 2020 in, are you ready for this, Godzilla vs. Kong, the ultimate monster smackdown. Speaking of apes, how about all of those Planet of the Apes movies? The ninth and latest, The War for the Planet of the Apes, was on the screen just a year ago and more are surely planned.

The entertainment king of monsterdom, of course, is the Phantom of the Opera. The Phantom was created by Frenchman Gaston Leroux and was published as a novel in 1910. The 1925 silent movie The Phantom of the Opera starred actor Lon Chaney and was a hig hit. The novel/movie was turned into a Broadway musical in 1986 by Andrew Lloyd Webber, who wrote the music (lyrics by Charles Hart) and the book (with Richard Stilgoe). It was directed by Harold Prince. The musical was an immediate success. The stirring songs from the show were played on commercial radio stations and became hits. The show has been produced all over the world. It is still running on Broadway, a constant audience favorite, just as good as it was back in 1986.

The formula for Phantom’s success? 1) it is a solid love story of the grotesque monster and the gorgeous young girl, with her boyfriend thrown into the tale to create the love triangle. 2) we loathe the monster but at the same time love him because, in a way, he represents all of us if we found ourselves in his situation. 3) it is scary. The Phantom of the Opera is best known for its music, but the show, from start to finish, frightens you. Will the girl escape the horrid Phantom’s clutches? Will the Phantom blow up the opera house? Will all those good people be killed?

The ghoulish Phantom looks really scary. So Does Dracula, King Kong and Frankenstein’s creature and the Merman. All monster movies, television shows and plays have great special effects and cinematography, as does the play Phantom of the Opera, the movies King Kong and The Shape of Water and the Zombie shows.

The formula has been copied for nearly 100 years and is the foundation of the monster movie/play/television series. Plays like Phantom and films like The Shape of Water are, in fact, the perfect monster stories.

What else is up next on the stage? Yet another production of King Kong, either late in 2018 or in the spring of 2019. The monsters are not just prowling about the New York theater district, either. She Kills Monsters was a play by Qui Nguyen that debuted last year at the University of California at San Diego. London theatergoers had a chance to see A Monster Calls last season. Every month, somewhere around the world, a theater is staging some version of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story.

Mummy movies, so popular in the 1930s, are constantly jumping out of the sand somewhere these days. In one of the latest thrillers, The Monsters, the producers use an old plot line -- a mom and daughter have to leave their car at night and run into a big ogre.

Monsters are just everywhere and just about all of them are history’s monsters. You want eerie Zombies, that have been around since the ‘30s? See not only The Walking Dead, but Fear of the Walking Dead and, oh, Z-Nation, IZombie and I Survived the Zombie Apocalypse. There is also a soft-core porn movie about Zombies (no, I did not watch it!). There was a musical, Monster Makers, that debuted in 2015 in New York, that was devoted to the return of history’s monsters and examined the monster films of the 1920s and 1930s.

You want dinosaurs? There have been not one, not two but three Jurassic Park movies, and another scheduled for next summer, about modern day dinos who wander about chasing people, just like they did back in the black and white films of the 1930s. Dragons? How much farther back in history can you go than the fire-breathing dragons of yore? They are back, with gusto, in the popular Game of Thrones HBO television series.

The Shape of Water is a perfect example of old-time monsters that are back in style. In 1960, a mute girl falls in love with the captive Mermen, who is controlled by the awful and nasty science and military people where she works. She is lovable and the Merman, who looks just like the scaly star of The Creature from the Black Lagoon falls for her as they are chased through Baltimore. Will they survive to love, and scare, another day?

Since the debut of movies, the screen has been full of big gorillas, Zombies, killer sharks, dinosaurs, werewolves, vampires, sea creatures, zombies and mummies of all stripes. Back in the 1950s there were dozens of movies that featured ugly and menacing monsters created by nuclear explosions. These were small ants or birds that fell prey to radiation and grew into enormous, and quite angry, monsters (Godzilla was the Emperor of those flicks). They are not confined to earth, either, but cavort throughout space (remember the ugly, slippery old boy who burst out of the guy’s chest in the Alien space ship?)

None of them are locked into the confines of 1950s movies, either. They are back and bigger than ever. Why do we love monster movies, especially the old villains? Mostly because they are scary and we like to be terrified.

“People go to (monster) movies because they want to be frightened or they wouldn’t do it,” said Dr. Jeffrey Goldstein of the University of Utrecht in an interview in the Imagine Games Network magazine. He and other academics insist that they are scary but only on the screen. People do connect monsters to reality and never have.

Dr. Glenn Walters, in a study published in Psychology Today wrote that people know monsters in movies are fictional, and so they can shake and tremble knowing they ae not going to actually get hurt. These same people, studies show, are absolutely appalled when watching videos of real people being attacked or hurt is some way.

Dr. Deirdre Johnson, writing in a 1995 issue of Human Communication Research, magazine said that people enjoy the tension and suspense of monster movies. They do not attach themselves to the monster, but to the victims, hoping that they stay alive.

What makes these movies so horrifying?

There are elements in monster films that you do not find in others and audiences are attracted to them. As early as 1931, a critic in the New York Times wrote that monster movies all seem to have night scenes, lots of thick, mysterious fog, scary background noises and an odd romance tucked into them somewhere. They still do now, nearly ninety years later. Out of that common frightful backdrop emerge the monsters of the past – back again.

In 1931, too, a critic for the Hollywood Reporter noted that we love monsters because they cannot be controlled. People can “try as they might to tame…the monster (but) he goes on killing,” wrote that critic.

In addition to that formula, the monster movies of the past, and today, also blend in the classic plot of the noble scientist in search of the truth battling the dreaded military men bent on protecting the nation from evil spirits from the unknown, as they do in The Shape of Water. Tossed in is at least one damsel in distress. It is an unbeatable combination.

Can monster movies sustain themselves in the future, when the world will be very different? Of course they will. In 2118, look for King Kong Once Again Meets Godzilla, Frankenstein 55 and the DInosaurs of Cyberworld Park.

Oooooooooooh, they will be scary, too…

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