Director Guillermo Del Toro’s “The Shape Of Water” (playing everywhere) might not have the strangest premise of any film nominated for a best picture Oscar. But then again, it might. The “Crimson Peak” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” filmmaker’s movie follows the unlikeliest of love stories – between a mute, government facility janitor and the “Creature from the Black Lagoon”-ish fish-man held captive there.
Nominated for more a dozen Oscars alongside its nod for best picture (including the remarkable Sally Hawkins for best actress as the human half of the love story), “The Shape of Water” is as much about love of the movies as it is about love itself. The enigmatic gill-man (a disappointingly un-nominated Doug Jones) is a walking/swimming embodiment of the cinematic tradition of inner turmoil in love made (rubbery) flesh, but also – in one of the film’s most magical sequences – just another heartbroken lover in cinema’s thrall.
So here are some other monstrous love stories to get lost in this Valentine’s Day. Snuggle up with your monster.
“STARMAN” – Easing you into the whole interspecies romance idea, this 1984 sci-fi/road trip/love story follows the cross-country adventures of a grieving young widow (a never-more-appealing Karen Allen) and the glowing, non-corporeal alien that’s taken the shape of her late husband’s body. Again, human-creature love goes down easier when the creature in question looks like a mid-’80s Jeff Bridges, himself Oscar-nominated for playing the slightly glitchy alien as he attempts to learn our crazy human ways. And, like “The Shape of Water,” our ways leave a lot to be desired, as the government, upon discovering Bridges’ existence, attempts to shackle, dissect or otherwise destroy this powerful but noble visitor rather than, as the initially horrified Allen does, come to recognize that our “monsters” are often born of our own fear.
“SPRING” – This 2015 indie romance plays like a woozy, Italian-set romantic talkfest – like one of Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy – before changing genres so slyly into sci-fi/horror territory that viewers are left with a tipsy sense of wonder. Grieving American tourist Lou Taylor Pucci (of the “Evil Dead” remake) can’t believe his good fortune when he catches the eye of a mysterious, beautiful genetics student (Nadia Hilker, “Allegiant”), a sense of uneasy wonder that only deepens as the two young lovers’ ramblings through the Italian seaside continue to uncover strange and unsettling things. Writing-directing team Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, who made the similarly successful 2013 horror mind-screw “Resolution,” deliver a love story whose appeal never goes away, even when things get … fishy.
“THE FLY” – It’s a testament to stars Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis (falling in love while making the film) and director David Cronenberg that this 1986 remake of the classic-but-silly Vincent Price horror film emerges as one of the best tragic love stories in the genre. Especially since this updated take on the dangers of (literal) bugs in transportation technology contains some of the most effectively nauseating and horrifying special effects ever, as Goldblum’s scientist finds his body reacting – let’s call it, unpredictably – to a lab accident. The concept of “beauty and the beast” is a horror/fantasy staple, but “The Fly” sees Davis and Goldblum embody the dark side of the fairytale right up to the inevitable conclusion.
“BEAUTY AND THE BEAST” – And since we’re talking about it, let’s rewind past the various Disney-fied versions of this old French fable to 1946, when legendary director and artist Jean Cocteau made a swooningly romantic version starring Josette Day as Belle and Jean Marais as the majestically fuzzy-faced Beast. Like even the most rosy versions of the old tale, the inevitable happy ending, restoring the Beast’s human form, is a letdown. (Marlene Dietrich, watching the film’s premiere, is said to have cried aloud, “Where is my beautiful beast?” when the foppish prince, also played by Marais, completed his transformation.) But along the way, Cocteau spins a magnificent dreamlike tale that, at its best, finds uniquely cinematic ways to portray the ineffable, often frightening, always baffling nature of love and desire. Because, as “The Shape of Water” also knows at its heart, love is a strange and beautiful beast.
COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS
Thursday: “Quest.” Filmmaker Jonathan Olshefski spent a decade with the Rainey family of North Philadelphia making this acclaimed, life-affirming, heartbreaking documentary. Christopher and Christine’a Rainey raise a family and an adopted community of aspiring hip-hop artists in their home, weathering the trials of time and racial strife in a changing America. Followed by a live video chat with the Rainey family and the filmmaker.
Friday-Sunday: “The Other Side of Hope.” Legendary Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki’s newest exercise in deadpan human comedy follows a Syrian refugee and a middle-aged Helsinki dreamer as they form an unlikely friendship.