Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) was found abandoned as an infant beside a river with wounds on her neck. She is mute and communicates in sign language. In 1962, during the Cold War, she works as a cleaner at a secret government laboratory in Baltimore and lives a sheltered, routine life. Her only friends are her closeted neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), who works as an illustrator, and her co-worker Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer). Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) has captured a mysterious amphibian creature (Doug Jones) from a South American river and brought it to the Baltimore lab for study. Elisa visits it often.
General Frank Hoyt (Nick Searcy) is persuaded by Strickland to vivisect the creature. Doctor Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a scientist at the lab, but secretly a Russian spy named Dmitri Mosenkov, and he thinks it should be studied alive. His Soviet handlers also want it dead so the Americans will learn nothing from it. When Elisa hears about these plans, she persuades her neighbor Giles to help her liberate the creature. Hoffstetler stumbles on her plot and decides to help her. Zelda gets drawn in on the scheme.
Elisa plans to release the Amphibian Man in a nearby canal when heavy rain will facilitate access to the ocean, but until then she keeps it in the bathtub. Strickland interrogates everyone after the creature disappears but learns nothing. Giles discovers the Amphibian Man eating one of his cats. Startled, the creature wounds him and escapes. But Elisa finds him in the movie theater downstairs and brings him back. The creature touches Giles’ head and the wound, and in the morning Giles’s hair is growing back and his wound has healed. Elisa ends up having sex with the creature.
General Hoyt turns up at the lab and tells Strickland he has 36 hours to recover the creature. Hoffstetler is told he will be called back to the USSR in two days. The Amphibian Man’s health begins to deteriorate. Hoffstetler meets his handlers and Strickland trails him. Hoffstetler is shot by a handler but Strickland kills both handlers. Strickland tortures Hoffstetler to learn about the plan to free the Amphibian Man and discovers that Elisa and Zelda are behind it. Strickland threatens Zelda at home and her husband Brewster (Martin Roach) reveals that Elisa has him. Strickland finds them at the docks. The Amphibian Man is healed and slashes Strickland’s throat. As the police arrive, the Amphibian Man takes Elisa and dives into the canal. When he applies his healing touch to the scars on her neck, they become the gills she was born with.
The film was directed by Guillermo del Toro and written by him and Vanessa Taylor. It was filmed in Ontario. It premiered at the Seventh Venice International Film Festival and received the Golden Lion Award. It was acclaimed by critics and selected as one of the top ten films of the year by the American Film Institute. It received thirteen nominations at the 90th Academy Awards and won for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Design, and Best Original Score. It was nominated for seven Golden Globes and won two. It was nominated for twelve awards at the British Academy and won three. And it was nominated for fourteen of the Critics Choice Awards, winning four. It has 92% on Rotten Tomatoes.
The story was inspired by del Toro’s childhood memories of Creature from the Black Lagoon. He tried to make a romance out of a remake of Creature, but the idea was rejected. Sally Hawkins prepared for her role by watching silent films of Charlie Chaplain, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and especially Stan Laurel. Doug Jones was terrified to play a lead in a movie but studied dancers to get the movements right. Michael Shannon, as the villain, was fascinated by the idea that, if the movie had been made in the Fifties, he would have been the hero. Rex Reed called the film loopy, lunkheaded drivel, but he called the mute woman mentally handicapped and said it was directed by Benicio del Toro.
Sally Hawkins was the only choice for Elisa. The Amphibian Man’s vocalizations were based on del Toro’s breathing. Octavia Spencer thought it wonderful that the two leads were mute, so most of the dialogue was by a black woman and a gay man, who would not have had a voice in the early Sixties. She said she would have played a desk if del Toro asked her to. The dance sequence with Elisa and the Creature was based on one by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. There seems to be a family resemblance between the Amphibian Man and Abe Sapien of Hellboy. Del Toro said he wanted to see a romance between Julie Adams and the Creature from the Black Lagoon when he first saw that film, but he was six and didn’t know better. Now he was 53 and still didn’t know better.