Oscar contender The Shape Of Water has been hit by a lawsuit claiming that its surreal plot is a rip-off of a 1969 play.
Director Guillermo del Toro has already won a BAFTA for the movie. It is also the most-nominated film at the Oscars, with 13 nods including best picture, best director and best actress.
It depicts a romance between a cleaner who works at a secret lab, played by British actress Sally Hawkins, and a mysterious river creature.
But legal papers filed in Los Angeles claim it “brazenly copies the story, elements, characters and themes” from a play called Let Me Hear You Whisper.
The lawsuit was filed by the son of playwright Paul Zindel, who died in 2003.
It lists what it claims are 60 resemblances between The Shape Of Water and the play.
They include the basic premise of a lonely cleaner working in a Cold War-era lab who forms a bond with a captive aquatic creature and tries to set it free.
However, in Let Me Hear You Whisper, the creature is a dolphin rather than a half-man, half-river creature.
Despite “glaring similarities”, the lawsuit claims Del Toro, producer Daniel Kraus and studio Fox Searchlight “never bothered to seek or obtain a customary licence” for the rights to the play – or credit Zindel.
Fox Searchlight said the claims were “baseless (and) wholly without merit” and appeared timed “to coincide with the Academy Award voting cycle in order to pressure our studio to quickly settle”.
Ballots to choose the Oscar winners were sent out to 8,000 members of the Academy just a day before the lawsuit was filed.
The studio said it would “vigorously defend ourselves and, by extension, this groundbreaking and original film”.