DECEMBER 23 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : SWAMP THING (1982)
WHEN you have a horror film in which the ''creature'' looks like John Foster Dulles permanently stuck inside a scuba diver's cast-off wet suit, a rubbery, greenish thing fitted with its own varicosities, you can be fairly sure the movie is meant to be funny.
Wes Craven's ''Swamp Thing,'' which opens today at the Embassy 2 and other theaters, wants desperately to be funny and, from time to time, it is. However, you might wish it would trust the audience to discover the humor for itself.
Unlike Lewis Teague's and John Sayles's ''Alligator,'' a witty, appreciative send-up of monster movies, ''Swamp Thing'' seems afraid the audience will not get the point unassisted by outrageously jokey dialogue and exaggerated techniques. These include old-fashioned ''wipes,'' in which one scenes is succeeded by the next as if being swept off the screen by a windshield wiper or some other identifiable instrument.
''Swamp Thing'' does have the virtue of being single-mindedly hokey, though it's a far more elaborate production than either ''Last House on the Left'' or ''The Hills Have Eyes.'' They are the two solemnly brutal, low-budget exploitation features that earned Mr. Craven, their writer-director, a fiendish reputation long before the discovery of John Carpenter (''Halloween'') and Tobe Hooper (''The Texas Chainsaw Massacre'').
''Swamp Thing,'' based on characters that originally appeared in DC Comics, is set mostly deep inside an unidentified, great Southern swamp that sometimes looks like Louisiana, sometimes like southern California, but is apparently supposed to be South Carolina, where much of the film was shot.
The plot, of which there is no shortage, is about a government research team seeking a formula that will increase the world's food supply by making it possible to grow food in dry, drenched or otherwise hostile terrain. The formula is found, but it does more than grow food. Splashed accidentally on to the chief research scientist (Ray Wise), it turns Mr. Nice Guy into the creature described above, a half-man, half-vegetable beast with a heart of gold and an unrequitable passion for another member of the research team (Adrienne Barbeau).
Unable to consummate his love for the beauty, the beast must satisfy himself by camping it up in the swamp and appearing always in the nick of time to save Miss Barbeau -who goes through the entire movie with one expression and three costumes - from the designs of a rich, murderous, would-be ruler of the world. This fellow is played by Louis Jourdan, who looks somewhat reconstituted even before his own beastly transformation.
Parodying the style of Vincent Price at his most grandly secondrate, Mr. Jourdan appears to be having fun with the character, who lives in an antebellum mansion, drinks potions from silver goblets and drives around the swamp in a limousine that wouldn't seem to be the most efficient of swamp buggies, though it probably is airconditioned.
Dick Durock plays the creature that Ray Wise turns into and Ben Bates is the creature that Mr. Jourdan, in a most foodhardy gesture, turns himself into. When, near the end, the two creatures slug it out in the swamp, it looks as if two guests at a costume party were fighting over the last hors d'oeuvre, which, of course, is Miss Barbeau.
That - pretty much - is that.
''Swamp Thing,'' which has been rated PG (''Parental Guidance Suggested''), contains some partial nudity and a lot of intentionally unconvincing violence. Vincent Canby
SWAMP THING, written and directed by Wes Craven; director of photography, Robin Good- win; film editor, Richard Bracken; music by Harry Manfredini; released by Embassy Pic- tures. At the Embassy 2. Running time: 91 minutes. This film is rated PG.
Arcane . . . . . Louis Jourdan
Alice Cable . . . . . Adrienne Barbeau
Dr. Alec Holland . . . . . Ray Wise
Ferret . . . . . David Hess
Bruno . . . . . Nicholas Worth
Ritter . . . . . Don Knight
Charlie . . . . . Al Ruban
Swamp Thing . . . . . Dick Durock
DECEMBER 23 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : SWAMP THING (1982)
Director/Screenplay – Wes Craven, Based on the Comic-Book Created by Len Wein & Berni Wrightson, Producers – Benjamin Melniker & Michael E. Uslan, Photography – Robin Goodwin, Music – Harry Manfredini, Makeup Effects – William Munns, Art Direction – Robb Wilson King & David Nichols. Production Company – A Melniker-Uslan Production/Swampfilms Inc.
Cast: Adrienne Barbeau (Alice Cable), Dick Durock (Swamp Thing), Louis Jourdan (Arcane), Ray Wise (Dr Alec Holland), Nicholas Worth (Bruno), Reggie Ball (Jude), David Hess (Ferret)
Plot: Biochemist Alec Holland develops a formula that can regenerate organic matter. However, a fight ensues when his rival Arcane burst into his laboratory to steal it. During the fight, Holland is set on fire and dives into the swamp, covered with the formula. There the formula and the swamp waters combine to transform Holland into an entirely new creature.
Len Wein and Berni Wrightson’s Swamp Thing comic-book, which originally appeared in 1972, became a cult classic among comic fans with its dark, moody Gothic style and the conceptual daring of ideas that Wrightson and other writers (including Alan Moore and horror novelist Nancy Collins) incorporated. The very novelty of its central character made it seem a promising film adaptation. Moreover, Swamp Thing was taken on by Wes Craven who by the early 1980s had emerged as a director of two brutalizing shock effect films, The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977), and was starting to move towards mainstream acceptance. Ahead for Craven would be films like A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Scream (1996). (See bottom of the page for a list of Wes Craven’s other films).
Unfortunately, the promise that both the Wes Craven name and the cult comic book offered was one that is quickly dispelled by the film itself. It is not just surface changes like turning the agent Cable from a male to a female in order to provide a love interest, or turning Arcane from an aging magician into a mad scientist but far more than that. Gone is the dark moodiness of the comic-book and instead the film is little more than a live-action cartoon set in the swamps. (Although, this is a model of restraint compared to the campy sequel). The Swamp Thing suit is poorly fitting. Agreedly, this suits the film’s cartoonish level, but it seems hard to believe that the creature with its ridiculously chiselled pert nose and jutting cheekbones is the same character as the scientist played by Ray Wise at the start of the film.
The plot consists of much running back and forth in the swamp and a series of tedious repetitions on Cable nearly being captured by Arcane and men, rescued by Swamp Thing and then captured again. The unexciting action sequences consist almost entirely of people being thrown through the air in slow motion. Louis Jourdan gives an awfully stilted and campy performance as Arcane. On the film’s plus side is Adrienne Barbeau whose tough and two-fisted heroine is certainly welcome.
Swamp Thing was clearly produced to jump aboard the sudden rush of screen comic-book properties in the early 1980s after the success of the Christopher Reeve Superman (1978). Producers Benjamin Melniker and Michael E. Uslan also held the rights to the Batman comic-strip around the same time and it is probably a good thing that the Tim Burton Batman (1989) did not go ahead under them. On the other hand, if Swamp Thing had gone ahead in the hindsight of Batman and adhered to the same dark brooding mood of both the Burton film and the original Swamp Thing comic-strip, this could have been a minor masterpiece. Played as the silly cartoon it is, it is a lost opportunity. Swamp Thing is one of the worst films made by the usually reliable Wes Craven.
There was a sequel with the dreadful campy The Return of Swamp Thing (1989), which features return performances from Louis Jourdan and Dick Durock. There were also two tv series:– Swamp Thing (1990), which is surely one of the greatest wastes of time ever committed to video, and the animated Swamp Thing (1991), a routine variation that turns Swamp Thing into a cartoon superhero. Swamp Thing was an extraordinarily creative comic-book – it is sad that none of its media adaptations have come remotely near its potential.
Wes Craven’s other genre films are:– the brutality and revenge films The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977); the suburban witch film Summer of Fear/Stranger in the House (1978); Deadly Blessing (1981) about murders around a religious cult; Invitation to Hell (tv movie, 1984); A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984); Chiller (tv movie, 1985); The Hills Have Eyes Part 2 (1985); Deadly Friend (1986) about a teen inventor who revives his girlfriend from the dead; The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), a strikingly beautiful film about Haitian voodoo; Shocker (1989) a campily incoherent film about an undead executed killer; Night Visions (tv movie, 1990); The People Under the Stairs (1991); Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994); the Eddie Murphy vampire comedy Vampire in Brooklyn (1995); the slasher deconstruction trilogy of Scream (1996), Scream 2 (1997) and Scream 3 (2000); the werewolf film Cursed (2005); the dispossessed soul slasher film My Soul to Take (2010); and Scre4m/Scream 4 (2011). Wes Craven has also written the scripts for A Nightmare on Elm Street III: The Dream Warriors (1987), Pulse (2006) and The Hills Have Eyes II (2007), and produced Mind Ripper (1995), Wishmaster (1997), Carnival of Souls (1998), Don’t Look Down (1998), Dracula 2000 (2000), Feast (2006), The Breed (2006), The Hills Have Eyes (2006) and The Last House on the Left (2009). He also created the tv series The People Next Door (1989) and Nightmare Cafe (1992).
DECEMBER 23 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : SWAMP THING (1982)
Rewind . . .
. . . and Swamp Thing is the stuff of long, rainy Sunday afternoons and grilled cheese sandwiches in front of the TV. I can still picture the VHS tape — curling label kept in place by scotch tape, security tab busted out, the titles Swamp Thing and Every Which Way But Loose printed with childish precision in blue ink. My father and I must have watched it twenty times when I was a kid, in those preteen years before so many other distractions began to pull at my attention. Swamp Thing, for some reason, was a readily agreed upon mutual favorite of ours, low-budget campfest that it was, and it had something for us both. For me it had monsters and gunplay and a fun scifi premise. For Dad it had monsters and gunplay and a fun scifi premise and Adrienne Barbeau running around the swamp in a tight t-shirt. It was a comic book movie long before such things became ubiquitous, and it was unapologetically brainless fun.
Swamp Thing, based on the long-running DC comic, takes the no nonsense approach to story, and moves quickly once we get past the creepy intro shots of the bayou. Barbeau, a government agent of an unspecified sort named Alice Cable, arrives in the swamp to see how some super-secret research is going, while at the same time scene cuts to a cadre of lurking mercenary types indicate that trouble will soon be in the offing. Cable meets Dr. Alec Holland, played by Ray Wise, who endears himself to her through some botanically-themed flirting. Holland is working on a formula to end human hunger (and we are told that be the year 2001, even bloggers won’t be able to feed themselves), but his formula is seen to have some other, weird properties — namely rapid plant growth and regeneration. Just at this eureka moment, the mercs bust in and destroy the hidden research base, and bad rich guy Arcane (Louis Jordan) takes Holland’s research notes. Holland, trying to resist, ends up dowsed with his own formula and set on fire — he runs off into the swamp and isn’t seen again.
Until, that is, he returns as an eight-foot tall plant man to kick some ass.
And so we get motorboats and machine guns and grenades, stunts involving men and explosions flying all over the place, and a big guy (Dick Durock) in a green rubber suit lunging and roaring. It’s great, good guy vs. bad guy b-movie fun, and doesn’t ever pretend to be anything more than that. Cable herself alternates between superchick and damsel in distress, throwing punches and blasting away with an assault rifle one minute, and tripping over her own feet the next. Arcane is deliciously evil, Jourdan’s effete and urbane performance elevating him into a world class jerk. The whole thing works as well as it could, and stretches the resources it has to create the best looking movie you can get for three million bucks — probably the cost of the trailer rental for a supporting actor in a modern Hollywood production.
Fast Forward . . .
. . . and nobody looks down their nose at comic book movies anymore, least not the suits in movieland who all know that superheroes, monsters, and scifi action equal big bucks. Wes Craven himself has gone on to enjoy a lot of success with his Scream franchise and other films, building on the success of his breakout 1984 hit A Nightmare on Elmstreet, but Swamp Thing doesn’t really fit in with his oeuvre of teen scare movies. The tradition of low budget movies of this kind still survives in numerous made for TV and direct to DVD releases, but now the rubber monster suits are as likely to be replaced with equally as dodgy CGI. Maybe some ten year old kid out there now will, in a few decades, write with fondness about all those syfy channel original movies he managed to watch in his own misspent youth.
Maybe, but I doubt it.
In rewatching Swamp Thing for the first time in what had to be twenty years I wasn’t really under any illusions that I was revisiting a genre classic. While I was somewhat pleasantly surprised with how entertained I was by it over-and-above the strong rush of nostalgia that informed my viewing, I didn’t come away with the feeling that this was a movie that deserved to be studied or passed down and impressed upon a new generation. And that, frankly, is just fine — because no amount of classic status could really measure against my own personal appraisal of the film, and those rainy Sundays with my Dad.
But it is a fun movie done in an effectively workmanlike style, and seems more of a throwback to the old creature feature films and 50s double-feature fodder, than an early outlier of the modern superhero movie. It’s much better than equivalent films of the era, and hits a pretty good balance between camp and thrills. While the later part of the movie does seem to fall apart a bit and feels a bit flat, the great opening sequence has already done its job of investing the viewer in the outcome of the flick, and the environment of the swamp itself is filmed with a higher degree of artistry than one would expect. For those of us that remember it from childhood, I think Swamp Thing can happily occupy the niche of guilty pleasure without having to aspire to true cult classic status — and, really, that’s better than most rubber suit monster films can ever hope to aspire to.
Nostalgia Rating: Monstrous Huge
Rewatch Potential: Low, lest the tint of nostalgia fade in the cold glare of the present.
Wilhelm Scream?: Yes, when Swamp Thing throws a mercenary off a boat.
Unexpected Cameo: Well, not exactly a cameo, but I had totally forgotten that Leland Palmer was the Swamp Thing!
Verdict: Though perhaps only truly appealing when seen through the lens of nostalgia, Swamp Thing should satisfy aficionados of b-movie camp, and may be of interest to fans of modern comic book movies as well.
What I Learned: That there’s a monster within us all and, if you’re really bad, yours will have a pig-dog head and wield a sword.
Top Marks: Jude. Played by Reggie Batts — who has appeared in no other film before or since according to IMDB — Jude is a minor character that steals the show. He’s a scrawny kid with coke bottle glasses and a squeaky voice that, apparently, runs a crummy convenience store on an old swamp road. He becomes Cable’s only ally, beyond the Swamp Thing itself, and helps hide and transport her around the swamp in his boat. Batts’ weird deadpan performance isn’t stellar in terms of believability, but his off-center line delivery and natural charisma make him instantly likable. Even after a space of twenty years I found myself quoting his lines, and I can still see why, as a kid, I always looked forward to the point in Swamp Thing when Jude showed up for the first time.
If (When) It’s Remade: There was a sequel made in 1989 that ratcheted up the camp and goofiness, but I didn’t rewatch it for this review. There was even a television series that I don’t think I ever so much as caught a glimpse of. A remake, done in the vein of a modern superhero film, could certainly either be very effective or abysmal. I would certainly love to see a Swamp Thing that was more than a man in a rubber suit, and I’m sure a lot of creativity could be deployed to bring us a monster that seemed like a real man-plant hybrid. Talk of a remake has bounced around for a long time, and it looks like a 3D version (sigh) may be in the offing for the immediate future. Fingers and fronds crossed that it doesn’t suck.
Final Thoughts: Wow, what a difference between the PG of yesteryear and that of today. I’ve been seeing that in a lot of movies, particularly pre-1984 movies (when Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom came along and inspired the need for a PG-13 rating in the states), and the levels of violence and, in particular and especially, nudity in these earlier films would probably not fly today.