As the comic book-to-cinematic rivalry between Marvel Studios and DC Films for dominance of the multiplex continues to heat up, with both outfits laying out plans of interconnected movies based on their superhero comics that that will stretch deep into the foreseeable future, it is difficult to imagine that just a few short decades ago—the early 1980s, to be precise—there had been only a handful of major films based on DC characters. Outside of some serials in the ’40s and ’50s, there was Batman (1966), a movie version of the campy television show; Superman (1978) and Superman II (1980); and … Swamp Thing. That’s right: From the expansive stable of characters established in DC comics since the 1930s, a scientist-turned-vengeful superhuman swamp-dweller was the third to be given the big screen treatment after Batman and the Man of Steel.
Of course, at the time, comic book adaptations were hardly the stuff of summer tentpole dominance, partially because the special effects needed to translate the impossible feats of superhuman action from page screen were still in development and far from perfection (the tagline for Richard Donner’s Superman was the almost desperately forceful “You will believe a man can fly”), which is perhaps why Swamp Thing, which originated as a comic book series by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson in 1972, seemed like a viable project. All it needed were prosthetic make-up effects, stuntmen, and some swampy locations, although, according to various histories of the project, even those requirements ultimately proved too much, as the studio slashed the budget numerous times—which makes it all the more surprising that Swamp Thing works as well as it does. Sure, it’s kind of hokey and a bit campy and has some narrative bumbling and pacing issues, but overall it is a genuinely fun diversion—a contemporary man-in-a-rubber-suit creature feature that also happens to boast a decent amount of heart.
The entire story takes place in—you guessed it—a swamp, which is home to a secret, government-funded research lab where handsome scientist wunderkind Dr. Alec Holland (Ray Wise) is working on a formula that could lead to the kind of plant growth that would solve world hunger. Unfortunately, his work is sought by Anton Arcane (Louis Jourdan), a nefarious, well-heeled supervillain who lives in an antebellum mansion, rides around in a limousine, and employs a leering army of camouflaged mercenaries led by Ferret (David Hess) to do his dirty work, which in this case involves raiding Dr. Holland’s lab, killing everyone, and burning the place to the ground. Dr. Holland is splashed by his own formula and set on fire, which results in his transformation into Swamp Thing (Dick Durock)—a hulking man-vegetable hybrid with superhuman strength and intelligence. Luckily, some of his research is salvaged by Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau), a tech guru who was recently dispatched to the swamp lab and immediately struck up a connection with Dr. Holland despite her generally sardonic nature.
The rest of the film follows Alice as she tries to smuggle Dr. Holland’s research out of the swamp while Ferret and his goons track her and Swamp Thing saves her … repeatedly. She is also assisted by a bespectacled local teen named Jude (Reggie Batts), who infuses the film with a wonderful sense of deadpan humor (“Don’t be afraid,” Alice frantically tells him at one point, to which he mumbles without missing a beat, “You better say that to somebody whose desk you ain’t hiding behind”). Alice is a determined heroine, and even though she regularly requires saving by Swamp Thing, she has a decided sense of agency that is enhanced by Barbeau’s tough screen persona. At the time, she was still well known for her role as Carol Traynor on the groundbreaking sitcom Maude (1972–1978), although she was well on her way to becoming a fixture in horror and science fiction with prominent roles in then-husband John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980) and Escape From New York (1982) and George A. Romero’s Creepshow (1982). Despite being a fundamentally tough character, Alice has some moments of genuine tenderness with Swamp Thing, who actor Dick Durock makes into substantially more than just a mossy green giant. Although covered head to toe in a green latex suit (Roger Ebert memorably described him as “looking like a bug-eyed spinach souffle”), Durock’s face is free to express a wide range of emotions, and his performance ably conveys the character’s dismay with his tragic new state. Louis Jourdan, on the other hand, is essentially one-note perfection as Arcane; he brings a nefarious sense of continental flair to Arcane’s villainy, and it’s not surprising that his next role was the villain in the James Bond movie Octopussy (1983).
Swamp Thing was the fourth feature film directed by Wes Craven, if you don’t count his pornographic film The Fireworks Woman (1975) and the made-for-television movie Summer of Fear (1978) (two years later he would fully establish himself with the slasher hit A Nightmare on Elm Street). Craven was already notorious for having helmed the low-budget shockers The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1978), and Swamp Thing offered him something of a change of pace, even though it also forced him to labor under a restricted budget. As Romero did in Creepshow, Craven plays up the film’s connection to comic book aesthetics with attention-grabbing wipes inspired by comic book panels and an intense color palette of heavy primary hues. There is a purposeful artificiality to the film that is catchy and fun, and when Swamp Things goes head-to-head with Arcane after he morphs into a grunting pig-creature after drinking the formula, it is a B-movie high of giddy ridiculousness. They just don’t make ’em like this anymore.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Shout! Factory
Overall Rating: (3)
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