Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, July 13, 2013

Director Report Card: Wes Craven (1982)

5. Swamp Thing

After finding success in the independent horror realm, Wes Craven was finally called upon by a mainstream studio to direct a crowd-pleasing genre picture, adapted from a comic book. Despite resembling the career paths some recent filmmakers have taken, “Swamp Thing” has little in common with modern comic book blockbusters. The budget was hardly huge. Craven wrote it himself, inspired less by the long-running DC Comics second-stringer and more by 1950s creature features.

Written before Alan Moore’s mystical reinvention of the character made him a critical darling, “Swamp Thing: The Movie” is a campy, action-adventure monster mash. Adrienne Barbeau stars as Alice Cable, a government agent sent to investigate scientist Alec Holland’s work on plant biology. Unfortunately for our heroes, evil villain Anton Arcane wants the research for himself. They destroy Holland’s lab and leave the scientist for dead while Alice runs off through the swamp. If you know the origin story, you know the explosion only transformed Holland into Swamp Thing, the vegetable defender of justice. Arcane’s men try to hunt down Cable, get Holland’s research back, all the while dealing with their new superpowered adversary.

It also represented Craven’s first step outside of the horror genre. “Swamp Thing” might be a monster movie but it’s barely a horror film. There’s a brief head crushing scene that’s as non-graphic as a head-crushing can get. Later on, we get two somewhat grisly transformation scenes. Both involve vegetation sprouting through human skin. The last transformation goes even further, with blood running down a face and a strange moss-like substance covering the person whole.

Despite featuring grotesque creatures and men being picked off by a monster in a swamp, “Swamp Thing’s” tongue is strictly in cheek. Craven’s direction drawls blatant attention to the story’s comic book roots. The film makes repeated use of stylized, frankly cheesy scene transitions, some of them shaped like explosions or slime dripping down the screen. Swamp Thing tosses henchmen around like rag dolls, their bodies flying through the air in slow-motion, sometimes accompanied by a shout of “Oh shiiiit!” or a Wilhelm Scream. The campiness peaks in the last act when a helpful midget who shouts puns like “Have a nice trip!” or “See you in the fall” shows up. Geez. This was the era of Christopher Reeves, so I suppose camp was the default mode for superhero flicks. The film’s super-cheesy trailer makes this apparent.

When Craven isn’t intentionally referencing the film’s comic book origins, he is treating the material like a retro monster movie. Henry Manfredini’s score is intentionally overblown and cheesy. Swamp Thing frequently plays like a heroic Gill-man, jumping out from behind trees to dispose of villains. He even holds Barbeau in the classical Monster’s Touch pose at one point. When he’s being bombarded by grenade shells, you can’t help but feel sorry for the poor guy. Craven even gets his heroine chained to the dungeon wall, surrounded by torch wielding baddies.

In some ways, the film’s production values seem higher then what Craven usually works with. There’s some lovely swamp photography throughout, a big explosion, and plenty of gun shots. The abandoned church and laboratory sets look great. Foggy swamp atmosphere is deployed at one point as is some stylish green-lighting. Craven even throws in some point-of-view shots.

However, the money doesn’t seem to have been spent on the creature effects. Considering he’s the title character, Swamp Thing probably could have looked better. The suit is rubbery and the stiff mask doesn’t allow for much expression, leaving Swampy with a permanent smirk. He looks fine when shambling through the swamplands like the Skunk Ape. But when running or tearing through vehicles, the flaws in the make-up are obvious. The villain’s final monstrous form, a were-boar of some sort, is even worse. The design itself is lousy with unmoving yellow eyes and perpetually open jaws. The final monster-on-monster tussle is largely underwhelming for these reasons.

What “Swamp Thing” does have going for it is a solid cast. Adrienne Barbeau, in all her big-haired eighties glory, makes an especially strong lead. Barbeau is tough, successfully and easily fighting off a pair of male adversaries. She even guns a guy down with an AK-47, suggesting an alternate universe where Barbeau could have been a female Rambo. She does well in the part, even making lines like “You thrive on the light” sound believable. Despite being a strong female lead, the movie never backs away from sexualizing her. Adrienne’s clinging t-shirt gets wet on two separate occasions, when she isn’t running around without a bra on or wearing a low-cut gown. She even went topless for a frequently edited bath scene.

Barbeau also has fine chemistry with her co-star, Ray Wise. A scene of the two talking while on a boat trip through the swamp works well. The two have a catty back-and-forth that I like. Wise plays his part as a benevolent mad scientist, passionate about plants and helping the world. It’s sort of a shame that he exits the film as earlier as he does. Louis Jourdan camps it up as the villainous Anton Arcane. He is at his best when quoting Nietzsche and going on about the values of genius. David Hess plays a glowering henchman with a deadly karate chop. It’s a very different type of villain then what he played in “Last House.” Despite this, occasionally elements of deadly woman-hater Krug will shine through, like when man-handling Barbeau.

“Swamp Thing” should be a swift, entertaining action fantasy and, occasionally, it is. The overwhelming camp and shoddy effects really hold the film back. The script is hokey at times too, since it features a sassy black kid, Chekov’s Magical Healing Swamp Powers, and a potion which brings out a person’s inner self. I want to like the movie more then I actually do.

Despite only being a modest success, the film was popular enough to spawn a bonkers sequel, a television series with a small cult-following, and even a short-lived cartoon and far better remembered accompanying toy line. As you’d expect, a new “Swamp Thing” film is in development right now. I suspect it will drawl more from Alan Moore then this flick. [Grade: C+]

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