Honestly, it’s hard not to find some modest visceral enjoyment with the welcome throwback to the time when comics-inspired films weren’t all so dark, dreary, and existential, and, far better than most harmless early efforts, SWAMP THING is just what the doctor ordered. Released in 1982 and made on an estimated budget of $3 million, SWAMP THING was only director Wes Craven’s seventh film (if you believe IMDB.com), and it starred the ever lovely Adrienne Barbeau as government agent Alice Cable, Ray Wise as Dr. Alec Holland, veteran character actor Louis Jordan as Dr. Anton Arcane (Holland’s nemesis and the film’s villain), and stuntman Dick Durock as the Swamp Thing itself.
With a script penned by director Craven, the craftiest invention of the film’s premise is to couple the main plot – an origin tale of the Swamp Thing – with an albeit mildly contrived love story between the flick’s beauty (Barbeau’s Agent Cable) and its beast (Wise’s Holland who, inevitably, becomes Durock’s Swamp Thing). As the film begins, Cable arrives on her mission to investigate security breaches around Holland’s swamp-based government laboratory, but it doesn’t take long for her to succumb to the poetic charms of Dr. Holland, a noble ‘man of science’ who sees magic and mystery in his world and work. His project – a kind of food eugenics, custom-forming plants to adapt to the harshest climates – achieves a breakthrough: he’s managed to combine plant and animal DNA to produce a nifty glowing liquid that accelerates plant growth in the most curious ways. Naturally, Holland’s made his share of enemies, and it isn’t long before Dr. Arcane shows his face with hopes of corrupting the science for his own nefarious ends.
At this point in his career, Craven had made a name for himself with small pictures – B-grade horror movies, mostly – so his choice as a director for a comics-inspired property may seem a bit out-of-the-norm, especially considering modern sensibilities as they apply to comics-influenced pictures, but Craven strengths do help elevate SWAMP THING a bit above your average fun flick. He embodies the film with an almost vintage movie serial film throughout – one scene adventures after the next – while balancing his obvious skill with growing screen tension – Barbeau being ‘manhunted’ through the murky swampland by muscled, fatigued mercenaries. Clearly, the film had to have been a serious work-out for Barbeau; as the film progresses, she’s either running, fighting, climbing, or swimming her escape from these male captors who give no real hint of what they’re planning to do with her once they capture her. She’s in great shape (hasn’t she always been?), and Craven delivers what fanboys everywhere could want: a rough’n’tumble federal agent who looks awfully swell in a sweaty t-shirt.
Did you catch that? I said it has Adrienne Barbeau in a sweaty t-shirt.
SWAMP THING appeared about a decade before Hollywood’s beginning flirtations into the world of CGI, and it shows. The film’s creature effects are (horribly) dated, and Swamp Thing and the Arcane Monster are clearly big, burly men in rubber suits, though Swamp Thing’s clearly had more inspiration, planning, and latex. Still, it’s easy to forgive because the underlying theme here isn’t about the fighting so much as it is about the emotional substance inside the fighter. Holland’s descent into the Swamp Thing is meant to celebrate and amplify his respect for life and all its mysteries while Arcane’s transformation is clearly predicated on his desire for power. Much like the work Ricardo Montalban did as Khan in STAR TREK: THE WRATH OF KHAN, Louis Jordan’s Arcane is a villain who’s prone to espouse his own soliloquies on life. His ‘man of science’ is the antithesis of Holland’s, so it’s only thematically fitting that his creature suit appears void of the obvious poetry involved in designing Holland’s. As a matter of fact, it’s entirely fitting that the Arcane Monster’s weapon-of-choice is a kingly sword yanked from the wall of his mansion while Swamp Thing pulls a thin tree stump from the swamp floor to swing in battle. How Swamp Thing vanquishes the Arcane Monster in battle was a bit of a disappointment to me, but it’s a minor quibble when you’re basically down to two overgrown men battling in oversized wetsuits.
Plus, it has Adrienne Barbeau is a sweaty t-shirt.
It’s great to hear that Hollywood mogul Joel Silver has secured the rights to produce an updated SWAMP THING film. As a fan of most comics properties, I’d love to see a new theatrical outing with a more contemporary story and modern creature effects. Still, I have to admit that I’m a sucker for some of these old school films; other than such stellar CGI creations as THE LORD OF THE RINGS Gollum or STAR WARS Yoda, I’m still waiting for a CGI creature to knock my socks off. There’s something endearing about a man-in-makeup playing Swamp Thing. While I enjoyed Ed Norton’s take on THE INCREDIBLE HULK, I found much of the actual ‘Hulk’ scenes feeling highly manufactured, almost as if they were designed in a computer instead of on the soundstage or on location … and that’s probably because that’s how they were designed. I sometimes miss the inevitable ‘fake’ of knowing that the Thing is little more than a man under plastic and latex. But, like Dr. Holland’s Swamp Thing, maybe I’m just a product of my times.
Plus, did I mention it has Adrienne Barbeau in a sweaty t-shirt?