1/4, 1980s, Action, Review, Wes Craven

Swamp Thing

#20 in my ranking of Wes Craven’s filmography.

Apparently Wes Craven took this comic book adaptation to prove a couple of things to studios: that he could work with action and that he could work with movie stars. Is it a surprise that he didn’t get Batman immediately after this, a few years before Tim Burton got his shot, after everyone saw Swamp Thing? I don’t think he actually proved that he was any good at action, perhaps serviceable at best. The performance he got from Adrienne Barbeau is serviceable as well. The largest problem is that the film is somewhere between a loving homage to 40s and 50s Universal monster movies and simply a bad addition to the genre. Taking itself too seriously to be comic, and too poorly written to be taken seriously, Swamp Thing is surprisingly inept.

Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau) is a scientist of something and arrives at a remote research station in the middle of a swamp (actually Monck’s Corner, South Carolina, just a few miles from me) where she meets Alec Holland (Ray Wise), a brilliant scientist working to find a chemical that will gives plants the ability to defend themselves (you know, Poison Ivy’s evil plan in Batman & Robin). There’s some awkward flirting between the two, especially since Alice thinks, wrongly, that Dr. Linda Holland, Alec’s assistant, is his wife when she’s actually his sister for half of it. They’ve just met, Alice thought he was married and rebuffed him, and that’s about it for their personal interactions. Oh, and their love story is emotional bedrock on which the film is built. This is not a good start.

The chemical that Holland is developing is greatly desired by Anton Arcane (Louis Jourdan), a vaguely European bad guy who wants it for…reasons. It’s not clear. He sends in a troop of commandos led by Ferret (David Hess) to attack and retrieve the formula. The attack succeeds in getting Alec burned and covered in the stuff before they burn the whole place down, leaving only Alice alive. They don’t actually get the formula, though, so they have to go back and forth with Arcane to return to the place and try to retrieve it. They find Alice, nearly drown her, but she’s saved by a mysterious thing in the swamp, a humanlike creature who pops up from the water with incredible strength.

One of the reasons I don’t think this film works is the Swamp Thing suit itself (well, any of the creature effects). It’s horribly cheap and unconvincing, a seemingly solid piece of rubber that just hangs off of the stuntman’s body (Dick Durock). Looking at the poster, it seems obvious that the original concept of the creature was supposed to be far more hulking and muscular, but with the stuntman almost always just standing upright and the suit just hanging off of his shoulders, there’s little to no definition, especially around his legs. It looks silly. Is this supposed to be funny or scary? It looks like it’s supposed to be part of a joke, but the film doesn’t have that sort of joking tone except in small moments here and there. It takes itself too seriously for that.

Anyway, Alice wanders the swamps looking for help, finding a nearly abandoned gas station populated only by the twelve-year-old Jude (Reggie Batts). Together, they are going to go back to the hidden lab and find the key notebook that Arcane and his men missed. They retrieve it, get almost instantly attacked by Ferret who only takes Alice captive and ignores Jude after hitting him over the head (convenient for Alice since Jude actually had the notebook very obviously stuffed into his shirt), and then Alice instantly gets away again by kicking him in the groin on Arcane’s boat and successfully swimming away. She ultimately gets saved by Swamp Thing, who has also healed Jude of his head injury and retrieved the notebook.

This is a busy film, moving from one event to the next, and nothing really connects on any level. The lack of any emotional journey prevents any sort of emotional connection. The silly suit prevents any sense of danger on a monster level. The action is adequate enough to not be a distraction but not outrageous or skilled enough to be a draw on its own. On top of that, character motivations, especially Arcane’s are murky at best.

The finale of the film involves Arcane’s castle-like lair, testing the chemical on a few people, and a monster fight between the silly looking Swamp Thing and a wolf mask that doesn’t articulate at all and feels like it was picked up at a costume shop. The earnestness Swamp Thing tries to portray when he sticks his hand up into the light to try and regrow a limb in seconds (despite having been de-limbed during the day and walking around in sunlight for a while afterwards) undermines any idea that this was supposed to be campy fun. It’s earnestly trying to play these moments, and they all just fall flat. Oh, and Barbeau is running around in a lowcut dress.

This movie dragged, but it did have a few moments here and there. Reggie Batts is actually kind of fun as Jude, and there are bits of humor that made me chuckle like right after Ferret dies and Arcane makes the pronouncement that they’re leaving. They’re few and far between, though.

I can see how this film didn’t really help Wes Craven’s career. His next two projects were another made for television film and the sequel to The Hills Have Eyes (that he never technically finished and got released in sort of finished form after the success of A Nightmare on Elm Street). It’s not very fun, not very involving, and not very good.

Rating: 1/4

5 thoughts on “Swamp Thing”

    1. A couple of days ago I watched an extended interview Fangoria did with him right after the release of Scream 3. They didn’t touch on every movie he made, but they did give about a minute to Swamp Thing.

      His only positive memory of the film was seeing Barbeau’s breasts.

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  1. Adrienne Barbeau
    Adrienne Barbeau
    Adrienne Barbeau

    That’s most of what I remember about Swamp Thing. Focus on the positive I guess. Oh and Hess is actually pretty good as a bad guy. The guy is an interesting cat, got a lot of success as a songwriter, actually. He used to pop up as generic bad guy or merc back in the 70’s and 80’s.

    I never enjoyed the Swamp Thing comic, even the Alan Moore run. But I will say the ‘classic’ twist that Alec is dead and the swamp thing just has his memories is more horrific and tragic than anything here. (That plot twist involves meal worms or some shit, it’s barely worth explaining).

    This is another film that I’ve seen but forgotten that Wes Craven directed. He was on a trajectory to be a hack, wasn’t he? Nightmare on Elm Street is starting to be more of a mystery.

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    1. I’m near the end of actually watching his filmography (I’ve gotten REALLY far ahead of schedule for some reason…maybe I just want it to be over), and yeah…he’s a hack.

      We’ll talk more about Nightmare later, but I actually don’t think it’s a huge aberration. Thematically, it’s in line with the sort of thing he wanted to say, and he found the one visual thing he was good at (some form of surrealism). He hung the whole movie on a single idea, and he kind of tripped into a halfway decent script.

      That interview of him that I watched clarified a couple of things. The first thing is that he didn’t watch any movies until he was in his teens because his parents forbade it (he’s got parent issues), and the second was that his lack of formal film education, mixed with his lack of informal childhood education and the path he took to get into movies (exploitation and porn) simply did not prepare him for the needs of how a movie works. His education in the classics he never seems to have learned how to apply to storytelling, and his desire to make comedy films was entirely misplaced.

      I haven’t enjoyed a huge percentage of his movies, but I don’t really regret having gone through them. It’s been something of an education for me.

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