Swamp Thing (1982 film)

Posted: September 2, 2015 in DC, Swamp Thing, Vertigo
Tags: , ,

In memory of Wes Craven, who recently passed away, I decided to take a look back at Swamp Thing, an early (and, at the time, DC’s only) attempt at adapting a horror comic book. It’s difficult to evaluate this film on its own merits for me. I am a big fan of the mystical universe established in DC’s Vertigo imprint, and that universe was created in the Swamp Thing comics of the time that this film was released. This movie retains very little of the flair and sophistication of those stories. Regardless, it has a definite love for the source material and despite a limited budget and an unintended tendency toward silliness, it manages to treat the story and it’s lead seriously.

Holland and Cable...not that one.

Holland and Cable…not that one.

The film opens with a fairly straight re-telling of Swampy’s origins. We find Doctor Alec Holland (played with intense commitment in his short appearance by Ray Wise) working in a secluded lab in the Louisiana swamps to perfect a plant formula which is resistant to weather and temperature. Essentially creating crops that could grow in the desert and other harsh environments. Holland’s altruistic research is stolen and corrupted by Anton Arcane who, in the process, murders Holland. His flaming body, doused with the plant-formula, falls into the murky swamp and is enveloped by it. The opening also introduces Alice Cable, a Government agent who is interested in Holland’s work. Cable is an amalgamation of two major characters from the comic series. Namely Matthew Cable, a G-Man who is perpetually on Swamp Thing’s trail and Abby Arcane-Cable, the aforementioned villain’s niece as well as Cable’s wife (and Swampy’s love interest…it’s complicated).

The plant-formula mixes with the surrounding muck and Holland’s dead body to create a creature composed entirely of plant-matter but that retains Holland’s mind. As the story progresses, Holland works to protect Cable and take down Arcane who is hunting them both. In the end, Arcane uses the same formula to mutate himself and battles the Swamp Thing in a climactic and (very 80’s) fight set in a shallow bog.

“Dude, you got a sword? No fair!”

Those eyes!

Those eyes!

The script for Swamp Thing is very basic, and really that’s not a bad thing. The budget was $3 million and it looks like a great deal of that went into actors and set-pieces. The cast is all top-notch with Adrienne Barbeau and Louis Jourdan elevating their take on the (essentially stock) characters. The true star of the flick though is Dick Durock. A former stuntman who transitioned into acting, Durock’s performance easily shines through the layers of rubber and moss needed to turn him into the muck-monster. Director Wes Craven wisely chose to downplay any make-up around the actor’s eyes which allowed the human side of the creature to shine through. Durock was very popular in the role, reprising it in a sequel (1989’s schlocky Return of Swamp Thing) and a three-season television spin-off.

Perhaps the biggest stumbling block for modern audiences looking back on this movie is the costume used for the creature. It’s not at all convincing and more than once the fold of the fabric or a zipper can be seen. To me, that’s part of the charm. Craven clearly wanted to make a respectful and earnest story (there’s not a hint of camera-winking or snark within the film) but was hampered by a small budget. I see this as the essence of Craven’s early career: unabashed ambition. It’s easy to sneer at shoddy special effects or dated creature costumes when, these days, a mid-level action movie costs $80 million. It’s no problem whatsoever to digitally render a thoroughly realistic looking swamp creature that can be almost impossible to distinguish from something real in today’s movies. But it’s far, far harder to imbue said creation with a sense of character. It’s possible to do, don’t get me wrong. But it’s only possible because of movies like Swamp Thing or any of the other analogue creature features from times past. Craven commits to selling the audience on the fact that this character (and his world) exists. This same level of buy-in is seen in all of Craven’s early work and many of his contemporaries of the time.

I realized early on that this wouldn’t be so much of a write-up on the movie itself as it would be a nostalgic look at Wes Craven, budding filmmaker. At the time Swamp Thing was released, Wes was still on the way up. This was two years before Nightmare on Elm Street, which is the point that he became a household name associated with horror. Nightmare, which had an even smaller budget than this movie, is probably a more obvious choice to point to as a display of Craven’s talent and ability. That said, Swamp Thing is an interesting rung on his ladder to icon status. For fans of Craven, it’s worth re-evaluating to see his development as a storyteller. And I’d say that for fans of comic book movies it’s worth giving a second look as well. We see far too little horror fare in this medium and even less so that’s well-developed. The film was recently re-released on BluRay through Shout Factory and can be found for a pretty decent price. It’s common to explore a filmmaker’s repertoire while mourning their loss. Just make sure to include Swamp Thing amongst the other classics of Craven.

So long, Wes. Thanks for the memories.

So long, Wes. Thanks for the memories.

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