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Director: Wes Craven
Cast: Louis Jourdan, Adrienne Barbeau, Ray Wise
Run Time: 1 hour 31 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG
The early 80’s were a tough time for Wes Craven. A decade or so out from his terrifying debut The Last House on the Left, and half that from his grisly but mediocre sophomore effort The Hills Have Eyes, he just wasn’t finding purchase in Hollywood. In 1982 he was only two years off from altering the face of world cinema with A Nightmare on Elm Street, but for now his CV boasted the meager one-two punch of Deadly Blessing and Stranger in Our House, a TV movie with Linda Blair (yeah, we’re gonna get to that one).
So when he was offered the opportunity to direct a high profile superhero movie based on the DC Comics character Swamp Thing, do you think he would say no? Of course not. Superhero movies didn’t have quite the caché that they do today, but Superman had crushed box office coal into diamonds, so who was Wes Craven to tempt fate? Now, was the grindhouse horror director remotely equipped to handle an action-oriented blockbuster with a studio breathing down his neck and slashing the budget to ribbons so savagely they probably inspired Freddy Krueger?
Of course not.
In Swamp Thing, government scientist Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau) is sent to a remote research lab in the swamp to replace an injured worker during the last week of the operation. There she meets and becomes enamored with Dr. Alec Holland (Ray Wise), who is working with his sister to create a recombinant cell with both animal and plant DNA for… reasons. Science reasons. When the wicked Dr. Arcane (Louis Jordan) storms the lab to steal the formula, Holland is accidentally coated in it and falls into the swamp. This transforms him into the monstrous Swamp Thing (Dick Durock), and he sets out to save Cable from Arcane’s clutches, while he attempts to recreate the formula and use it on himself.
I mean, wouldn’t YOU want to look like this?
Swamp Thing represents a lot of firsts for Wes Craven. His first superhero movie. His first action movie. His first Wilhelm Scream. Of course, it also represents a lot of lasts because he would never do any of those things again. And while I’m delighted that he got a shot at operating outside of his horror wheelhouse before his single true departure from the genre in 1999’s Music of the Heart, it’s for the best that his action career didn’t go anywhere.
The sequences in the first act that develop character and build the world are pretty solid, but Craven’s script flails once the actual Swamp Thing is introduced. And yes, Craven himself got to write the script on this thing, because literally nobody gave a rat’s ass about overseeing comic book movies in the 80’s. But I digress. Swamp Thing’s powers are ill-defined (we don’t find out a key strength of his until the final 20 minutes, in which Cable sedately repeats it to him as if we should’ve known this the whole time) and his heroism is poorly staged, as Adrienne Barbeau wanders vacantly through the swamp, gets captured, and twiddles her thumbs until he leaps from the reeds to her rescue over and over and over again. It’s like Groundhog Day if Bill Murray were a damsel in distress.
The action sequences are spectacularly hammy, too. There’s a decent boat chase at one point, but every fistfight is as lumbering and slow as an old Godzilla movie, using that 40’s cinema standby of people falling down even though their opponent’s fist is clearly a foot and a half away from them. What makes this even more embarrassing is that most of the fight scenes involve David Hess, a participant in Craven’s most luridly brutal and realistic depiction of violence, in 1972’s The Last House on the Left. It’s a major stumble for a director who had found his voice, but hadn’t quite locked down his visual mastery yet.
Watching Swamp Thing, it’s almost impossible to believe this was only two years later.
The second and third acts range from boring to dreadful, but when Swamp Thing is good, it’s at least amusingly campy comic book fun. Wise and Barbeau have enough chemistry that I’m willing to go along with their preposterous love story, and though Cable is hardly an empowered female character, she gets a couple opportunities to kick an appropriate amount of ass. Then the comic-y flair comes in with the absurd squiggly wipes Craven uses to transition between scenes. And it’s impossible to completely hate a movie that has a scene where a character grabs the corner of their face and removes their impeccably lifelike Mission: Impossible mask.
Probably the single best element of the film is Jude, a ten-year-old comic relief gas station attendant who accompanies Cable on her Act Two journey. This is almost certainly damning Swamp Thing with faint praise, because he’d probably be the worst thing in any other movie, but the characters (played by Reggie Batts) exemplifies the best of Craven’s occasionally lever, quippy, and warm screenplay. Too bad he’s shunted to the side for a grand finale featuring this masterpiece.
And I didn’t think any Craven effect could be worse than the werewolf in Cursed.
As you can see, Swamp Thing is no charmer. It’s a parade of shoddy special effects and circuitous narrative, plodding endlessly through a flat, tedious swamp. And the cherry on top is the score by Harry Manfredini, who – as he has with every other film he’s composed since 1980 – liberally slathers the film with shrill outtakes from his Friday the 13th score, smothering it with blunt strings that completely ignore the tone of whatever scene they’re in, blasting it into sub-slasher oblivion. Swamp Thing is a disappointment, but so were most comic movies of that era (Hell, DC is still churning them out). I’m not shifting the blame entirely from Craven, whose hands were all over this project, but the director took a shot at material he was wholly incompatible with. It’s an admirable venture but an unsuccessful one.
TL;DR: Swamp Thing is an admirable failure from a director ill-equipped to handle the genre.
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