Swamp Thing

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Directed by Wes Craven, 1982.
Starring Adrienne Barbeau, Louis Jordan, Dick Durock, David Hess, Nicolas Worth, Ray Wise.
91 mins.

Idealistic botanist Alec Holland, working deep in the American swampland, has discovered a revolutionary formula to combine animal and vegetable DNA. But when power-hungry scientist Anton Arcane’s attempts to steal his creation cause a horrific accident, Holland is mutated into the gruesome Swamp Thing….

MONSTROUS HEROES HAVE been lurking within the pages of comics since the early sixties, when writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby created the Incredible Hulk and the rock-like Thing; characters ever-alienated by their ghastly appearances, no matter how many times they saved the world. These cursed figures combine the great powers of traditional superheroes with the tragedy of semi-human creatures such as Frankenstein and the Wolf Man.

It’s a potent combo which has led to many successful creations since. One of the most popular is the Swamp Thing, a 1971 effort by writer Len Wein (who went onto co-create the X-Men’s Wolverine) and artist Bernie Wrightson. With many of the characteristics of the Hulk but greater intelligence and no purple trousers, Swamp Thing is a super-strong humanoid plant-beast, a towering mass of vegetable matter – with a conscience.

After Superman and Batman (and Robin), Swamp Thing was surprisingly the next DC Comics hero to hit the big screen with this early-80’s adaption. Behind the camera was young fear-maestro-in-waiting Wes Craven, later to craft the likes of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream. However, despite the horror leanings of both director and source material, Swamp Thing rarely invests in scares, concentrating instead on action adventure elements.

The stylised gothic visuals of the comic would have been too much for this cheap production; instead it simply sticks a man in a rubber suit in a real swamp. The location shooting in luminous, sunlit South Carolina bayous is at odds with the shadowy nature of the source material – it occasionally offers evocative imagery though, such as the half-submerged ruins of a church, railings and tombstones sticking out of the slimy water. Similarly downgraded is head villain Anton Arcane; a sinister, castle-dwelling occultist in the comic, here he’s your standard evil megalomaniac – albeit played with panache by future Bond baddie Louis Jordan.

In his original printed incarnation, Swamp Thing is alternately bleakly despondent and chlorophylled with rage; despairing by his plight but determined to punish those who caused it. Dick Durock, who plays the role here, is restricted by an inflexible rubber mask and a lack of dialogue; but he manages to convey a mix of sadness and dignified acceptance. Turning away from humanity, he trudges back into the greenery – ‘It’s home’, he mutters.

Weird sequences, combined with the lush, claustrophobic swampland, give the film a  dream-like vibe

The creature from the green lagoon isn’t actually around that much; the nominal protagonist of the piece is 80’s screen icon Adrienne Barbeau, who takes the role of secret agent Cable (male in the comics). But she has little to do except admire the scenery and not get killed: after the initial set up gives birth to the titular monster, the middle act devolves into a lot of episodic, almost-plotless running around in the marshlands. Arcane’s mercenaries chase Cable, who has hidden a vital notebook containing Holland’s secrets, while her viney, grassy protector turns up to routinely scupper their plans and rescue her at the last minute.

There’s a real A-Team vibe to these action sequences; big on machine guns and stunts with cars and boats, but no-one really getting hurt. When Swamp Thing gets his hands on the bad guys – standard incompetent henchmen all – he invariably throws them through the air in slo-mo, and they splash harmlessly into the water.

The third act suddenly introduces real violence – limps are lopped off, heads are crushed – and gratuitous nudity. The fantasy elements are also cranked up, as Arcane attempts to engineer his own Swamp Thing, which initially results in a not-very-intimidating pointy-eared dwarf. His second attempt is somewhat more successful though equally bizarre, leading to a finale in which our heroic marsh-man mud-wrestles what can only be described as a were-warthog, inexplicably wielding a medieval broadsword.

The film is at it’s best during such outlandish moments. Swamp Thing, on encountering a dead body, exhibits the power of resurrection; on seeing his mossy saviour, the deadpan response of the healed is simply, ‘Oh sh*t, there goes the neighbourhood.’ These weird sequences, combined with the lush claustrophobic swampland – you can almost feel the humidity throughout – give the film a hazy, dream-like vibe.

Despite its simplistic plot and humdrum action, Swamp Thing has an offbeat, unpretentious charm, and its setting makes a unique backdrop for the genre. It won’t keep you thrilled for ninety minutes, but this rubbery run-around won’t do you any harm either.

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Review by Ulysses Gamma-Hose

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