Movies Retro Review: The Muck Encrusted Beauty of Wes Craven’s SWAMP THING written by Robert Reineke October 31, 2014 Early on in SWAMP THING, Alec Holland (Ray Wise) tells Cable (Adrienne Barbeau), the new federal agent assigned to protect him, “There’s so much beauty in the swamps, if you just open your eyes to it.” That statement applies to the film as a whole, although Michael Uslan’s statement “There are some things that you just can’t do for $1.98.” also applies. Wes Craven, coming off LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and THE HILLS HAVE EYES imagined a grander take on the Wein / Wrightson comics when he signed on. Unfortunately, last minute budget reductions didn’t allow it. Still, even with changes, SWAMP THING is fairly faithful to the source material with Alec Holland getting doused with his own vegetable bio-restorative formula in a fiery explosion, disappearing into the swamp, and the reemerging as a swamp creature to battle Arcane (Louis Jourdan) and his minions, one of whom gets turned into an Un-Man. Motivations survive intact with Arcane convinced that the bio-restorative formula is a key to immortality and Alec wanting nothing more than a cure for his condition. One significant change, not tied to budget constraints, is changing Linda Holland (Nannette Brown) from Alec’s wife to Alec’s sister. It’s a completely understandable change from a story perspective as it allows for Swamp Thing to still grieve and be angry, but also to move on to a “beauty and the beast” romance without it feeling creepy that he got over his wife’s death in a matter of hours. An even bigger change is changing Matt Cable of the comic books into Alice Cable, effectively combining Matt Cable with Abigail Arcane. It’s an effective change and one of the things that still keeps SWAMP THING relatively fresh as Adrienne Barbeau is effectively the main character and point of view of the movie. We discover Swamp Thing (Dick Durock) through her eyes and she’s involved in the plot, hiding the key notebook, and the center of the action, there are numerous chase scenes involving her. Wes Craven has featured numerous female protagonists throughout his career, and Alice Cable is one of the first steps in that direction. Craven would refine his female protagonists with time, despite one scene where she machine guns down a mercenary, Barbeau is still mostly a damsel in distress most often running away and falling down (a bra would help in that respect). Still it’s a step in the right direction and even today there aren’t too many comic book films that we can point to where the female character is meant to represent our point of view. It’s a step that’s helped by a very game performance from Adrienne Barbeau. Dennis Miller had a joke that in the 1980s HBO stood for “Hey, Beastmaster’s On!” That punchline could just as easily have been “Hey, Barbeau’s On!” as she was in all sorts of genre films of the time, usually in a supporting role. SWAMP THING was one of her few lead roles and Barbeau responded with a very earnest performance that truly respects the material. And, yes, she takes her top off which sent a thrill to many an adolescent, myself included. Barbeau, in retrospect, wasn’t happy with her hair or wardrobe, but she should be proud of her performance which makes the prospect of her falling for a swamp monster seem plausible and touching. It’s a role that could have turned to camp and ruined the film with a less engaged performance and although Barbeau wouldn’t be confused with an Oscar contender, her investment helps sell the whole movie. That swamp monster also contributes to what works about the movie as Swamp Thing slowly comes into view and becomes the main character of the second half. It’s clear that Wes Craven has genuine affection for the character, giving Ray Wise and Dick Durock suitable showcases. Much has been made of the cheapness of the rubber suit, and it is problematic at points, but anyone who proclaims it as one of the worst rubber suits ever is engaging in hyperbole of the highest order. Heck, the Arcane monster suit at the end deserves that type of scorn. The Swamp Thing costume has two strengths, it’s quite faithful to Bernie Wrightson’s memorable design and the face is so well designed that it permits an actual acting performance to emerge. The latter is something that even the superiorly designed Creature from the Black Lagoon would be hard pressed to claim. That performance from Dick Durock supports a characterization of Swamp Thing that is spot on. There’s rage and despair, but also nobility and humanity. Swamp Thing is almost always the most human character in any story, despite his appearance, and Wes Craven’s script gets that. As far as movie adaptations go, SWAMP THING is one of the best at truly capturing the character with the humanity being present in every scene. The inevitable CGI Swamp Thing that we’re bound to see, in CONSTANTINE or eventually the movies, will have to be quite skillful to replicate the quality that a man in suit inherently has. That humanity is contrasted with Louis Jourdan’s Arcane. One of Jourdan’s most notable roles prior was as Dracula and that’s an apt starting place for Arcane. Like Dracula, Arcane’s first appearance involves him luring Swamp Thing into his Transylvanian castle in an effort to steal Swamp Thing’s strength and vitality in a bid for power and immortality. That bid for power and immortality is still present, although perhaps due to budget constraints Jourdan is relegated to something akin to a Gene Hackman Lex Luthor type or Bond villain, which he would play shortly thereafter, than the Gothic villain of the comics. Jourdan is more serious than Hackman, and his henchmen more competent, but there’s a missed opportunity here despite the solid performance by Jourdan. It especially hurts that Jourdan is absent from the climax being replaced by a stuntman in a bad costume. That missed opportunity extends to the henchmen, only one of whom is eventually transformed into an Un-Man, despite the opportunity for a whole room of them to emerge. The henchmen are smartly cast character actors with slightly exaggerated/grotesque features who could have stepped out of a Bernie Wrightson drawn comic book. Despite that potential they’re relegated, for the most part, to pursuing Swamp Thing and Cable in a seemingly endless series of chases that comprise the middle portion of the movie. That might have been fine if they could have moved the action out of the swamp, perhaps to Transylvania, but despite most of them being well conceived for a low budget feature they eventually become repetitive. It’s in this aspect that the film really reveals its B-movie roots. But, it’s in the dialogue and characterization that SWAMP THING aspires to be something more. We care about the main characters. And Wes Craven pays attention to a smaller character like Jude (Reggie Batts), the young, black comic relief, by giving him a laid back smart-ass personality that’s not dependent on cheap catch phrases and mugging. It helps that there’s an underlying intelligence to the humor and Craven quotes the likes of Werner Herzog instead of relying on cheap puns and “comic book” style dialogue. Then again, SWAMP THING as written by Len Wein was more literate than most comic books. There’s no denying that SWAMP THING has issues, especially related to its lack of budget. However, even if it is a B-movie, it’s a good example of a B-movie with attention to dialogue, character, and theme along with some moments of filmmaking inspiration. Heck, outside THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD you’ll be hard pressed to name a better man on fire stunt in a genre picture. One of the things that has been forgotten was that SWAMP THING was a success. It didn’t make a whole lot at the box office, but it made enough, and it got good reviews from the likes of Roger Ebert and Joe Bob Briggs. The movie spawned a sequel, a cartoon, and a television series. Beyond that, it revived the comic book which in its second year brought Alan Moore to American comic books and led to a legacy that’s still being felt today. Without Wes Craven’s SWAMP THING, we may not have WATCHMEN, John Constantine, SANDMAN, or Vertigo Comics. That’s a legacy that even the best comic book movie would be hard pressed to match. Beyond the legacy, it’s easy to point out the flaws. But, it’s also relevant to point out that Wes Craven’s heart is in the right place throughout the film. Heart may not totally replace money, but it does give the film a quality that something like the big budget BATMAN AND ROBIN will never have. Nobody needs to be embarrassed of their efforts in this film and if you view it with an open mind I believe there’s still much beauty to be found. I can’t think of any better time to reevaluate the movie than Halloween. Happy Halloween to all our readers. Retro Review: The Muck Encrusted Beauty of Wes Craven’s SWAMP THING was last modified: February 21st, 2016 by Robert Reineke Related DC ComicsSwamp Thing 5 comments 0 Facebook Twitter Google + Pinterest Robert Reineke previous post It’s Okay To Say: Marvel Is Winning next post Weekly Ratings Roundup: October 26, 2014 to November 1, 2014 You may also like Final Trailer For THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING... October 27, 2013 Bruce Willis Out, Harrison Ford In For... August 6, 2013 Latest Look At ‘Gravity’ Showcases The Film’s... July 24, 2013 Open Forum: MAD MAX: FURY ROAD May 14, 2015 STRANGE MAGIC Review January 23, 2015 Film Review: BRIDGE OF SPIES Powered By... October 16, 2015 Trailer: MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (2nd Trailer) February 15, 2016 Brand New INTERSTELLAR Trailer Explores The Cost... July 30, 2014 Steven Soderbergh reimagines 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY January 14, 2015 New Featurette Explains Why GRAVITY’s 3D Isn’t... September 23, 2013 stock I must have watched this 100 times. At least parts of it. I thought it was great. The suit, the villain, the girl, the kid, the fat guy who becomes the little troll, the greasy bad guy who gets his head squished. His arm growing back in the sunlight. God, I loved this flick. Maybe Adrienne Barbeau needs a bra now, but back then, heck, let’s just say it wasn’t in the budget and be glad! Robert Reineke Please note, I only pointed out one respect in which a bra may have added something to the proceedings. I never said it would have been a plus in all respects. 🙂 stock I must add that although I loved Swamp Thing, I could never get into any of the follow-ups, the sequel or the show. I don’t know if I just over-watched the original or if I thought it just was missing something, but they just didn’t grab me like the first flick. A word on Dick Durock. This may have been the only time he was actually asked to “act,” and I thought he did great. He’s been on everything as a stunt-man from Star Trek TOS to playing Old Man Hulk on the Bixby show, but he was definitely able to stretch (even in the suit) his chops as Swamp Thing. Robert Reineke I’ll agree that Dick Durock is surprisingly good as Swamp Thing. He’s not Karloff or Christopher Lee, but he turns in a real performance. Hey berto Great review. My judgement gets clouded by time and affection (haven’t seen it in years).. I loved this movie as a kid, certainly numerous times on HBO… but thank you for justifying that affection, and giving this review through a lens that I relate to.