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The Nostalgic Attic: Swamp Thing (1982)

23 May 2014

Swamp Thing (1982)


"Oh shit. Here comes trouble."


Of all the big, heavy-hitter names in the legacy of modern horror, none have had such a wildly varied series of highs and lows as Wes Craven. George Romero was consistently great for a long time, but after his candle burned out in the early 90's, he only had a brief comeback with Land and Diary of the Dead before vanishing once again. Tobe Hooper never really found his feel again after The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and despite making several entertaining, big-budget films such as Poltergeist and Lifeforce, his name is essentially mud to horror fans these days. Craven though, has been quite lucky throughout the last 4 decades. Despite making one of the most notorious films of the 70's with Last House on the Left, by the early 80's his projects were getting smaller, cheaper and honestly, pretty terrible. He managed to turn the horror genre on it's head in 1984 with A Nightmare on Elm Street pulling him out of the doldrums, a feat he managed to do once again in the mid-90's with the Scream franchise. He has managed to stay floating to this day, with plenty of projects on the go, and many titles in his catalogue now considered 'classics'. But what about those that fell between the hits?


Based on the comic book of the same name, Swamp Thing opens with stern-faced scientist, Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau; The Fog, Creepshow) landing via helicopter in the swamps of South Carolina to replace a tech from a secret science lab who was eaten by alligators. She is quickly introduced to brilliant-but-quirky scientist, Dr Alec Holland (Ray Wise; Robocop, Twin Peaks). His work involves creating plant hybrids that can adapt to extreme conditions, his noble goals being able to feed Third World countries and the future human race. Unfortunately for him and Alice, there is a military group, led by the evil Arcane (Louis Jordan; Octopussy, Gigi) wandering around the swamp, looking to steal the doc's secret formula. Arcane believes it will work to sustain his life beyond normal human expectations, and will stop at nothing to get it.


That includes raiding the laboratory and shooting the employees, Dr Holland's wife included. Alice manages to escape moments before Dr Holland is doused with his own formula and set on fire. He flees the lab, diving into the swamp where he is presumed dead. The lab burns to the ground, and Arcane comes away empty handed. Alice happens to find one of the doctors journals in the ruins, and makes off with it, the commandos in hot pursuit. When they are about to close in on her, she is suddenly rescued by a hulking green monster from the swamp. It appears that the good doctor didn't die after all, but was transformed into this monstrous mutant instead. As hideous as he might be, he still has a heart of gold, and wants to make sure Arcane is stopped and Alice lives. As he continues to fight off the commandos, he and Alice are eventually captured, with the journal finally getting into Arcane's evil clutches. Just what will happen when he takes the formula? Will Swamp Thing fight back and save the day? Will Alice continue to run around in a wet t-shirt?


Swamp Thing is exactly what you would expect from a director in between Deadly Blessing and The Hills Have Eyes Part II; it's a bit of a mess. The script never seems to really gel that well, to begin with. The commandos and Arcane just sort of happen to be there; they are wandering around the swamp as Alice lands. Not much exposition is given, and sometimes that's fine. But when you are introducing the bad guys at the same time as the good guys, and essentially in the opening act,  it can feel a bit of a hodge-podge. We really could have had more of a focus on the relationship between the doctor, his work and Alice, and it would have been fine to introduce the bad guys at the 15-20 minute mark. Nothing would be lost by doing this. This carelessness carries on throughout the film, which essentially turns into 'Alice nearly gets grabbed - Swampy better save her' for the next 50 minutes or so, and it does get a bit tiresome.  To liven things up, a kid is introduced in the form of Jude (Reggie Batts) who seems to be running a roadside liqueur store in the middle of a swamp by himself. 

The emphasis is definitely on action over horror, here. There are plenty of brawls and several explosions, and the stunts are good enough. But the action tends to feel quite flat, and not particularly exciting. The one moment I really liked was the impressive fire stunt when Dr Holland goes up in flames. It looked dangerous, and made me realise how much I miss classic stunts like that. Beyond that, the action is strictly locked-off camera positions and fist fights. The film really falls down in this department in the final act, when the Arcane monster shows up. The fight between Swamp Thing and the creature is not nearly as creative as it could have been. I know the film was relatively low budget, but I just don't think Wes Craven has an action director hat to wear...


The low budget extends to the special effects. Swamp Thing himself isn't a bad design, but the suit is a bit of a let down. It very much looks and moves like an ill-fitting costume, with folds obvious on the actor. In some shots the suit seems to be hanging off him from being in the water. The same goes for the Arcane monster - it is essentially an expensive Halloween mask, complete with zero facial animatronics. Overall though, I think a lot of this might well have been intentional. The film has a very definite '50's monster movie' vibe to it, not only from the location but to the titles and creatures. I mean, the film had a 3 million dollar budget, they could have gotten better than this if they wanted. So I can only assume the result was intended. It certainly is keeping with the comic book origins, anyway, and to be honest, cheap effects would never put me off a film. This is backed up by the fact that the film really doesn't take itself seriously, with it all playing out like a Saturday morning cartoon (which it would eventually become).

One thing that does work quite well is the performances. Ray Wise is a likable actor, and he does great to convince you of him caring about people in the first twenty minutes. Dick Durock is the stuntman and actor portraying Swamp Thing, and he does a great job of showing the humanity through the make up. This gentleness is one of the few aspects the script got right, and you genuinely want to see the big green plant come out tops. Barbeau is watchable as always, and let's be honest, a huge part of the cult following for this film is down to the extended topless shots of her bathing in the swamp. I think these might not have made the USA cut, but they are part of the European release, as are the topless hookers at Arcane's house in the last act. She spends most of the rest of the time showing a lot of cleavage, and it definitely feels like an updated version of The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Fans of Last House on the Left will be delighted to see David Hess playing one of the commandos. It's a pity that he has virtually no dialogue, as a few of his sneers would have livened up some of the scenes.


Another good aspect is the cinematography. Despite the lack lustre direction, the film has a really rich, 'swampy' look to it - the greens really pop, and the use of real locations is great. I wish they had of pushed it a bit further perhaps, to really get that comic book feel to it, in say, the way Romero did with his colour schemes in Creepshow.  But, they didn't. Making an homage to the likes of The Creature From the Black Lagoon and other iconic B movies was the perfect time to go nuts with your creativity, but who knows what was happening behind the scenes.

I read that Craven had hoped this film would show he could direct bigger, Hollywood-style films. Sadly, I think it missed the mark. With a better script (which was actually written by Craven himself, so I'm pointing the finger at him) I think it could have worked, but it all feels a bit too scatter shot to be considered a classic. The film can be fun, if taken in the right way, and it is somewhat successful in capturing the feeling of the 50's monster films. It is short enough (just under 90 minutes), and has enough nudity, action and poor special effects to keep the 'Bad Movie' crowd happy. Wes didn't have to wait too long to hit a home run again with A Nightmare on Elm Street, but unless you really enjoy this kind of thing, it's probably best avoided.


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12 Comments:

At 23 May 2014 at 15:00 , Blogger Wes M said...

John, I last saw this movie back in 2009 (when I wrote something on it over at my place) and I had a great time with it, but sadly my memory is too sketchy to really stick it to you, but I must concede that much of what you said is true - this one really is a Craven B-side, but like Serpent and the Rainbow, it's one of those flip sides that when I saw it, blindsided me, in contrast to A-sides like the Screams or mainstream efforts like Red Eye. What I discovered with Swamp Thing was that Wes Craven was set to work on an action film set in the Brazilian rain forest called Marimba - the film came to nothing, but oddly enough eventually mutated into Deodato's Cut & Run, but I get the sense that perhaps some embryonic form of Marimba leaked into Swamp Thing... I love Adrienne Barbeau in this movie, and she was terrific in The Fog with that smokey radio voice and she was huge fun as the ball-breaker in The Crate episode of Creepshow...

 
At 24 May 2014 at 01:09 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Wes, cheers for that info on 'Marimba' - I certainly wasn't aware of it, and in many ways, I can see the evolution there. Funny thing is, I think Cut & Run is a blast, with much better action in it. I tend to really enjoy the B-sides (as you put it!) by Craven, such as Serpent and the Rainbow, and the glorious The People Under the Stairs (hardly a great film, but it's a blast). I think Swamp Thing falls into the unfortunate middle ground for me, in that it doesn't really satisfy the audience it aims at, imagine if they had of originally aimed for the R cert, instead of going PG? At least our comrades in the USA would have gotten the nudity, and we probably would have gotten more full-on action. Craven is definitely at his best when going full throttle (The Hills Have Eyes is a great example), but even when the script is terrible he usually knows how to crank up the on-screen madness (such as the awful Shocker, but it's perfect crowd entertainment). I think he tried to play it safe on this one, and it's never the best approach to a project...

Fully agreed on Barbeau - both of those performances were great, and she is a hoot in Creepshow. She's an unusual horror leading lady or 'scream queen' for the period, considering she was a lot older than many actresses making it big in horror at the time. But then again, that's why she works so well, she brought a level of maturity to characters that a younger actress couldn't pull off.

 
At 24 May 2014 at 01:34 , Blogger Wes M said...

John, if the truth be told I almost don't want to see Swamp Thing again in case my critical faculties were blunted that last time I saw it, and the film turns out to be far less that what I consider it to be. I keep on promising myself to revisit The People Under the Stairs (which I have but unopened) so that might get bumped up this weekend. My favourite Wes Craven film will always be Nightmare on Elm Street, but I really love The Hills Have Eyes (what a title, phew!) - it's really one of the best films of that tradition, and still pretty frightening too - I can really put myself in that film, the sense of menace as the events unfold is powerful... I completely agree about Cut and Run, it's a fantastic movie, and was the film that convinced me that Deodato had talent, not some one-trick pony who made a midnite deal with the devil at the crossroads for Cannibal Holocaust - I've seen Last Cannibal World and Waves of Lust subsequently and both are really good...

 
At 24 May 2014 at 01:57 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

I think The People Under the Stairs is great fun, despite a slightly flat finale, but Craven seems to have had issues with 'finishing' up some of these films - the ending on The Serpent and The Rainbow is the same, and tries to pull the same tricks that A Nightmare on Elm Street did, but much less successfully so. Didyou get the Blu Ray of People Under the Stairs by any chance? I hope you enjoy it now, it's definitely one to be in the right mood for, and I found it plays well with a crowd.

The Hills Have Eyes... yup, a vivid title alright, and you are right, the 'invasion' scenes are still tough stuff, and in a way, far more effective than the similar scenes in the remake. You know, I really should dive into a few more of Deodato's films, beyond the obvious titles. Will check out Waves of Lust, so thanks for the tip!

 
At 24 May 2014 at 06:50 , Blogger Alvin Brickrock said...

Excellent write-up and a great summarization on Craven's career. I really need to re-visit The People Under The Stairs at some point. I really like The Serpent and the Rainbow, but agree that Craven has a difficult time with his endings sometimes.

Its amazing to watch The Hills Have Eyes again now and to be reminded what a wonderfully grim and rough little movie it is. It would have been interesting to see Craven's take on a Cut and Run type of movie and agree with Wes M - Deodato's Cut and Run is well worth seeking out.

 
At 26 May 2014 at 01:29 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Thanks Dick, fully agreed on Hills Have Eyes - It's a great little horror shocker that still packs a punch. I'd love to see Craven get back to making something fresh again, it's a shame he fell into the Scream sequel machine, but then again, I'm sure he was just happy to be making big budget films with decent casts. I think the man has another comeback in him yet....

 
At 26 May 2014 at 02:27 , Blogger Wes M said...

Dick, I watched People Under The Stairs on Sunday on JP's recommendation, and I quite liked it - I hadn't seen the film in 20 years but it held up quite well - lots of good stuff in there but very commercial - the film's premise of children held in appauling captivity is dream material for the torture-pornsters, but Craven keeps it light, and aside from one scene of splattery butchery, this one would barely trouble a ratings-board. I sound like I'm dismissing it, but the tone of it worked for me - I'm not crazy about that kind of cruel, sadistic Cinema at all (I'm thinking of the likes of The Girl Next Door). Interestingly Pulp Fiction is not the first film where Ving Rhames is menaced by a guy dressed in studded leather bondage gear ! Dick I like your blog very much, as soon as I get a chance I'm gonna revisit City of the Dead...

 
At 28 May 2014 at 17:39 , Blogger Alvin Brickrock said...

All right ! - People Under The Stairs is my list (picked it up on Amazon for $1.98). Thanks a lot for the kind words Wes, I've been enjoying yours and JP's also. Cool stuff !

 
At 27 July 2014 at 20:48 , Blogger Craig Edwards said...

I managed to get this movie taped off my brother's HBO - I think taped onto Beta - and watched the stuffing out of it over the next few months. I thought it was pretty marvelous in my teens. I watched it again some years ago (late 90's or early 00's) and it hadn't held up. I still like it - even like it a lot - but the bloom was off the rose. Shot in Charleston SC (three hours drive from where I sit) - the movie was presided over by Michael Uslan - the Avi Arad for DC in those days. Uslan's involvement might have been a factor in Craven's directorial style being a little safe here. I think the Swamp Thing suit is pretty good considering the money and the fact that (somehow) no one on the effects crew realized the detrimental effect of the swamp water on the foam rubber - which prompted daily major repairs - the seams of which were then covered up by more and more vines as the show went on - which still works for the ever evolving creature and kind of saved their bacon. I agree with you on the fire stunt - shout out to fire stunt wizard Tony Cecere - who also handled the full burn in Carpenter's The Thing. I stole that Swamp Thing fire stunt for a scene in my five minute comedy video "James Bond Meets Farrah Fawcett" (never let your onscreen host ad-lib the title he's introducing.) I also want to add my voice to the positive votes for Deodato's Cut and Run - though it's been YEARS since I've seen it and I want to see it again.

A Nightmare on Elm Street is my favorite Craven film - but The Hills Have Eyes is right behind it.

 
At 28 July 2014 at 11:52 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Thanks Craig, I too loved that fire stunt in The Thing (but then again, there isn't one thing I don't love about The Thing!). Surprised the crew didn't know how badly foam latex handles water - but then again, they didn't have the budget of say, JAWS, to be doing extensive tests or anything.

I too would rank THHE right behind NOES, Craven on form is nothing to be trifled with!

 
At 4 October 2014 at 19:56 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi I felt the heat from the Fire, I'm Roy Heath, One of the Commando's in the Movie - shot at the Cypress Gardens outside of Charleston, Sc I did my Stunts and Speaking Part - I was the guy that Said "So Long Baby to Adrain before the Swampthing Threw me out of the Camara Range -It was my first of 14 Movies I've Been in - and still broke - be cause of the low Pay -Ha

 
At 6 October 2014 at 05:22 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Roy, thanks for stopping by! Always great to hear from those who were involved in the actual shooting of these films!

 

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