Deneb does Swamp Thing

MQG0XuWjfdsPm9upD5aZ0atMAx“Would you recognize immortality if it knocked on your door, gentlemen? Obviously you wouldn’t, but that’s beside the point.”

The Scoop: 1982 PG, directed by Wes Craven and starring Ray Wise, Dick Durock, Adrienne Barbeau, Louis Jourdan, David Hess, Nicholas Worth, Nanette Brown and Reggie Batts.

Tagline: Science transformed him into a monster. Love changed him even more!

Summary Capsule: Man gets turned into a walking mass of mossy muck, staggers around the swamp fighting bad guys. Better than it sounds.

denebbanner

Deneb’s Rating: 3.7 beakers of florescent green liquid out of five.

Deneb’s Review: Back in the good ol’ days, my parents and I used to get our movies from a rental place in town. I spent a lot of time in that store, and I’d usually wind up either waiting for someone else to make up their mind, or wandering around while I myself was making up my mind. Inevitably, I would wind up idly sorting through what was on the shelves, some of which I would end up watching, others (quite a few) of which I would not.

There were a few such shelves that I inevitably found myself looking at. These were, among others, the monster movies and barbarian flicks and the like. Most of these I never actually wound up watching  (certainly none at the time) because I was a bit of a wimp when it came to stuff that I thought might be scary – but you better believe I looked at the covers, because they had monsters and barbarians and monsters fighting barbarians on ‘em. It was the thrill of self-forbidden fruit, the sweet torment of the milquetoast – the actual contents of the tapes might never be experienced, but you could summon up all kinds of notions as to what they might be like, and that was almost as good.

Nowadays, of course, my tastes have matured a bit (although I still tend to shy away from outright horror), but what with the advent of Netflix and the decline of the video rental, that store has long since closed down, so there go my chances of ever actually availing myself of the contents of said shelves. Still, I remember them fondly, and every now and then I’ll run across a cover or a title that will get my memory a-pricklin’. ‘Hey-yy’, I’ll think to myself, ‘this is one of those movies!’ And whether or not I subsequently wind up watching it, there’s a part of me that does a little joy-squiggle at the thought that I will at least have the opportunity to in future.

One of this rarified category of movies is Swamp Thing. I used to like the cover because it had a big green monster on it, and because I was vaguely aware that it was based on a comic with a good reputation, so it was at least associated with quality material. Because of this, it’s probably the one that I ultimately came the closest to actually renting – if that darn store had stayed open a little longer and DVDs hadn’t become big when they did, I probably would have eventually worked up the nerve. And, in a sense, I finally did – just now.

The results? Well, read on.

The movie takes place in and around the swamps of Louisiana, where the government-funded scientist Dr. Alec Holland (Ray Wise) has set up his lab. Bio-engineering is his game, and, along with his sister Linda (Nanette Brown), he’s on the trail of something big and top secret. It’s been tough going, however, and the two have gone through more than one government handler so far – for which purpose one Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau) has just arrived from Washington.

As Alec explains it to her, the project is this – to create a formula that melds together plant and animal genes, the idea being that a plant treated with said formula would be an extraordinarily hardy specimen, capable of withstanding extreme conditions and growing in places that it normally never could. It could be the key to solving world hunger.

A worthy dream, indeed. Shame that others have more sinister plans in mind for the stuff. Just as the Hollands are finally beginning to make real progress, they get paid a visit by one Anton Arcane (Louis Jourdan), a rogue scientist and overall bad guy. He wants to use it as, essentially, a tool of world conquest – with such a potent cure for famine and starvation held just out of their reach, governments would bend to his will (or so, at any rate, is the theory). Having claimed the necessary information at gunpoint, he and his crew of mercenary henchmen make their exit, destroying the lab and killing all witnesses – including, it seems, Alec, who gets doused with a beaker of his formula and, burning like a torch (the stuff is highly volatile), dives into the water.

So that’s that, then – except for three little things. One, Arcane did not acquire quite all of the necessary information, and without it, he’s stumped. Two, he did not, in fact, get rid of all the witnesses – for starters, Agent Cable survived, and must stay one step ahead of him and his goons if she wants to survive long enough to see them brought to justice.

Three, there was also a second survivor – Alec Holland. Not, mind you, that he’s quite the same guy who we last saw making a briquette of himself. In fact, he’s rather dramatically different.

You see, it seems that his miracle experiment changed him into a plant/animal hybrid, melding him with the surrounding swamp and rendering him (as the comic used to put it) “a muck-encrusted mockery of a man”, a hulking monstrosity more vegetable than human (and now played by Dick Durock). Bullets can’t stop him, he’s strong enough to throw men around like they were action figures, and he can vanish into the swamp whenever he’s done kicking ass, making tracking him down a real bother.

Yep, looks like the bad guys are going to have a tough time of things – except, of course, that their leader is Arcane. As such, Cable and Holland are going to be in a heap of trouble when he eventually catches up to them – and so, perhaps, will be the world…

OK, let’s get this out of the way – there is a reason why Swamp Thing was in the monster movie part of the store rather than the superhero/comics section. Some of you may have read the comics, yes? The Alan Moore run; ‘Saga of the Swamp Thing’, right? All that jazz, the stuff the character is best known for today?

Well, you can forget all that, because there ain’t any of it here. This was made two years before Moore started work on the title, so the concepts he introduced to it are nowhere to be found. Instead, this is an old-school Swampy narrative – a relatively straightforward ‘scientist gets turned into monster’ story.

‘Nother words, it’s a B-movie, and that’s reflected in the look and feel and – quite clearly – the budget. This was long before the days when studios would throw millions at a comic-related property and expect to get ‘em all back – Swamp Thing was, at the time, a little-known horror comic with a cult following, and it was budgeted accordingly. So if you’re expecting a lavish special effects-fest… yeah. No. I’ll get into the specifics of ‘yeah, no’ a bit later, but suffice to say no modern viewer is going to clap a hand to their forehead and go ‘ye gods – it looked so real!’

Furthermore, the script really could have used another going-over or two. The action can get a tad repetitive at times (although I suppose there’s only so much you can actually do in a swamp), and while I personally didn’t have a problem with it, there’s no denying that the set-up for the story is leisurely, to say the least. Also, the ending is… weird. It’s like it was trying to cram in some of the mystical/supernatural stuff that the comic frequently dabbled in, but in a way that really didn’t fit with what had already been established. Honestly, it reminded me more of something from The Mask than anything else – only in that film, it made sense. Here, it’s like ‘wait, what?’

So, yeah. It is a B-movie. However, that’s not to say that it is a bad B-movie. On the contrary, it’s quite enjoyable.

Wes Craven may not exactly be on his A-game here, but he’s not a big name for nothin’. Swamp Thing is, if nothing else, atmospheric. Unlike what you might expect, it’s shot almost entirely during the day, and this adds a strangely peaceful vibe to things, while at the same time ensuring that the visuals are not turned into a murky mess by the impenetrable darkness that is a swamp by night. One could argue that this sacrifices some dramatic possibilities, but personally, I think it works rather well. After all, why wouldn’t we want to see the movie’s primary setting at its best? It’s damn near all we’re getting; we might as well make the most of it.

Also, it’s fitting in that, while this is a monster movie, it is not a horror movie. I’ve heard it said that it has an almost fairy tale-like feel to it, and yeah, I can see that; I definitely got a Beauty and the Beast vibe from certain scenes. Meanwhile, of course, you’ve also got armed mercenaries zipping through the swamp on fanboats and firing off automatic weapons, and Swampy beating the crap out of ‘em, and mad science and plots for world domination. It’s a fairy tale/action/monster movie, that’s what it is.

That being said, the thing that is likely to draw most people to Swamp Thing is, well, the fact that it’s about Swamp Thing. So how’s Swamp Thing?

Well, let’s dive in and find out, shall we? (Setting yourself on fire first highly disadvised.)

Now, given that the character is actually played by two men here, any accurate examination of him must of necessity be binary in nature. In short, we have two performances to examine – that of Ray Wise, and that of Dick Durock.

Let’s start, as the movie does, with Wise. As Alec Holland, I have to say he’s really quite good. He’s the sort of wunderkind scientist who has clearly been wowing people with his genius for long enough that there’s a certain ‘please hold your applause’ nature to his interpersonal relations – the man is good, he knows he’s good, and he knows that other people know he’s good. Yet for all his cockiness and fragile ego, he does genuinely believe in what he’s doing – there’s a reason he has dedicated his life to such projects as the one he’s working on; he cares deeply about the natural world and its wonders, and how proper use of them could greatly benefit mankind. He’s the sort of guy who is happiest when he’s out in the wilderness somewhere; in this particular case, the swamp. He may be a little overly ‘look at me!’, but he never pretends for a second that everything is about him; it’s all about the stuff that actually matters, which he is deeply sincere in his devotion to. This both makes him believable as a heroic protagonist and delivers a hefty dose of irony when his transformation occurs; he has literally been turned into the thing he loved most.

Which brings us, of course, to Durock’s contribution, which is somewhat spottier. Durock isn’t bad in the role, exactly – he’s actually pretty good at delivering Swampy’s trademark slow-paced dialogue – but he’s just not given all that much to do.

What’s more, he could have been – in fact, he probably should have been. The main problem with how Swamp Thing is used in the film is that he just kind of shows up and starts doing his stuff; we never actually get inside his head much until long after he’s become Swamp Thing. This is a weird creative decision, given that his plight is supposed to be the whole driving force behind the movie – you’d think we’d at least have gotten a few scenes post-transformation where he realizes what he’s become and reacts accordingly – you know, ‘oh no – NO! What… what’s happened? I’m a monster! NYAAAGH!’

Instead, we’re more or less supposed to infer that this has happened via all the anguished roaring that Durock does. This is a shame, because A: in the few scenes where he does get to portray the misery of his plight, he’s fairly effective, and B: shorn of such things, the character is basically reduced to the visuals – and the visuals, unfortunately, don’t really cut it.

This, as you may imagine, is where I follow up on my ‘the specifics of ‘yeah, no’’ comment earlier, and talk about what Swamp Thing actually looks like. To the filmmaker’s credit, he does basically look like himself – the design is accurate enough, with Swampy’s trademark flared nose-ridge and red eyes, and all covered with moss and such. It’s also a rubber suit. Very, very obviously a rubber suit. The effect is all right when you see it from far away, or when he’s standing still, but when in motion, the thing bunches up like long underwear. It’s a forgivable lapse considering when it was made – I’ve certainly bought into less convincing cinematic illusions – but it does clearly show just how little money was being put into this picture.

All this is somewhat mitigated, though, by the fact that Swamp Thing, despite his name being on the cover, is in certain respects not the ‘real’ main character here. Sure, he’s the whole reason for the movie existing in the first place, but he’s not actually in a whole lot of it – it takes a little while for Holland to take his little swamp-bath, and after that he makes only sporadic appearances until the movie is almost half over. During all that time, the main character is, for all intents and purposes, Adrienne Barbeau’s Alice Cable.

Now, I’ve yet to encounter a review of this film that didn’t at some point make an appreciative mention of Barbeau’s *ahem* assets. (I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but there are quite a lot of horndogs frequenting the Internet. Shocking, huh?) And yes, fair enough, Barbeau was quite the sexy lady when she made this. She was more than just a pretty face, though, and she managed to invest her character with more than her fair share of gustiness and likeability.

It would be quite easy to view Agent Cable as a damsel in distress type, given that she basically spends the entire movie either running from the bad guys or getting rescued by Swamp Thing. However, this ignores two important things – one, she is completely out of her element, and two, whenever possible, she fights back. We are not dealing with a helpless hand-wringing stereotype here – this is a government agent, remember, one who, presumably, has had no small amount of training. It’s just that most of that training was clearly for more urban environments, and for situations where she wasn’t unarmed and outnumbered ten to one. Of course she spends most of her time running from the bad guys – it’s the only logical thing to do – but she shows more than once that she’s perfectly capable of defending herself when it’s an option. It’s just that, well, there’s a freaking super-strong swamp monster defending her – what’s she going to do, shoo him away and take on a group of armed men with her bare hands? I don’t think so.

Which brings us, of course, to the bad guys in question – or rather, to the bad guy in question, since though a few of his henchmen are memorable enough, the only villainous role with any meat to it goes to Louis Jourdan’s Dr. Anton Arcane.

Jourdan was a talented and experienced actor, and it shows. He is quite hammy as Arcane, but it is the sort of ham that has had all the fat trimmed off the edges, as it were. He doesn’t rant or bellow or anything like that; he keeps his ham at a low-key level that informs the rest of his performance.

Basically, he understands that this character is a comic book villain type par excellence, and as such, he doesn’t bother keeping things realistic; he just throws himself into the role with relish and has fun with it. And that’s good, because Arcane himself is the sort who is inherently fun to watch, if played right. The man is basically pure ego; unlike Alec Holland, he does only care about himself, and considers himself and his plans beyond flaw. He oozes urbane Gallic charm from every pore, condescension in every syllable he utters, but in such a soft-spoken, seemingly polite fashion that he seems like the soul of courtesy until you actually listen to what he’s saying. While his men are out combing the swamps, he sits in his mansion and muses about how wonderful he is while a bevy of beautiful and adoring maidservants hang on his every word. That, my friends, is a bad guy – so convinced of his own intellectual superiority that he eventually… ah, but that would be telling. Suffice it to say that it’s fitting, even if it does tie in to that weird ending I told you about.

So far as supporting characters go, there’s only a couple of any real note. Nanette Brown gives a brief but likable performance as Alec’s sister Linda, while Reggie Batts has a memorable minor role as Jude, a local teenager who helps out Cable. He falls into what might be termed the comic relief territory, but unlike a lot of similar characters, he’s actually pretty funny, with a good line in deadpan quips. I wouldn’t have minded seeing more of him.

So – good or bad? Overall, I’d say ‘good’. Swamp Thing is far from a perfect movie; it has more than its share of rough spots, but it’s chock-full of B-movie goodness nonetheless. If you’re a fan of the character, it might not deliver precisely what you were expecting, but it does its best, and does it in a consistently entertaining way. It’s not for everyone, but if you’re fine with old-school low-budget stuff, you’ll be fine with Swamp Thing. It delivers.

And hey – that’s at least one movie off the monster movie shelf that I’ve seen! Boy, how gutsy I am!

"On the one hand, I'm now a hideous freak, outcast from human society and with the approximate skin tone of a moldy string bean. On the other, I get to wallop bad guys and hang around Adrienne Barbeau all day. On the whole, it all balances out."

“On the one hand, I’m now a hideous freak, outcast from human society and with the approximate skin tone of a moldy string bean. On the other, I get to wallop bad guys and hang around Adrienne Barbeau all day. On the whole, it all balances out.”

Intermission!

  • The character of Alice Cable is a combination of two Swamp Thing supporting characters – Abby Arcane, Swampy’s love interest, and Matt Cable, a government agent and former friend of Alec Holland.
  • Uh, Linda? Shouldn’t you be wearing gloves or something?
  • Wes Craven accepted the job of director for this film to prove that he could do something other than horror, in hopes that this would help his career and get him a foot in the door in Hollywood. Ironically, it was his next film that would do that – Nightmare on Elm Street. 
  • In the comics, Linda Holland is Alec Holland’s wife. In the movie, she’s his sister, but mistaken by Cable as his wife.
  • Actor Nicholas Worth, who played Bruno, would later go on to play Paulie in Darkman. The two movies (and characters) share a number of thematic similarities.

Groovy Quotes:

Arcane: A man who loves gives hostages to fortune.

Alec Holland: Take a look into your own body, one of God’s most magnificent creations, and what do you see? Straight lines and deodorant and chrome and formica; no no no – you see blood and bone, pump and flow, and a million messy miracles.

Arcane: Would you recognize immortality if it knocked on your door, gentlemen? Obviously you wouldn’t, but that’s beside the point.

Jude: I can handle myself; don’t worry.
Cable: I’m not worried.
Jude: Well, I am.

Swamp Thing: Everything’s a dream when you’re alone.

Arcane: A strong adversary is like a beautiful, dangerous woman – I’ve never been able to resist either.

Jude: What happened to that thing?
Cable: It, uh… hit a tree.
Jude: Uh-huh. Must be one o’ those hit-and-run kinda trees.

Voice on radio: We think maybe he bought the farm – or the vegetable patch.

Arcane: Talent does only what it can. Genius does what it must.

Cable: Don’t be afraid, Jude.
Jude: Better say that to someone whose desk you ain’t hidin’ behind.

Swamp Thing: The only way out is through.

Arcane: “What is best for you is not to be born, not to be – to be nothing. But the second-best for you is to die soon.” Nietzsche.

Jude: Oh, s*** – there goes the neighborhood.

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Darkman
  • The Creature from the Black Lagoon
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