Episode XXX: Swamp Thing

swampthing

Title: Swamp Thing
Rated: PG
Director: Wes Craven
Written by: Wes Craven (based on the DC Comic by Len Wein)

Starring: Adrienne Barbeau as Alice Cable
              Louis Jourdan as Dr. Anton Arcane
              Ray Wise as Dr. Alec Holland
              David Hess as Ferrett
              Nicolas Worth as Bruno
              Dick Durock as Swamp Thing

By Count Vardulon

Swamp Thing is the first film I remember seeing in theatres. Now, I know that there were a few before then — the nightmare-building image of a killer earwig boring into Paul Windfield’s head didn’t spring from my imagination, I’m sure, but the first film I remember actually going to a theatre to see was Swamp Thing. It’s a testament to the indulgence of my mother that my elder brother and I were allowed to see the film at all – well, a combination of indulgence, unfamiliarity with the subject matter, and the lenience of the early-80s MPAA rating system, if I’m being brutally honest.

Yes, for me, Swamp Thing was my first ‘nightmare’ movie. The first time, but by no means the last, that my mother would be rewarded for giving in to her sons’ begging to see a movie by being forced to stay up to the wee hours of the morning assuring them that no, the creatures from the films were in no way real.

Ever since seeing the film, the monsters have held a particularly prominent place in my psyche. Not a detailed one, though. Just the fuzzy outlines of a werewolf and some kind of fanged monster. The film also featured my introduction to the world of special effects, as I recall being so traumatized by the sight of something being stabbed, and then oozing blood everywhere in an especially disgusting fashion. I was informed that it was simply a bag of blood being popped or squeezed that created the effect – I didn’t have the best understanding of the idea, but just being assured that a real monster hadn’t actually been killed was apparently enough for me at the time.

All of those are just the suface memories, the little scars that kept me up nights and haunted my dreams for years to come. No, the lasting effect of Swamp Thing on my life is that it’s the film that I credit with inspiring my lifelong love of the horror genre. Not because of the disturbing subject matter or unsettling imagery, but rather because in a horror film, more than any other genre, you can’t be absolutely certain of what’s going to happen next, or how the film’s going to end. Especially in mainstream cinema, films
follow such incredibly restrictive formulas that anyone who’s seen their share will be able to predict how a given film will end before all of the characters have been introduced. This isn’t true at all in horror – even in
the most mainstream horror film, the absolute basic rules that we expect fiction to follow – that the bad guy will lose, and the hero will survive – aren’t necessarily written in stone.

Sure, I was young at the time, but even then I understood the basic language of film and the rules that stories generally followed. So when, earliy in the film, Ray Wise was captured by gun-toting thugs, I had no doubt in my mind that something would come along to save him. And then it didn’t. Ray was blown up, his wife was killed, and he ran, screaming and burning, into the swamp. Had I possessed even the slightest familiarity with the character of Swamp Thing before going into the movie, it’s possible this scene
woulnd’t have been so shocking – although, as I remember it, the actual sight of a man on fire was pretty intense, so who knows – but the way killing off Ray Wise in the first act threw all of my preconceptions about films out the window was so much more powerful. I knew that all bets were off for the rest of the movie, which just made every fight more tense, every peril more dangerous from then on out. If you’re not sure the main character is going to live out a scene, let alone the film, you’re always on the edge
of your seat.

I quickly came to realize that very few of the films I watched were willing to take the risks that (in my memory) Swamp Thing took, but years later, when I rediscovered the horror genre (at a slightly more appropriate age), I found that there were films whose outcomes couldn’t be predicted from five minutes in, whose bad guys weren’t easily gotten rid of, and whose heroes weren’t unkillable. Swamp Thing made me appreciate unpredictability in storytelling, and even if that was due more to my youthful unfamiliarity
with a populat comic book character’s origin story than any acutal groundbreaking storytelling on the filmmakers’ part, I still credit it as one of the definitive filmgoing experiences of my life.

New Memories: As with most movies watched in early childhood, I didn’t have a great memory of the film’s plot, so other than the occasional memorable image or scene, it was like watching the film for the first time. And what a film!

The movie opens with Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau) flying into the restricted swamp laboratory of one Doctor Alec Holland, who’s doing some kind of top-secret research for the federal government along with his sister Linda. That’s the first surprise – it’s his sister who gets killed, as opposed to his wife – I guess my later-life familiarity with the comic book was filling in the blanks in my memory on that one. We’re quickly introduced to the stakes as we see Holland’s invention, a fertilizer that’s as exposive as it is super-effective. At the same time, there’s some of the requisite flirting between Holland (Ray Wise), and the only woman within a hundred miles who isn’t his sister. Througout this entire opening sequence, the film keeps cutting over to a group of paramilitary goons (with “autumn” camoflage-painted guns, for some reason) who are sneaking onto the lab grounds and quietly murdering sentries as they go. Finally the villain reveals himself to be Anton Arcane (Octopussy‘s Louis Jourdan!), a supervillain of maddeningly unclear origins and motives. Things go badly for everyone, the FBI agents save for Cable are killed, Linda is shot, and Alec
is blown up by his own serum, which leads to one of the greatest man-on-fire stunts I’ve ever seen, a two stage segment where the man first stumbles out of a set, then runs out of a building, across a dock, and dives into the water.

From there, the film takes a strange twist, and through the second act it plays a lot like a slasher/revenge film, in which the slasher is the hero. Finding that Alice survived the attack, the goons attempt to kill her and retrieve doctor Holland’s notebook. They’re prevented from achieving either of these goals by Holland, who’s been trandformed by his forumla into the Swamp Thing, a Frankensteinian monster possessing super-strength, invulnerability, and a really, really obvious rubber suit. The second act then moves pretty quickly, consisting of little else than goons trying to catch Alice, Swamp Thing stopping them, and Arcane luxuriating around his mansion, yacht, and limousine, acting wonderfully supervillain-y. This all
wraps up as Swamp thing is finally captured and his notebook secured by Arcane’s goons.

Which brings me to the third act, which is where the movie goes completely off the rails into complete nuttiness. While the rest of the film was relatively competant, the third act makes little to no sense – it starts out well enough, with an out-of-left-field party, but then quickly spirals into nonsense as the script feels the need to massively overexplain the Swamp Thing’s origin and reimagine the Holland formula as something distinctly other than a super plant-growth additive. Let’s just say that as Swamp Thing re-imaginings go, this one is significantly less successful than Alan Moore’s take on the subject. It’s actually much closer to what Corman’s Fantastic Four movie would do a decade later.

Given that the film has largely been forgotten, I was interseted to see how different it was from the standard superhero movie. It seems like, with the exception of Batman, every other mainstream (based on a comic book) movie the filmmakers were so focussed on following the formula of Superman that they ended up making every film an origin film, spending a full hour waiting to get the main character into his suit and the action started. Swamp Thing, in sharp contrast, gets right into the action. It’s only 90 minutes long, and Ray Wise gets transformed less than half an hour in. From there on it’s pretty much non-stop action the rest of the way, right up until the amazingly poorly-conceived and executed swordfight that caps off the film.

There’s no way the Swamp Thing was going to be the genre-defining experience I remembered it as; it wasn’t the complete distaste that its reputation suggests either. It’s an entirely competent movie with a few bright spots of inspiration, whose mostly-awful third act kind of ruins it.

Listen to the Count‘s return trip to the bayou of his brain here, or open the player below:

mary

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4 Comments

  1. 1. Good episode!

    2. I kind of like the 3rd act, in a campy sort of way. It at least has that “this is so bizarre it could ONLY have happened in the 80s feel to it”

    3. Don’t mess with the Hess!

  2. […] Secret of the Lost Legend December 1, 2008Episode XXXI: The Outlaw Josey Wales November 20, 2008Episode XXX: Swamp Thing November 14, 2008Episode XXIX: ‘Freaked’ November 6, 2008Episode XXVIII: ‘Rawhead Rex’ […]

  3. […] Secret of the Lost Legend December 1, 2008Episode XXXI: The Outlaw Josey Wales November 20, 2008Episode XXX: Swamp Thing November 14, 2008Episode XXIX: ‘Freaked’ November 6, 2008Episode XXVIII: ‘Rawhead Rex’ […]

  4. I wildly disagree with your take on the third act. I absolutely loved every moment of it. Leave it to early Wes Craven to come up with something that bizarre. I also liked the explanation for the formula. It makes sense when Bruno takes it and turns into that weird dwarf thing and when Arcane takes it and turns into that weird werewolf-like monster. I thought it was a nifty explanation that allowed them to have some fun with the special effects. I also loved the showdown with Arcane and Swamp Thing at the end. Probably my favorite scene in the movie alongside Barret (David Hess) getting his head crushed. How this got a PG rating is beyond me.

    Swamp Thing is one of my favorite Craven films and is light years better than its horrid sequel. How did Arcane come back to life and magical transform back to his human self? Did they even explain that?


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