|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 01 August 2000|
Poor Swamp Thing; ever since he was created for DC comics by writer Len Wein and artist Bernie Wrightson, he's been hounded by the government, mad scientist Arcane, miscellaneous monsters -- and finally by the movies, but that turned out better for him. Prompted no doubt by the smash success of 'Superman' in 1979, producer Benjamin Melniker partnered with comic book-loving Michael Uslan to make this film, written and directed by Wes Craven -- who was determined to do Swamp Thing justice.
And for the most part, surprisingly enough, he did. The problems with 'Swamp Thing' lie not in the script or Craven's leisurely if reasonable direction, but in the fact that there just wasn't enough money to make the film right. William Nunn's Swamp Thing suit never looks for a fraction of a second like anything other than a man (Dick Durock) in a rubber suit. The facial appliances work better, but the result is a pretty good face on a lousy suit. When your central character is a monster, you'd better have a good one -- but 'Swamp Thing' doesn't. Munn just wasn't up to the job, and left the movie industry after the picture.
Furthermore, they used the wrong swamp. The movie was shot in South Carolina's Cypress Gardens and Magnolia Plantation. The region is pretty rather than creepy, and cinematographer Robbie Greenberg was forced by lack of time, circumstance or choice to shoot almost the entire movie in cheerful sunlight. It looks more like a setting for "Pogo" than a science fiction/horror movie about a man transformed into an avenging plant-animal hybrid. Although there are a few good shots here and there, overall it's the worst cinematography of Greenberg's career, flat, uninflected and drab. No wonder he chose to bill himself here as Robin Goodwin. (His other work is more respectable, as it includes 'The Milagro Beanfield War,' 'Free Willy,' and 'Under Siege 2.')
Security expert Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau) arrives in a vast, remote swamp to work with Dr. Alec Holland (Ray Wise). with his sister Linda (Nannette Brown), he's trying to develop something that will result in "a plant with an animal's aggressive power for survival." This is gobbledegook, of course, since plants are more hardy than animals in the first place, but it's just terminology to bolster the gimmick. And that is a glowing green fluid that somehow energizes plants -- boards spattered with the fluid almost immediately grow branches. Later, we're told that the fluid is more like magic -- it magnifies the basic nature of whoever takes it.
Anyway, the evil scientist Arcane (Louis Jourdan) is after the fluid to sell to the highest bidder, or something, since it will make deserts bloom, ease world hunger, etc. etc. He manages to infiltrate the swamp compound, most of the workers, including Linda, are killed, Alec is soaked in the compound then set ablaze (the fire gag here is still one of the most awesome ever filmed). He dives into the swamp, and disappears from view.
The urbane Arcane shrugs, and takes the fluid. Meanwhile, Alice hides out in the swamp, occasionally getting captured by Arcane's men. Whenever she is grabbed, up jumps Swamp Thing, a green creature in human shape that Alice soon realizes is the transformed Alec Holland. He's now a part of the swamp, more vegetable than animal. (An arm lopped off grows back when exposed to sunlight.)
The middle part of the movie consists mostly of a series of escapes and recaptures, with some action on swamp boats, some in cars. A black kid with glasses, Jude (Reggie Batts), turns up to help Alice when Swamp Thing is busy elsewhere. At the end, Arcane himself turns into an equally unconvincing monster, but this one has a sword.
Craven was still two years away from 'A Nightmare on Elm Street,' and was probably grateful to get the 'Swamp Thing' gig. Despite the woefully inadequate budget, he soldiered on and made one of his lightest, most ingratiating films. It doesn't have the pacing it should, and the tone is shaky, but the script is strong enough, and the central idea entertaining. In his wobbly but interesting career, Craven has never again made a film remotely like this.
Louis Jourdan had a run at stardom in the 1950s -- he's the romantic lead in 'Gigi,' for example -- but as he aged, his his appeal diminished. At the same time, his acting abilities seemed to increase, and he's very good as the sleek, self-satisfied Arcane, a role he repeated in the sequel. Adrienne Barbeau had made her mark as Beatrice Arthur's daughter on 'Maude,' but never quite achieved stardom on her own. Her somewhat hard, pinched features made her well suited for the tough Cable, though -- and her other attributes are on display as well. Thanks to an oversight on the part of MGM, this print of 'Swamp Thing' is not the one that played in American theaters, but instead the one released overseas, and Barbeau's nude bathing scene goes on ever so much longer. She's well worth seeing nude, too, though the nude extras at Arcane's lair are of less interest.
The production notes with the DVD are laughable; in an era when these notes can be engrossing histories of the films or the filmmakers, MGM has opted to simply lift trivia from the presskit for the original release of 'Swamp Thing,' adding little of their own other than errors. Wes Craven, for example, is referred to as "the best horror novelist in the business." At the time, and for almost 20 years thereafter, Craven never published a single novel. The notes are just publicity fluff; like the movie itself, they don't even mention Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson.
The only other extra is a theatrical trailer. Surely there was someone out there who could talk about this movie. After all, it eventually generated a kind of mini-industry. There was a 'Swamp Thing' animated TV series, 'The Return of Swamp Thing' in 1987, and a later live-action 'Swamp Thing' TV series. In all the live action outings, Dick Durock bravely carried on in a variety of suits, all of which are better than the one in this, the first movie. But there isn't even a mention of any of the follow-ups.
MGM prides itself on being the Cadillac of motion picture studios, but that's trading on very much past glories. It's good that they're bringing out movies like this on DVD (and others on VHS), but surely the Cadillac of Studios could afford some kind of commentary, a few other extras, better production notes. 'Swamp Thing' and the other films all deserve classier treatment.