Swamp Thing (1982)


You’ve just made Superman:  The Motion Picture, and you are looking over DC comics’ many, many superheroes, trying to decide which one you want to turn into your next big movie.

So of course you’re going to pick Swamp Thing, a broody, dark and somewhat grim sort of a story, about a hero, who, well, lives in a swamp.  And doesn’t come out much.  Or spend much time with people.


What else?

If that wasn’t odd enough, they picked Wes Craven to direct — the pre-Nightmare on Elm Street Wes Craven, with only two somewhat repulsive horror films under his belt.

While that might seem an inspired choice for what is a rather dark and gothic, horror-infused DC title, Wes never quite manages to bring that dark edge to the party.  We do get a few scenes of Swamp Thing lurking in the swamp and appearing out of nowhere, but mostly he is used in more mundane ways, in a plot about a hunted man trying to protect the woman he loves.

We do get a few of the expected swamp movie snakes/swamp critters/blood thirsty insect bits at the beginning of the film, but they mostly get forgotten as we go along.  After all, reality would distract us from that nude scene with Adrienne Barbeau bathing in the slimy swamp waters (if you don’t remember it, that’s because only the foreign audience got that cut).  But then, it wouldn’t be quite as poignant a scene of Swamp Thing looking wistfully at what he can no longer have if she suddenly bolted from the water, covered in leeches…

Of course, we do have the usual problem of the superhero film, that everyone thinks the first film in the series has to be the origin story — even though that is often the least interesting story one can tell about him.  As I understand it, the original comic books  started with Swamp Thing as a mysterious, lurking figure, and only gradually revealed who he was, and where he came from.  But we can’t do something that interesting, no matter how creepy, and instead we start with the usual heroic scientist, the usual incredible project to save the world, and the usual supervillain trying to steal the project.  Only Dr. Anton Arcane is sort of a mash-up of a mad scientist and a Bond Villain.  Which isn’t that much of a surprise as Louis Jourdan, who plays Dr. Anton Arcane,  would play the villain in Octopussy the very next year.

This is also a very uneven film, which veers from a few impressive moments to routine Eighties action film nonsense, to some very, very silly bits (particularly those involving one of Arcane’s henchmen testing the secret formula that turned Dr. Alec Holland into a second-string superhero).  The tone is all over the place, with Adrienne Barbeau vacillating between tough Ripley-look alike and the expected damsel in distress, Swamp Thing battling air boats in broad daylight, to a few, expected scenes with it hunting bad guys in the dark.  Certainly the final battle between Holland and Arcane could have used darkness, stormy weather and lightning bursts — and maybe a few hints of the supernatural horror that appeared in the comics.

If nothing else, it would have hidden just how awful their swamp creature suits look.  As it is, we see far too much of them — up close and in full sunlight.

As second-string Eighties action hero superhero stuff goes, this one isn’t bad by any means.  It just avoids being more than was expected of it — or being what it might have been.

Oh well.  Too bad they didn’t hire Guillermo Del Toro instead of Wes Craven.  Now that would have been interesting.

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