Thursday, October 13, 2011

Don’t Run and Hide From This Monster, “Swamp Thing” is Here to Save You

Government agent Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau) is sent to the swamp, where Dr. Alec Holland (Ray Wise) is working on a top secret experiment. Dr. Holland shows Alice a vegetable cell with animal DNA, telling her that his purpose is to create “aggressive” vegetation, or, more specifically, plants that can survive in extreme conditions. But when Holland has a breakthrough, a group of paramilitary soldiers led by a corrupt scientist, Arcane (Louis Jourdan), infiltrates his lab. The villains are there to steal Holland’s work, but a struggle results in an explosive compound setting the doctor afire, Holland then running outside and jumping into the swamp. Alice has eluded the soldiers, and when they come after her, they are thwarted by a still-living Holland, now a brawny plant-like creature (and played by Dick Durock). It isn’t long before Arcane mixes his own batch of Holland’s chemical with the hopes of achieving immortality.

Based on characters from DC Comics, Swamp Thing (1982) was written and directed by Wes Craven. Having previously helmed the low-budget hits, The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Craven was provided a significantly higher budget and well-known stars, including Jourdan and Barbeau. Swamp Thing leans closer to action than any other genre, with some entertaining and impressive stunts. The movie is remembered for its campy qualities, although Craven’s intent was clearly to make a live-action comic book, exemplified by the exaggerated transitional wipes, not unlike the various and sometimes irregular frames of comic book panels.

Swamp Thing is an unusual mutated monster, as he is most assuredly the hero. His identity is unmistakable to the audience, and he’s not played as a misunderstood creature, even to Alice. Her initial wariness of Swamp Thing, even if he seems to be protecting her, is tongue-in-cheek: The first thing she says to the mutated Holland is “Shoo!” while waving him away. Though Craven does touch upon Holland’s inner turmoil -- the scientist realizing that his massive hands cannot handle the delicate lab work -- the movie showcases a monster with noble intentions, focusing on Swamp Thing’s attempts to save Alice.

Alice, however, is not helpless, simply waiting to be saved. She swings and punches, knocking down one of the soldiers and shooting another with no hesitation. When she is cornered at a gas station with a young boy, Jude (Reggie Batts), a wise-cracking character who supplies much of the comic relief, she draws the soldiers away from the boy. The bulk of the film is the villains pursuing Alice, but she isn’t always rescued by Swamp Thing, sometimes escaping with no reinforcements. When Alice is invariably caught, she is adorned in a dress and bound much like Ann (Fay Wray) in the 1933 King Kong. The difference, of course, is that Ann was being sacrificed to King Kong, while Alice is being kept away from the monster. Barbeau is terrific as Alice, portraying a strong female typical of her roles in earlier movies such as The Fog (1980) and Escape from New York (1981), both directed by her then-husband, John Carpenter.

An ill-received sequel was released in 1989, The Return of Swamp Thing. Jourdan and Durock as the titular hero both returned, but the movie, which also starred Heather Locklear and Sarah Douglas, was treated as a comedy, a glaring shift in genres that was a misfire for audiences. The subsequent year, Swamp Thing: The Series made its television debut on USA Network. Though critics were largely unreceptive, the series lasted three seasons and has since developed a cult following. Durock reprised his role for TV. A 3-D remake of Craven’s 1982 film is reportedly in the works, to be directed by Vincenzo Natali, who also helmed the cult sci-fi movie, Cube (1997), and, more recently, Splice (2009), with Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley. DC Comics recently rebooted its line of comic book titles, called The New 52, which includes, among many others, Swamp Thing.

Composer Harry Manfredini wrote the score for a number of horror films, but is perhaps best known for his work on the popular slasher film, Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980), and its numerous sequels. Cunningham also produced Craven’s The Last House on the Left, which featured David Hess, who stars in Swamp Thing as Ferret, leader of the soldiers. Hess provided memorable turns as villains in Craven’s movies, as well as two films from Italian director Ruggero Deodato, The House on the Edge of the Park (1980) and Body Count (1987/aka Camping del terrore). The actor passed away last week, on Saturday, Oct. 8th.

Some nudity in the film, including a bathing sequence with Barbeau, was cut to receive a PG rating, but the film was released overseas with these scenes included. When MGM released Swamp Thing on DVD, the international version was inadvertently used, despite the PG printed on the box. When the studio discovered the blunder, it quickly pulled the DVD from the shelves. MGM eventually re-released the movie on DVD, this time the original PG cut. Those with DVD players that can bypass regional encoding can search for an European DVD, although the earlier recalled DVD is easy to find online. The unrated version is typically preferred, as the Barbeau scene adds much depth to the, you know, story or whatever.

Two years after Swamp Thing, Wes Craven released A Nightmare on Elm Street, a huge success that spawned sequels and turned Craven’s character, Freddy Krueger (portrayed by Robert Englund), into an icon. Craven’s subsequent filmography was hit-or-miss, but he scored another blockbuster with Scream in 1996. Sequels also followed, all of which have been directed by Craven, including this year’s Scream 4. In addition to the purported Swamp Thing remake, other films from Craven have been recently remade, such as The Hills Have Eyes in 2006 (with a sequel the next year), The Last House on the Left (2009), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010).


  1. Another great post on a fun film. Swamp Thing could perhaps be a quasi-allusion to the Frankenstein myth, in which the monster is viewed as the sympathetic character. Other films, like Dark Man, also have the mutated scientist character as the hero. I don't see why they need a remake, though, when the original is good enough.

  2. Splendid review of one of the best comic book adaptations! You know, I forgot it was a Wes Craven movie...probably because I'm not a big Craven film and I really enjoyed SWAMP THING. It's a intriguing mash-up of the Incredible Hulk, the Phantom of the Opera, and--as GOM pointed out--Frankenstein. But the key difference is that Alec Holland IS Swamp Thing. His body has been altered, but he is otherwise unchanged. Indeed, considering his unexpected change in lifestyle, he copes rather well. Thanks for reminding me about Adrienne' string of strong female characters in the early 80s (ESCAPE TO NEW YORK is one of my favorite action pics of the period and I'm a fan of THE FOG, too). But back to SWAMP THING, another aspect that separates it from similar films is the swamp setting. No urban shadows here, but the mysterious swamp--which provides a hiding place for many a creature--gives the proceedings an edge.

  3. Sark, I haven't seen this, but I have seen the really bad sequel with Heather Locklear. I hope the original is much better. LOL! When I think of Swamp Thing I always think of Thing from the Fantastic Four...I don't know why, I just do (they do look similar, I suppose). Anyway, another splendid review, Sark.

  4. Sark, it is always fun to read your interesting and informative reviews! I remember liking "Swamp Thing" and especially his caring for Adrienne Barbeau, with or without bathing scenes. The setting is key, both to his name and the story, as Rick pointed out. As for the other Wes Craven movies mentioned, when my husband and I moved last year I was very pleased that we were the first house on the left, and not the last one. Great job!

  5. Fun post about a great creature. You put so much thought into it -- it was particularly kind of you to give detailed instructions on how to get the European version in order to truly appreciate the finer aspects of Barbeau's acting talents (both of them)...LOL!!!

  6. Sark, as fans of both comics and movies of the science fiction persuasion, we of Team Bartilucci are fans of SWAMP THING in all its forms. Vinnie in particular is practically a walking SWAMP THING encyclopedia! :-) I really enjoyed your detailed reviews of the Wes Craven movie and the TV series. Nice to know the folks behind SPLICE are planning a new movie version. (Of course, it would be even better if SPLICE star Adrien Brody was in it, but you can't have everything! :-))

  7. I always liked this movie. Thanks for the memories. I think I need to see it again. :)

    Oh by the way, I posted my Five Favorite Mission Impossible episodes on my blog just the other day. Linked them with your five faves. :)