Monday, November 3, 2008

Swamp Thing (1982)

In my review of Blade, I said that while the most famous and popular type of superheroes are the ones fighting crime in masks or capes, there are others out there who don't quite fit that mold. While I was initially describing Blade's titular vampire slayer, what I said could also be used to describe the star of the movie I'll be reviewing right now. Created by writer Len Wein and artist Berni Wrightson, Swamp Thing made his first true appearance in 1972, inspired by a very similar character that Wein and Wrightson had created a year earlier for DC's House of Secrets comic.

Swamp Thing has been an enduring secondary character for DC, with famous writers like Gerry Conway, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and Mark Millar having tackled Swamp Thing over the years. He's also proven popular enough to have inspired a number of different media properties, with the early 1990s seeing the appearance of a television series on the USA Network, an incredibly short-lived cartoon on Fox, and a line of action figures manufactured by Kenner.

But what could arguably be called the most famous adaptation of Swamp Thing is the motion picture written and directed by Wes Craven. Yes, the man behind such classics of the horror genre like The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, and A Nightmare on Elm Street also directed a movie based on Swamp Thing. The movie has developed something of a very minor cult following since its release in 1982, so let's try to see why.

Welcome to the swamps of South Carolina, where Dr. Alec Holland (Ray Wise) is developing a new form of plant life that can live and thrive in even the harshest of environments. This discovery amazes Dr. Holland's colleague, Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau), while simultaneously garnering the attention of rival scientist Anton Arcane (Louis Jourdan). Arcane sends his personal team of mercenaries to steal Holland's research before he can hand his results over to his government overseers. And naturally, the mercenaries do a little bit more than just steal some files. They go as far as to kill everyone in Holland's laboratory, and in the fracas, Holland himself is doused with chemicals and set on fire. He flees out into the swamp, leaving the mercenaries to presume him dead.

But Alice has survived, having absconded with a journal containing Holland's most important research. Arcane's henchmen march through the swamp to find her, but they instead find nothing but trouble. Instead of dying, the exposure to the chemicals mutated Holland into "Swamp Thing" (Dick Durock), a walking, talking, humanoid mass of vegetation bent on getting vengeance against those who have caused his transformation. And as he tears through the mercenaries to protect Alice, he doesn't plan on stopping until he gets his hands on Arcane.

Back when Swamp Thing was released, making a movie based on a comic book was something that wasn't really done all that often. As a matter of fact, movies based on comic books were incredibly rare at the time. The only ones around were the first two Superman movies. But while the Superman movies were fantastic flicks that took the material seriously. Meanwhile, Swamp Thing forgoes the supernatural nature of the comic books to give us a schlocky B-grade monster movie. Yeah, it's endured as a minor cult classic amongst comic book fans, but the movie could have been a whole heck of a lot better. Maybe it's the nostalgia factor that's made it so popular? Maybe I'm looking too deeply into a movie that's essentially a swamp monster killing off one-dimensional bad guys? I don't know. But there was just something about the movie that prevented me from becoming fully engrossed in it. Perhaps this review can help me figure out what that problem was.

As said before, the movie was the handiwork of Wes Craven. Even over twenty-five years after Swamp Thing was released, Craven still seems like an odd choice to write and direct a movie like this. At the time, he had gained recognition for The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, a pair of graphic, misanthropic horror movies that are quite unlike the movie I'm reviewing now. Then again, Craven also directed the Meryl Streep drama Music of the Heart in 1999, so what do I know?

But anyway, back to the movie at hand. The truth is that Craven's direction here is, frankly, uninspired. With the hokey cinematography from Robbie Greenberg, cartoony scene transitions that are both lame and unfortunately overused, unexciting fight scenes and chase sequences that go on too long, and incredibly ugly costumes for the monsters, it really ends up resulting in a movie that's more camp than anything else. At least Craven was able to get some good music from composer Harry Manfredini. Coming off of his breakthrough success with Friday the 13th, Manfredini does a fine job here. My only complaint is that is some of it sounds like he merely recycled some of his Friday the 13th music for Swamp Thing. When you've seen the early Friday the 13th movies as many times as I have, you tend to pick up on little things like that.

Seriously, though, let's go back to those monster costumes really quick. While Swamp Thing's costume looks acceptable from a distance, but when featured in close-ups, it looks pretty unrealistic. And it's really hard to believe that Ray Wise could have transformed into something with completely different facial features. However, the crappy Swamp Thing costume pales in comparison to the costumes that appear later in the movie. In an odd twist, the villainous Anton Arcane utilizes a concoction similar to the chemicals that created Swamp Thing. Said concoction turns one of Arcane's henchmen into Marlon Brando's creepy little sidekick from The Island of Dr. Moreau, while mutating Arcane himself into... well, I can't even begin to describe just how terribly hideous this abomination is. You cannot imagine how much trouble I'm having trying to think of things to say about it. I can understand that a low-budget monster movie circa 1982 isn't going to have tip-top special effects, but this is absurd.

Craven also wrote the screenplay, which I thought was just as silly as his direction. Swamp Thing was made during that era where comic book movies were lighter and more family-friendly, and Craven's script is certainly evidence of that. Now I can't say that I've read any Swamp Thing comics that were published prior to the movie's release, but they can't possibly be as ridiculous as what Craven gives us. If the comics were anything like the movie, then it's a good thing Alan Moore came along and changed things up. Really, what was Craven thinking? His script is full of cheesy dialogue, an unintimidating villain, and one of the most useless characters in cinematic history. Seriously, did the "Jude" character actually serve any sort of purpose? Any purpose at all? Come on, Craven! You could have done better than this!

Last up is the acting, which is mediocre at best. I'll admit that I liked Ray Wise as Alec Holland. Wise is good in pretty much everything I've seen him in, so that isn't much of a surprise. But thanks to the nature of the character, he's is sadly gone within the first thirty minutes of the movie. It's a shame that they couldn't have him play both facets of the character, because he could have done better than Dick Durock. He has his moments, but most of the time, Durock seems stiff in the role. His delivery is wooden, and he manages to inspire all the sympathy one would have for a smelly pair of well-used gym socks.

I can't really say that I felt Adrienne Barbeau did all that great of a job either. She has something of a following due to her status as a Scream Queen during the first half of the '80s, but she's never done anything for me. And I can't say I was impressed with her performance here, either. It also seems like the costume designer was given only one suggestion: Make sure the audience's attention is focused squarely on Barbeau's chest. Even the movie's poster (as seen above) makes a point of emphasizing it. It's like they were just a step away from having a flashing neon sign pointing right at the goods for the entire movie.

And then there's Louis Jourdan as the villainous Anton Arcane. Jourdan's performance is hammy to an unconscionable degree, making even the most over-the-top B-movie actors look like master thespians. Jourdan does not make for a great villain, and only serves to make the movie even lamer. And let's not forget Reggie Batts as Jude, a character that is neither needed nor really wanted. He serves his purpose in only one scene, but just keeps turning up in random scenes for no good reason at all. According to his IMDB profile, this is Batts's only performance in anything, and perhaps that's for the best. Sure, he's funny in some scenes. But mostly, he comes across as Steve Urkel hopped up on Quaaludes. And that's terrible.

So yeah, I didn't think Swamp Thing was as good as its reputation might have let on. The property does have potential, and could possibly turn into something good if done with today's comic-respecting cinematic world. But I can come up with two reasons why this attempt might have turned out the way it did. One reason is because Craven and the cast used Swamp Thing to create a bad homage to the B-grade monster movies from the '50s.

And what is the second reason? It's just so freaking repetitive. After Holland's transformation into Swamp Thing, the rest of the movie becomes "chase scene, the bad guys capture someone, they escape, chase scene, capture, escape" over and over. If Craven and company don't care, then I can't find any reason for me to either. Do I think there will be a good Swamp Thing movie someday? Sure, I don't see why not. But this initial try just isn't it. So I'm going to give the movie two stars on my Five-Star Sutton Scale. I can't say that I thought it was a truly bad movie, but it's just that it isn't a particularly good one either.

Final Rating: **