Swamp Thing (1982)

29 Oct

Seriously. This monster suit looks like a grade-school art project.

I went into “Swamp Thing” with fairly high hopes. One of my favorite ’80s scream queens is the star, and it was one of horror guru Wes Craven’s first larger budget movies, so I expected a certain level of sophistication, even if it proved fairly tame in the scare department. Imagine my (disappointed) surprise when what I got was essentially a made-for-TV movie.

Genius scientist Alec Holland (Ray Wise) has been carrying out botanical research in the swamp, and the government group funding his work has become curious about where its dollars are going. So Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau) is dispatched to Backwoods, U.S.A., to assist Alec and get some questions answered. The results of the serum Alec has been developing are startling: It has the power to exponentially increase the size and relative strength of plant-based life, as well as speed the growing process. Alec explains it’s the first successful formula combining both plant and animal cells. Of course, all is not well for long. Rival scientist Dr. Anton Arcane (Louis Jourdan) soon attacks the facility with his goons, dousing Alec with the experimental formula in the process. Alec bursts into flames, dives into the swamp and is presumed dead by Arcane’s head henchman Ferret (David Hess). Cable escapes with Holland’s notebooks and is pursued by Arcane’s agents. Just when they have her cornered, a hulking humanoid monster rises from the swamp and defends her.

Safe for now, Cable tries contacting her superiors, only to have Arcane intercept the call and send his lackeys back out on her trail. She befriends a bespectacled teenage gas station owner, Jude (Reggie Batts), and they head back into the swamp to hide. When she runs into the swamp monster back in Alec’s destroyed lab, she begins putting the pieces together. Arcane isn’t giving up without a fight, however; he intends to steal Alec’s formula to use for his own sure-to-be-no-good schemes. Each scientist soon realizes the only way to achieve his goal is to eliminate the other; eventually good must battle evil for the sake of humanity.

The storyline is about as murky as the ever-present swamp waters in this flat comic book adaptation. This film moves at a frustrating pace, and much of the early dialogue just flies by. It’s intimated that Arcane should be dead, but it’s never explained why anyone believes that or why nobody makes a big deal out of it when he’s alive. It’s unclear whether he intercepts Cable’s call for help (that’s my best guess) or whether he’s somehow involved in a shadow government conspiracy. We never really know who Cable works for other than “the government,” and all the secrecy surrounding Alec’s botanical research is absolutely dumbfounding. Some of this can be chalked up to the general convoluted mess that is a typical comic book backstory, but some serious weeding should have been done to provide a easier plot set-up and a less nebulous villain.

Dr. Alec Holland and special agent supreme Alice Cable in happier days. You know, before all the mud and freaky science mojo.

In truth, this movie felt to me like it could have been an overly long “very special” episode of “The A-Team.” Craven, in what I suppose was an attempt to throw in some ’50s monster-mash flavor, utilizes a series of strange wipes as segues between shots. There’s right-to-left action, left-to-right action, expand from the middle action, and, at least once, a starburst wipe. Rather than being pleasantly tongue-in-cheek, the effect is instead unbelievably cheesy. The already-weak story gets no help from such lazy scene jumping, and each one has the unfortunate consequence of stopping the plot train in its tracks.

Plot and dialogue don’t matter too much, however, because “Swamp Thing” is jam-packed with action. There’s lots of impressive explosions and shoot-outs, and a couple of fights and boat races, and these all look okay. Where this film really suffers is in the actual monster design. It’s about a half-step up from walking around wearing a rubber Halloween mask. I’m sure all the makeup was uncomfortable for the actor underneath, and that’s just a tragedy because it just looks awful. Poor Swamp Thing isn’t at all believable as anything other than a tall guy in makeup, and without the audience buying the “monster,” the film pretty much tanks.

The sole redeeming factor in this mess is Adrienne Barbeau. She slogs through endless patches of swamp, jumps out of boats into more swamp, has convincing shoot-outs with some of the most ineffective henchmen ever depicted and manages it all while staying classy and getting the job done. Her character is the only one with any real emotional resonance, and it’s unfortunate her role becomes sort of secondary once the monster suits are on.

I hoped for some retro charm with “Swamp Thing,” a sort of ’80s slasher take on a ’50s-style monster movie. Too bad Craven picked the wrong cliches from each era — the bad, rubbery monster costumes of the ’50s and the explosion obsessed action directing of the ’80s — to combine in this stinker. One-and-a-half stars out of four.

Swamp Thing“: Rated PG (But this was back in the day, so there is some quick up-top nudity from Adrienne Barbeau). Starring Louis Jourdan, Adrienne Barbeau, Ray Wise, David Hess, Nicholas Worth, Don Knight, Al Ruban, Dick Durock, Ben Bates, Nannette Brown and Reggie Batts. Directed by Wes Craven. Screenplay by Wes Craven inspired by the comic book by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson. Cinematography by Robbie Greenberg (as Robin Goodwin). Original music by Harry Manfredini.

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2 Responses to “Swamp Thing (1982)”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. 31 Nights of Horror: Final thoughts (2010) « Rhanda watches - November 23, 2010

    […] The films’ star reviews average out to a median of 2.45 stars. Not too shabby, in other words, but more on the low end than the high end. There were two four-star reviews: “The Innocents” and “Eraserhead.” There was one zero-star review — “Death Bed: The Bed That Eats.” There were three one-star reviews: “Bad Biology,” “Venus in Furs,” and “Swamp Thing.” […]

  2. The Return of Swamp Thing ~1989 | Angry Film Review - January 22, 2011

    […] Swamp Thing (1982) (rhandawatches.wordpress.com) […]

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