Friday, July 19, 2013

Swamp Thing

I've always had a soft spot for Swamp Thing. I remember watching both the cartoon (which featured a bastardized version of the Trogg's "Wild Thing" as the theme song) and even a few episodes of the live-action TV show. Plus, the character himself offers a lot of cool possibilities; at its heart, the big green guy is a cross-pollination of the superhero and monster genres, and that makes him stand out from other comic book figures like Superman or Batman. I've also enjoyed his arch-nemesis: Dr. Arcane, who in his quest for immortality creates an army of mutant "Un-Men."

Swamp Thing (1982) is the first movie adaptation of the comic, and it is written and directed by renowned horror master Wes Craven. Essentially it's an origin story. Dr. Alec Holland (Ray Wise) is working in the swamp on a formula that would create a plant/animal hybrid able to survive extreme environments. Just as he makes a breakthrough, the lab is stormed by men led by Anton Arcane (Louis Jourdan), who kills Alec's sister Linda. In the process, Holland is covered with his formula and set aflame. Diving into the swamp, Holland's body combines with the lifeforms, transforming him into Swamp Thing (Dick Durock), a creature of immense strength that challenges Arcane's diabolical scheme while trying to protect government agent Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau).

In the comics, Swamp Thing is a being that can transfer his consciousness into any plant matter and construct it into a body for himself. He can also control plant life and regrow any damaged body parts. In the film, Swamp Thing is a man in a rubber suit and a rather unconvincing one at that. Craven, the horror specialist, early on keeps Swamp Thing limited to long-distant shots and short, quick glimpses of a hand reaching out of the water to yank the unwary, but since this is our hero, we see more and more of him as the movie goes on, and the more we see him, the less convincing he appears. Aside from one scene where he regrows a cut-off arm after reaching into the sunlight, Swamp Thing really doesn't demonstrate much of his comic book version's powers, and the result is less Swamp Thing and more soggy, green Big Foot. Most of the time, the green guy is grabbing Arcane's dopey henchmen and tossing them around like a pro wrestler.

The sad thing is the Swamp Thing costume makes for the most convincing creature in the movie. Near the end, Arcane tests the same formula on an unwitting subordinate who promptly shrinks into a mutant midget. Arcane himself drinks the formula after being told by Swamp Thing the secret of the formula is that it makes you more of what you are; not only does this seem like a very stupid move for a supposed genius, the resulting monster is a laughably fake pig-dog combination. Swamp Thing's face at least allows for eye and mouth movement, but Arcane's can't even offer that much, and the climactic battle between monsters is lame. The movie could have used some of the more freakish Un-Men like the Patchwork Man or Crassus.

If only the creature effects were the only flaws of the movie, but regrettably, Swamp Thing's plot is an undercooked mess. Instead of exploring Swamp Thing character - what he is, how he's adapted to his new state of being, what he wants to accomplish - the movie descends into a series of repetitive chase scenes: Cable gets chased by Arcane's goons, Swamp Thing saves her, rinse and repeat. Too much time is wasted on chases that go nowhere. At least Craven makes good use of the swamp location, highlighting its duel nature: full of great beauty and immense danger, a place full of life that man would poison for his own ends.

While the central creature effects and plot of Swamp Thing are a bust, the film does possess a quirky charm that makes it enjoyable. Although he's only in the first 25 minutes, Wise is really good as the driven scientist Holland, and it's a disappointment he's gone so quickly. Frankly, I've never seen a movie scientist like him. Most brilliant scientists in the movies are insane villains like Arcane or socially inept nerds like Jeff Goldblum in The Fly. Holland is, well, cool; he aggressively begins hitting on Cable when she shows up and doesn't back down from confrontation. I wouldn't have minded seeing an entire movie just about this character, even without the part when he turns into a monster.

And as much as I've harped on his makeup, Dick Durock is actually quite good as Swamp Thing. More famous as a stuntman, he projects a quiet sadness and even a sense of humor. His romance with Cable has a certain gentleness and sweetness to it. It's no surprise Durock would return as Swamp Thing in both the sequel and subsequent TV series. Cable, as a character, is a mix-bag. Sometimes, she holds her own and is as tough as any soldier, but by the end, she falls into the damsel-in-distress mode.

Jourdan here is a fun villain straight out of James Bond, quoting Nietzsche and going on about how brilliant he is, although Arcane is too vague. We know he wants immortality, but the movie never explains who he is (in the comics, he was a scientist and magician with the power to raise and control the dead): is he a scientist, a crime boss, a mercenary captain, a terrorist? And for a guy the U.S. believes to be dead, what's he doing with such a luxurious mansion so close to an isolated government laboratory? Horror fans will recognize David Hess of Last House on the Left fame as Arcane's lieutenant Ferret. In some ways, he's channeling his more infamous villain Krug, but he still got a fair amount of leering, sexual menace and a sadistic streak that make him effective. Also good is Jude (Reggie Batts), a black boy who works at an isolated gas station and helps out Cable and always has a quick line; when Cable tells him not to be afraid when Arcane's men arrive, he replies, "You better say that to somebody whose desk you ain't hiding behind."

Swamp Thing has been talked about frequently the last few years as the subject for a new cinematic adventure, with directors such as Vincenzo Natali and Guillermo del Toro expressing interest in using the character, and that's something I can get behind. Craven's movie is entertaining enough, but it's nowhere near what it could have been.

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