The Film: Swamp Thing (1982)
The Principles: Written and Directed by Wes Craven
Acted by Ray Wise, Adrienne Barbeau, Louis Jourdan, David Hess, Nicholas Worth
The Premise: In Swamp Thing, bio-expert Dr. Alec Holland is working on a new formula that when applied to plant life renders results that could potentially end world hunger. His work is being done deep in the swamplands of Charleston, and due to the conditions and an evil competitor, employee rotation is high. Enter Alice Cable, a sassy, hard-nosed DoD employee with a strong survival instinct and a solid right hook. When the evil Arcane invades Dr. Hollands compound and laboratory, an accident occurs that turns our hero-scientist into a powerful hybrid of flora and fauna. Swamp Thing is born and Arcane must be stopped before he uses the Holland formula to control the world.
Is It Good?: This movie is great up until the third act. Swamp Thing starts off strong for an early eighties comic book movie, and it has a lot going for it. The cast is exceptionally well assembled and we see a lot of great performances coming from both the protagonist’s and antagonist’s sides. Adrienne Barbeau is really good as the government employee Alice Cable, and Ray Wise gives a very charismatic performance as Dr. Alec Holland, even though he is only in the film for about 20 minutes. Louis Jourdan is fantastic as the pompous and self-righteous evil genius Arcane, and his henchman are played very well by both David Hess and Nicholas Worth.
I think where Swamp Thing really falls short is in its missed opportunities. Overall, the film is entertaining, but even that depends on how much fun you can have with an occasionally slow-paced and campy comic book movie. The source material is used effectively to the point where you can lock in to the story without thinking about how a biochemist became a walking plant. The delivery works on just about every level of tone and narrative, but what fails here are the technical aspects.
It’s understandable to have to make sacrifices under the limitations of a low budget, but certain techniques can always be used to mask poor work. Sadly what winds up being the worst part of the production in Swamp Thing are the creature effects. The creature design for Swamp Thing himself looks well designed, if not a bit rubbery, but when Arcane has fully transformed at the end of the film, it looks awful. What does work really well to offset this are the transformation scenes of Arcane and his #2 right hand man Bruno. When they are in the midst of mutating, Wes Craven’s direction helps instill tension and unease that is genuinely effective.
Another missed opportunity comes with the buildup of seeing Adrienne Barbeau’s Cable and Ray Wise’s Dr. Holland basically get just a few hours of time together to begin a courtship that quickly goes up in flames. It’s a shame that more of the film’s runtime could not have been devoted to these two considering how magnetic they are on screen together. Dick Durock does a good job as the creature once Holland has become Swamp Thing, but once the film is past the first act the shift in tone actually seems to weaken the narrative. We get to have fun with supporting characters like the young Reggie Batts as Jude, but we never get to recapture the level of charm that we had when it was just Cable, Dr. Holland and his sister.
Swamp Thing is not a terrible film by any means, and it certainly can be more enjoyable than some other films that have been adapted from DC Comics, but it definitely does have it’s flaws. The cinematography and editing are a bit odd at times and it is kind of amusing to remember how decades ago comic book movies used certain transitions and wipes to bring the pages and panels to life. I think Wes Craven was able to do a lot more with this property than most would have at the time, and the work he got out of his cast and crew definitely shows dedication to the craft.
Random Anecdotes: Wes Craven uses famous quotes to punctuate the dialogue and give us insight into each of our main three characters:
- Adrienne Barbeau as Cable quotes The Wizard of Oz
- Louis Jourdan as Arcane quotes Friedrich Nietzsche
- Ray Wise as Dr. Alec Holland quotes Robert Frost
The film’s score was composed by Harry Manfredini of Friday the 13th fame.
Cinematic Soulmates: Creepshow, Southern Comfort, Creature from the Black Lagoon