The Underrated: Swamp Thing
Alan Moore, being the complaining hippy weirdo that he is, always moans that Hollywood has never managed to make a good film based on one of his funny books. He’s wrong. While Watchmen and LXG may suck something fierce, and From Hell and V for Vendetta manage to scale the dizzy heights of mediocre, one adaptation stands head and shoulders above the rest- that adaptation? Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing.
Technically, Moore is right, as he worked on Swamp Thing after the 1982 release of the film, but I’m not interested in such pedantry. I’m interested in this stomping little film.
This is an interesting little film- it’s sharp environmental satire, a rip-roaring Superhero movie, and a zany freakish comedy. It contains moments of genius, a first-rate cast, and a convincing villain. It is also, by the standards of Craven’s output a surprisingly tame film. There’s violence aplenty, and a good amount of gore thrown around, but there’s nothing in it that you’d call excessive. It certainly isn’t on the same level as some of his other films (notably Last House on the Left). It’s playful rather than outright nasty.
The plot of Swamp Thing is extremely straightforward. Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau) is sent to the swamp to assist Dr Alec Holland, who is experimenting by trying to fuse plant and animal DNA- which he eventually manages creating a violently green serum. Movie scientists are such idiots, they should know by now that any time you make something luminous green then only bad things will happen. Predictably, Arcane (Louis Jourdan) turns up, slaughters everyone, douses Alec in the serum, sets him on fire and makes an all round mess. The rest of the film has the Swamp Thing coming repeatedly to Alice’s rescue before a superbly satirical climax after Arcane takes the serum.
So why, do I rate this so highly? Well, as I said above, it’s laced with moments of sheer genius, and most of them are supplied by the script. There’s a hilarious exchange between Alice and the Swamp Thing after he’s had his arm chopped off, where she asks if he hurts and he replies “only when I laugh.” By the time this came up, I was captivated by this film, but that in itself would have been more than enough for me. The climax itself follows a fair wedge of exposition- but basically, Alec’s serum doesn’t transform people, rather it unlocks the potential that was already present. Arcane, believing himself to be a genius takes the serum expecting his prowess to be amplified and himself to be transformed into a god. In reality, of course, Arcane is a pompous ass, and the serum unlocks the potential turning him into a blundering monster.
The character work in this film is superb. Alec is a happy playboy type, his genius going hand in hand with sheer exuberance. He’s brilliantly performed by Ray Wise, never coming across as annoying. Barbeau is also excellent as Alice, who can kick a fair amount of ass- she’s the only comic book heroine I can think of that isn’t a damsel in distress, and Jourdan is simply awesome as Arcane. Oily, pompous, sleazy, but ruthless without exception. The man’s a complete bastard.
Swamp Thing is also a highly referential film. There’s visual quotations to Bride of Frankenstein (compare the covers), and a host of other films as well. Craven, who also wrote the script, also has his characters quoting from both literature and cinema,most memorably with “It’s every man for himself, and god against all” which my 3 minutes of research tells me is from Herzog. Craven would return to referential horror films with the seminal Scream, but this is much more subtly done. It’s a master class in postmodernism.
There are downsides to this film- the special effects aren’t aging well (the Swamp Thing costume in particular looks like plastic nowadays), and a lot of the supporting cast (playing comic henchmen roles) are borderline dreadful. Barbeau also has many terminally dull exchanges with a token black kid that drag me painfully out of the film, but really, these are minor flaws that irritate rather than scar. It is very easy to look past them, when there’s so much greatness on offer. Really, who cares about such trivia when you’ve got scathingly ironic lines such as “There’s plenty of beauty in the swamp if you know what to look at”.
I thoroughly recommend this film. It’s schlock with a brain, a throwback to films that just aren’t made any more, and at the end of the day, damned good fun. I haven’t seen any of the sequels, but will probably check out the one with Jourdan in it, just out of curiousity as I don’t think it will get anywhere near to the heights of this film. Looking at Craven’s resume, especially some of the utter garbage that gets celebrated and remade (Last House on the Left), I am left to wonder that this film is so overlooked. It’s not as good as either Scream or Nightmare on Elm Street but it’s a hell of a lot better than almost everything else he has made (Red Eye).
This is a film that I would class as a lost treasure. It’s dropped from public consciousness for some reason. Sure it’s a bit cheesy, but at the end of the day, it’s a fun, clever romp and deserving of rehabilitation.
Until next time,
Before I go, I don’t think Xi would forgive me if I didn’t link to this (NSFW)- which are 2 excellent reasons to watch the film.