[16 August 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
There is such a thing as being ahead of your time. There is also a point where you’re preempting a possible cinematic subject area years before the public is ready for it - or even cares. This was the case for horror maestro Wes Craven when he was asked to direct the adaptation of popular DC comic book character Swamp Thing. The year was 1982. Tim Burton’s Batman was still eight years away. The director, fresh from the fiasco that was Deadly Blessing, was himself several months removed from reestablishing his macabre credentials (previously earned with such efforts as The Hills Have Eyes and Last House on the Left) with the masterful A Nightmare on Elm Street. So the cinematic stars were not in alignment here. In fact, it’s safe to say that a filmmaker who everyone thought was washed up was about to tackle a property that few in Tinseltown thought could be bankable. That’s a combo headed for catastrophe.
Boy, were they ever wrong - not about Swamp Thing, mind you, but about what Craven and the comic book would mean to the artform throughout the rest of the ‘80s, ‘90s, and ‘00s. Indeed, the former took terror in a whole new direction (aided by such upstarts as Sam Raimi and James Muro) when Freddy Krueger was transformed into a killer with an equally lethal sense of humor. As for Swamp Thing, well, that’s a different story. Undercut by suits who started undermining the production financially almost from the moment it was greenlit, Craven was forced to retrofit scenes, nix already approved make-up and F/X, and in essence, work with what he had in the godforsaken location chosen for him. It was all improvisation, ad libbing, and agita. That anything remotely watchable - and, indeed, that’s what this likeable lark is - resulted is a testament to the talents involved.
The story finds Dr. Alec Holland (a pre-Twin Peaks Ray Wise) working in a bizarre plant/human hybrid which he hopes will lead to breakthroughs in life expectancy and survival. Naturally, a baddie by the name of Dr. Anton Arcane (Louis Jourdan) wants the formula for his own and attacks just as a government agent named Alice Cable (Adrianne Barbeau) arrives, looking for some answers. Taking her hostage and burning down Holland’s lab, an explosion douses the doc in his special serum, turning him into the title terror (Dick Durock). With some of the important formula facets missing, Dr. Arcane tries to replicate his competitor’s work. The results are experimental abominations, though our villain isn’t beyond using the recipe on himself.
Swamp Thing is known for a lot of things. The European cut offered up a topless Adrianne Barbeau, much to the chagrin of adolescent geeks all throughout the US (don’t worry - Google is your best friend in this department). It also showed that Craven could do something PG and not overflowing with gore and dark, disturbing subtext. It provided both Wise and Jourdan significant roles at a time when both had little box office clout and it even turned a relatively talent-addled Reggie Batts into a cult item thanks to his tone deaf portrayal of the bayou boy Jude. There are a lot of interesting elements at work here - Craven trying to be commercial, Barbeau moving beyond her good girl/bride of John Carpenter image, DC attempting to bring their catalog of comic book characters to life. Together, though, they fail to add up to very much at all. It’s fun, but it’s fluff.
The director knows who to blame for this. So does Barbeau. As part of the bonus features offered on the new Shout! Factory Blu-ray of the release, both speak out about individuals behind the scenes who cut corners and strived to bring down the bottom line before a single roll of film was even exposed. They had little faith in the property, even less in the person behind the lens, and a lot of chutzpah to think they knew better. Again, it’s a credit to Craven’s abilities that he found fundamentally interesting ways around these obstacles, as well as a lesson for future filmmakers to follow - get stuff in writing upfront less you find yourself constantly undermined by those writing the checks. Even worse, never try to cast an actor for what basically amounts to a guy in suit role. Ray Wise was fine at the beginning when Dr. Holland is human. But he could not manage the bulky Swamp Thing suit, requiring the use of a stuntman named Dick Durock for the rest of the shoot.
Elsewhere, Craven complains openly about the casting of Batts. He even goes so far as to call the kid “awful,” while his onscreen work is clearly better defined as “raw.” The young African American male was just a boy, hanging out when a call came. He was picked, though Craven claims no responsibility for same, and his line readings and reactions clearly mark someone who is learning the art of movie acting on the fly. Later, in an interview for the disc, Batts makes it very clear how much fun he had on the film, his respect for Craven and Barbeau, and how “good” he thought he was. If he’s being facetious, he’s clearly not in on said joke. Instead, it’s another enigmatic facet of a film loaded with same, from Jourdan’s suave inertia to the moment the bulky character actor Nicolas Worth is “transformed” into a little person with a demented dog’s face toward the finale.
Indeed, as our creatures square off in the snake filled waters of South Carolina, destined to place a pothole into the road that would become Hollywood’s superhero hit machine, Swamp Thing shows its true colors. It’s a lark, a legitimate live action cartoon made by a man who would eventually abandon his mainstream ambitions to return to the rotten genre he loved the best. It’s also an entertaining hodgepodge of problems that end up becoming something a bit better than you’d expect, given the trials involved. You could consider something like Swamp Thing ahead of its time. You can also see how it ended up failing - not because of the subject, the stars, or the man knee deep in the desperate times behind the scenes. Instead, audiences weren’t quite ready for a mutant plant man as a defender of justice. Now, he’s a novelty in a realm simply reeking of weird creature crusaders.