Film Torments: Swamp Thing (1982)

THIS TIME on Torments, Dan looks at an early comic book flick from a horror pioneer. This’ll be a laugh.

I’m sorry. Wes Craven was not as clever as he thought he was. An undeniably influential presence in the horror genre – more specifically, the slasher sub-genre – Craven could also phone it in when he wanted to. Swamp Thing is a testament to both this and the director’s slippery understanding of tone, but it’s also a curious relic of early-ish adaptations of comic books during a time when the original Superman galvanised the medium.

Swamp Thing came during the original comic book tele-cinematic wave, an era which gave us the likes of Lou Ferrigno’s The Incredible Hulk and Reb Brown’s Captain America – truly, a time of titans – and shambled its way to cinemas only a year before the defining Superman II. ‘Shambling’, ‘stumbling’, ‘creaky’ are all words that can be attributed to Craven’s film without much effort, but it’s fascinating to look at a comic book movie from the vantage point of a modern industry saturated with them.

Not that Swamp Thing is a traditional superhero in the vein of Spider-Man or Batman et al. The character is a strange amalgamation of vigilante justice and environmental preservation, with a loving dash of mad science gone wrong and supernatural intervention. It’s a weird mish-mash of pulp shenanigans with a social conscience, and one that would prove to be particularly (creatively) lucrative for an up-and-coming Alan Moore, whose run on the Swamp Thing comic from 1984 – 1987 entered the annals of legend.

But this came after Craven’s film, which abandoned his usual focus on familial turbulence and societal upheaval for a strict emphasis on entertainment. The screen-wipes alone are enough to drive this point home, with comically (ha!) terrible transitions warping into frame like a Year 9 Powerpoint presentation, but the approach elsewhere holds true to the ethos. Performances are broad and the pace rarely lets up, ratcheting along at a steady ramble, and the direction, while pedestrian in places, always tries to maximise the ka-pow silliness of its source material.

Adrienne Barbeau’s turn isn’t spectacular, but her Alice Cable benefits from Barbeau’s steely determination as a performer. Cable takes no bullshit from her lecherous male counterparts and, at several points, when other films would have her cowering in false distress, she refreshingly proves to be a competent force of action, even if the choreography rarely stacks up. Ray Wise is indelibly charming as Alec Holland pre-transformation, but Swamp Thing‘s critical failure is underusing the man. He barely has time to assert himself onscreen before Dick Durock takes over as the titular creature. It’s a real shame, because Wise has the kind of charisma that can elevate substandard material (or be the best thing in shite, as in God’s Not Dead 2), but he’s not given the opportunity here.

Cripplingly unfunny comedy elements regularly hamper proceedings, but at least they’re trying to retain the cavalier attitude of the comics and they also stay true to Craven’s regular – also, usually, misplaced – injections of humour into his films. Craven’s laughs are often wry and knowing, as with the unbearable wink-wink bullshit of Scream, but here they fall flat on the back of flaccid slapstick. He’s at his best in the transformation sequences, which are actually quite horrific and superbly shot, hinting at the Elm Street body horror future yet to come.

Suck it, John Woo!

Weirdly, despite bearing his name, the film sidelines Swamp Thing himself, who is regularly defeated in (or forced to slowly retreat from) battle and comes across as a shambling, incompetent warrior to battle the forces of environmental evil. This is especially impressive when considering Louis Jordan’s fey, smug, fart-sniffing villain, Anton Arcane, who eventually transforms himself into a hysterically unbelievable, Power Rangers-esque guy-in-a-suit. The climactic battle between the two is like something out of the shit Godzillas, and not in a good way.

Swamp Thing is, for its myriad faults, surprisingly entertaining in parts, and manages to make an unconventional heroine shine, but it is absolutely a journeyman film from a director who is clearly not entirely comfortable with his material. Craven occasionally achieves his goal of providing entertainment fodder, and his emphasis on empowering under-represented peoples is always commendable, but the opening and concluding salvos are desperately dull and the film rarely feels like anything other than treading swampy water. (And the less said about Barbeau’s gratuitous topless scene the better. Pure Cinemax.)

It’s a stop-gap, designed solely to confirm Craven’s ability to make a standard studio picture as opposed to the independent features that made his name. It succeeds, in its lopsided, off-kilter fashion, but it never makes much of an impression beyond that – not unlike the comic book films of modernity.

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