Taking a look at the current cinema schedules and shows available on our streaming services it is hard to remember a time before comic book superheroes ruled our screens. The crazy thing is it wasn’t that long ago and even more importantly any superhero films that did emerge were seen as either purely for kids or not to be taken too seriously.
The perfect example is Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing. Made in 1982 the horror maestro, having made his mark with The Hills Have Eyes and Deadly Blessing, took on the DC anti-hero hoping to follow up the success Richard Donner’s Superman which came out in 1978 and was a huge hit.
Writing and directing Craven tried to craft a blend of action, thriller and horror with an origin story set in the swamps staying close to the comics yet evoking the classic creature features of the 50’s. Perhaps not succeeding in all he attempted Swamp Thing is still an entertaining adventure coveted as a cult classic and featuring some excellent turns from the cast of horror staples.
The story follows Alice Cable (the amazing Adrienne Barbeau from The Fog and Escape from New York) a government worker sent out to the swamps of the American South to replace a scientist killed in the hostile environment. Operating under extreme secrecy the small facility is built around the work of Dr. Alec Holland (Twin Peaks Ray Wise) a scientific prodigy attempting to combine animal and vegetable DNA to create plants with a strong will to survive.
Creating a super serum that seems to have finally provided the answer he was attempting to engineer Alec and Alice are overjoyed however the celebrations are called to a dead stop when a gang of paramilitary men overtake the laboratory and seize the solution. Although Alice escapes Alec is set on fire when the chemicals he created explode all over him and he disappears into the swamp left for dead by the mercenaries who only want his work.
Alone and upset Alice vows to stop the evil organisation and discovers it is being run by Anton Arcane (Gigi and Octopussy star Louis Jourdan) a crazed genius determined to harness the power of Alec’s potion. Arcane is missing a vital journal full of Alec’s notes which just happens to be in Alice’s possession. Sending all his military might after her and the book the villains come unstuck when some thing rises from the swamps to save Alice, a swamp thing to be exact.
Watching Swamp Thing now a number of things stick out like a snowman in an everglade the first being the terrible costumes and make up. From a distance Swamp Thing, played by imposing actor and stunt man Dick Durock, looks sinister and super human and reasonably close to his comic book incarnation. Unfortunately all too soon we get a close up and the limitations of 80’s make-up effects is very evident with the monster looking more like a homemade Halloween costume than a big budget Hollywood movie hero.
The other monsters in the movie if anything are even worse preventing the climax from capturing any drama or tension which is a shame. Interestingly there is a sense that the entire tone of the film is less than serious with Craven’s script containing many moments of comedy and this links back to the previously established idea that comics are for kids something incongruous in a movie with so much gore and nudity.
Craven employs several weird wipes and transitions to give a more comic book feel in the same way the original Star Wars films used them to echo old Sci-Fi serials but this lack of commitment to take the source material seriously damages the movie over all limiting it the same way the effects do.
All this is a pity as the cast really are excellent with Barbeau as a kick ass heroine crusading against Arcane and his henchmen which includes The Last House On The Left’s David Hess in a particularly enjoyable villainous turn.
As Anton Arcane Louis Jourdan is brilliant casting a sinister shadow across the screen whenever he arrives and taking the ridiculous role very seriously making it all the more magnificent something perhaps the whole film could have benefited from doing.
Flawed for sure Swamp Thing is still entertaining and enjoyable and fans of Craven or the comic should get their hands on 88 Films Blu-ray release as soon as possible seeing as it’s packed with excellent extras.
The blame for the films shortcomings falls more on the restrictions to realise comic characters with any kind of accuracy with the effects at the time and the attitude in general towards the source material and luckily for super hero fans such as myself both these factors have entirely been eradicated.
We dwell in a golden age of comic book adaptations a fact made all the more clear when older attempts to bring these characters to life such as this are re-viewed and for that reason perhaps it’s time Swamp Thing returned it’s just a pity Wes Craven won’t be around to see it.