Directed by Wes Craven. Starring Louis Jourdan, Adrienne Barbeau, Ray Wise, David Hess, Nicholas Worth, Dick Durock. Horror/Sci-Fi, USA, 89 mins, cert 15.
Released in the UK on Dual Format DVD & Blu-ray by 88 Films on 25th March 2019.
There was a time when SWAMP THING was seen as something of a bit of a blip in Wes Craven's filmography thanks to it being a) a bit of a departure from Craven’s usual output and b) a bit silly. However, in the years since its original release the film has picked up something of a cult following, hence this Blu-ray release from cult movie specialists 88 Films. Whatever its merits or faults, SWAMP THING is certainly a different film for Wes Craven, coming as it did between his notable successes THE HILLS HAVE EYES and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET but focusing more on action than horror and giving Craven a chance to prove he wasn't 'just' a horror director (because nothing says diversity and mainstream acceptance like a human/plant hybrid creature killing a group of mercenaries in a swamp, plus the residuals from DEADLY BLESSING wouldn’t have kept the wolf from the door for very long).
Based on the DC character, SWAMP THING is structured like a standard superhero movie in that during the first act you get the setup of your main characters and what their motivations are. In this case we have government agent Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau – THE FOG) flying down to the swamps of the American South to replace a scientist in a research facility who had been killed whilst working. Once there she is introduced to the brilliant Dr. Alex Holland (Ray Wise – ROBOCOP), who is experimenting with animal and plant life by trying to combine the two so vegetation can grow in the most unlikely of places, and it does once arch villain Anton Arcane (Louis Jourdan – OCTOPUSSY) and his henchmen – led by the hot-headed Ferret (David Hess – THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT) – break into Holland’s lab, murder his sister, steal his work and leave him for dead after setting him on fire with his own experiments.
However, Holland is not dead and returns from the swamps as Swamp Thing (now played by Dick Durock), a half-man, half-plant hybrid with amazing strength and super intelligence, and goes after Arcane and his crew, who are now pursuing Cable as she has the last remaining book of Dr. Holland’s notes.
So story-wise SWAMP THING doesn’t really do anything that nearly every DC/Marvel superhero movie hasn’t done to some degree, and in this day and age of CGI-heavy connected superhero universes this movie does look incredibly creaky, campy and probably more than a little bit dumb. But put it into the context of when it originally came out, when the only competition it had was the SUPERMAN movies and THE INCREDIBLE HULK TV show, and you can only imagine the joy on a young superhero fan’s face of seeing another comic book character come to life on the big screen, and SWAMP THING is nothing if not enjoyable.
For what is a B-movie the cast is impressive and all seem to be making the best of what they have to work with, with David Hess really seeming to enjoy himself by making other people suffer (as he did in pretty much every film he was in). Louis Jourdan camps things up magnificently as the evil Anton Arcane in what is pretty much a pre-cursor for his role as Bond villain Kamal Khan opposite Roger Moore in OCTOPUSSY the following year, but the real star is Adrienne Barbeau, who is clearly not having a good time appearing in this film due to what she gets put through but perseveres like a proper trooper nonetheless.
But what about the monster? Well, to be fair he looks pretty much how you would expect a human/plant hybrid to look in an early 1980s B-movie, and Lou Ferrigno’s Hulk was clearly the inspiration, but this pales into insignificance once all of the good stuff is out of the way and Swamp Thing has to take on Anton Arcane in the film’s climactic battle, mainly because this is where SWAMP THING just stops trying and becomes effortlessly ridiculous. You thought Hulk and Thor together in THE INCREDIBLE HULK RETURNS looked daft? Then the final act of SWAMP THING will blow your mind as Arcane gets his own upgrade and somebody in the local fancy dress shop got to go home early one day.
For the first third of the film SWAMP THING does pretty well in setting up an unoriginal but serviceable origin story with a talented cast all on board but somewhere during the second act the film slows down, almost to a halt, as it becomes too engrossed with Anton Arcane chasing Alice Cable around the Deep South as she teams up with the kid from the local store for no real reason whatsoever. After that the film goes overboard – even for a film about a walking mutant growbag – and you have to wonder if anybody knew what was going on and how it all actually looked on a screen. Whatever the thinking behind it, SWAMP THING’s reputation as a campy and quirky cult movie is well deserved and Wes Craven can be excused for his attempts to diversify because after this experiment and the clearly-doing-it-for-the-money cash-grab of THE HILLS HAVE EYES PART II we got A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and ‘80s horror movies stepped up a gear, so all’s well.
The dual-format package comes backed with a Wes Craven audio commentary and interviews with production designer Robb Wilson King and film critic Kim Newman, which isn’t a huge amount considering who was involved with this film but there is enough there to give you some background. So there you have it – a solid but unremarkable presentation of a film that is remarkable in its own way and mostly for all the wrong reasons, but you can’t be too harsh about it when it is, for the most part, so much fun.
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