SUMMARY: Wes Craven brings the DC Comics character to life with a fast-paced, cheesy, vastly entertaining movie that features nice scenery, Louis Jourdan, and Adrienne Barbeau. Let the good times roll.
Note from the author: This is a slightly expanded version of a review I did on my blog, which you can visit right here.
Swamp Thing is one of my favorite Wes Craven films, and also one of my favorite comic book/superhero movies, as long as I’m being honest. I always ran to the television whenever it would pop up on KTLA, usually at around four in the afternoon on a Saturday between the seventh or eighth showing of Invasion U.S.A and the umpteenth showing of The Delta Force.
Created in 1971 by Len Wein and drawn by Bernie Wrightson, the character has had a few comic book runs (with Alan Moore contributing a popular revision to the character that the films and TV shows don’t use), as well as two movies, a live-action TV series, and an animated one.
Based on the DC Comic, the movie is a bit of an oddity in the Wes Craven filmography, standing with Music from the Heart as one of the few films he’s done that’s not a horror film. Let’s take a closer look at why this cheesy bit of silliness is so damned entertaining.
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One thing I really enjoy about Craven’s direction is how he subtly gives the film the feeling of a live action comic book using wipe cuts. Contrast that with the hugely disappointing 2003 Hulk movie where Ang Lee went overboard with the idea, making something that just looked goofy. I know which of the two films I’d throw on in a heartbeat!
I also dig how Craven immerses the viewer in the swamp from the very start. It’s a very atmospheric way to start a comic book movie.
A philosophical thought: the world would be a much better place if all government agents looked like Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau). Not sure why the hell she got dressed up in a nice (for the early ‘80s, anyway) business suit and high heels to go off into the swamp, but there you go.
The score by Friday the 13th composer Harry Manfredini is also pretty enjoyable.
There have been lots of intimidating names for villainous henchmen: Darth Vader, Darth Maul, and I’m sure there’s at least one film out there where the bad guy has a henchman named Goodkiller. This one? We get David Hess from Craven’s The Last House on the Left as a guy named “Ferret”. Well, can’t win em’ all.
Actually, to be fair, he’s not that bad as a henchman, but when you’re putting him up against a really huge plant guy, it loses a little something.
Ray Wise is quite likable as Alec Holland, our soon to be looking a little green around the gills hero.
This is one of the few times in a comic book movie where I don’t mind the origin story taking up a good portion of the film (about the first 25 minutes or so here). While heroes like Batman and Superman are well-known to the point where a five minute sequence at the start is fine, Swamp Thing is a little more obscure, so you do sort of need to get the full tour.
Louis Jourdan as Dr. Arcane is one of my favorite ‘80s villains. Jourdan is a really good, classy French actor who found himself, as so many European actors tend to, playing villain parts in American action movies. He’d team up the next year with Steven Berkoff (another guy I enjoy) for the James Bond thriller Octopussy, and here, he’s just wonderfully slimy.
In addition to being stunningly beautiful, Barbeau also gets to kick a decent amount of butt in the first third of this film. Granted, not as much in the rest of the film, but still!
I love the fire gag that ensues when Alec gets doused with his growth formula and explodes in flames. I hope the stunt guy who did that was paid really, really, really, really well.
The Swamp Thing suit that Bill Munns designed is pretty damn good, though it was quite difficult to maintain during shooting, and I can’t imagine stuntman Dick Durock had a good time in it. Still, it works pretty well, and is a very good depiction of the character. It’s obviously a guy in a suit, but that just adds to the charm.
Another thing Durock does well is acting the part of Holland, now transformed. He’s actually quite good in the more quiet dramatic scenes with Cable, and later when confronted by Arcane.
Reggie Batts pulls off a miracle and delivers a comic relief kid sidekick who’s not only not obnoxious, but actually pretty damn funny. He just has a deadpan delivery that works way better than it has any right to. Damn shame the sequel didn’t have that.
Craven does pretty well with the action scenes. Nothing overly spectacular, but they’re decent enough.
Ah, the days before PG-13, when you could have a henchman, like Ferret for instance, get his head gruesomely crushed after hacking Swamp Thing’s arm off with a machete and still score a PG rating!
You could also get away with seeing Adrienne Barbeau’s breasts and still score that rating. God, I love the ‘80s!
Being that this is an early ‘80s monster movie, there are some really good transformation effects. At the end, Arcane is impressively (in a cheesy, low budget way) turned into... something.
I don’t know what it’s supposed to be, but since the serum Holland was doused with makes a person more of what they already are (in the first third, he tells Cable he feels like a tree sometimes), I’m going with what would happen if a wild boar screwed an alligator.
Pretty much everything I mentioned above. The acting, camera work, music, and script are all pretty damn solid, and for a low budget movie, it looks pretty damn great. There’s a very good reason I love this film as much as I do: it’s just plain fun.
What doesn’t work:
In all fairness, some of the effects work hasn’t dated all that well. The creature suits are not that believable anymore (the Arcane monster looks very cheesy nowadays), but even then, it adds to the charm of the whole enterprise.
Swamp Thing is quite simply the best damn movie about a swamp creature fighting a sort of fake-looking wild boar/gator hybrid that used to be a French guy while Adrienne Barbeau and her cleavage watch anxiously. I don’t think I can give a better recommendation than that, really.