THE HISTORY OF DC COMICS ON FILM
PART 5 – SWAMP THING (1982)
For part 5 of the of the complete history of DC Comics on film, we come to one of the most unique movies in the pantheon, Swamp Thing! Released in 1982 on a minuscule estimated budget of just $2.5-3 million dollars and directed by the “Master of Horror”, Wes Craven, the film has become something of a cult classic through the ensuing years. Wildly different from the DC films that came before it, and indeed since, this is a film that harks back to the old Universal monster movies, echoing the classic Creature From The Black Lagoon of 1954. In the 36 years since its initial release, time has perhaps not been kind to this movie. Watching it through the prism of a modern day sensibility and expectation level, then it seems to be lacking in several areas. Watching it as a bit of fun however, makes for a reasonably enjoyable 91 minutes, with plenty of fun to be found along the way…
Deep in the swamps of the American south, a top-secret bioengineering project operates in seclusion, working to splice animal and plant cells with a view to accelerating growth and regeneration. Lead scientist Dr Alec Holland welcomes new team member Alice Cable to the setup. Showing her the team’s findings and also initiating a fledgling romance in an absurdly brief period of time, the happiness is soon interrupted by an attack from an evil paramilitary group led by the nefarious Anton Arcane. Stealing the team’s research and destroying the facility, the evil rotters also inadvertently cause Holland to be doused in the chemical formula and set on fire. Holland runs screaming into the swamp in order to extinguish the flames on his body, sinking deep into the mire. As the morning comes, Alice is captured by the militia and is taken to the swamp to be drowned. All of a sudden, a green, hulking, plant-like creature rises from the depths to save her and chase away her would-be executioners. He is the SWAMP THING, Alec Holland reborn as the defender of the green! From there, a deadly game of cat and mouse ensues as Arcane’s forces track Alice Cable and come a cropper at the hands of Holland’s new form……
Despite the low budget B-Movie stature of this film, there are some really enjoyable performances to be found here from several name actors. Top of the pile for me is the great Louis Jourdan, who all 007 fans should know as Kamal Khan from Octopussy, released one year after Swamp Thing. Chewing the scenery to great effect as Arcane, his relish at playing the villain is plain for all to see. Driven by his quest to gain immortality at all costs, Arcane is immoral and views all his men as expendable, as every true villain should! He oozes charisma and charm, a truly magnetic screen presence.
Adrienne Barbeau is the female lead, Alice Cable. Something of a thankless role, she is beaten, abused, objectified and thrown in the swamp at regular intervals! A sign of less enlightened times I guess…Nevertheless, she delivers a strong performance, projecting strength as she refuses to be intimidated, frequently trying to fight back against her oppressors. The most intriguing part of her performance is the almost tender mood she exudes around Swamp Thing, as she never once appears to be frightened by his monstrous appearance, even before she realises that he is in fact, Alec Holland..
The Swamp Thing creature itself, played by stuntman Dick Durock, is a fairly generic creature performance, all lumbering gait and slow movement. The costume is perhaps the most stark indicator of the film’s meagre budget, as it is clearly a rubber suit, which really comes to light during close up shots. The folds in the rubber can be seen each time the creature moves his head or extends his arms. To me, this adds to the kitsch factor of the film. In today’s age of photo realistic cgi monsters and Oscar-worthy prosthetic make-up, it is a snapshot in time, representative of its era and the money that was available!
As one would expect from a film directed by Wes Craven, the tone does tend to veer towards horror. Several deaths are bloody and violent, this is certainly not a family comic book film! There are liberal helpings of violence, blood, horrific deaths and completely unneeded and out of context nudity.
Despite the high concept subject matter, the way in which the film is shot is surprisingly naturalistic, all done in genuine locations with real swamps providing the setting for many of the fight and chase scenes. The actors must have loved that, I can only imagine what horrors lurked in those waters, carrying a delightful array of diseases!
This is a film which is often enjoyable, frequently exploitative and dated throughout, but ultimately it is never dull! For all its shortcomings, it is certainly worth a watch. Whilst not being completely faithful to Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson’s creation, it does give the viewer a taste of the character. With a longer running time and a bigger budget, Craven could have been able to give the audience more of a taste of Holland’s reaction to his predicament (he barely seems to mind here), and made the creature seem a lot more monstrous and intimidating, rather than being a well-built man in a rubber suit. With the character getting a new live action run out soon with the DC Universe TV show, hope springs eternal that the Swamp Thing will get his time in the sun……
This film should be watched with good spirit and and an open mind in order to get the most out of it. Expect a nuanced deep dive into the mind of this “muck encrusted mockery of a man”, then you will be left wanting. Expect an 80s low budget creature feature and you might just enjoy the ride…..
In the next history of DC Comics on film…….Superman 3…..