31 Days to Scare ~ Swamp Thing (1982)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A research scientist is turned into a swamp plant monster after a violent incident with a special chemical.
Stars: Louis Jourdan, Adrienne Barbeau, Ray Wise, David Hess, Nicholas Worth, Don Knight, Al Ruban, Dick Durock, Ben Bates, Nannette Brown, Reggie Batts
Director: Wes Craven
Rated: PG
Running Length: 93 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review: To different generations of movie fans, the name Wes Craven will likely bring up two distinct horror images. The first is the face of dream killer Freddy Krueger, an iconic villain he created in 1984 with the landmark first entry of A Nightmare on Elm Street. Craven’s small but mighty shocker kept many teens up at night and birthed a character that became part of the pop culture bedrock in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Right about the time Freddy’s fire burned out, Craven struck again with 1996’s Scream, introducing a new crop of graduates to Ghostface and a lasting franchise that would see him through the end of his career in 2011.

What came before Freddy, though? That’s an interesting question and worth looking at. I can’t bring myself to revisit The Last House on the Left, Craven’s first film in 1972 dealing with sadistic rape and murder that is so vile my stomach somersaults just thinking about it. I’ve had 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes on my watchlist for a while; maybe this Halloween, I will finally see why director Alexandre Aja wanted to remake it so badly in 2006. I’ve already looked at the spooky TV movie Summer of Fear from 1978 and 1981’s Deadly Blessing for 31 Days to Scare…and that brings us to 1982. Swamp Thing.

I’ve heard much about this adaptation of the DC Comics creature over the years and caught glimpses of it on TV growing up. With a PG rating, I’m amazed it didn’t get shown at some birthday party/sleepover in our neighborhood. Perhaps if I’d grown up with the film, I would have appreciated its charms a little more because now, even taking into consideration the well-known budget limitations put on Craven at the last minute by the cash-strapped studio, Swamp Thing is a stinking bog of a B-movie sci-fi horror film. Actually, scratch that. It’s not intelligent enough to be sci-fi, not campy enough to be classified as a B-movie, and barely has any scares, so it doesn’t rightly belong in the horror category. 

Why am I including it in 31 Days to Scare, you may ask? I’m getting to it, trust me. 

Sent to a secluded lab in the middle of a quaking swamp to investigate the mysterious Dr. Alec Holland, government agent Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau, Tales of Halloween) arrives just in time for Holland (Ray Wise, King Knight) and his sister to make a breakthrough in their research. Through their studies of plants they’ve pulled from the swamp, they’ve developed a formula that turns anything it touches into vegetation. Armed with science that could end world hunger, Alec and Alice also find time to make googly eyes at one another long enough so there’s a connection formed when a rogue group of militants led by Ferrett (David Hess) sent by Anton Arcane break in and murder everyone in the lab. All except for Alice, who makes a narrow escape. In the commotion, Alec dumps the formula on himself like a moron and seems to perish in the explosion that rocks the bayou.

When Arcane (Louis Jordan, Octopussy) realizes that Alice has made off with the final piece of the equation that helps to replicate Alec’s formula, he sends the full force of his army against her and a young boy (Reggie Batts) who begins to help her along the way. They are soon under much stronger protection when Swamp Thing (Dick Durock, Stand by Me) rises from the waters. Initially afraid of the green beast, Alice soon recognizes an unmistakable familiarity in the creature’s demeanor. As Arcane’s power grows, so does the urgency to stop him before he creates his version of the formula and uses it to change others (and eventually himself) into similar monsters that may not be so friendly.

By all accounts, the initial script turned in by Craven captured the spirit of the original comic characters created in 1971. Had he been given the budget and resources promised and allowed to keep his screenplay as written, Swamp Thing might have turned out differently. Alas, everything was shredded to bits by the time filming began, and what’s left are the tattered remains of a project with promise. Though Craven tried to make the best of it, you can see that his heart wasn’t in the work, and he wasn’t an experienced enough director to know how to smooth out the rough edges and navigate the adversity he faced. (Is it a coincidence that 1990’s Darkman from director Sam Raimi feels an awful lot like this?) The effects are cheap-o, and Swamp Thing himself I guess, looks OK, especially in comparison with a creature revealed during the finale that looks like the costume designer’s mom made it.

Tonally, Swamp Thing is all over the place. One moment, it’s high drama. The next it’s slapstick comedy. Then it’s horror. Now it’s action, and then circling back to romance. If you’re watching the unrated cut, you’ll also get some gratuitous nudity that stops the movie dead cold and comes across as if Hamlet stopped in the middle of his soliloquy, took off his tunic, spun around three times, redressed, and then continued with the scene. It serves no purpose but to goose the particular audience members who need to have their blood circulate.

The scariest thing about Swamp Thing by far is Barbeau’s hair. The actress has admitted to being horrified at how it looks on film, and she’s right to cringe. It’s a Perm from the Black Lagoon that will haunt you for days, long after the memory of the movie has faded from your brain. Brace yourself when it gets wet because only the bottom of it goes straight; the rest remains poofy and curly. Oooo…did you just get the shivers? I did. Barbeau is a terrific actress who can overcome the lousy dialogue and limp direction from Craven, who is helpless to do much in shaping the film but can’t conquer that tight bouffant. No sir. 

My high hopes for Swamp Thing sunk faster than quicksand, and I imagined myself liking this at the outset. Once I began to hear composer Harry Manfredini plagiarize his entire score from Friday the 13th and its sequel, I knew there would be trouble. When the most extensive action sequences continually involve people being thrown overboard tiny boats, you realize the importance of hiring a stunt coordinator with a vivid imagination. Craven said that during the production of Swamp Thing, he had his infamous dream, which inspired him to write A Nightmare on Elm Street. When a dream of one movie is the best thing to come out of the making of another, you have a problem.

Where to watch Swamp Thing (1982)

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