Monday 2 November 2009

Swamp Thing (1982)

Director: Wes Craven
Stars: Louis Jourdan, Adrienne Barbeau, Ray Wise, David Hess, Nicholas Worth, Don Knight, Al Ruban and Dick Durock
Nowadays every other movie is based on a comic book, and given that Disney have now bought Marvel, I'm sure that's not going to end any time soon, however much I'm hoping we stop getting superhero movies and reach back to the pulp days instead. Back in the eighties though, comic book translations to screen generally sucked. Studios didn't understand superheroes in the slightest and anything beyond that ended up like Howard the Duck. Swamp Thing was an exception, possibly the only exception, though that may tie to the names involved more than anything else, and it still fails in the end.

Amazingly enough we find ourselves in a swamp, though it isn't just any swamp. As if in a tribute to Star Wars, we get introductory text: 'Not long ago, in the unexplored reaches of an unmapped swamp...' Of course that's rhetoric, these reaches are about as unexplored and unmapped as my bathroom. There are soldiers around who look more like revolutionaries; they chase people and kill them with snakes that they pull out of their pockets, even though they're heavily armed. There's a church, that's now mostly flooded after the levee broke fifty years ago. There's a gas station just around the corner. What's more there's a whole scientific establishment out there run by Dr Alec Holland and his sister Dr Linda.

The Hollands are experimenting on plants, putting animal nuclei into plant cells to try to boost their survival instincts and thus solve world hunger by enabling plants and vegetables to grow in inopportune climates like deserts. They even have a picture of an emaciated third world kid to constantly remind them of their aims. What they end up with is a formula that is literally explosive and grows like wildfire wherever a drop of it is spilled, the only catch being that these revolutionaries arrive to steal it the moment they work out what they've done.

They're really soldiers working for a maverick scientist called Dr Anton Arcane, as ruthless as he is calm and brilliant, and in resisting his thievery Linda ends up dead. Alec comes off a little better, or a little worse, depending on your perspective. He tries to leave with the open topped jar of his new formula, only for it to be spilled all over him; then he's set ablaze by the reaction and runs screaming into the swamp. That's it for Ray Wise, in his real film debut after a single appearance 13 years earlier. It's strange seeing him so young, as he's pretty much the ultimate sleazy middle aged businessman, in which theme he so memorably played the Devil in TV's Reaper.

Alice Cable is the new girl on campus, having only been there a day, but she's the one thorn in Arcane's side, probably because she's played by Adrienne Barbeau. Barbeau was never someone to mess with, especially back in her earlier years which were genre heaven. This appearance was preceded by The Fog, Escape from New York and The Cannonball Run, then followed by Creepshow and The Thing. Here she beats people up, shoots them dead, even knees them in the nuts and pushes them off boats. There's a romantic side to her too though: Dr Alec Holland falls for her during that single day she's around and so after becoming Swamp Thing follows her around and saves her from the bad guys, who are chasing her because she's spirited away the last of Holland's seven notebooks.

The names are much of the draw here, far beyond Wise and Barbeau. Dr Anton Arcane, the evil genius of the piece, is a wonderfully laconic Louis Jourdan. Already well established as an actor with over forty years of credits, he was also the only recognisable name to return for the film's comedy sequel, The Return of Swamp Thing in 1989. The other was Dick Durock, almost entirely hidden behind Swamp Thing's suit except for his eyes and who nonetheless managed to provide so much of the melancholic sadness that his role warranted. He also returned to the character for three seasons of the Swamp Thing TV show. Arcane's most charismatic thug, Ferret by name, is David Hess, at this point recognisable as one of the most sadistic thugs in film after The Last House on the Left, Hitch-Hike and The House on the Edge of the Park.

Possibly most important, the director is Wes Craven, as he transitioned from influential but very seventies video nasties like The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes to influential but very eighties films such as A Nightmare on Elm Street made two years after this. You can see the change in approach in some scenes here, especially the one in which little Bruno takes on the Arcane monster, utterly eighties cheesy horror comedy. Craven managed to take this run a decade further, making influential but very nineties movies like New Nightmare and Scream. He had a few duds in and amongst these gems, but I have a soft spot in my heart for some of them: films like Swamp Thing, The Serpent and the Rainbow and even Shocker, and he still remains one of the names people really pay attention to when talking about modern horror. After a quiet first decade to the 21st century, I don't think anyone would put it past him to come out with the defining horror movie of its second decade.

Swamp Thing is a creature of two halves. The initial setup is superb, both as to setting and as to character, and we're drawn into the beauty of the swamp and the potential of the characters involved. Both the tension and our interest continue well over halfway, but then the film turns into a kaiju battle scene, with the good guy monster fighting the bad guy's thugs then the bad guy monster himself, and that's far less interesting. There are a lot of stories that can be told with Swamp Thing, and names as great in the comic world as Alan Moore (which is about as great as you can get) have taken on the task. Just fighting the bad guy monster and walking off into the swamp doesn't cut it.

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