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Creature Features in Review: Swamp Thing (1982)

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Swamp Thing

Starring:  Ray Wise; Adrienne Barbeau;

Louis Jordan; Dick Durock

Written and Directed by Wes Craven

One of the great joys of being a cinephile is that moment when an entertaining film quietly emerges as a great one.  In Wes Craven’s 1982 cinematic adaptation of the classic DC comic Swamp Thing,  that moment occurs about a half an hour into the proceedings.  More on that in a moment. 

The plot of the film concerns itself with the brilliant scientist Alec Holland (Ray Wise) who – along with his equally brilliant sister Linda – is developing a formula combining the DNA of a plant with that of an animal. We’re treated to a demonstration of the formula early on when Linda scatters several drops onto the floorboards of the experimental greenhouse the scientists are using. The boards sprout  plant growths  within hours, which then evolve into a full grown orchid tree within a day. The idea here is to produce plants with an animal instinct toward survival, providing food sources capable of thriving in the most hostile terrain.

Into this dynamic enters agent Alice Cable ( Adrienne Barbeau, who genre fans will immediately recognize from her appearances in such beloved titles as The Fog, Escape From New York and Creepshow),  an amalgam of several supporting characters from the comics, here inserted as both the surrogate for the audience and a love interest for Holland. Not at all comfortable with being assigned to work in the deep swamp, Cable is as first unsure of what to think about the siblings or the secretive program they’re at the center of. After witnessing the success of the formula, though, she quickly realizes how important the work is.

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A deep betrayal results in an evil mastermind by the name of Arcane (Louis Jordan of Gigi fame) invading the lab with his mercenary henchman and killing everyone, including Linda. In a struggle over the formula, Alec Holland is set afire by his own creation and plummets into a nearby bog. The formula combines the elements of the swamp with his human DNA, transforming him into the mossy muck man generations of fans know as Swamp Thing.

Over the years, a lot has been made of the extremely low budget afforded to the production on the film, with some cheap wire effects and obviously rubber suits having put off a lot of fans over the decades. While I can understand audiences (particularly present day film goers accustomed to a steady diet of big budget, top of the line comic book fare such as The Avengers or The Dark Knight Returns) having a negative reaction to this aspect of the movie, I found myself leaning in exactly the opposite direction.

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I’ve been a fan of Swamp Thing since I first saw it in a theater back in 1982, at the young age of eleven. In the interim , my appreciation for what Craven pulled off with the film has only deepened. As a child, I was drawn to the B movie convention of monsters and mayhem. As I reached adulthood, I discovered a new respect for the engaging characters and sharp writing on display. This represents some of  Craven’s best work as a director as he manages to overcome cheap F/X work by investing the story with emotion and a surprising level of profundity.  The core conceit of the narrative is found in the way the formula functions: It simply amplifies the essence of what is already inside of a person.  There’s an underlying message there which emerges as the film plays out: What defines us as heroes or villains has little to do with exterior appearances. It’s what we carry inside that eventually determines what we become.

This is fleshed out with some wonderful human moments, which leads me to that scene I mentioned at the top of this piece. One of Arcane’s henchmen is searching the wreckage of the lab the next morning as part of a final sweep/body clean up detail when he comes across one of the other men poaching jewelry from the dead. He discovers his teammate has taken a locket belonging to Linda Holland and decides to take it for himself.

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Then something unexpected happens: Instead of pocketing it for his own gain, the henchman finds the orchid tree which grew from Linda scattering the formula on the floorboards earlier in the film. He places the murdered woman’s locket on its branches and pauses for moment in solemn reflection, indicating he understands the tragic nature of her death.  Very rarely do comic book based films allow the hired thugs to express this level of humanity, even today.  That’s just one of several quiet, unexpectedly humane moments which help supply Swamp Thing with so much heart.

Some fantastic location shooting in South Carolina’s Cypress Gardens Preserve add a rich texture to the setting and a capable, game cast really brings it all together. Barbeau is strong and likable as Cable, Ray Wise is charming and perfectly aloof as Holland and Louis Jordan steals every scene he’s in with a gloriously arrogant turn as Arcane. Jordan is clearly relishing the opportunity to indulge a bit of megalomania and almost Shakespearean eloquence and his portrayal serves to elevate the film.

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Two other performances which should be singled out are David Hess  (famed in the horror community for his portrayal of the brutal Krug in Craven’s The Last House on the Left) and Dick Durock as the man in the rubber suit. Hess is at his creepy, vicious best as head mercenary Ferret and Durock brings such a quiet dignity to his performance as the post-transformation Holland, it’s easy to overlook that low budget costume after a while. Swamp Thing isn’t merely an action cipher in this film, he’s an actual character. I couldn’t tell you the last time a movie provoked delighted surprise from me by something as simple as having a character speak late in the run time, but that happens here.

We’re in an age where comic book adaptations have become commonplace. There are tie-ins and cinematic world building going on so frequently,  it’s easy to forget an era when live action movies based on DC or Marvel comics were few and far between.

In the face of the advent of the top of the line visual F/X available today and the subsequent push to adapt any character in order to cash in on the craze while it’s still hot, many of these films are loud, flashy and feel fairly empty despite the noise and thunder.

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Swamp Thing is a terrific, simple throwback to a time before all of the spectacle. Yes the film is small. Yes it looks extremely cheap at times.

But it also draws the audience in and allows us to actually care about the characters, even the ones not necessarily fighting for the right cause. This is a clever motion picture, equal parts love story, monster movie, action film and science fiction.

It’s a respectable adaptation as well. Taking its cues from the pre-Alan Moore era of the title, this movie admirably honors the early history of the character up on that screen.

Swamp Thing is a low budget gem, a diamond in the rough. Let go and allow it to work its swampy charms and you’ll discover – as do the characters in the film who take the Holland formula- what makes the difference it isn’t how things appear  on the surface. It’s the heart beating beneath.

4.5 out of 5 stars. I’m still a fan thirty five years later, long after I’ve forgotten dozens of other films in this genre. Highly recommended.

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D.S. Ullery has published in various ezines and magazines, as well as the anthologies When Red Snow MeltsCreature Stew; Journals of Horror:Found Fiction; Wild Things:Thirteen tales of Therianthropy ; Paying the Ferryman and The Final Masquerade. Beyond Where the Sky Ends – the first collection of his horror fiction- was published in early 2016. A born and raised Floridian,  he lives with a black cat named Jason, who was born on Friday the 13th.

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