Swamp Thing: 40 years later

Swamp Thing, the movie adaptation of the DC Comics character created by writer Len Wein & artist Bernie Wrightson, was released 40 years ago, on February 19, 1982. The movie was written & directed by Wes Craven.

Back in the early 1980s Swamp Thing seemed to be shown endlessly on HBO, and six year old me saw it multiple times during its run on cable TV. Truthfully, though, I hadn’t thought about the Swamp Thing movie in years… at least not until this week.

I started following the blog Superheroes Every Day which is taking an multi-part examination of every modern superhero movie ever made, beginning with Superman in 1978. Superheroes Every Day is extremely detailed, insightful, and more than a bit tongue-in-check. So, having spent a couple of months worth of daily posts looking at the first two Superman movies, Danny Horn is now up to Swamp Thing.

Reading Danny’s initial entries on Swamp Thing, I was surprised to learn that it is generally regarded as a not-very-good movie, that the production was extremely troubled, and that Wes Craven had an unhappy experience making it. As I said, I loved Swamp Thing when I was a kid, but the last time I had seen it was nearly four decades ago, and could I really trust my childhood memories? I mean, there’s plenty of stuff that I liked as a kid that I have no interest in as a middle aged adult.

I searched about a bit online late last night and found Swamp Thing on YouTube. Yes, it had commercials, and the closed-captioning was laugh-out-loud awful, but it was the complete movie, the picture was crystal clear, and the sound was perfect. Three out of five ain’t bad. So I watched it… and, y’know, all these years later I still enjoyed it. It’s not necessarily a great movie, but it’s a good, fun, entertaining one.

Before I go any further, I need to mention who produced Swamp Thing: Benjamin Melniker and Michael Uslan. If you are a fan of superhero movies that second name should be a very familiar one. Michael Uslan has produced every single Batman-related movie since the 1989 one directed by Tim Burton. Uslan had actually purchased the movie rights to Batman in 1979, but it took him a decade to finally get a movie made. It’s probably difficult to understand if you were born within the last quarter century, but in the early 1980s NO ONE wanted to make a Batman movie. The campy mid 1960s television series was the general public’s predominant view of the character, and movie studios, including DC Comics’ very own owners Warner Brothers, were convinced a Batman movie, especially an attempt at a dark, serious adaptation of the character that Uslan envisioned, would be a huge, expensive flop.

Now this is the reason I love Uslan. He is a lifelong comic book fan, he taught the first accredited college course on comic book folklore, he wrote several stories for DC Comics during the 1970s, and he spent a decade in an uphill battle to get an authentic, true-to-the-comic-books Batman movie made because he loved the character that much. And while he was busy with that Sisyphean task, Uslan also acquired the movie rights to Swamp Thing, a comic book series that had debuted in 1971 to great critical acclaim & popularity, but which a decade later had fallen into obscurity, basically only remembered by fans such as Uslan himself.

Looking at the Swamp Thing movie in 2022, I consider it to be a relatively faithful adaptation of the series as it existed in the early 1980s prior to Alan Moore’s radical revamp of the character in 1984. In Wes Craven’s screenplay the Swamp Thing is still Alec Holland (Ray Wise), a brilliant scientist working on a bio-restorative formula who is transformed into a super-strong humanoid vegetable creature (Dick Durock) after his laboratory in the swamp is attacked by saboteurs led by a thug named Ferret (Don Knight). In the movie Linda Holland (Nannette Brown) is Alec’s sister rather than his wife, government security agent Matthew Cable becomes Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau), and rather than being an elderly sorcerer / mad scientist Anton Arcane (Louis Jourdan) is the corrupt industrialist behind the saboteurs. But all of the basic, essential pieces are there.

Just as importantly, Craven plays it completely straight. As I said, at this time the Batman television show still loomed large in the public consciousness, and the average moviegoer saw superheroes as silly, with the accompanying “Biff! Bam! Pow!” nonsense. Craven, however, wrote & directed a serious, gritty, intense, intelligent sci-fi / horror movie, and he got solid, quality performances out of all the actors.

There is also a certain poignant, contemplative quality to Craven’s script, seen through Alec Holland / Swamp Thing’s love of the natural world and his relationship with Alice Cable. It’s actually quite surprising. Before this, Craven had helmed the brutal horror exploitation movies The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, and subsequently he created the supernatural slasher movie A Nightmare on Elm Street and the horror movie satire Scream. So it’s really interesting to look at Swamp Thing and see Craven really stretching himself creatively, producing a genre film that manages to be both philosophical and soulful.

And, hey, all that aside, there’s tons of action in Swamp Thing. I doubt six year old me really picked up on the subtler aspects of Craven’s script, but I definitely enjoyed watching the transformed Alec wade through Arcane’s seemingly never-ending army of mercenary thugs. Even better, at the end of the movie Arcane ingests the formula that created the Swamp Thing, transforming into a ferocious monster who engages Alec in a brutal battle-to-the-death in the swamp.

The suit for the Swamp Thing incarnation of Alec Holland looks great. It must have been absolute torture for Dick Durock to be wearing that heavy rubber costume in the middle of a hot, muggy swamp. But the end result is that the character looks almost exactly like he was envisioned by Bernie Wrightson, as seen by the side-by-side images above.

I appreciate that Craven wrote Alice Cable as an intelligent, competent, assertive woman who repeatedly attempts to hold her own in the face of overwhelming odds. The only reason why Swamp Thing needs to keep rescuing her is because she unarmed, exhausted, and outmatched 20 to 1 by the sadistic Ferret and his mercenary thugs. Adrienne Barbeau did a great job playing the character.

Another aspect of Swamp Thing that I feel has aged well is the reimagining of Arcane as a handsome, sophisticated, cultured man of wealth, a dangerously charismatic sociopath with delusions of grandeur.

It occurs to me that the movie version of Arcane actually presages the post-Crisis version of Lex Luthor by several years, foreseeing Superman’s own arch enemy being reimagined into a respected captain of industry who secretly controls the criminal underworld. And much like the revamp of Luthor into a corporate raider by John Byrne & Marv Wolfman, the movie version of Arcane has a staff of stunningly beautiful women slavishly devoted to him, following him with literally a cult-like fervor.

I certainly appreciated how the script establishes that Holland’s formula doesn’t actually create anything, in merely enhances the qualities that already exist in a subject. So, yes, it turned Holland into a walking plant, but it enhanced his strength, his intelligence, his nobility, all the positive attributes he already possessed. The egomaniacal Arcane with his aspirations to divinity is convinced that the formula will transform him into a literal god; instead in an extended, graphic sequence Arcane’s appearance is reshaped to match his true inner self, and he becomes a hideous monster.

Quite a few viewers, as well as Craven himself, were disappointed by how the transformed Arcane ended up looking. Honestly, though, when I was a kid I thought it looked awesome, and forty years later I still think it holds up. The best description I can come up with for Arcane’s monster form is an amphibious werewolf.

I know some people have suggested that the movie should have tried to have Arcane transform into something like the grotesque, twisted, elongated form that Len Wein & Bernie Wrightson gave the mad scientist when he returned in Swamp Thing #10 (May-June 1974) as seen below on the cover for that issue.

Yes, that worked brilliantly in a comic book, especially with Wrightson’s macabre, hyper-detailed art style. But there’s absolutely no way I can see Wes Craven and his crew pulling that off in live action, not in a movie made in the days before CGI was a thing and whose entire budget was a mere $2.5 million… that’s only about $8 million in 2022 dollars! We’re talking super-low budget here! Sorry, but what the costume & special effects folks came up with for Arcane while filming in 1981 was probably the best that could be achieved under the circumstances.

And, really, that’s how I would sum up the entire movie. Given the circumstances — a miniscule budget, an extremely difficult location shoot, behind-the-scenes creative struggles, all within an era in which movie adaptations of comic books were barely taken seriously — it’s practically a miracle that Swamp Thing turned out as good as it did. Wes Craven, the actors, and the crew all did a fantastic job of taking what could very easily have become a huge disaster and creating an enjoyable, quality movie.

So, yeah, after all these years later I still like Swamp Thing.

One thought on “Swamp Thing: 40 years later”

  1. Came over from Danny’s blog to read your review here. I enjoyed your thorough, detailed, perceptive review. As a kid, I was only vaguely aware of the Swamp Thing comic. I don’t recall anything at all about the movie. I appreciate the way you and Danny explain it.

    Liked by 1 person

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