Saturday, August 21, 2010
#90: Swamp Thing (Wes Craven, 1982)
I'm not a big Wes Craven fan. That might be an understatement, considering I find The Last House on the Left and Scream two of the most insulting, repugnant films ever made, but I have to give the guy a little credit. He's directed a lot of iconic horror films (A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Hills Have Eyes, The Serpent and the Rainbow), his visual style complements the tone of the particular projects he directs, and he's certainly had staying power in an industry that tends to discard older directors. And he made this campy piece of fun.
Swamp Thing is often misunderstood by film writers, bloggers, and fans who have no appreciation for the sources of its visual style. It's supposed to look cheap. The rubber suits, comically exaggerated pratfalls, and Wilhelm screams are there on purpose. This film is paying homage to both the DC comic book it's derived from and cheapo 1950s monster movies and their low-rent rubber-suited beasts. Craven gets this mood just right. Swamp Thing looks like a late-1970s/early-1980s comic book brought to life, and the creatures and mad scientist super-villain are old-fashioned monster movie staples.
Craven could have buried this movie in too many layers of camp and self-referential, condescending winkery (wankery?), but he achieves a surprising amount of empathy and warmth by assembling a wonderful, offbeat cast and shooting on location in the swamps outside of Charleston, South Carolina. There's just something visually magical about a Southern swamp, am I right? That unusual cast does a fine job of playing it straight enough to make an audience feel something for the characters, but silly enough to let you know they're aware of acting in a film about an avenging plantman who lives in a swamp and fights an evil genius named Dr. Arcane.
Adrienne Barbeau stars as government scientist Alice Cable, who is dispatched to the South Carolina swamps to replace a predecessor who became alligator food. She joins a team working on a secret government project attempting to end world hunger by genetically engineering super-plants that will grow quickly and abundantly in hostile conditions. Barbeau, besides being a likable actress and crush object for genre fanboys of a certain age (mine), was the go-to female lead for early 1980s horror and sci-fi. In addition to Swamp Thing, she appeared in her then-husband John Carpenter's early classics The Fog, Escape from New York, and The Thing (in an uncredited, vocal-only role as the voice of the computer), as well as George Romero's Creepshow. Her fellow government agents and scientists include Ray Wise (best known for playing Leland Palmer on Twin Peaks), Al Ruban in a rare acting role (he was the producer and cinematographer for most of John Cassavetes' films), and television veteran Don Knight. The government workers are being targeted by evil mad scientist super-villain Dr. Arcane, played by international movie veteran Louis Jourdan, who wants to kill them all and steal their scientific secrets. The scientists and the world at large think he's dead, but he's secretly living in an enormous, super-villain mansion deep in the swamps. He's enlisted an army of thugs and mercenaries, led by Last House on the Left sleazebag David Hess, to carry out his dirty work. When they finally make their move, something goes awry with the super-plant formula, and Swamp Thing is born! He's played by veteran stuntman Dick Durock. Soon, Barbeau is on the run in the swamps, aided by teen-aged, Coke-bottle-glassed, deadpan-voiced, convenience store clerk Jude, played by the thoroughly enjoyable Reggie Batts in his only film role.
What follows is 90 minutes of silly, inviting, horror/sci-fi/action fun. For once, Craven decides to depict warm, likable, human characters, and he has a lot of fun with his comic-book panel transitions between scenes. This is a rare horror film that's kid-friendly, and it was marketed that way when it first hit theaters in 1982. I remember wanting to see this movie so badly as a child and being fascinated by an article about it in a sci-fi magazine my mother bought for me at the grocery store. By the time we got a VCR three or four years later, I had transferred my fascination to R-rated horror films (even though my mother never let me watch any), and no longer cared to see the PG-rated Swamp Thing. That was kid stuff. I should have seen it then. I would have enjoyed it.
Speaking of kid stuff, the European prints of Swamp Thing were a bit less kid-friendly. In the non-Puritanical half of the Western world, the film featured a couple of nude scenes, including the amply bosomed Ms. Barbeau bathing in a less grungy part of the swamp. When Swamp Thing was first released on DVD in the U.S., the European version was mistakenly pressed instead. Even though the case showed the PG rating, American kids got an eyeful of boobage. After getting several complaints from a bunch of prudes who think the key to a well-adjusted adulthood is to never catch a glimpse of the opposite sex's anatomy until you're 18, the studio recalled the DVDs and replaced them with the PG version. That version still shows a brief shot of sideboob and much emphasis on Barbeau's cleavage, but I guess the prudes are okay with that. As we all remember from the recent Janet Jackson Super Bowl debacle, this country is full of people with serious, bizarre, and inconsistent hangups about body parts that exist on half the adult population.
Unrelated note: I think Craven missed an opportunity to convince The Troggs to reform and record the theme song to this film. Just imagine it. "Swamp Thing, you make my heart sing. You make everything...swampy. Ohh, Swamp Thing."