Queued Up: Comic Book Movie Edition – Swamp Thing

Looking for a movie to watch but there’s nothing good on television and you don’t want to drive to your local Redbox or video store? This column takes a peak at some of the curiosities to be found on Netflix Instant Streaming. Today: Swamp Thing.

It’s hard to remember now but at one time Swamp Thing was a genuine cultural phenomenon — complete with two theatrical movies, two television shows and a slew of merchandise that included toys, pajamas, slippers and video games. While the character dates back to 1971 when he was created by writer Len Wein and artist Bernie Wrightson for an issue of DC Comics’ House of Secrets, it was the 1982 film adaptation written and directed by Wes Craven that catapulted the muck-encrusted superhero into the lower stratosphere of popular culture.

Swamp Thing starred the perpetually sour-faced Adrienne Barbeau as Alice Cable, a government agent who’s just been transferred to the swamps of Louisiana in order to protect scientist Dr. Alec Holland (played by a very young Ray Wise) and his laboratory work.

Barbeau, despite constantly looking like she’s stepped in a steaming pile of alligator poo and is pissed, catches the fancy of Dr. Holland, a botanist working on an accelerant that would beef up the survival properties of plant life. Holland must have realized his time on Earth spent looking like Ray Wise was limited because his advances towards Cable border on frat boy pushy. Regardless, Holland doesn’t have a chance to slip the big-haired government agent a roofie before his laboratory is attacked by the hired henchmen of Dr. Anton Arcane, your standard megalomaniacal would-be world dictator with a hard-on for power.

Arcane’s henchmen are a band of fatigue wearing fatties who look like they were recruited from a local Dunkin’ Donuts’ parking lot or the very, very back pages of “Soldier of Fortune” magazine.

Armed with red bandannas and guns (the only two required ingredients to being henchmen in the eighties), the mercenaries aren’t content just destroying Holland’s laboratory in an attempt to steal his accelerator. They inadvertently lead to Holland being doused in the accelerant — which just happens to be highly combustible. This accident leaves Holland doing his best Human Torch impersonation as he runs off into the swamp. With Cable now on the run from Arcane and his henchmen, the movie begins a fast-paced decent into utter madness.

Due to the combination of the accelerant and rolling around in the swamp, Holland has been transformed into Swamp Thing. To complete the transformation, Ray Wise is replaced with Dick Durock, a stuntman who would go on to play Swamp Thing in the sequel, 1989’s The Return of Swamp Thing, and the live-action USA Network television show that ran for three seasons in the early ‘90s.

Compared to the Swamp Thing costume Durock sported for the sequel and television show, the muck-encrusted hero’s costume in Craven’s picture is downright ugly. Dressed in what looks like a green body suit covered with moss and vines, Durock looks like a mime who covered himself in jelly and rolled around on the floor of a green house. As Durock runs through scenes, throwing his arms in the air and growling, his costume wrinkles in ways that at once makes audiences both giggle and feel extremely uncomfortable in their bathing suit areas.

Instead of the downright Shakespearian soliloquies Swamp Thing would go on to perform in later media adaptations, Craven’s monstrous hero is more reminiscent of Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein Monster from Bride of Frankenstein. He spends three fourths of the movie uttering nothing but growls and moans but by the end of the film, he’ll break out the occasional guttural declaration of love towards Cable.

Being covered in muck and having his man parts turn into roots and sprouts doesn’t stop Holland from putting the mack on Cable. In fact, his sexual libido seems to have increased — there are several scenes in which Swamp Thing looks downright insistent on planting his carrot in Cable’s garden.

Helping Swamp Thing and Cable as they attempt to escape the clutches of Arcane is a young African-American boy named Jude. Played by Reggie Batts, Jude is a cross between Steve Urkel and Sling Blade‘s Karl Childers. Slow in his speech but with a southern wit in his pronouncements, Jude is pretty entertaining as far as comic relief sidekicks in ‘80s superhero movies go. It’s a shame Batts never made another movie after Swamp Thing — I’d rather have seen The Return of Jude than The Return of Swamp Thing. His presence makes some of the film’s cheese easier to swallow.

Speaking of cheese, Swamp Thing features some of the most groan-inducing transitional wipes in films that I’ve seen since the Star Wars prequels. Craven throws in everything from horizontal wipes to vertical wipes to starburst wipes. If there’s a wipe that exists that Craven didn’t include in Swamp Thing, I’ll wipe my butt with one of Swamp Thing’s branches.

What really bugs me about the cheesy wipes, though, is the fact that Craven probably included them because he thought they were representative of the look of comic books. To be fair, though, Swamp Thing was filmed before writer Alan Moore had a chance to transform the character’s comic book series from a slightly cheesy horror-tinged superhero book into the classic series it’s remembered as today.

Wes Craven was clearly making a slightly bigger budgeted version of the monster movies of the ‘50s and ‘60s here. There were cheesy exploding motorboat-filled action pieces, the evil hand wringing of Louis Jourdan as Dr. Arcane and enough monsters rampaging to get most any kid excited.

If the movie wasn’t cheesy enough, just wait until the film’s climatic battle where Swamp Thing fights a villain who transforms from man into gingerbread man before finally becoming a sword-wearing javelina. You’ll think you’ve stepped into the fevered dreams of a five-year-old who lives on a diet of nothing but sugary breakfast cereal.

If you’re looking for a laughably bad superhero movie to drink a six-pack to while you and your friends enact your very own episode of Mystery Science 3000, you can’t do much worse than Swamp Thing.

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