Swamp Thing

Swamp Thing is long gone, of course; I assume the audience that didn’t come to it was made up mostly of kids too young to be familiar with the comic, and of older folks who wouldn’t be caught dead at something called Swamp Thing. Personally, I look back on Swamp Thing with fondness. It didn’t turn out to be as much sheer fun as I had expected, but it did have an ingratiating love for its disreputable subject.

Adrienne Barbeau plays a scientist who joins a research group deep in the bayou; she meets a handsome project leader and a case of the mutual hots springs up. They’re working on a potion that will regenerate life in plants, or animals, or something like that, and it seems they have a pretty explosive juice that’ll do just that when – the bad guys show up. Led by Louis Jourdan (who gets to do some delectable eye-rolling), they have it in mind to use the stuff for their own evil ends. Adrienne’s beau grabs the only existing sample, is shot running out of the lab, and explodes into a ball of flame before he plunges into the swamp. As Adrienne is chased through the swamp during the next few days, she is repeatedly saved from the clutches of the villains by this … what else can we call it but – this “Swamp Thing.”

Director-writer Wes Craven’s work is highly regarded in some critical circles, but this is my first Craven film, so I can’t shed much auteurist light on Swamp Thing. The story is well told, but some of the dialogue – particularly in the expository first twenty minutes or so – is incredibly banal, especially the light-hearted humor. Lines like “You don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps,” are delivered straightforwardly, without irony, suggesting that a? Craven has a pretty square sensibility, and actually thinks these lines are funny, or b) Craven is dutifully re-creating the kind of dialogue found in comic-book adventures. I hope it’s b) but I’m not sure. There are some funny things, like Jourdan’s hubristic speeches and the tacky makeup/costume he puts on near the end, when he drinks the elixir that transforms him into a hairy-backed, bearlike thing that is vanquished by our muddy hero in a bayou knockdown drag-out.

As for Swamp Thing himself, I expected him to look a little messier, with maybe more swamp paraphernalia hanging from him. But his heart is in the right place, even if the rest of him isn’t always. And I guess you could say the same thing about the movie.

First published in The Informer, May 1982

I had forgotten this was my first Wes Craven film – huh. Not sure when I caught up with the previous pictures, but I just read that this movie’s flop had Craven wondering whether his career was over. Louis Jourdan’s next movie was as a James Bond villain (Octopussy), so somebody noticed what he was up to here. Ray Wise played the scientist, and Dick Durock was S. Thing, a role he reprised in the sequel. Also: Adrienne’s beau? I never know if anybody notices this stuff. My “What else can we call it but –” riff was inspired by Mad magazine’s brilliant “Heap” satire, by Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder, which was reprinted in one of the Mad books I gobbled up as a kid.

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