Superhero Movie Guidebook: ‘Swamp Thing’

Welcome to the Superhero Movie Guidebook! For an introduction to this series, click here. Check here for past entries and future updates most Thursdays.

st title cardThese are the movies that suck for me to write about. The truly awful ones are fun to mock, and the good ones are at least fun to watch. But some movies are just sort of there, inoffensive to the senses but not exactly wildly entertaining. And that’s where Swamp Thing falls.

Written and directed by Wes Craven in 1982, Swamp Thing is a hard movie to categorize. By this point, Craven had already done The Last House on the Left and the original The Hills Have Eyes, though as near as I can tell, he didn’t become a superstar name until 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. While Craven is best-known for his horror work, Swamp Thing doesn’t quite qualify as such. There are horror elements; he tries to make you feel the tension of the mercenaries when Swamp Thing is about to attack, but the level of dread never rises high enough. It’s a monster movie, but not a traditional one with little true horror. There are traditional superhero/action movie elements, but with enough dark undertones to never get to the wish fulfillment system those genres typically bring. Basically, Swamp Thing is everything and nothing at the same time.

The awesome Ray Wise, of Twin Peaks and Reaper fame, theoretically stars as Dr. Alec Holland, but he doesn’t get to play the the titular Swamp Thing itself after the transformation. That role instead goes to Dick Durock, a veteran stuntman whose actual acting career seems to be confined mostly to this movie.

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Adrienne Barbeau gets the female lead — Alice Cable, presumably because Craven had something against the name Abby. Cable is a government worker, whose purpose for being there in the story, I never really caught. Her purpose in the movie, though, seems to be to look like a pin-up and for Craven to shoe-horn in a nude scene. And, of course, to be Holland/Swamp Thing’s awkward romantic interest, with the feelings between them never really developed in any significant way.

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Louis Jordan, a marvelous French actor who many years earlier had starred in one of the best film versions of The Count of Monte Cristo, is the villainous Arcane. Arcane leads a paramilitary group to try to steal Holland’s formula in his own quest for immortality. The idea of turning into a hideous monster, which he eventually does, is totally fine by Arcane for eternal life.

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The “monster movie” tropes come into play intermittently. We see the raw destructive force of Swamp Thing as he fights and kills various evil mercenaries. But we also see the typical humanizing of the beast, with moments of reflection into what the Swamp Thing has lost by losing his humanity; these moments never quite fully land (proving they should have just put Ray Wise in that suit), but the effort is there.

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The effort to adhere largely to the comic book inspiration is also there, surprisingly, with Swamp Thing’s original origin being presented with only superficial alterations. We even get a shot of his regenerative capabilities, in what has to be the movie’s clumsiest effect…unless you count the henchman who gets transformed into some kind of goblin dwarf by the formula.

regenerating armyou got meSo there you have the basics of Swamp Thing, a harmless but missable movie. But for a movie that’s not overly famous in its own right, Swamp Thing is, perhaps surprisingly, one of the most important films on our list. The original Swamp Thing series was a bust for DC Comics; it lingered for a few years but never was a hit before being canceled. DC only revived the character with a new series in 1982 in an effort to capitalize on this movie coming out — semingly misguided, since the movie ended up grossing just under $300,000. But after the new series’ first writer, Martin Pasko, left the series to work in television, editor Len Wein gave the book to a young, unproven writer named Alan Moore, in Moore’s first significant assignment. And the rest is history. Moore turned the comic into a success, became one of the greatest, most famous, and most influential writers in the history of the comics industry. He’s had several works subsequently developed into films, creating a web of influence back into that industry, as well; for instance, Zack Snyder got the job directing Man of Steel (which has in turn led to Batman v Superman, with Justice League down the line) in part because of the relationship he developed with WB doing Moore’s Watchmen. The number of writers, artists, actors, directors, production people, and of course, readers and viewers that have been impacted in some way from the career of Alan Moore must be staggering — and the rise of that career was made possible, in large part, by this movie. Talk about a crazy butterfly effect.

NEXT TIME: Superman III (1983)

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