Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Film Appreciation - Too Powerful to Be Destroyed

Cody Hamman revisits his childhood with Wes Craven's 1982 comic book movie Swamp Thing.

Wes Craven would be an unexpected choice to direct a comic book movie even today, so it's all the more surprising that he made a film about a DC Comics character at the time he did, in the early '80s. At that point, the former teacher had four films under his belt, all in the horror genre, two on the way to achieving classic status - the intense, brutal indies The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes - and two lesser known - the TV movie Stranger in Our House (a.k.a. Summer of Fear) and the very strange Deadly Blessing. Now his fifth film would be a superhero adventure, bringing Swamp Thing to the big screen with the intention of showing that he could handle bigger, more mainstream projects.

There are elements of horror to Swamp Thing, so Craven wasn't completely stepping out of the genre for his superhero movie. The character was created by writer Len Wein and artist Bernie Wrightson in 1971, making his first appearance in issue #92 of the Tales from the Crypt-type anthology series House of Secrets. In that one-shot story set in the early 1900s, Swamp Thing is a scientist out to get revenge and save his wife from the clutches of the fellow lab worker who caused the accident that appeared to kill him but has actually caused him to change into a bog creature. Swamp Thing proved so popular with readers that he was given his own title the following year, with an altered backstory and the setting updated to the present.

Writer Alan Moore would go on to change the character much more during his run on the revived title in the '80s, but the film Wes Craven made does seem to be reasonably faithful to the twenty-four issue Swamp Thing series that ran from 1972 - 1976.

The film's story follows government agent Alice Cable as she arrives at the remote swamp location of a lab run by scientist Doctor Alec Holland, sent to check things out before the project is shut down. Word is that well-known but mysterious megalomaniac Doctor Anton Arcane has heard of what Holland is working on, so the lab has to be emptied out as a safety precaution.

What Holland is working on, despite Cable's suspicion that he might be developing a weapons system, has entirely to do with plants. He's looking to build a better vegetable and solve world hunger. There's going to be six and a half billion people on the planet by 2001, and they'll have to be fed somehow. Holland has created a vegetable cell with an animal nucleus, trying to make a plant with an animal's power for survival so that it can grow and thrive in any environment. Holland's not ready to pack things up and leave, on Cable's first night there he has exactly the breakthrough he's been looking for, and he's not worried about the "boogeyman" Arcane.

Holland should be worried. The rumors are true. Arcane has heard of the lab, and members of his own private militia are already sneaking around the area, killing security guards and sabotaging sensors, preparing to make their move. Within minutes of Holland's breakthrough, Arcane and his henchmen raid the lab. Everyone who works there is killed, including Holland's sister Linda. It appears that Holland himself dies as well - when doused with a sample of his plant/animal solution and caught on fire, he runs outside and jumps into the swamp to put out the flames, disappearing into the water.

The lab is burnt to the ground, bodies are dumped in the swamp, and Arcane gets away with all of the notebooks Holland kept on his work... All of them except the final notebook, which the surviving Cable managed to save. As she tries to sneak away from the lab area in the morning, Arcane's henchmen catch her and attempt to drown her in the swamp. And that's when Swamp Thing makes his first appearance, rescuing Cable.

Swamp Thing is Alec Holland, the combination of his solution and the swamp water having transformed the average man into a hulking "muck-encrusted mockery of a man", imbued with superhuman strength and impervious to the bullets the bad guys fire into him.

Cable escapes into the wilderness and most of the running time consists of Arcane's men pursuing her - Arcane needs that final notebook so he can replicate Holland's work and proceed with his plan to hold the knowledge ransom and force the world powers to serve his will, "the world will bow or starve" - and being thwarted by Swamp Thing.

I have never read a single issue of the Swamp Thing comic book, but from what I gather the main things Craven changed from what he was working with at that time was to tie Swampy's enemy Arcane directly into his origin and to turn Holland's lab assistant Linda from his wife into his sister, allowing Alice Cable to be his love interest. Alice Cable herself seems to be a combination of comic book characters Abigail Arcane (Anton's niece) and government agent Matthew Cable.

However faithful it is to the source material, Wes Craven's Swamp Thing is (along with its eventual sequel) the only exposure I've had to the character, and I enjoy it either way. I've only seen the movie a few times in the last fifteen years or so, but I loved it when I was kid. TV airings and VHS rentals allowed me to have many, many childhood viewings of this movie, most of them with my maternal grandmother at her house.

Watching the movie these days, I can see how the relatively low budget somewhat hinders the action sequences, and Swamp Thing himself doesn't look so impressive, but that doesn't matter to me now and I didn't notice it at all when I was a kid. I thought Swamp Thing himself was awesome and the action sequences highly entertaining. Gunfire, explosions, boat crashes, trucks being torn open, the bad guys trying to use grenades on Swampy as their last resort. It was all extremely cool.

I also found some things about the film rather creepy and unsettling. The swamp setting is not a location I would ever want to be in, and one particular scene in the candlelit dining room of Arcane's mansion always really freaked me out.

Near the end of the film, Arcane is able to make up his own batch of Holland's solution and secretly doses one of his henchman with it. As the solution does its work, the henchman is painfully transformed from a 6' brute into a hirsute, deformed little person, who hops up onto the dining table and looks at Arcane with an accusatory "You!" It was a very disturbing moment for my young self.

As it turns out, the solution amplifies the essence of the person who takes it, "makes you more of what you really are." It turned Alec Holland into a 6'5" superhero, it turned the dimwitted, easily frightened henchman into a cowering little creature. Before the final battle, it turns Anton Arcane into yet something else.

Wes Craven does well directing the comic book action, despite the aforementioned budgetary and effects issues that I believe the film overcomes anyway. There are a few neat, comic book-style transitions between scenes, including wipes in the form of ooze dripping down the screen and a jagged "explosion wipe".

There's a major horror connection in the music department, as the score is by Harry Manfredini, best known for his work on the Friday the 13th franchise. Even if you don't know him by name, if you've seen an early Friday the 13th movie you'll recognize Manfredini's sound while watching Swamp Thing.

A good cast was assembled for the movie. In human form, Alec Holland is played by Ray Wise, with stuntman Dick Durock portraying the character in Swamp Thing form. Durock proves very capable at handling dramatic scenes while in the makeup. As Swampy's nemesis Arcane is Louis Jourdan, one year before he went up against James Bond in Octopussy. David Hess of The Last House on the Left and Hitch-Hike plays lead henchman Ferret, accompanied by character actor Nicolas Worth (Blood Dolls, Darkman, Don't Answer the Phone!, Deadly Justice/The Rape of Richard Beck) as Bruno, the poor sap who ends up going through the scary transformation. Craven casts fellow master of horror John Carpenter's then-wife Adrienne Barbeau as Cable, and she's as great to watch as ever. (And in the European cut, there is a lengthy topless shot of her.) Craven's own then-wife Mimi Craven has a small role as Arcane's secretary. Nannette Brown's performance as Linda Holland has always stuck with me, and apparently the only other film Brown has ever been in is 1993's My Boyfriend's Back.

Of course, anyone who's ever watched Swamp Thing knows that you can't go over the cast of characters without mentioning Reggie Batts as Jude, the young gas station attendant who Cable befriends along the way. Batts' voice and delivery are wonderfully unique, he's got some fun comedic relief lines - back in the day, I really enjoyed his "There goes the neighborhood" reaction to first seeing Swamp Thing - and is a very memorable character.

Swamp Thing isn't nearly on the same production level as most of the comic books movies made these days, but it is a very enjoyable film that has given me many hours of entertainment over the years.


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