Screening Log #37: Swamp Thing (1982)

Written by Wes Craven, based on characters created by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson
Directed by Wes Craven
Starring Adrienne Barbeau, Dick Durock, Louis Jourdan, and Ray Wise




I often find myself curious as to the pop culture roots of environmentalism; where did the concern for the natural world – for issues like conservation, preservation, reduction of waste, etc. – first make its presence known in media? My first instinct is to think of the television series The Raccoons (which, to my mind, has the best theme song of any television show) from the 80s that first introduced many of these issues to me in my youth. It certainly goes beyond this, though, back, at least, to Keep America Beautiful’s “crying Indian” anti-pollution, and certainly culturally insensitive, ads of the early 70s. This time frame coincides with the genesis of Len Wein’s equally green-minded comic creation Swamp Thing. The comic blended a sort of subtle, ambient, environmentalism with science fiction, the occult, and an old-fashioned revenge plot. The comic’s popularity allowed it to be adapted for the screen by a pre-Nightmare on Elm Street Wes Craven.

The film translates and streamlines some of the comic’s elements, but follows the same basic arc of the transformation of radical biologist Alec Holland, Ray Wise, into Swamp Thing. Holland works deep in a swamp on a special bio-restorative formula that would revolutionize the way plants grow, allowing plants to grow in unfavourable conditions, larger, and more able to help the world feed itself; Holland’s in-film prediction that “by 2001 there will be 6.5 billion people in the world”, in hindsight, seems relatively astute. The formula possesses unfortunately explosive properties and Holland is accidentally set alight by Dr. Anton Arcane, Louis Jourdan, and his mercenaries who hopes to procure the formula for his own use. The flaming Holland dives into the swamp while the rest of his co-workers are killed, save for the new – and ambiguously (un)bra’d – Alice Cable, Adrienne Barbeau. Arcane envisions the formula providing him with financial growth and immortality, naturally. Cable, however, has hidden the last of Holland’s notebooks detailing his process, causing Arcane and his men to seek her out, opening the door for many sequences where the swarthy Cable is beset by men who intend to do her a very masculine sort of harm.

A creature appears from the swamp, repeatedly, to growl loudly and toss about Arcane’s men in the process of saving Cable. This creature, naturally, is revealed in the course of time to be Holland, altered by his formula. From here, events play out predictably as the film moves toward its inevitable bog-located showdown between Arcane and Swamp Thing; Cable bathes topless in the swamp before she is captured, Swamp Thing throws some people and things about, then loses and regrows an arm… you know, the old familiar tropes. The virtuous (swamp) man concerned with employing science to alongside nature to enrich the lives of the many triumphs over the man who only has bestial and selfish motivations. Nature triumphs over its perversion and exploitation in the end, aided by a sympathetic avatar who understands and appreciates its nuances, beauties, and delicacies.

The film’s special effects are awkward to the point of detriment; Swamp Thing looks puffy, more like a large man in a rubber outfit and a pair of chest waders than an organic being composed entirely of plant material; the makeup is accurate, but forces Dick Durock, who plays Swamp Thing, to lose much expressive ability. Craven’s direction is hammy and unrefined, employing various screen wipes – in the shape of explosions or what I can only call “goop” – that intend to evoke the comic source material, but end up more Adam West 60s Batman camp than anything. What results is a well-intentioned film, built from a potentially fertile premise and containing some worthwhile acting, that is let down by effects that detract from the experience, calling attention to themselves and distancing the viewer rather than working to involve them. If all environmentally inclined media were similarly assembled, the lone Native American shedding a tear would remain alone forever.


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