Movie: Swamp Thing (1982)
Why Did I Watch This?
Oh...lots of reasons. I am writing this the morning after the 2022 Oscar Nominations came out, so I'm glad you can see this blog's priorities. Swamp Thing has been on my mind for a long time. I was interested in the TV Show, but I can't find it to watch it since they shuttered DC Universe and somehow it didn't make the HBOMax transition. I remember Swamp Thing being a big deal when I was a kid for some reason. Like, I had toys and I feel like my dad was a fan. It is very niche, but there's a substantial following here. This film was remarkably difficult to find, it's not on Netflix's DVD subscription. Luckily when I searched through my smart TV I inexplicably saw it on Tubi. I was about to just buy the DVD on Amazon. I thought this was the founding opus and I'm just really down for some Swamp Thing.
What Did I Know?
I know a bit about Swamp Thing. I'm kind of familiar with the comics, or at least know that he originated as a comic character. It's always fun to see this guy in the same universe as Batman and Superman, like there's so many little pockets of these comic book worlds. But yeah, he's a legit DC character. He featured in Justice League: Apokolips War (2020) not too long ago. About the movie itself, I really didn't know that much. I knew a scientist hangs out in a swamp and becomes a swamp creature. That's about it.
What Did I Think?
This is a true B movie. It's corny and campy as hell, but does take itself somewhat seriously. The basic plot follows a female scientist, played by Adrienne Barbeau, perhaps most famous from Escape from New York (1981) arriving at an isolated undisclosed swamp location. I suppose there aren't too many candidates for massive swamps and the comics largely take place in Louisiana, but this could be anywhere. It's not like everyone's Cajun or anything.
She meets a team of scientists trying to do...something. No, really, even in the movie they don't seem to know exactly what they're trying to research, and when they come up with a glowing green goo they are really surprised that it both explodes and then creates plant growth. Then a rival scientist arrives with a squad of hired goons and the lab explodes. The main scientist gets covered in goo, catches on fire, and runs into the swamp to explode. Obviously, this turns him into a swamp thing.
This movie is insane. It gets progressively wonkier until the final battle between Swamp Thing and a pig-wolf monster wielding a sword. Believe it or not, the comic inspiration is even crazier. I'm impressed they actually stuck decently close to comic book origins, as both Barbeau's character and Anton Arcane are big characters from the source material. I'll remind you, this was also 1982. It's really bizarre that this movie came out so long ago. In fact, forty years ago tomorrow! But it was also the second modern superhero comic book movie after Superman (1978). This is what I'm talking about when I say Swamp Thing was a weirdly big deal in the 80s and 90s.
There is a tremendous amount of wacky shit. Anton Arcane reveals himself by taking off a mask of the head of security he was impersonating, Mission: Impossible style. There's a black kid who runs a gas station by himself who is killed off-screen then brought back to life by Swamp Thing. Two unmanned fan boats run into each other and explode. It's non-stop.
For a massive, unnavigable swamp, everyone also keeps running into each other. Barbeau is captured four different times. FOUR. To her credit, she escapes every time, and she has a good amount of agency, never falling into a damsel in distress stereotype, although at one point she does complain that her boots are expensive. Like, you living in a swamp, girl. There is however, maybe the most gratuitous nudity ever seen in a movie. There is no reason to have Barbeau's tits out as she bathes...in the swamp. The camera lingers on her for an uncomfortably long time, and then the camera pans to show that Swamp Thing is also watching her. He smiles. It is...really really awkward. I don't know if Swamp Thing still gets plant boners. There is a weird bit earlier when you think that the doctor is working there with his wife, and then he awkwardly hits on Barbeau, but it turns out the other scientist was his sister. They don't seem to know what to do about the sexual tension here. Barbeau is forcibly kissed a few times, by good guys and bad guys, and I even thought I sensed some sexual tension between her and the black kid. None of it has aged slightly well.
Also, apparently the nudity wasn't in the theatrical cut, which was rated PG. One mom found out the difference between the theatrical and the DVD cut the hard way. Clearly this scene didn't need to be in there. I mean, I'm glad Tubi apparently showed the uncensored DVD cut, where magnificent titties appear out of no where, and part of me just really thinks that no one cares or notices. Like, the people who are sitting down to watch Swamp Thing in 2022 are surely wild degenerates. Who is watching it from Blockbuster in 2002 as a kid's movie anyway? Hey, Billy, you can't watch Spider-Man (2002), here's Swamp Thing. Did they think it was Shrek?
But yeah, everyone keeps finding each other in this massive swamp really easily. The plot of the movie is like, "We need to find the Swamp Thing! He shows up where the girl is! Find the girl! Oh, there she is!" At one point she actually calls the main villain and tells him her location. That comes immediately after a scene where the main villain espouses how he wants to find the girl. It's downright comedic. I just kept thinking, "Well, that's a freebie." I guess she wasn't in the room for the reveal and thought she was calling the Head of Security? How is that possible? Even on the phone she hesitates and says "I think he may have been compromised" and then straight up tells him everything he wants to know.
Ray Wise plays the scientist, and he does a fine job. Except that he DOESN'T play the Swamp Thing, that was Dick Durock, who would go on to play the Swamp Thing in the follow-up sequel and TV series. It's kind of weird we just never see Ray Wise again and the transformation really does mess up his brain and create a new person. It's like Frankenstein except Frankenstein becomes the Frankenstein.*
I couldn't get over how it's a big shock to all the characters that Swamp Thing is Ray Wise. Like...he obviously is! He was covered in the goo and ran into the swamp and exploded. Swamp Thing mostly wanders around the swamp moaning and screaming. Seriously, there are just shots of him yelling alone in the woods. Some of this had to be on purpose, right? I don't know the context enough, but it had to be a little sly.
The monster costume...is pretty bad. Okay, it's a B movie so whatever, but it does not look plantlike or realistic at all. Swamp Thing has such a distinctive face and nose bridge. They tried it a little bit, it did not work well. He's also not that big or hulking like his comic counterpart. If only there was a modern retelling with a budget that could help this effect. It doesn't really help that almost the entire film takes place during really bright days. They could have masked it with rain or darkness, but oh well. You get the sense that this was all to save budget, there are hardly any sets, mostly just running through swamps. That's not totally a complaint, I knew what I was getting into here.
Of course, the sets culminate in...SWAMP DUNGEON. Seriously, they're all captured by Arcane and put into what can only be described as the Swamp Dungeon where his Swamp Mansion becomes a castle. They're chained up in a medieval torture chamber until Swamp Thing reaches out and touches the light (which soon moves to his whole body, he didn't need to stretch out) and then gains the strength to regrow his arm and break the chains.
There is this bit where the plant formula doesn't actually turn people into plant monsters, it merely brings out their inner being. I guess that means Ray Wise just really liked plants and was noble enough to become a plant hero? But he's kind of an ambitious scumbag who hits on new co-workers. Noble, for the early 80s I suppose. A henchman turns into a small hobgoblin thing, who then suddenly has the personality to be a turncoat for the heroes and a mischievous rascal, literally saying "Have a nice trip, see you next fall!" to the bad guy. It's...weird.
Arcane of course turns into the pig-wolf. Why. Why does this happen. We do get a big final battle, and it's fun. The ending of this film leans so hard into camp, it's really fun and fulfilling and the kind of stuff you would just never see today unless coated with a thick layer of irony. This film was directed by Wes Craven somehow, who has obviously proven himself competent. It was the last film he made before A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), which feels much more confident and assured. Some of that is probably just budget, but I do want to think he was messing around with this film. Some of the wipes are positively bonkers. It makes Star Wars look restrained. There's literally a star wipe here. It blows my mind.
So, this movie rules, watch it. Load up that Tubi, it's free, I think. I don't pay for it. And bring back Swamp Thing!
*Listen, I know this is improper and I should note the novel, Dr. Frankenstein and Frankenstein's monster. But this is a good joke and it's staying in.