Genre: Fantasy and Horror Running Time: 1 hr. 31 min.
Release Date: February 19th, 1982 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Wes Craven Actors: Ray Wise, Adrienne Barbeau, Louis Jourdan, David Hess, Nicholas Worth, Don Knight, Al Ruban, Nannette Brown, Mimi Meyer, Dick Durock
ot long ago … ” begins “Swamp Thing,” proceeding to summarize the creation of a thing that lives in the swamp. With just a couple of paragraphs, it’s already established that a monster lurks in the wetlands, nicely avoiding a lengthy origins tale or the complex lead-in to an evil scientist’s experiment that places a humanoid beast into a murky marsh … or so the audience is led to believe. And so the story proper starts with characters wandering into the unknown.
“Local fishermen say this place is haunted.” After being dropped off by a Savannah Coast Guard helicopter, Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau) travels by boat to the secreted laboratory of Dr. Alec Holland (Ray Wise), whose work with poisonous and dangerous animals isn’t immediately elaborated upon. But Cable is a government agent from Washington, assigned to replace a former scientist who was attacked by an alligator, and she’s not entirely surprised to discover that Holland’s work leans toward easy weaponization.
Holland comes on strong, making plenty of moves with Cable – who isn’t all that keen on stopping him. They have bigger problems to contend with anyway; a gang of heavily armed mercenaries storms into the research enclosure, intent on stealing Holland’s breakthrough compound. And the leader is Arcane (Louis Jourdan), a man introduced by peeling off a fake rubber mask to reveal that he was hiding in plain sight as an employee. Fearful of losing his life’s work, Alec desperately generates an explosion that finds his lab – and himself – engulfed in flames.
From here, the movie takes on the pattern of a standard superhero revenge flick, in which unprepared soldiers descend upon a supernaturally powerful abomination hellbent on rescuing his girl and tearing the villains limb from limb. Suspenseful music (conspicuously too good for this endeavor) supplements the snatching of victims from unsteady perches or out of the safety of unsound vehicles; odd fades and cuts and wipes feel as if not enough scenes were shot; and the action sequences, though effectively envisioned, are executed poorly, oftentimes edited in such a way that huge gaps of footage are missing to obscure the failures of fight choreography. And then there’s the monster itself, which is shown far too often in an abundance of daylight, revealing all of its man-in-a-suit shortcomings.
Barbeau, Wise, and Jourdan are adequate in their roles – not having much to work with in the first place. But the supporting cast is exceptionally lacking. The hired goons are intermittently comical, while the purposeful comic relief falls flat. Even one-line background characters struggle to deliver their generic dialogue. It certainly doesn’t help that Cable is scripted to continually fall on the ground during chases, or that the Swamp Thing roars to itself in ludicrous anguish, or that the antagonists frequently appear just off screen to grab Cable (too many times to count, in fact), or that confrontations are so repetitive – reusing flailing tumbles from grenade tosses or the throwing of thugs into the water. It’s laugh-out-loud funny when Arcane likens the oversized mutant to a chess player, as it then clumsily ferrets out its opposition in the swamp.
Based on a DC Comics property, this adaptation suffers from a lack of seriousness and a lack of severity. It’s not the kind of adventure that needs levity, nor is it the kind that can maintain a sense of urgency without genuine scares or violence. Had this effort been bloodier – something anticipated from writer/director Wes Craven (“The Last House on the Left,” “The Hills Have Eyes”) – it might have had more of an impact. There is, however, a rare international cut of the film that features prostitutes and a protracted, topless bathing scene involving Barbeau. And though the third act does grow darker, featuring an unidentifiably-situated dungeon, a cruel experiment on a subordinate, some creatively gruesome mutations, and satisfying deaths, a hint of goofiness persists. Ultimately, it’s a failed twist on “Creature from the Black Lagoon” merged with horror-fantasy elements and a touch of exploitation, like one of Roger Corman’s ultra low-budget peplum forays.
– Mike Massie