Every Sunday this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: pretty much everybody can tell you why the new Green Lantern is spectacularly misconceived, but it's just par for the course: unlike their colleagues at Marvel, DC has been consistently incapable of doing much good with any of their heroes not named Batman, give or take a Chris Reeve Superman or two. Case in point: one of the earliest comic book movies of the modern era was also a badly botched attempt to bring an obscure horror comic figure to life. And hey, he was green too!
Superman, the movie that in all essentials created the superhero movie as a major force in blockbuster cinema and thereby did much to usher in the modern age of the tentpole movie, and its delayed 1981 sequel, the next major comic book figure to hit cinema screens was, of all insane choices, Swamp Thing, a remarkably obscure figure who'd premiered in a one-shot story in 1971, in DC's horror imprint line, created by Len Wein and Berni Wrightson. Though he got his own title at the end of the 1970s, it didn't last very long, and it wasn't until Alan Moore took over the character in 1983 - over a year after the movie premiered - that Swamp Thing gained anything resembling the popularity or importance of an superhero that actual people cared about.
Yet here he was, in all his mucky glory, in February, 1982. Apparently somebody got it in their head that this was a can't-miss prospect for a movie - and I don't understand that, either, for though the early Swamp Thing comics are not without their charms, it's no accident that Moore could only salvage the title by overhauling the goofy concept from the ground up - and then, somewhere a bit further down the line, maverick indie horror director Wes Craven managed to hitch his wagon to the Swamp Thing Express, in the hopes of proving to one and all that he could work within the confines of studio mandates and the star system, and make films that didn't threaten to undermine the basic rules of decency and comportment that undergird all human society (his first feature, The Last House on the Left, being arguably the most controversial film ever released at its 1972 debut, and his 1977 The Hills Have Eyes being the most generally foul-spirited cannibal movie then produced in the English language). A horror maven and a horror comic must have seemed like a match made in heaven; but Swamp Thing somehow managed to become far more of a boilerplate bayou-set action picture than a horror movie of any but the remotest stripe, and proved only that Craven is rather out of his element when you set him down to make an action picture and not a brutal, misanthropic gorefest.
How it begins: underneath some viciously impersonal credits, government operative Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau) is flown into the middle of absolutely nowhere whatsofuckingever, deep in the Louisiana swamps. She's here to protect the two doctors Holland - Alec (Ray Wise) and his sister Linda (Nanette Brown) - working on a major top-secret project that has brought them to the attention of Dr. Arcane (Louis Jourdan, as far from Letter from an Unknown Woman as any actor has ever fallen from any height), an evil scientist or patent thief or businessman or terrorist, or something; it's never clear what Arcane does, but he sure does it evilly. He hires out a paramilitary group to kill all their government protection except for Cable, take down the Hollands' lab, and steal their research. As it happens, though, Alec Holland has just found a plant extract that encouraged hyper-accelerated growth in plant life, and when he flees from the burning lab, covered in flames, either he or the surrounding swamp water is saturated with enough of that serum that the genial scientist returns from his watery grave as a massive hybrid of animal and plant life, superstrong and nearly indestructible - the Swamp Thing (Dick Durock).
In the hands of Moore, and subsequent writers, the Swamp Thing is essentially a nature god, an extension of all the plant life of the world given independent, conscious existence to defend "the Green", as it's called, from destruction by humans (also, in Moore's hands the series became a semi-encyclopedia of the weirdest corners of the established DC Universe, but that is neither here nor there). That is certainly the aspect of the character which the modern Swamp Thing fancier is likely to have in mind. Not the case in 1982! Then, he was just a kind of muddy human-plant monster who thumped around the bayou fighting evil and trying to cure himself. Even this version of the character is subtler and more interesting than the one that we find in the movie, who has nothing more exciting to do than punch out henchmen until the time comes to punch out the Big Bad.
The plot is effectively divided into two parts: the opening slightly-less-than-half, in which we get to meet the characters and get to like them a little bit, and the concluding slightly-more-than-half, which is just a big slugfest in the swamp. The plot peters off to just about nothing (we could successfully describe the entirety of the back half as "Swamp Thing and Alice fall in Beauty and the Beast style love while retrieving his research from Arcane", and not really lose too many important details in the process), and the characters, insofar as we have ever been invested in them, cease to have access to their personalities; they just become figures in an endless extension of the part in every James Bond film where Bond has to beat his way through marginally-characterised tertiary characters while looking for the enemy lair (the bland Live and Let Die was never far from my thoughts whilst watching Swamp Thing - a most unwelcome association).
As complaints go, "the characters aren't interesting" tends to be one that I find annoying more often than not; and yet it's at the center of what keeps Swamp Thing from being all that good a movie. The actors aren't up to much good on the whole, for a start: neither of Barbeau's primary talents serves her well in the role of a gruff but tenderhearted government sp00k (though, blessedly, she doesn't come across as too girly, as happens when somebody like Jessica Alba tries to play characters of this nature), and Jourdan, not unreasonably, only intermittently hides his boredom with the material, growing increasingly stiff and uninteresting as the script goes into more fantastical sci-fi reaches. Ray Wise, being the great character actor that he is, is utterly appealing as Holland, eager go-getter scientist who doesn't seem to realise how bizarre and esoteric his research is; but he's not in too much of the movie, and Durock's take on the Swamp Thing is only a little bit more engaging than your average early-'80s slasher villain played by a stuntman (and if we look at his career overall... why, guess what he spent most of his time doing!). Durock is, admittedly, not helped at all by a monster suit that reasonably copies the design of the comic's monster, but does not hide for any length of time the fact that it is, essentially, a vinyl suit, right down to the way the knees and elbows crease. It is, however, a much better effect than the truly embarrassing costume that represents Arcane's post-serum transformation, a bug-eyed wolf thing that would have been right on the edge in a medium-budget 1950s B-movie. And of course, Swamp Thing is but a low-budget 1982 B-movie; but even then, this was not the state-of-the-art, not by a long shot, and however much we're meant to believe in the Swamp Thing, it takes a much less judgmental viewer than eye to reach that state of belief.
Without characters we're invested in, the movie never builds up steam or momentum; it just devolves into one scene after another of watching a man in vinyl pants pushing around David Hess (a veteran of some of the more notorious splatter pictures of the day, who deserved better). Craven's direction isn't much help: the crawling feeling of dread that he managed to build in his early horror movies through long shots of his outdoor locations doesn't translate well to the PG action shenanigans that make up this movie. In fact, other than the inherent body horror jolt of seeing Holland resurrected as the Swamp Thing, little or nothing about the movie ever even considers playing in Craven's ordinary genre, much to its detriment. The simmering lack of momentum that made parts of The Hills Have Eyes pure nightmare fuel leaves the rather more kinetic Swamp Thing like an engine that won't turn over, no matter how many times it seems like it's about to. Instead, it just plods and putters forward, eventually stopping, but not because we've had any release; indeed, we never built up tension in the first place. (I will leave undiscussed Craven's hideously botched treatment of the self-consciously "funny" elements of the film, which may be parodistic or may just be terrible accidents; for example, the mind-boggling use of scene transitions including a reliance on cartoony wipe effects that would make the creators of Battlefield Earth feel ashamed).
I have made it out to sound worse than it is. The opening 30 minutes are playful, and just clunky enough that you can see how the filmmakers weren't sure that comic book narrative logic would match well to cinema. But there are a few well-written lines in among the uncomfortably functional dialogue - I am fascinated by the moment in which Cable thinks that Linda Holland is the Dr. Holland, an inversion of the common '50s and '60s trope where the manly hero is amazed to find that Dr. Soandso is a woman! Though there's also a weirdly retrogressive tinge to the moment that hurts it - and solely for its chutzpah, I have to give Craven and the movie props. This was an attempt to do something new, and the fact that it turns into a low-rent swamp adventure, The Dukes of Hazzard with a plant man... They didn't know what they were doing, basically. That's not much of an excuse, but at least Swamp Thing has a novelty value absent from the equally broken comic book adaptations of 20 years later.