Adrienne Barbeau is standing in waist-high swamp water after having just been rescued by a half-man, half-vegetable hybrid that is really a man in a rubber suit. Though monstrous in appearance, this gentle giant obviously wants to help her further. Instead, she dismisses him with a terse “SHOO!”, which is probably among the reactions I least expected.
1982’s Swamp Thing is full of unexpected moments like that. Some of those moments are simply surprisingly human, like Barbeau’s reaction to an offer of help. Other moments are uniquely weird, such as when a beefy thug downs the formula to transform him into a superbeing, only to be reduced to the size of a midget. I had a good enough time that I was willing to overlook his clothes shrinking proportionately.
The best surprise is behind the camera, as this was written and directed by Wes Craven. I have always heard how intelligent Craven was, but I feel that rarely came across in his work. Likewise, I wouldn’t have expected a film like Last House on the Left to come from the mind of anybody described as a gentleman.
And yet this, an adaptation of a DC comic, is where he really shows heart. I came to like these characters and felt invested in their well-being.
Before his transformation into the titular creature, Ray Wise plays a scientist heading a surprising high-tech research facility deep in a swamp. He’s trying to solve world hunger by way to merging together human and plant cells into a new kind of organism. Not exactly sure how whatever he grows using this technology will defeat famine. As a vegetarian, I imagine I would be confronted by veggies I would feel guilty consuming.
A side effect of Wise’s creation is it can be used as an explosive. His sister and fellow researcher (Nannette Brown) demonstrates this by dipping her fingers in some goo and then flicking a few drops to the ground, where there’s some small explosions not unlike those paper-and-gunpowder things everybody seemed to play with when they were kids. I wondered if she was going to forget she had an explosive on her fingers and unconsciously do something like smack a tabletop with her hand, but nothing doing.
It turns out the main security guy at the facility is really Louis Jourdan in disguise. His character is revealed to be an uber rich villain in the mold of those from the Bond films. He wants the formula for himself so he can use it as leverage to hold the world hostage.
He’ll have an even stronger interest in it when it turns out another side effect is the transformation of Wise into a human/plant hybrid with superhuman strength. Jourdan hopes the formula will do the same for him though, like most medications, results may vary. Please refer back to the second paragraph for what happened to one of his top henchmen.
That transformation of Wise into Swamp Thing resulted from the ensuing chaos after Jourdan reveals his duplicity and his militia destroys the facility. Wise’s character catches fire in what is an astounding stunt sequence ending with his body, engulfed in flames, diving into the swamp. He is initially presumed to be dead, but he has instead transformed into Dick Durock in a rubber suit. That actor’s name had me wondering: pro wrestler or porn star?
Durock is actually a much better actor than I would have expected for somebody I have not heard of before. And the costume he wears is very good, as far as these things go. The facial area allows for a surprisingly wide range of expression, even when it is bit too stiff in other areas.
Where Barbeau comes into the picture is as a technician at the facility, unknowingly reporting to Jourdan. I like how her character is a technical person, though we don’t get to see her do much work prior to the destruction of the lab. After that, however, we get to see her kick some ass sporadically. She doesn’t do anything that didn’t appear to be possible given her weight and physique, which I appreciate. Go figure her hair is similar to Sigourney Weaver’s in Alien, and I thought of the other actress and that movie as Barbeau fires a very big gun at one point.
Another actor who really shines here is young Reggie Batts as a kid who possibly owns his own gas station. That is uncertain, but he almost immediately latches onto Barbeau to provide whatever assistance he can. Batts gets the lion’s share of the movie’s best lines, and his natural acting is perfect for them. Consider this response to Barbeau’s inquiry as to whether there is a gun in the shop, “What kind of place do you think this is? Of course we have a gun.” Then there’s his response to her insistence a truck destroyed by the Swamp Thing had, in fact, hit a tree: “Must have been one of those hit-and-run trees, ‘cause its gone now.”
Swamp Thing is a gloriously goofy movie. It’s the kind of film where a character is killed by a literal trouser snake, when one of the baddies pulls a snake out of his pants pocket and has it bite the victim’s face. I wouldn’t have thought Craven would have been the right kind of person for this movie, but it turns out he was the perfect writer and director for this. It isn’t just the seemingly endless types of transitions he employs to simulate the feel of reading a comic book, but more so the heart and wit he brings to fare that some might think does not require it.
Dir: Wes Caven
Starring: Adrienne Barbeau, Dick Durock, Louis Jourdan, Reggie Batts
Watched on MVD blu-ray