Somethings age well, Swamp Thing is not one of them.
Before tackling Swamp Thing Wes Craven built a reputation for extremely terrifying films like The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes. These nasty, gritty stories of lives disrupted by crazed sociopaths have two thing in common with Swamp Thing and that is a sense of isolation created by nature and a primeval strain of violence that is born out of this uncivilized setting . In Last House on the Left the family’s innocent domicile is tucked back into the woods. In The Hills Have Eyes a family’s car breaks down desert wasteland. For Swamp Thing the setting is the deep bayou. Lurking in each of these natural settings is an unconscionable, uncontrolled element, a force of evil personified by thrill-killers, mutants, and an unscrupulous scientist. These wicked characters push peaceful characters to be violent for the sake of survival. However, most of these innocent individuals go so far that they lose their humanity.
In the case of Swamp Thing, the titular character loses his human form before be loses his humanity. If this were the only difference between Swamp Thing and Craven’s earlier films there might be ample reason to revisit or even champion this film. However, Swamp Thing is a poorly translated, dreadfully unimpressive, and painfully blasé comic book adaptation. Swamp Thing was never a house-hold name in comic heroes. If anything he’s a lower-tier character in the D.C. Comics universe.
Craven chose to bring the half-man, half-plant hero to the big-screen before Alan Moore re-invented the character in the mid-80′s when comics were transforming into graphic novels with more mature themes. Craven is working with rather simplistic, adolescent story material and he’s not doing much to enrich the material or even twist it towards the darker tones found in his earlier films. I am sure Craven cannot be entirely faulted for not turning Swamp Thing into a more visceral meditation on the loss of humanity. D.C. Comics might never agree to such pervasive tweaking, especially considering that this film was produced on the heels of Superman, a break-through blockbuster for the comic book film genre. Sadly, the risks that could have and should have been taken with this lesser known comic book character, who defies many of our traditional expectation of what a superhero looks like, were not explored. What further cripples this picture are the horrendous creature costumes that lack the campy qualities of Japanese monster movies or the well executed make-up of horror films made during the same time period. Everything just feels cheap.
Cheap is an aesthetic that Craven made work in his earlier films. The low-quality, almost home-movie quality of The Last House on the Left helps that film’s brutally realistic images of horror. However, in Swamp Thing the cheapness comes more in the film’s lack of imagination and its careless execution. Corny visual wipes hint to the transitions between comic book panels and the flat characters feel too literally connected to the pages they were pulled from. Overall, the transition from page to screen possess a level of predictability I find beneath Craven. It is as if he handicapped himself by tying his creative voice to a project designed to appeal to a larger, younger audience and one that did not give him the freedom to push boundaries or buttons.
Perhaps, for a young viewer, unaware of Craven’s earlier work and accepting of non-digital monster this movie may have strange, innocent appeal. Most likely, modern audience who did not grow up with this film will find it even more painful and less comical than I did this time around. They may just wan to wait for a re-make as Craven’s other two films mentioned here have already been put through that process and comic book characters have been all the rage at the theaters.
For now, people can watch Swamp Thing for free online.
Caution: This film says it is the full version, but it’s missing a few seconds. Those would be the seconds when the film’s female star (and the director’s ex-wife), Adrienne Barbeau bare her breasts. These few seconds are a big deal only because MGM originally put those seconds back in when they released this film on DVD. Then they pulled all the DVDs. It caused a run on the title. My version of Swamp Thing is from the UK. It’s uncut. Call me a purist. Then again, no amount of skin can make up for the simple fact that perms like the one Barbeau is sporting in this film are anything but sexy.