Superhero Saturday: Wes Craven writes and directs ‘Swamp Thing’ (1982) straight into the muck (Movie review)


 knew there would be some tough movies to watch on this Superhero Saturday project, but damn. “Swamp Thing” (1982) is as bad as a movie can be while having a coherent narrative and a reasonable budget. It’s paced so slow that the 90 minutes seem interminable. The swamp-boat action sequences are laughably bad and the monster-versus-soldier fights are just plain bad. “Swamp Thing” briefly comes to life here and there, for instance when the titular beast (Dick Durock, doing yeoman’s work in the suit) says “Everything’s a dream when you’re alone.”

At first I thought the movie — written and directed by horror maestro Wes Craven (“Scream”), out of his element at this point in his career – chronicles a group of government agents investigating the predations of Swamp Thing. But actually Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau) is taking over for a guy who was bitten by a gator. I thought Craven was doing some slow-burn suspense thing before Swamp Thing pops up, but it’s actually Dr. Alec Holland (Ray Wise) who turns into the beast after being accidentally exposed to his own vial of ooze.

The overriding tone of “Swamp Thing” is boredom. Scenes between Cable and Swamp Thing flirt with holding a viewer’s attention without grabbing it and holding on.

From this point, it’s a straightforward case of the evil Arcane (Louis Jourdan) – who has infiltrated this government science operation — and his henchmen tracking Cable through the swamplands to acquire Holland’s notebook containing the ooze’s formula. Also, Cable has to learn to gradually trust Swamp Thing.

This movie had to be rigorous to shoot, considering it’s set in the swamps, with many scenes of people trudging through water. It must’ve been fairly expensive, too, as the Swamp Thing costume isn’t too bad for that era, with Durock – in a role that would today be played by Doug Jones – showing expressions through the mask and makeup. When a couple of villains transform later, the effects are decidedly worse, and then the climactic fight scenes are choreographed poorly enough to sink to the level of the creature costumes.

An airboat chase offers a couple of smiles as goofy stunts are followed by over-the-top yells by baddies. Swamp Thing’s random roars are also worth a chuckle. But the film contains no purposeful laughs. A gas-station attendant, Jude (Reggie Batts), comes into the picture as a sidekick for Cable and perhaps comic relief. The role would be played by someone like Kevin Hart today.

The overriding tone of “Swamp Thing” — loosely based on a DC Comics character invented in 1971 — is boredom. Scenes where Cable and Swamp Thing pause for a moment to chat are slightly better than the pursuits through the forests and swamps, but these moments merely hint that a better movie could be made if it was more character-based. Those scenes flirt with holding a viewer’s attention without grabbing it and holding on.

Remarkably, this film led to a sequel, 1989’s “The Return of Swamp Thing,” which can’t possibly be as bad but somehow ranks even lower on IMDB. I guess seeing this first one prepares me to take a crack at the sequel someday, but I’m gonna wait a bit for the sake of my sanity.

If you’re checking off every box in superhero movie history, “Swamp Thing” will be among your toughest assignments. More selective viewers can skip it without a second thought.

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