Superhero Saturday: ‘Return of Swamp Thing’ (1989) is terrible, but at least it’s better than the original (Movie review)

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wamp Thing” (1982) achieved a spot on the short list of worst movies to get a sequel upon the release of “The Return of Swamp Thing” (1989). With B-movie and soft-core porn director Jim Wynorski taking over for Wes Craven, this followup likewise belongs on the cinematic compost heap, but it’s actually the less bad of the two pictures. It has a consistent campy tone, and while it’s never for a minute good, it has enough forward momentum to not be as mind-numbingly boring as the first one.

I’m guessing 40 percent of “Return’s” budget was spent on a much-improved costume for Alec Holland/Swamp Thing (Dick Durock, again one of the best actors), 40 percent on pyrotechnics (almost every set, vehicle and supporting character blows up), 15 percent on licensing for Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Born on the Bayou” and the property itself (artwork from the comics is shown behind the opening credits), and 5 percent on actors.

Of these two disastrous films, “Return of Swamp Thing” is clearly superior; I’m even more impressed upon learning it had a much lower budget than the original. Wynorski knows how to crank out watchable, smartly paced garbage.

Louis Jourdan, returning as Dr. Anton Arcane, who survived the first film because of … reasons … is obviously too good for “Return,” as is eye candy Heather Locklear as Arcane’s stepdaughter, Abby. She likes Swamp Thing from the moment he first rescues her. She’s “a vegetarian,” she explains, in an example of the level of D-level sitcom humor that spouts from the screenplay by Neil Cuthbert and Grant Morris. But honestly, I like that there’s no feeling-out period whatsoever between Swamp Thing and Abby, as it would be a cliché.

Indeed, a lot of this film keeps a viewer on their toes, not knowing what campiness will ensue next. For instance, Arcane’s two thugs — Gunn (Joe Sagal) and Points (Monique Gabrielle) – argue about their jobs, compare battle scars and start making out. If “Return” had any nuance or if the supporting cast had any acting experience, this might’ve been the humorous payoff to a subtle buildup; instead, it’s totally random.

One trend that does start to become recognizable is that most random men will try to rape Abby upon seeing her. In a superhero film ostensibly aimed at kids, this is admittedly a surprising character motivation. The attempted rapes happen to Abby twice; Swamp Thing rescues her once and she easily outsmarts Gunn the other time, since his brains don’t seem to be in his head.

I hope most of this cast wasn’t paid actual cash money; I think free catered meals would be fair enough. Then again, it’s hard to imagine the material playing any better with top-shelf actors. Other than Swamp Thing’s, the costumes are terrible. So if swamp-dwelling kids Omar and Darryl are going to be attacked by a half-man/half-leech who knocks at their cabin door, I guess it’s appropriate that it’s preceded by a ridiculous scene of them poring over nudie magazines and frantically hiding them. It allows the tone to be consistent.

Swamp Thing’s role in “Return” is to alternately rescue the kids and Abby, and to beat up the various creatures who emerge from Arcane’s lab — failed experiments as he searches for a youth serum. There are some creative ideas here, including a half-man/half-elephant, where the human face is on the side of the elephant head. It’s not exactly nightmare-inducing imagery, like the freaks from “Alien Resurrection” or something, but admittedly, we don’t see monsters like these in every movie.

Obviously, the “Swamp Thing” comic deserves better than these two 1980s movies, and by most accounts it got much better treatment with the short-lived 2019 DC Universe streaming series. Of these two disastrous films, though, “Return of Swamp Thing” is clearly superior; I’m even more impressed upon learning it had a much lower budget. Obviously, Craven had the better career, but his “Swamp Thing” is totally yawn-inducing, whereas Wynorski knows how to crank out watchable, smartly paced garbage.

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