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As is a personal tradition, on my recent birthday I went to a particular second-hand shop in West London. This is one of my my favourite shops in London as it specialises in obscure art books, music biographies and Graphic Novels. I love going here on my birthdays as I always have some spare cash, and like Forest’s proverbial Chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.
Frankly it also reminds me I am still an immature man-baby and not actually getting any older except for now sighing when I get off the sofa.
After spending some of this years birthday pennies (thanks Nan!) I left the shop with several trade paperbacks, including a few of Mike Carey’s run on the Hellblazer comic. Hellblazer may be better known to some readers by the protagonists surname- Constantine. John Constantine. In fact there was a surprisingly slick film with the same title of Constantine based on this property a decade or so ago, although it certainly bore only a passing resemblance to the source material.
Hellblazer is about a British occultist who generally saves the world from demons via sacrificing his friends lives. Only in the broadest terms is Constantine ‘a hero’ in that he does frequently stop supernatural menaces. He is perhaps far more comparable to being ‘a villain’ for his affect on those around him. Bitter, sarcastic, chain-smoking and always in trouble, John Constantine is a Noir figure all of his own. (Or, based on that same description, he’s just a typical surly teenager from Watford).
Now all of this introduction revolving around Hellbalzer/Constantine has only the slightest link to today’s blog. You see I have had a film lurking in my pile to watch for some time. Since I was a child, in fact. A film based on a comic property that I own on DVD but that I have never watched before. A film to rival my previous blog on the adaptation of Marvel Comic’s Man-Thing (http://www.chrisandphilpresent.co.uk/blogs/hollyweird/hollyweird-episode-xxiv-behold-my-mighty-man-thing/). The film in question is based on a different comic franchise to Hellbalzer, and was actually the first title that John Constantine appeared in as a supporting cast member. Today;s film is DC’s Swamp Thing!
Swamp Thing was always a film that somehow passed me by during my childhood. It came out in 1982, and I was born in 1981. Yet still I knew it existed. I knew of the comic character. I knew of the cartoon series. I remember the film posters in back issues of comics. As a comic-nerd of the 1990’s, I sought out every Superhero film that I could. In the days before Hollywood was interested this ranged from episodes of The Incredible Hulk featuring dodgy versions of Thor and Daredevil, to a Captain America movie made with the budget f a happy hour at the pub.
So it was odd that somehow Swamp Thing always eluded me. It was just one of those films that was never on TV, was not stocked in the local VHS rental shop and that none of my friends owned. What made this even stranger in hindsight is that it was directed by Wes Craven, a gentleman who’s films I grew up loving, from the obvious A Nightmare On Elm Street through to a very worn out copy of The People Under The Stairs.
Curiously enough, growing up I had seen the 1989 sequel, the imaginatively titled The Return Of Swamp Thing. Perhaps memories of how poor the sequel was put me off ever truly investing in tracking down the original.
A movie based on a comic book license that was directed by a horror genre legend had somehow remained unseen by me into my thirties. Now reaching 32, enough was enough and it was time to put that dusty old disc into the DVD player.
Almost instantly, one cast member on screen is a familiar face, Adrienne Barbeau. Barbeau is more familiar to me through Escape From New York, The Fog, Creepshow and- might I add unashamedly- a personal favourite, Cannonball Run.
Barbeau is playing Alice Cable, a Government Agent assigned to report on some mysterious research taking place in the back-swamps of Louisiana. Nothing more is explained to her other than the secrecy is being done to avoid ‘Arcane’ finding out about the project.
After Adrienne Barbeau’s appearance has intrigued me a little, another actor soon draws me in even more. For one thing, this performer is playing a thug who kills another man by snake. Yeah that’s right. A snake. Murder by snake. Guns are for cowards, knives are for chefs, but snakes are for the creative sort of assailant!
As assailants go, they don’t come much more intimidating than this actor, particularly for anyone familiar with his previous turn in Craven’s Last House On The Left. Playing the lead henchmen in Swamp Thing is Mr. David Hess.
Hess is capable in both The Last House… and in this feature too of giving off an aura of uncertain scuzziness, as if either film could take a nasty turn into snuff territory at any moment. I have read reports that the actor, and musician, David Hess was a lovely man. So credit to him for it not showing it through this work.
Cue the Opening Credits. These clearly imply the tone that Craven was most likely aiming for. The credits run via odd screen wipes and boxed off images, giving them a staggered, graphical quality. In other words, at this point it is pretty clear that the film will be an homage to Comic Book sensibilities. Once the credits pass, the narrative returns. Already the film has featured an established horror actress and a familiar, creepy sidekick. What we need now is a hero. A man who screams strength and dignity. Surprisingly then, it’s Ray Wise.
Wise plays Dr Alec Holland, a man working on a plant-animal genetic splicing formula. He hopes to be able to grow plants that can survive in any environment to solve world hunger- which is certainly an admirable goal, although mixing daisies and doves hardly seems the most practical approach. Still, to each their own. Wise manages to fills this role as Dr. Holland with a sense of decency and warmth early on, as well a s a fun-loving energy.
In part down to this charisma, the Doc and Agent Cable begin to bond pretty quickly. Whilst they develop feelings for one another he also finds the breakthrough in his formula. Go Dr. Holland! Quite a week for the big guy!
But since every silver lining has a cloud, the whispered bad guy from earlier, ‘Arcane’, finally appears. In fact he has actually been working with Holland all this time in disguise. Played by Lois Jordan, who was also the bad guy in oo7’s Octopussy adventure, Arcane is a literal ‘mad doctor’. He is obsessed with immortality and believes Holland’s solution can lead to it.
Arcane and his crew, amongst them is the gleeful David Hess, kill the Doctor’s research team and steal almost all of his notebooks- all except for the final one. Agent Cable gets away with this crucial book during the chaos. During this attack, Alec is covered in his plant-animal solution and then set on fire. He runs off screaming into the Swamp, which is probably a good call when burning alive.
This shot of Holland running whilst ablaze is actually very impressive. This is done through a long, single take. These days it would most likely be done via CGI and look nowhere near as good, so kudos to the stunt team for this set piece.
Sadly for this impressive stunt, the entire action scene has a camp value that detracts from it. Aside from the dated haircuts or comic book tone established early on, the fact this scene look laughably awful is due to the fact that ‘the swamp’ is an over lit studio.
By making a crucial set piece seem so fake at this stage the result does not pay homage to comic book fun nor present some hammy replica of schlock horror films. It just looks dumb.
Oh well, whatever, never mind… With Holland covered in his plant-animal chemical and running into the bayou, can you possibly whatever happened to Dr Holland?? I’ll give you a pictoral clue…
This is terrible, but the fact the film takes almost completely in daylight certainly does not help things. Some shadows and slime can go a long way in cinematic creature design.
As if all that isn’t bad enough, at this stage the mute Swamp Thing is now played by Stunt Man Dick Durock. No more Ray Wise. Sigh.
Back to the plot, each time that Non-Ray-Wise-Now-A-Stunt-Man-Swamp-Thing appears, it is to try and save his new love, Agent Cable. His powers are not made particularly clear, although he is very strong and mostly impervious to damage. He can also raise the dead, but that barely gets used for some reason.
Not that such powers help him much. When Arcane works out the link between Agent Cable and Swamp Thing, he lures Swampy into a trap. In a sudden flash, Arcane strikes with… (drum roll)… a net!
He also gets an arm cut off, but luckily a shard of daylight grows it back quite late into the film. Which is pretty nonsensical given he walked around in the sunlight when it happened without healing. Ah well. In a film about an animal-plant hybrid it is difficult to get upset by such issues.
The rest of the film has its plotting that I’m just going to shorten into the key parts; there is a little boy who run convenience store, Adrienne Barbeau’s boobs, David Hess killing people, a muscle man getting turned into a cigar-smoking midget, more boobs, and finally Arcane mutating into a giant Wolf-Thing that faces off with Dr. Holland. At least I assume it was Wolf-thing. The costume is hard to tell beyond ‘furry’ and ‘cheap’.
I have skimped over quite a lot of Swamp Thing film because it is an average watch and not particularly memorable in itself. What actually makes it a more of an interesting watch though is the simple fact that this is a Wes Craven movie. Swamp Thing does not look like any of his others. The cinematography is brightly lit. The design work features pastel tones mixing with more vibrant, primary colours. Outdoor locations are used more than I can recall in his other movies. Even the pace of the film is even more rollicking, seeming more like a family adventure movie than the majority of his work, which naturally is in horror and requires a different speed to it.
As such as a curiosity for Craven fans, Swamp Thing is well worth seeing. But fans of the actual Swamp Thing comic will most likely want something a bit truer to the comic book of recent decades which is more focused on existentialism, ecology, and psychological horrors. Similarly, casual fans of Wes Craven’s more renowned genre movies, such as Scream, A Nightmare On Elm Street and The Last House On the Left may be a little disappointed at the more lightweight, irreverent feel of Swamp Thing.
To Swamp Thing’s credit, the film does at least vaguely stick to the source material as opposed to the Man-Thing movie, even if neither are very strong in their own right. Yet out of the two Out of the two, Swamp Thing is definitely a lot more fun to watch. This is mainly down to the strong cast and breezy direction. Oddly enough, if comparing the two movie adaptations of their similar-looking comic counterparts, it is probably the mysterious man at the back who comes out best. To return to the start of this blog, it is the man who first appeared in the Swamp Thing comic, John Constantine, that has the best film adaptation out there via Constantine.
Perversely though, also Constantine ditched almost everything recognisable from the original comic.
Hmm, Food for thought. Or perhaps just ‘food for things’ in this case.
Next time I’ll be writing up a little festive trilogy for Christmas. Three whole films in one new blog! Wow, what a present! I suppose a friend of mine was once correct when he stated “Santa comes but once a year, but when he does he fills a stocking”.
Thanks for reading.