Saturday, November 30, 2013

Schlockbusted #6: "Swamp Thing - The Movie" Review

A while back I took a shot at my first ever Let’s Play of a terrible NES game from my childhood based on the short-lived Swamp Thing cartoon. It didn’t go well, but it did inspire me to take a second look at the Swamp Thing movies that inspired the live action series that in turn inspired the cartoon which in turn in turn inspired the game. Okay, fuck it, I needed an excuse to talk about the Swamp Thing movies, and this was it. So sue me. And yes, I’m aware that I already have a section of this blog dedicated to retrospectives of obscure horror and sci-fi franchises, but my general rule for that is three or more films, and since I’m already three chapters into a five part Chucky review, this seemed like the better place for it. I was tempted to start a whole new section specifically for shitty comic book and videogame adaptations (even had a clever name for it – BADaptations), but as you can see by the Labels section to your right, this blog is already too cluttered with planned sections that have since become defunct or died on the vine. So here we go.

First off, I have to immediately question why a character like Swamp Thing, out of all the other possible DC properties, attained the kind of popularity that he did back in the day. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Alan Moore run on the book and consider it required reading for any comic book fan, but that incarnation of Swamp Thing isn’t the one you see in these adaptations. The Swamp Thing most people know is Alec Holland, tragic botanist, transformed into a benevolent monster after a Dark Man style lab accident (Moore would retcon this origin to reveal that he was always a preternatural swamp god that merely assumed Holland’s memories). The first movie went into production right before Moore took over the book, but the larger Swamp Thing phenomenon happened afterwards, and despite the increased interest in Moore’s interpretation of the character once it debuted, outside of the comics he always retains his original origin and personality. I can only assume the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had something to do with it, as Swamp Thing is probably the closest thing DC and Warner Brothers had to compete, substituting the sewers for the swamp and four little green freaks for one big one, and Moore’s concepts were a little too out there for a younger demographic.

Not to mention, the Wes Craven film that started it all is one of the worst movies ever to be adapted from a comic book, up to and including Ghost Rider 2 and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. This was made during Craven’s transitional period between his early more gritty independent horror movies like The Hills Have Eyes and his later post-A Nightmare on Elm Street success. Apparently he was attracted to the project as a way to prove to the major Hollywood studios that he was capable of handling more mainstream productions with complicated special effects and stunt work, but the idea that anyone saw this and thought he should be let anywhere near a director’s chair is astonishing. It’s just so boring and monotonous, with no evident passion for any of the elements that should make this character or this story work. Even if you divorce it entirely from its comic book roots and treat it purely as a kitschy rubber suited monster movie, it doesn’t even work as schlock.

I want to be more forgiving, mostly because I still have a genuine love for the vast majority of film’s Craven has been affiliated with, but there’s no way to blame this on early career inexperience or the limitations of budget or technology. This is bad because the people behind it had no interest in making it good. The title character is barely in the movie, and when he is, he’s basically a lumbering mute beast who jumps out of the swamp to punch some random nameless goon, and then dive back in just as quickly. They go out of their way to cast the incredibly underrated Ray Wise as Alec Holland, an actor particularly adept at infusing even the most despicable or monstrous characters with surprising sympathy, and then they don’t bother to put him in the Swamp Thing suit where his talents might actually be of use. Dick Durock, the stunt man who actually plays Swamp Thing, would later prove himself to be a more than competent leading man when he took over the role full time in the sequel and TV series, but here he’s treated as too many stunt men are when expected to act, relegated to monosyllabic grunts and as little direct dialogue as possible. At best, the entire hour and a half running time is a flimsy excuse for a completely arbitrary three minute Adrienne Barbeau nude scene that depending on the cut you’re watching might not even be present.

And I haven’t even gotten to the worst part. Up until now, I’ve been refraining from casting judgment on this movie using the same standard as I do most comic book movies, where the most important criteria is fealty to the source material. Not only is that hard to do in the case of a character that was undergoing a major change during the production of the movie, but I generally tend to give a pass to movies on this score prior to the modern era (pre-2000, or pre-Bryan Singer’s X Men, which ever you prefer). Before this cut off point, geek culture hadn’t become as mainstream as it is today, and just the fact that someone in the movie industry saw potential in this medium at all is enough. Whereas now I feel they have no excuse, I can forgive the early pioneers for not understanding the material and not doing it justice when there were virtually no examples of quality comic book movies to draw from for comparison. Unfortunately, Swamp Thing breezes right past my capacity for forgiveness when it completely forgets its own premise two acts in.

Whatever version or origin story you’re working from, it all begins with a guy getting covered in some sci-fi ooze and leaping into the swamp outside of his lab, only to climb back out of the muck as a giant monstrous plant man. The formula Alec Holland creates that facilitates this change is noted in  the film as encouraging the creation of recombinant DNA, merging DNA strands from different forms of life in order to create a plant with the survival instincts of an animal. That is, until Swamp Thing is captured by his arch nemesis Arcane and is forced to reveal the true secret of the formula, which has nothing to do with this, or anything even pseudo-scientific.  Evidently, the process of a human transforming into a genetic freak of nature has nothing to do with genetics at all, but is instead a more philosophical exercise of unleashing your inner you. We find this out when a cowardly moron is transformed into a diminutive monkey-like creature to reflect his true nature, which leads to the inevitable conclusion that Alec Holland didn’t turn into Swamp Thing because his DNA merged with plant life in the swamp, but because as a botanist, he just really, really liked plants. Not only does this make no sense even by crazy comic book logic, but it isn’t even consistent, because to set up the boring climactic fight scene, the super intelligent scheming villain takes the same formula and turns into a giant hedgehog. Because fuck it.

Because fuck it might as well be the subtitle of this movie now that I think about it. Originally I'd intended to make this a double feature review where I talk about how much better the low budget sequel Return of Swamp Thing is despite the general consensus heralding this one as the good Swamp Thing movie, but I had to spend too much time explaining exactly why and how it sucks, so I think I'm going to have to split this up into two parts. Stay tuned next time for my thoughts on the next and last installment in the Swamp Thing film franchise, which ups the camp value and doubles the awesome literally in the first five freaking minutes.

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