Sunday, December 1, 2013

Schlockbusted #7: "Return Of Swamp Thing" Review

This is more like it. After what has to be the most disappointing comic book adaptation of the pre-Marvel Cinematic era, the second and last entry in the Swamp Thing film series embraces the silliness of its premise of monster on monster action and at the same time manages to stay truer to the canon of the original source material that makes Swamp Thing such a great character in the first place. The original Swamp Thing was produced just before Alan Moore took charge of the character in print, rendering it incapable of capturing the insane awesomeness readers would eventually come to know as the plant god who once thought it was Alec Holland. Return of Swamp Thing was made much later, but still finds itself hamstrung by the previous film and unable to fully do the comic justice. Even so, it shows itself to be the far superior film in the first five minutes alone.

Said five minutes feature Swamp Thing bursting out of the swamp with the fan fare of Captain America in order to unceremoniously beat the crap out of a giant humanoid leech monster. The first movie made us wait until the very end to get any sort of creature to rival Swamp Thing, but this one throws it all out on front street and soon introduces an entire laboratory filled with similarly bizarre experimental monsters, all under the watchful eye of the series' villain Dr. Arcane, now inexplicably returned to human form after his death in the last film is all but ignored.  Arcane in the first movie was taken way too seriously, but here with the same actor but a much lighter and sci-fi influenced tone, he instantly morphs into the Swamp Thing equivalent of Raul Julia in Street Fighter, that brilliantly over the top presence that elevates already absurd material to even more absurd new heights.

Stuntman Dick Durock returns to play the Swamp Thing, and would later go on to play him for three more seasons in the USA television series, and this time around the director actually gives him a chance to act, with surprisingly satisfying results. Since we didn't get much of Ray Wise in the last one anyway, having a monstrous protagonist who can actually express himself and articulate the tragedy of his circumstances even amid broad comedic action is such an improvement, and when his love interest from the comics Abigail Arcane is introduced, he even gets the chance to shine as a charismatic leading man while under all that prosthetic sludge. And if you haven't seen the movie or haven't seen it in a while, watch and be amazed at how much screen presence and comic timing Heather Locklear had in her heyday, pre-Melrose Place.

The movie even throws in a nod to the Alan Moore run in a way that almost no hardcore fan of the comics would ever think possible, by reenacting perhaps one of the more controversial elements of the character's relationship with Abigail. One of the better arcs in Saga of the Swamp Thing follows the plant god taking over Gotham City after his girlfriend is arrested and detained there for making love to a non-human creature in violation of moral statutes. The film obviously doesn't take it this far, but it does depict the act that led to that classic crossover, psychedelic tuber and all, and while naturally technology and presumably the ratings board at the time stopped them from sending the audience on the kind of magic mushroom ride that this scene should have been, its still the most either movie comes to even paying lip service to the comic incarnation.

Its goofy, certainly, but just goofy enough without descending into outright parody as the first one did largely unintentionally. One moment in particular always sticks with me, when Swamp Thing invades Arcane's compound through the pipes, dematerializing and then reforming in a bathtub filled with his own muck. The first movie displayed no such mastery of his form and consigned the character to a lumbering mute rampaging beast with a silent heart of gold, which was almost certainly Wes Craven's only frame of reference as he turned a superhero into a 50's sci fi rubber monster movie throwback. The mystery and majesty and creepiness of Swamp Thing is shown all at once in this one effect, and is only one of many scenes that taken by itself is better than the entire movie that preceded it. Even when its almost gut wrenchingly bad, as in the presence of two overly excited kids or two hillbilly siblings, its just so stupidly fun that I can't be mad at it.

Return of Swamp Thing is far from everything I would want a Swamp Thing movie to be, but then short of Guillermo Del Toro being given the reins to a faithful adaptation of a character likely without the kind of audience to justify the budget that would be needed to bring him to life, this is probably the best we're ever going to get. Ordinarily that alone isn't enough to sway me, but for all its flaws, its the kind of slap dash, practical effects driven 80's kitche that I can't bring myself to condemn. Laugh and cheer along with it, and just try to forget that the first one ever happened. I'm still debating whether or not to continue on to the series right away, as only the first season is available on Hulu and I don't have access to the complete show, but I do plan on re-watching everything I can of this franchise eventually, and hopefully my nostalgia isn't screwing with my memory, which tells me that it only gets better from here. Stay tuned.
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