Swamp Thing: "Your boyfriend?"
Wes Craven's 1982 adaptation to the acclaimed supernatural DC Comics series Swamp Thing was met with mixed reaction. While Craven faithful found this a comically engaging romp in the swamp, the film betrayed the tragic hero intensity of its 1970s Len Wein/Berni Wrightson origins. However, the film led to surprising success as Craven went on to create A Nightmare on Elm Street, while the comic book was brought out of moth balls and enjoyed its greatest run under the guidance of now legendary writer Alan Moore and artist Steve Bissette. Of course, with success often comes opportunity. Enter Lightyear Entertainment and B-movie director Jim Wynorski. Seeing the comic potential in the original film, Wynorski, alongside writers Derek Spencer and Grant Morris, took the character to MST3K levels and created one of the cheesiest, tongue-in-cheek, superhero action comedies of the 1980s.
Facts of the Case
Dr. Anton Arcane (aging screen idol Louis Jordan), left for dead following a monstrous transformation and climactic battle with Swamp Thing (stuntman/actor Dick Durock), is miraculously and inexplicably revived by the genetic wizardry of his associate Dr. Lana Zurrell (Sarah Douglas—the evil Ursa from Superman II). Unfortunately, the effects of his revival are short-lived and his body has begun aging rapidly (a good plot device for a 70-year-old actor). Working feverishly alongside Dr. Rochelle (Ace Mask—reviving his same character from Not of This Earth and Ghoulies IV), Zurrell and Arcane begin experimenting on local bayou residents, to unlock the regenerative powers of swamp wildlife. Just when failure seems inevitable, the arrival of Arcane's stepdaughter Abby (Heather Locklear—fresh off television's T.J. Hooker) signals imminent success, as Abby shares the DNA of her mother who unwillingly gave her life in order to prolong Arcane's. Can Swamp Thing unravel Arcane's complicated and nefarious plan in time to save Abby and rid the swamp of evil once and for all?
During the late 1970s and early '80s, Hollywood, starved for new source material, was clamoring for any comic book property it could get their hands on. Unfortunately, most producers were blind to the fact that the genre held very little success when transformed into three dimensions. Aside from the first two Christopher Reeve Superman films and Linda Carter's Wonder Woman television series, most attempts turned out to be unintentional comedies, suffering from bargain basement production values and amateur acting performances. Do you remember Cathy Lee Crosby as a motorcycle riding Woman Woman (1974), Philip DeGuere's Dr. Strange (1978), Nicholas Hammond as The Amazing Spiderman (1978-79), or the ill-fated Legends of the Superheroes (1979)?
Craven did his best to beat the odds, taking the Swamp Thing character and creating a tragic monster film. On many levels it succeeded, especially when making its way to cable TV where pubescent boys couldn't get enough of co-star Adrienne Barbeau. Unfortunately, the film seems to lack something, perhaps taking itself a little too seriously.
Producers Benjamin Melniker and Michael Uslan (who went on to create Warner Brother's Batman franchise with director Tim Burton) changed all that with this sequel. Shot entirely on location in Savannah, Georgia, over a mere 24 days, the production crew overcame a limited budget (smaller than the original film), night shoots in the swamps (sharp-shooters on hand to kill gators), and troublesome actors (Louis Jordan). While to this day no one will claim authorship of the original script treatment, director Jim Wynorski and his team took the concept and ran, punching up the action and humor with a wink to the audience.
Here's the bottom line: This is a bad movie, but in a good way.
Plot: The story is ridiculous and we've all seen it a thousand times or more. Evil genius with strong sense of self-preservation will stop at nothing to get what he wants. Misunderstood hero does everything in his power to stop the evil genius, knowing he will never be rewarded for doing so. Throw in a damsel in distress, character betrayal, two or three fight sequences, and a climactic battle where everything blows up, and you have the plot for pretty much every B-movie since the 1950s.
Acting: Welcome to Bad Acting 101. The performances range from sub-par to over the top. Louis Jordan comes across as a drag queen on her day off. Dick Durock is reduced to nothing more than an expressive rubber puppet, as his vocals were thrown out in post-production by Lightyear studio execs and overdubbed by some unknown actor. Heather Locklear is happy to be away from network television for a change. Sarah Douglas looks lost, as if she's wondering why her career never went anywhere. From here on down, you have a mix of schlock film regulars and local actors, none of whom do anything the least bit inspiring—with two exceptions, the performances of Daniel Taylor as Darryl and RonReaco Lee as Omar. These kids are like a junior version of Abbott and Costello, providing the film's most hilarious moments.
Directing: Wynorski's Ed Wood inspired filmmaking techniques gave his actors a sense of freedom, allowing these characters to freely acknowledge they are stuck in a cheesy film while at the same time making fun of the actors' own past transgressions. Abby states her fondness for television's TJ Hooker and Arcane does a brief parody of Gigi. At no point is any of this taken seriously, and that's what makes it work.
Return of Swamp Thing is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and really looks fantastic. With minimal evidence of dirt, grain, or digital tampering the picture looks ten times better than what we saw on HBO. Dynamic colors and strong blacks (at times a little soft, especially outdoors) highlight a solid restoration effort. On the audio front, you will be surprised by the appearance of both a 5.1 DTS and a 5.1 Dolby Surround track. Granted, this is still an '80s film and doesn't utilize the full surround experience, but it's a hell of a lot more entertaining than a straight 2.0 track.
In terms of bonus features, there is a surprising amount to choose from. Director Jim Wynorski's feature commentary is engaging, relating a variety of behind-the-scenes stories of the film and his career in the B-movie industry. It does run dry at points and he has a tendency to repeat himself toward the end, but it's well worth listening to—especially if you've seen the film several times before. But wait, there's more! The original theatrical trailer, an extended promotional reel (for theatre owners), six television spots, two public service announcements on the environment starring Swampy and the pint size duo of Omar and Darryl, and a photo gallery round out the extras. To complete the package, Image has created some fantastic animated menus, leveraging the film's comic book opening title sequence.
At $19.99, unless you are a true Swamp Thing collector, you probably won't want to add this title to your collection. However, this is definitely worth renting. Pick up the original MGM film and you've got one heck of a schlock double feature to enjoy.
Return of Swamp Thing and Image are both free to go. While some may argue the parties involved have done no good, neither has it been proven they have harmed anyone in their effort to entertain. Swamp beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
• Feature Commentary by Director Jim Wynorski
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