4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

Slogging Through the Muck — Swamp Thing and The Return of Swamp Thing

This edition of “4-Color to 35-Millimeter” is dedicated to the memory of Len Wein, the co-creator of Swamp Thing (along with dozens of other comics characters, including Wolverine), who passed away earlier this month. We miss you, buddy.

The 1970s were a boom time for mainstream comics to try out other genres with their superheroes, bringing in other pop-culture tropes into their four-color world. In particular, there was a horror renaissance in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with DC having success with characters like the Spectre, Dr. Fate, and Deadman while Marvel would give us the Son of Satan, Ghost Rider, and the seminal Tomb of Dracula comic.

In this atmosphere, Swamp Thing was created.

Gerry Conway and Len Wein were roommates at the time, both writing comics for both Marvel and DC. Stan Lee and Roy Thomas co-created Man-Thing for Marvel and gave it to Conway to script, and not long after, Wein co-created Swamp Thing for DC. The latter debuted in a 1971 issue of House of Secrets as an early 20th-century scientist is caught in an explosion and becomes Swamp Thing. The standalone story was sufficiently popular that Wein and artist/co-creator Bernie Wrightson were asked to do an ongoing comic with the character, who was updated to modern times, and which debuted the following year.

As created by Wein and Wrightson, the comic did well, and won several awards. However, as time went on and both moved on to other projects, interest in the title waned, and it was cancelled in 1976.

However, Wes Craven got his hands on the film rights, and wrote and directed a film in 1982. In order to capitalize on this big name attached to one of their characters, DC revived the character with a monthly title The Saga of the Swamp Thing. Wein served as the editor of the title, which was written by Martin Pasko. When Pasko left the title after 19 issues, Wein also left editorial reins, his last act being to bring in an obscure British writer named Alan Moore. New editor Karen Berger gave Moore free rein to revamp the character, which he did. It’s the comic book that truly put Moore on the radar of American comics readers, and led to further work, most of which you’ve probably heard of…

Swamp Thing would later be folded into the Vertigo imprint run by Berger, which published some of the finest horror comics of the last three decades (most notably Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Hellblazer starring former Swamp Thing supporting character John Constantine).

And we owe it all to Craven doing that first movie…

 

“There goes the neighborhood…”

Swamp Thing
Written and directed by Wes Craven
Produced by Michael Uslan and Benjamin Melniker
Original release date: February 19, 1982

Alice Cable arrives in the Louisiana swamps via helicopter for her new assignment: working with Dr. Alec Holland and his sister Dr. Linda Holland on a top-secret government project to create genetic hybrids of plants and animals in the hopes of being able to grow crops basically anywhere. It’s not clear what Cable’s specialty is, but given that she recognizes the equipment and is assigned to fix a sensor that’s gone down, she’s probably an engineer. It’s also not explained why she’s wearing a suit and heels and her escort is also in a suit, given that they’re in, y’know, a swamp. Apparently, the project has been going through personnel at a great rate, and Ritter, the chief of security, is particularly concerned about a rival scientist named Arcane.

Their most recent breakthrough is a formula that’s literally explosive, but which may have the transformative capabilities they were hoping for. Linda throws some onto the wooden floor and it explodes, but later that same wet spot starts to sprout plants. Alec, who has been giving Cable a tour of the compound, is so elated, he kisses Cable, much to her surprise. (Basically, everyone in the place except for Linda treats her with unconcealed disdain or waggling of eyebrows. Yay sexism.)

The Hollands have been recording their work in a series of notebooks, and this new formula goes into the seventh and most recent one. Shortly thereafter, a group of mercenaries attack the compound, killing several of the personnel, including Linda. Alec is doused in the formula which explodes and he catches fire and falls into the swamp. Cable manages to get away and hide the seventh notebook.

Ritter is revealed to actually be Arcane in a latex mask. He takes the six notebooks, assuming them to be all of them, and it isn’t until he gets back to his lavish mansion that he realizes that the last entry in the sixth notebook is two weeks old. His two prime henchmen, Ferret and Bruno, are torching the compound and disposing of the bodies. A large plantlike creature emerges from the swamp and starts tossing Ferret’s soldiers around like rag dolls. The attack by this swamp thing (ahem) enables Cable to get away to a nearby gas station, managed by a kid named Jude. She calls in to Washington, and they put her through to her direct superior on the scene: Ritter. Cable didn’t see that Ritter was a fake, and she reports to who she thinks is Ritter. Arcane sends his thugs to pick her up. She and Jude manage to get away, though the gas station is badly shot up.

Jude takes her to a cabin that has a change of clothes and then the pair of them go to retrieve the seventh notebook. Along the way, Swamp Thing saves her from Ferret and his people. Cable gives the notebook to Jude to keep safe, but then Ferret’s people attack him and kill him. Swamp Thing uses his healing touch to bring the kid back to life, and Jude entrusts the notebook with him.

Eventually, Cable realizes that Swamp Thing is actually Alec. At one point, she bathes while Swamp Thing watches with an expression that’s probably supposed to be longing, but mostly comes across as creepy.

Realizing the same thing that Superman’s foes realized ages ago—if you want Superman to appear, kidnap Lois Lane—Arcane has Ferret kidnap Cable. However, Cable manages to get away on her own, by kneeing Ferret in the nuts when he tries to kiss her and swimming away. When Ferret catches up to her, Swamp Thing appears; Ferret cuts off his left arm and then Swamp Thing crushes his head. The sight of that makes Cable faint—this same woman who has held her own throughout the movie and comported herself with more skill and gumption than all the other characters combined, but she faints now. Sure.

Bruno manages to capture both Swamp Thing and Cable with a net and also retrieve the seventh notebook. Arcane celebrates by having a combination dinner party/bachelor party/orgy in his mansion, complete with Cable tied to a chair at one of the dinner tables (Swamp Thing is chained up in a dungeon). Arcane toasts Bruno for his superlative work, then uses him as a guinea pig for the formula in front of everyone. Bruno turns into a tiny plant creature with none of Swamp Thing’s strength (and also scares the living shit out of all the dinner guests as he screams and mutates in front of them).

Arcane brings Cable and Bruno to the dungeon, chaining the former up. Swamp Thing explains that the formula only expands what’s actually there. Bruno isn’t a strong person, so his new self isn’t strong. Arcane decides he’s going to take the formula himself.

Once light starts to come into the dungeon’s tiny window, Swamp Thing is able to use photosynthesis to regrow his left arm and break out of his chains. He frees Cable and Bruno shows them a way out (it’s a doodad that is used in case a guard accidentally gets locked in a cell; Bruno’s too short to reach it in his new mutated state, and the others couldn’t do it until they were unchained).

Arcane has taken the formula and transformed into a weird kind of porcine beast. Grabbing a sword, he chases Swamp Thing and Cable to the swamps and they have a big-ass fight. Arcane stabs Cable dead, but Swamp Thing heals her and then seems to kill Arcane. Then he goes off into the sunset, leaving Cable behind.

 

“You never feel safe about anything—will you just go?”

The Return of Swamp Thing
Written by Neil Cuthbert and Grant Morris
Directed by Jim Wynorski
Produced by Michael Uslan and Benjamin Melniker
Original release date: May 12, 1989

Five ATF agents are going through the Louisiana swamp to go after some moonshiners, and then they’re attacked by some kind of monster. Two of them are killed, and two more are shot by a woman in a jeep. One agent survives, saved by Swamp Thing.

While Arcane was left for dead in the previous movie, two scientists found his mutated body and nursed him back to health: an asthmatic named Rochelle and a woman named Lana Zurell. Arcane and Zurell are also sleeping together. Arcane has a team of mercenaries led by Gunn, and also including the woman who shot the ATF agents, Poinsetta.

Arcane’s stepdaughter, Abby, leaves her plant shop in Malibu, having realized after four therapists have told her that she has unresolved issues with her stepfather and the death of her mother. She travels to Arcane’s mansion, where she’s welcomed with open, if sinister, arms. Their experiments have resulted in awful mutations like the creature that killed the ATF agents. But Abby’s mother had the right blood type to make the serum work, and maybe Abby will, too. All of this is designed to prolong Arcane’s life, of course.

Two annoying boys get together while their parents are out to look at porn magazines when the monster who killed the ATF agents shows up. They’re saved by Swamp Thing, but only after considerable destruction.

Arcane and Zurell give Abby a ring of her mother’s that “accidentally” cuts her finger, thus giving them a blood sample to test. Abby is weirded out by her stepfather and goes for a walk. She’s almost raped by a couple of redneck moonshiners (possibly the guys the ATF agents were after?) before Swamp Thing saves her. He explains who and what he is, as we flash back to the previous movie.

However, Arcane’s mercenaries blow Swamp Thing up with grenades and take Abby back to the mansion. Some mercenaries stay behind to try to find a sample of Swamp Thing’s body, as they need it for the serum that will keep Arcane young.

Bits of Swamp Thing’s body flow through the water into the pipes that feed Arcane’s mansion.

Rochelle reveals that the only way to make everything work is to combine DNA from a compatible donor with Abby’s—and the only two people with the right blood type are a security guard and Zurell. Zurell overhears Arcane telling Rochelle to “do what he has to,” thus showing that she’s expendable. She draws a bath, but then decides to betray Arcane. After she leaves, Swamp Thing starts to flow through the faucet and reform himself in the tub.

Abby is held in a cell by Gunn. Abby manages to trick him to freeing her and then knees her in the nuts (the common fate of Arcane’s security chiefs at the hands of Swamp Thing’s girlfriends). Zurell gives her the keys to one of the cars even as Swamp Thing tears through the mansion, tossing mercenaries around. They escape in a jeep, Abby shooting some of the mercenaries as Swamp Thing drives.

They wind up in a glade, and each bites off a bit of Swamp Thing’s body that turns out to be a hallucinogen, thus allowing them to have drug-induced hot monkey sex. (Hot plant sex? Whatever.)

Meanwhile, the two annoying kids are trying to find Swamp Thing to get a picture that they can sell to the tabloids. Instead, Gunn and his people find them, but Swamp Thing saves them. However, before they can get the picture, Abby is kidnapped by Arcane and Poinsetta. She’s brought to the basement lab where Arcane will use the security guard and her to rejuvenate himself.

Zurell has injected Rochelle with the formula and locked him in a closet in order to keep him from using her in the experiment. The procedure seems to be a success, with Abby dying in the process, but there are odd mutations on Arcane’s hand. He realizes that Zurell has betrayed him and shoots her.

Swamp Thing breaks into the mansion, taking out all the mercenaries one by one (at one point, dropping a grenade down Gunn’s shorts). When he arrives in the basement, the now-mutated Rochelle breaks out of his closet and attacks Swamp Thing—the door landing on Arcane, crushing his legs. Tossing Rochelle into the elimination triggers the basement lab’s self-destruct, er, somehow, and Swamp Thing grabs Abby’s corpse and departs, leaving Arcane, not to mention the bodies of Zurell, Gunn, and Rochelle and a couple of the monsters in cells all behind.

The mansion goes boom. Swamp Thing uses his healing powers to bring Abby back to life and they live happily ever after. Or something.

 

“I’m a plant.” “That’s okay, I’m a vegetarian.”

Most of what you need to know about these two movies is established by the director credit. Wes Craven is one of the great horror film directors, and most of Jim Wynorski’s credits are soft-core porn comedies. Also Wynorski got his start as a protégé of Roger Corman.

Not that there’s anything wrong with soft-core porn comedies in the right context, but The Return of Swamp Thing is just a slog. Every bad 80s movie cliché is present and accounted for: bad guy with foreign accent, cheesy dialogue, dumb guys in mullets, attractive women with big hair and tons o’ cleavage, a not-really-as-cute-as-the-filmmakers-think animal that comments on the action (in this case a parrot named Gigi), two nowhere-near-as-cute-as-the-filmmakers-think children, a high body count, and tons of explosions.

Swamp Thing is much more fun to watch, mainly because for most of the movie, it isn’t really about Alec Holland or Swamp Thing, it’s about Adrienne Barbeau’s Alice Cable, who is awesome. She holds her own and more with the dumbass men around her (who either drool over her or dismiss her), she manages to stay ahead of Arcane for much of the film, and she frees herself from Arcane’s clutches without help.

Which is why it’s so annoying that she is suddenly and unconvincingly turned into the damsel in distress once Swamp Thing kills Ferret and she faints. First of all, the fainting is just ridiculous. She’s seen much scarier stuff just in this movie, including a crapton of dead bodies in the compound after Arcane attacked it. But once she faints, she stops having any agency or action, being captured in a net, tied to a chair, chained to a wall, and stabbed while standing around like an idiot while Arcane and Swamp Thing fight.

Of course, this is preferable to Heather Locklear’s awful Abby. Locklear does the best she can—I don’t think she actually deserved the Razzie she got for her performance—but the character is just awful, and particularly pales in comparison to Cable. In a movie that has truly wretched performances by Joe Sagal (Gunn), Monique Gabrielle (Poinsetta), Daniel Taylor (one of the annoying kids), and especially the top-billed Louis Jourdan, who has much more screen time in the second movie as Arcane, which does not do the movie any favors, to single out Locklear just seems absurd. Sarah Douglas is delightfully evil as Zurell, but her heel-turn doesn’t really play to her strengths, and someone really needed to explain to Ace Mask, who played Rochelle, that asthmatics don’t just use the inhaler randomly.

The one way in which The Return of Swamp Thing is superior is Dick Durock—both his makeup and his performance. He looks like a plant creature in the second movie, as opposed to a guy in a rubber suit, and his performance is relaxed and pleasant (something that would continue in the Swamp Thing TV series starring Durock that spun off these movies).

Of course, none of the live-action versions of Swamp Thing can hold a candle to how the character was rendered in the comics by the likes of Bernie Wrightson, Steve Bissette, John Totleben, Rick Veitch, and Nestor Redondo, which is half the problem. These movies are treated, not as the entertaining horror stories of the comics, but rather as monster movies. Mind you, Swamp Thing is actually a good monster movie, but these two stories are ultimately a shadow of the source material.

Which is too bad. When Alan Moore took over the book, he completely redid the character’s backstory, making this the latest in a series of Swamp Things, part of the Parliament of Trees that care for the Earth’s ecosystem. The series that established that was created specifically to cash in on the first movie, and it’s only too bad that the second movie and TV show ignored it, sticking with the much more standard backstory the character originally had before Moore’s retcon. A movie spun out of the classic The Saga of the Swamp Thing #21 (“The Anatomy Lesson”) could be amazing. Oh, well.

The same year as The Return of Swamp Thing, another, better known DC character had his second foray into feature film territory. Next week, we’ll take a look at the two Michael Keaton Batman films.

Keith R.A. DeCandido is what he is and that’s all that he is.

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