The Return of Swamp Thing is cheaper, lamer, less epic.
Yet somehow has a better costume!
Yesterday I watched Swamp Thing, directed by Wes Craven. It’s a cheap-looking monster movie made at a time when comic book movies were, almost by definition, cheap looking. And while I had a small chat about the history of comic books, comic book movies, and their relative quality, I didn’t actually talk about Swamp Thing the comic series.
Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing in the early 80s was one of the first times when American comic books were treated seriously. Grant Morrison’s Animal Man followed a few years after, but the biggest leap was Watchmen. Those three titles, while perhaps not the first, were the first to popularly deconstruct the idea of superheroes. In fact they were so unique — and of such high quality — that DC decided to create a completely new brand, Vertigo, to contain them.
So if you’ve got the rights to a seminal title that changed the face of its entire medium, that shaped popular storytelling for decades to come and helped elevate its medium to the level of art… you should make a cheap, cheesy wannabe comedy movie packed full of bad acting and terrible one-liners.
1989’s The Return of the Swamp Thing is directed by Jim Wynorski. It begins, admittedly, with a really cool opening sequence. It’s a long montage of imagery pulled directly from the comics, set to Born on the Bayou by CCR. It’s actually good enough to put in a modern comic movie.
Abigail Arcane (Heather Locklear! In her second-ever cinematic role. Remember this was a time when TV actors did not cross over to cinema) is a plant shop owner and stepdaughter of Dr Arcane (Louis Jourdan), the returning villain of the first movie. Abigail is a plant shop owner in California, but she travels to Louisiana to stay with her Stepfather when her mother dies. She’s bizarrely confrontational, even before learning that her stepfather is a maniac scientist bend on discovering the secret of eternal life at whatever the cost.
Dr. Arcane has been busy since the first movie. Along with assistant/lover Dr Lana Zurrell (Sarah Douglas), he’s been creating genetically engineered mutants in his quest for the biological fountain of youth. He discovers that Abigail’s DNA is the key to his research, and needs to kill her to complete his work. But before he can, Swamp Thing appears out of the bog, and saves Abigail!
Swampie and Abigail very quickly fall in love, and have to beat Arcane before he kills them both.
Oh, and there are two really annoying kids. Like, really annoying.
While it’s less articulate and the face isn’t as defined, I kind of prefer this costume to the original. It feels more like a plant-based creature from the swamp. there are more roots and dangly bits hanging off, and it feels wetter overall. This is exactly what I was talking about with the first Swamp Thing —a little bit of muck goes a long way.
Some of the other mutants created by Arcane are pretty cool, too. There’s something a little Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles about it, and the inventive creatures are the most fun parts of the movie.
Unfortunately, eeeeeverything else is done worse. Swamp Thing almost never gets a good entrance, heroic or otherwise. He always just kind of sidles into frame when the action starts. Apart from one rather cool sequence where he sneaks into Arcane’s mansion as algae pouring out of a bathtub tap.
The one-liners are atrocious, and Locklear doesn’t seem particularly excited to deliver them. Dick Durock is fine as Swamp Thing, although it’s funny that he just has a normal sounding voice. They do nothing to make it sound more epic, or less human, or anything.
The two kids are awful, but the redhead kid above must be in the bottom 100 characters to ever appear in a movie. There’s even something about his voice. It sounds ADRed, but it also sounds like it was recorded in the 1930s. Like he’s a kid from Our Gang. He’s shrill, irritating, and in the movie a lot.
There’s also a fair amount of attempted rape in the movie, which completely contradicts the lighter, goofy tone they’re going for.
Overall, The Return of the Swamp Thing feels like a movie that the director intended to make badly, thinking that would excuse it. It’s fine to make a fun throwback film, but that doesn’t mean that you actually write a bad plot and dialogue. That just makes it a bad movie.