Swamp Thing 3.3: It Wasn’t Wes’ Fault

“So what were your feelings about the film, once it was finished?” the friendly voice on the DVD asks director Wes Craven. “Did you have any, you know… expectations?”

“No,” Wes sighs. “And, you know, I didn’t work for two years after that. I felt like I’d had my chance and kind of blown it, and would probably never work again.”

Now, this is my third time approaching a movie like this, and what I’ve learned so far is that the DVD commentary helps me to define what the genre of this story is going to be. When I was talking about the making of Superman and Superman II, the story was a true crime podcast. For Swamp Thing, it’s a comedy of errors.

Wes Craven, as I’m sure you’re aware, is an actual famous person who’s known as one of the masters of American horror films, but not for this one. He started out with The Last House on the Left in 1972, a violent and strange exploitation horror film about how much you can kill somebody before they die.

Five years later, in 1977, he wrote and directed The Hills Have Eyes, about a suburban family who get stalked and eaten by a gang of savage cannibals. It was a surprise hit, earning $25 million off a $500,000 budget, and it got Wes invited to direct this crazy rubber monster film called Swamp Thing.

After this, once the shame wears off, he’s going to go and make A Nightmare on Elm Street, which will make him justifiably famous, and then he’ll make The People Under the Stairs and four Scream movies and a bunch of other stuff. He’s not super proud of this one.

“We had a very tough completion bond company on this film,” Wes explains. “They were not friendly, and they were not helpful. They just played the tough guys all the time.”

If you’re not aware, and I wasn’t before I listened to this commentary, a completion bond is a kind of insurance for distributors of an independently-financed film, which guarantees that the producer will deliver a completed film within the allotted budget.

“That was probably the most difficult part of the shoot,” Wes continues, “constantly having them looking over our shoulders — towards the end of the film especially, just demanding that we cut scenes so that we could stay on the schedule. The third act especially was just cut, savagely. Having two inexperienced producers that signed the papers that they would bring it in on budget, they were no help. We were all, kind of, okay, I guess that’s what we have to do or else you’re fired, sort of thing.”

The budget was $2.5 million, which would have bought you about six and a half minutes of Superman. And the thing that you don’t do, when you have a super tight budget, is go and film the entire movie on location in an environment that really does not want to be filmed in.

“The swamps were very difficult to shoot in,” says Wes. “We were in South Carolina, and it was during a ferociously hot summer, with very high humidity, and there was a black caterpillar plague. So they were in the trees in big clumps, and would drop down onto your head, or down the back of your neck and sting you. There were alligators everywhere; people in South Carolina just sort of treat them like New Yorkers would treat pigeons. And there were a lot of snakes.”

The funny thing is that in the original comic books, the character doesn’t actually spend that much time in the swamp. He starts out there, sure, but at the beginning of issue #2, Swamp Thing is kidnapped by a wizard and brought to a quaint old castle in the Balkans. He spends a couple issues there, and then he goes to Scotland, and then he ends up in Maine, and Vermont, and Gotham City. He’s all over the place. But these people had to go and film in the swamp.

And besides all the unfriendly fauna, whenever they wanted to set up a shot where a boat drifts across the screen, the art department had to go out and saw off all the little knobbly bits of cypress trees that poked up everywhere, like a thousand wooden middle fingers. I don’t know if art departments like doing that sort of thing, but it sounds like a pain in the ass to me. The swamp really could not be more clear about whether you should be making a movie in it.

“The most difficult thing about it proved to be the costume itself,” Wes says, to no one’s surprise. “I was not terribly experienced with that kind of special effects makeup. Because of the heat, and because the costume covered every square inch of the body of the actor, you had to be very, very careful of heat exhaustion. There would be times when Dick Durock would just suddenly sit down in the swamp, and kind of fall over, you know? And the guys would have to run out and rip that mask off their face, which was, like, three hours to put on, and just revive them. So it was very tricky.”

There’s a whole story that we’ll get into later about why the costume was not especially effective. It involves budget cuts and deadlines and making the mold for the wrong stuntman, and maybe the makeup effects designer not being as good at making rubber monster costumes as you might hope.

And then there was the water.

“Because of very limited budget,” Wes explains, “we had enough to make maybe two suits — and what we found out is, as soon as the suit was in the water, the tannic acid in the water would start to eat away the suit. So we were dismayed to watch the suit start crumbling apart almost as soon as we started using them, and they were being held together with lots of baling wire and gaffer’s tape. It was constantly falling off.”

You see, when the designer did the costume test, they did it in a lake in Los Angeles, with a normal pH balance. In the South Carolina swamps, the cypress trees release large quantities of tannic acid, which is what makes the swamp water so murky… and it immediately started to break down the glue that held the costume together.

“I mean, look at the suit,” Wes chuckles, during a scene that was shot after principal photography was over. “It’s literally falling off of him, at this point.”

Now, one thing that really was Wes’ fault was that they tried to film all of the scenes with both Ray Wise (who plays Alec Holland, in the early part of the film) and Dick Durock (who plays the monster). The idea was that Durock, the huge stuntman, would film all of the long shots and action scenes, and for close-ups, Wise would have a partial suit, and do all of the dialogue.

This was a bad idea that they kept doing all the way through the shoot, even after it was obvious that it just wasn’t working.

“Having never done a film where somebody plays a human and then turns into this huge hulking monster, I tried all the way through the film to keep Ray in the costume for the key dialogue scenes. But it proved to be impossible, because they looked physically so different. So Ray did the entire film in costume for all the places where Swamp Thing was walking around, and none of that was used, because he just looked so incredibly different from the giant stuntman that played him. We used his voice, of course, but he was disappointed. I was disappointed.”

Now, for pure entertainment value, the key moment in the commentary is when Wes is asked about the Arcane monster suit.

“Let’s talk a little bit about the design of what [Arcane’s] going to turn into,” the host says. “Was that originally supposed to be something else, or was it close to what you envisioned? What was your reaction, when you saw that?”

And then Wes just gives a huge sigh, and tries to think of something to say.

“I think that’s enough,” the host shrugs. “You said it.”

“Yeah, the sigh says it all,” Wes says. “It was, like, okay, that’s what we have to shoot? All right…”

“I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings on this, because everyone was working very hard, but given the budgets that we didn’t give to them, basically, they had very little to work with. It was kind of a chaotic thing from the beginning, I think. There probably should have been five times more money for this costume, and more time to develop and test, and everything else, and there just wasn’t.”

“There wasn’t even much input on my part,” Wes admits. “They were dealing with the Swamp Thing costume all the time before we started shooting, and then the Arcane monster, that was being done back in LA while we were shooting, so… it kind of showed up, and that’s what we had. You know?”

“So you didn’t really see the costume?”

“We saw drawings of it, but… y’know, it just didn’t… I mean, I’m not saying it didn’t look like the drawings, but it, just… I don’t know. We were kind of struggling to figure out what Arcane would look like, if he turned into a monster.”

“So that wasn’t taken from the comic, then?”

“No. Can’t blame those guys.”

Wes shakes his head. “It was one of those films that just had so many problems,” he says. “I thought especially the special effects just got cheated by lack of money. It’s sort of painful to look at, in some ways.”

So that’s the movie that we’re all going to be looking at for the next couple months, and if we find it painful, then at least we know that Wes is on our side. That’s got to count for something, right?

Tomorrow:
We arrive at the swamp, which is the worst
3.4: Love and Death

Chapters

— Danny Horn

 

18 thoughts on “Swamp Thing 3.3: It Wasn’t Wes’ Fault

  1. I recommend watching this on a cellphone which helps you not to notice how bad Swamp Thing’s costume is. However, there’s no disguising how bad the Arcane monster is. I was wondering what he would be–snake? Rat? I NEVER expected pig weasel! Crossed with something reptilian.
    That’s my interpretation and I’m sticking to it because it makes me so happy!
    I knew it wasn’t a Louisiana swamp because the trees looked too healthy. Plus, I think I saw a hill at some point. I am surprised Wes didn’t mention mosquitoes.
    Also the knobby bits are called cypress knees.
    I can’t even imagine the torture of wearing a rubber suit in a swamp in the summer. They should have at least waited for December. Though then Ms. Barbeau would not have been able to film her nude bathing scene for the International edition because of the cold. I sincerely hope that was not actually done on location. You could not pay me enough to immerse myself in swamp water.

    Liked by 8 people

    1. I’m glad someone else recognized the pig-weasel! It makes me think that maybe the Leviathans were behind this film and that’s why it all went terribly wrong and made little sense.

      Liked by 7 people

    2. PIGWEASEL 4-EVA

      And yeah, I wouldn’t stick a toe in swamp water, let alone my whole body. And that’s not even thinking of the leeches, the giant catfish you could tread on…

      Liked by 5 people

    3. There was a wild place near the house where my maternal grandparents lived, where a person could hear stories and songs about the bayou, and a very wizened fellow would fashion anything you liked from the cypress knee. I believe his specialty were the very stylish cypress knee cap, and hats. Truly special, but not too comfy.

      Liked by 4 people

  2. If you’re not aware, and I wasn’t before I listened to this commentary, a completion bond is a kind of insurance for distributors of an independently-financed film, which guarantees that the producer will deliver a completed film within the allotted budget.

    Was this a result of the Salkinds’ activities?

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Probably not. You see completion bonds a lot in the construction industry, especially on big projects. If you don’t finish the project on time, you pay a penalty, i.e. you get less than your full contract amount.

      Often, for instance in a big office building, they’ve sold the space before it’s finished. Their bottom line depends on having their tenants in place and paying rent by a certain date.

      Liked by 5 people

  3. A guy in a suit pretending to be a swamp monster is definitely more cost-effective than a real swamp monster. For one thing, he’s not constantly carrying off crew members.

    Liked by 5 people

  4. I’m hoping that there are shooting scripts available that will show what scenes were dropped at the completion bond company’s insistence and that Danny will get to as appropriate through the film. Or that Wes talked about them on the commentary.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I watched the movie last night. It wasn’t the least bit painful!

    There were about ten moments when something was bad enough to knock me out of the movie. Three were in the first five minutes and three had to do with those godawful suits.Only one thing was bad enough to make it hard to get back into it, an event that takes place during Alice Cable and Alec Holland’s tour of the swamp early on. But Adrienne Barbeau found a way to play the scene that guided us back even from that nadir. That was real-life super-heroism on her part. Using only her tone of voice and body language, Barbeau manages to shake off a moment that should by all rights have made the rest of the movie unwatchable. She really should have won an Oscar for that feat.

    Really, all the performances are good. Barbeau’s Cable is a strong lead with a clear, if not especially complicated, emotional arc; Louis Jourdan is perfectly cast as a physically nimble but morally vacuous villain; the other villains are just hate-able enough to make us accept the violence; Reggie Batts strikes just the right balance to keep Jude from falling into any of the various stereotypes the character could easily have been; and Ray Wise takes a sufficiently understated approach that you can quickly forget how ill-conceived Alec’s part is.

    All in all, it’s a solid early-80s action/ fantasy picture. Distractingly underbudgeted, yes; lamentably “of its time,” yes. But overall, it’s an exciting tale well told.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Honest question: You think it holds up alongside stuff like The Thing, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Wrath of Khan? Those all came out within a year of Swamp Thing, so they’re fair points of comparison. Swamp Thing isn’t my least-favorite film ever made, but it can’t hold a candle to the actually-good genre movies of the time.

      I do agree that most of the acting is solid.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. It was obviously a far more modest production than were the three films you mention, but they told the story they had the resources to tell. I would say it can stand up to any movie made at that time on a comparable budget and shooting schedule.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. The dumbest thing about the Arcance monster costume is that in the original comics, he stays basically humanoid. His design is ghoulish, but it’s pure Lon Chaney Phantom of the Opera stuff. They should have just done that.

    Liked by 4 people

  7. Wow – I swore I was not going to read “Swamp Thing” blog posts, but Danny, you reeled me in! I recall once or twice channel surfing maybe in the 80’s or later on HBO or just upper cable channels, and seeing some cheap monster movie with Adrienne Barbeau (who I knew as “Maude’s daughter”) in some swamp and feeling sorry for Adrienne. I thought she was a fine actress – feisty – and that her doing a low-budget horror film was a come-down for her and her career. I had no idea that that low-budget movie was “Swamp Thing,” nor did I have any idea that “Swamp Thing” was as potentially influential as you describe, Danny. Since I am personally a low-budget person, I ultimately found “Swamp Thing” for free on YouTube (which may or may not last) — here’s the link as of right now: https://youtu.be/pUUFa6oejiY
    I saw it today. Despite Adrienne being eye candy, she took this role seriously and turned out a great performance. While maybe a step-down for Maude’s daughter Carol (which is probably her best known role), her presence really upped the game for “Swamp Thing” itself. I will agree with what others have said – it’s not as bad as I thought it would be, and I would credit Adrienne for that.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Wes led an interesting life. He was somehow able to make the jump from hardcore to straight pictures, which is generally one of those things you just don’t do. It’s said that Last House was intended to be shot hardcore, which is why you see people like Fred Lincoln in the cast, and if you’re familiar with the plot, you can probably connect the dots w/r/t which scenes would have been shot triple X. Thankfully it didn’t turn out that way—the thought of a hardcore LHOTL is repellent beyond words—but the actors were on board. One is grateful that some amount of sanity prevailed.

    He had a real eye when it came to casting and was always able to get quirky, off-center performances from his actors. Nightmare on Elm Street wouldn’t have been nearly as much of a good time without stalwarts like Ronee Blakely and John Saxon in there, plucking Robert Englund from the Corman School of Character Acting and letting him shine; seeing Heather Langenkamp and realizing she was a great hero—even if they foisted that crazy ending on her—and Johnny Depp! Wes had a knack for picking the right people.

    Swamp Thing is no exception. I think this was the first time I’d ever seen Ray Wise, a lifetime favorite. Even The Scrappy Kid, an archetype that drives most people, including myself, to drink and despair, was a great cast. Jude has such a cool voice, his glasses are awesome and you really like him. Hand to god—even though I love monsters and David Hess, Adrienne Barbeau is the one who carries this film. She’s always solid, and too often overlooked—imo she is a high point of Escape From New York, proving herself a damned fine action star in her own right, and more than able to hold her own with both Kurt Russell and Harry Dean Stanton. No small feat.

    Watched the movie again this evening, it had been a while! and it was pretty okay. Liked it more than I remembered. Louis Jordan is hamming it up so hard you could see him from space, *and* gnawing the scenery to tiny bits, *and* his monster mash costume is just so, so bad—but honestly, the whole thing made me smile more than a few times. Better than a lot of the massive budget CGI epics. It’s a little corny, but it’s got heart, and you root for the good guys. A good popcorn flick is, sometimes, a lovely thing.

    Liked by 4 people

  9. Missed a few days, catching up.

    Someone can provide the money to make a movie. But what if it goes over budget?
    A completion bond is an insurance policy. People making the movie buy the policy. If they can finish the movie on budget, insurance company keeps the money. If they run over, insurance company pays the difference, so that the movie gets finished. The people providing the original budget often demand that the filmmakers buy a completion bond, so they know they won’t get Salkinds-screwed if they filmmakers were too optimistic.

    Completion bond companies sometimes just observe and don’t worry. But sometimes, they go in and meddle: hey, weren’t responsible to get this thing delivered – out go those scenes we feel cost too much. This is show BUSINESS, not show ARTS-N-FARTS, folks!
    If a Spielberg show needs a completion bond, they’ll go easy on him. A young director who’s got a torture film and a cannibal film and now he’s doing the weird swamp comic book filim? Not so much.

    Sounds like it would have cost less to just go to Pinewood and build a fake swamp there.

    “We used his voice, of course, but he was disappointed.”
    The reverse of Young Clark in Superman I!

    “I mean, I’m not saying it didn’t look like the drawings”
    So this is the Spinal Tap of monster movies?

    Liked by 3 people

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