Adrienne Barbeau and I have many things in common — in fact, some people find it difficult to tell us apart — but the main similarity is that we both hate the way that her hair looks in Swamp Thing.
I mean, look at this. This is no way to treat your lead actress, during a crucial scene in your picture. This is tantamount to a hate crime, and you know how I hate to use the word tantamount.
“It wasn’t easy,” she explains in her DVD feature. “We were filming fourteen hour days, when we were in the swamps. I don’t think I slept a night, because I was always sure I had chiggers and ticks crawling up my back, and the stuntmen took great joy in finding whatever boa they could and wrapping it around my neck, you know, whatever snakes they could find. They thought that was great fun.
“Working the long hours led to my not seeing dailies, because I was so exhausted and had to get up so early the next morning that I just went back to my room. By the time I saw my dailies, I realized that I had not taken good care of myself, in terms of the hairstyle or the makeup or the wardrobe! And I was very disturbed. But it was too late then! The whole shoot was… stressful. Difficult.”
So that explains it. I’m grateful that she talks about it in the featurette, because I wasn’t sure how to bring it up. I knew I was going to have to address the hairstyle somehow, because I look at her in the movie and what the actual fuck? I get kind of worked up over these issues. It’s called film criticism.
Now, I’m going to admit that I was not particularly Barbeau-aware up until approximately yesterday; she’s been around the whole time, but I guess she just flew under my radar. So for the sake of my fellow low-Barbeau-information comrades, here’s a quick sketch of her career.
She started out in Broadway musicals, during the original run of Fiddler on the Roof — first as a member of the chorus in 1968, and then taking over the part of Tevye’s daughter Hodel. She left the show in 1971 to star in Stag Movie, an off-Broadway “nudie musical”, which was a 70s genre popularized by Oh! Calcutta! which I was also not super aware of. The play was an unloved musical comedy about making a porn movie in a motel room, and it ran for about six months.
In 1972, Barbeau got her first major role, playing Rizzo in the original Broadway production of Grease, and she was nominated for a Tony.
In fall 1972, Barbeau co-starred in the Bea Arthur sitcom Maude, playing Maude’s daughter Carol, which was very successful, and ran for six years.
Then in 1978, she made a famous pin-up poster. That concept must sound incredibly strange to anybody under thirty-five, but in the 70s and 80s, there really was such a thing as a “famous poster”, and that’s how America was informed about who the hot people were.
Farrah Fawcett’s “red swimsuit poster” in 1976 was an actual big deal that made her one of the key sex symbols of the 70s, and while Barbeau’s poster wasn’t on that level, it sold really well and introduced her to an audience that was wider than her Broadway and sitcom roles.
And then she met John Carpenter, which changed the direction of her life and her career. Just after Carpenter had massive success with his 1978 horror film Halloween, he made a TV-movie called Someone’s Watching Me!, and cast Barbeau as one of the leads. They fell in love, and married in 1979.
Barbeau didn’t particularly like horror films, but she worked with Carpenter on two more scary movies: The Fog in 1980, and Escape From New York in 1981. Because of those roles, she got an offer for Swamp Thing, and Carpenter recommended that she take it, because he knew that Wes Craven was an up-and-coming horror director.
From then on, she did a lot of horror and sci-fi films, including Creepshow in 1982, The Next One in 1984, Open House in 1987 and Unholy in 2007. And she’s still doing them — in 2020, she starred in Unearth, a horror film about fracking, and another called Hellblazers in 2022.
So that’s who she is and where she’s going, and now she’s going to explain to us what the shoot was like, and why the lighting is so terrible. This is from her 2006 autobiography, There Are Worse Things I Could Do:
“I love the first draft of the screenplay when I read it. It’s 1981 and I’ve just finished Escape from New York. Put a gun in my hand, let me blow away the bad guys, and I’m in heaven. Angelina Jolie and Charlize Theron, future action heroines, are only six. There aren’t too many actresses giving Arnold a run for his money. I get to be one of them.
“The script Wes has written for Swamp Thing is witty and tender and fun. I have high hopes for it. Secretly, I think to myself it could be as successful as Star Wars. What I don’t know is that the budget isn’t enough to pay for one R2-D2, let alone film an entire movie on location in Charleston, South Carolina, for seven weeks.
“The first few days are okay. Seems like a lot of the crew has hay fever. A lot of red noses. Wes is very laid-back. His strength lies in getting the performances he wants from the actors. It’s fun for me to watch the character I’m playing take shape in a way I hadn’t expected, thanks to his direction. I trust him.
“The assistant director, on the other hand, is so laid-back I can’t figure out if he cares at all about what we’re doing. We start falling behind schedule. He doesn’t take control and he doesn’t communicate very well. No one ever seems to know what’s going on. People keep walking off the set to go to the bathroom and returning with the sniffles. No one says we’re printing a take or checking the gate or moving on to another scene. Whenever I ask the A.D. a question, he says, “I don’t know. I haven’t read the script.” He seems to take pride in not knowing what he’s doing.
“There are snakes in the water and gators, I suppose. The only things that bother me are the parasites and leeches. We have to stuff our ears with cotton and wash with antibacterial soap as soon as we get out. It doesn’t help that the actor playing the bad guy [David Hess] is a macho stuntman wannabe who throws me around like I’m an ex-girlfriend he’s got a grudge against. My whole body is bruised and aching.”
So that’s why I can’t get a decent screenshot of anything in this movie, by the way; the crew is in the bathroom, snorting coke. The difference between the artistry of Geoffrey Unsworth and John Barry in the first Superman film, and the sub-basic technical proficiency in this movie is profound, and it affects our perception of everything in the film, as lighting always does.
More generally, she’s describing a chaotic production that was not set up to succeed. They’re shooting in a location where humans should not be — if you have to get scrubbed with anti-bacterials after every take to wash off the parasites, then the location is clearly telling you not to make a movie there. They can’t afford to pay a professional crew, so they hire locals who’ve never worked on a movie before.
But Adrienne Barbeau is doing her best under these challenging conditions, and she holds the film together. I’m probably jinxing this, but at the moment, I can’t think of a single scene where Barbeau is doing a bad job. I loved Margot Kidder in the Superman films, but there are definitely some moments in Superman II that are straight-up bad takes that they should have reshot. I don’t know if there are any for Barbeau.
She doesn’t look as good as she should have, and many of her co-stars are deeply flawed. There are problems with the script and the direction, and obviously the effects and rubber costumes are risible. But I think she shines, to the extent that shining is possible.
“When I saw the final movie,” she says, “I was extremely upset. I came out of the screening, saying, what am I going to do? I cannot promote this film. I hated the way I looked. I hated the wardrobe. I hated the makeup. I hated my hair. And, you know, being an actress, I couldn’t see past a lot of that!
“I knew what the original script was — I mean, I had an expectation of it, and I didn’t realize that Wes had had to make so many compromises. And he still did a fantastic job, as is evidenced by the response, but I was looking at it solely from the actress’ point of view, and I thought, this isn’t a good film! How can I tell people to spend six dollars on a movie that I’m not loving? And then two weeks later, Ebert and Siskel say it’s the sleeper of the year, and it’s this huge success, and I thought well, you know? Don’t come to me, cause I don’t know how to judge a film.”
So she’s charming, I guess is what I’m saying. Here I am, being charmed by her. And I think it’s lovely that she’s tickled by the late-breaking success of a movie that she didn’t like.
“I love it, that they love Swamp Thing now,” she says. “As long as I don’t have to look at the wardrobe, and I don’t have to look at my hair, I’m happy to have anyone else enjoy it.”
3.9: Sensor and Sensibility
— Danny Horn