I suppose that now is as good a time as any to start assigning blame.
We’re currently thirty minutes into a ninety-minute Swamp Thing movie, which means it’s time for them to stop dicking around with opossums and go ahead and show us Swamp Thing. So here he is in long shot, emerging from the mire to bang on a boat, and save the day.
You don’t see a lot of him, right away. A muscular green arm grabs the bad guy’s head, and throws him off the boat. Then there’s a shot of the monster hitting the boat and turning it over, and then we see him from behind, carrying an unconscious Cable out of the danger zone.
So you know how sometimes in monster movies you only get to see little pieces of the monster — a fang, a claw, a tentacle or two — because they want to save the thrilling reveal for later in the film? Yeah, that’s not what’s happening right now.
This isn’t whetting our appetite. It’s managing our expectations.
The behind-the-scenes story of the miscreation of the Swamp Thing movie is a comedy of errors, in the sense that comedy is tragedy plus it happened to someone else, and there’s nothing more tragicomic than the way they made the monster suits.
The story begins with Dick Smith, one of the legends of special-effects makeup. Smith began his career in the early days of television, developing the art of modern prosthetics more or less on his own. While makeup artists at the time would typically cast their masks as one full piece, Smith used several foam latex pieces that he would attach to an actor’s face, giving them the ability to use natural facial expressions through the makeup.
Smith worked for more than a decade on television, including some memorable old-age makeup for vampire Barnabas Collins on Dark Shadows. He moved into film in 1970, constructing a career-defining old-age mask for Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man. In 1972, Smith created an old-age Don Corleone for Marlon Brando in The Godfather, and he designed the practical special-effects makeup for The Exorcist in 1973. Over the next decade, Smith contributed to dramatic films like Taxi Driver, Marathon Man and The Deer Hunter, as well as the sci-fi/horror films Altered States and Scanners.
So when producers Michael Uslan and Ben Melniker were looking for someone to create the Swamp Thing costume for their film, naturally they went to Dick Smith. He said no.
So then Uslan and Melniker got a book called Making a Monster: The Creation of Screen Characters by the Great Makeup Artists, and they went through the book and called up everybody in it who was still alive. None of them wanted to work on Swamp Thing either, so eventually Uslan and Melniker ended up with Bill Munns.
Munns’ resume was basically the reverse of Dick Smith’s. He’d been “active in makeup” since the late 1960s, but not anything you’d notice. He had two big film credits: the 1973 blaxploitation film Blackenstein, and the 1981 horror film The Boogens. See above for a picture of Bill Munns with a Boogen, which did not take the film world by storm.
But Munns had several things working in his favor: a) he was available, b) he was interested, and c) his quote was $80,000, considerably lower than everybody else’s.
Preparing his proposal, Munns went out and got some old Swamp Thing comics, and he was especially inspired by this splash page in issue #1.
“As soon as I saw the pictures of Swamp Thing,” he told Cinefantastique, “I knew exactly what they were looking for. I had a feeling that it was potentially a classic character, and it had to be created as faithfully as possible. The pictures in the original comic books were abundant enough and detailed enough — especially a full-page shot of the head that ran in the first issue — that I felt I could work perfectly from that.”
Which is great, and I love his respect for the source material, although it occurs to me that when you’re designing something to be worn on screen, it might help to start with a human face and build up, rather than start with a drawing of a monster and try to fit a human in there somewhere. But maybe that’s just me.
The other thing that impressed itself on Bill Munns was that in the comics, the character’s head seemed to be in front of his body, rather than on top — kind of a lumbering, hunchbacked look.
So Munns’ idea was to build up an actor’s shoulders with four to six inches of padding, and then construct an animatronic head, which would be positioned on top of the actor’s head, pushed forward. The actor would be looking out of the suit through some mossy areas around the throat, and the mask would be operated by a complex servo-motor system.
This was a terrible idea, completely unfeasible on the face of it. They chose him anyway. It really was a terrifically low bid.
Munns made a prototype out of latex and polyfoam, using taxidermy eyes and model railroad landscape material, which looks really nice and could never be successfully replicated on an actual human body.
The skull is too small, and it’s the wrong shape, so you couldn’t actually make a person’s head look like this, much less grow it straight out of their torso. It just wouldn’t work. It’s a gorgeous sculpture of a comic book character, but it’s not a workable plan for an impending low-budget movie shoot.
So Munns’ pitch was based on building a magical mechanical Swamp Thing head, which would be operated by servo-motor control, on location in the middle of a swamp, by people who had never done anything remotely like that ever before.
Now, there were people in the industry who were doing roughly similar things at the time with puppets — Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, the Skekses in The Dark Crystal and the alien in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial — but the difference is that those films were being made by adults, with more than a month or two to prepare. Also, those movies were filmed indoors on actual sets by people who were very good at making movies, a cohort that did not include Bill Munns.
My advice for any young person starting out in the film industry is to figure out whether you’re Bill Munns or not. If you are, then you probably shouldn’t be sketching complex servo-motor mechanisms.
“They were still very leery of the mechanical head,” Munns told Cinefantastique, “largely because I couldn’t show them one that I, or anyone else, had done that was fully operable. Wes wanted something that could walk from a long shot to a close-up, which would have prohibited the use of cables. I felt that servo-motor control would be better. But it seemed the more they thought about it, the more they built up a resistance to it. It was vetoed by the producers as untried, and by the director as not potentially expressive enough. They kept on asking, ‘Can’t you do it on an actor’s face?'”
As it turned out, they couldn’t, so instead they just made a big rubber monster suit, and stuck it in the water with a boat on top of it.
And then there was the monster’s dick, which was an actual concern that I am not making up.
Craven wanted to get away from the “sexless, neutered style” of monster suits, especially because the film had a romantic subplot. The creature used to be a man, and Craven wanted that manhood to still be present in the monster costume.
So Munns made a full-body sculpture of the creature…
which included a short, thick root meant to represent exactly what it looks like.
“When all concerned met to view the sculpture,” Munns said, “the consensus was that it was simply too conspicuous. The offending root was removed, and it was reluctantly agreed that if there was ever to be a Son of Swamp Thing, he’d have to be adopted.”
So that’s the shape of things, at this point in the production. Most of Munns’ ideas were either unfeasible or profane, but the producers had made their choice and it was too late to change course. All Munns needed was twelve weeks of prep work, and he’d be ready to go. They gave him six.
The costume saga continues in
3.17: People Make Choices
The pictures of the prototype head come from John Boylan’s website Roots of the Swamp Thing, which collects information and commentary on every aspect of the Swamp Thing franchise, including the comics, movies, TV shows and merchandise, and the ways that the story has been represented in popular culture.
The costume saga continues in
3.17: People Make Choices
— Danny Horn