“Unable to consummate his love for the beauty,” writes Vincent Canby in the New York Times, “the beast must satisfy himself by camping it up in the swamp.”
“How refreshing,” agrees John Engstrom in the Boston Globe, “to find a bad movie that knows it’s bad, and wears its badness proudly.”
Newsday says “It has an astonishing verisimilitude to the low-budget ’50s horror movie,” and Variety says that Wes Craven “tries in vain, through old-fashioned music, characters and dialog, to re-create the ’50s B-monster movie.”
This brings up a question that I’d never even considered: Is Swamp Thing supposed to be camp?
I mean, it’s pretty late in the day for me to be asking that question; I should have been talking about it this whole time. A reading of Swamp Thing as camp — a knowing imitation of outdated, corny material, for the purposes of transgressive parody, probably primarily aimed at gay people — should be exactly my kind of thing.
But I don’t think there’s any evidence, in the movie or outside of it, that the filmmakers intended to make a laughable parody of ’50s monster movies. All of the sources of information about the production, including the Cinefantastique articles, the DVD commentaries and interviews with the producer, point in the same direction: they were earnestly trying to make a romantic action-adventure superhero/monster movie. They expected people to be touched by the love story, and horrified by the hideous transformations and violence.
The fact that they weren’t particularly successful is a different matter. This isn’t camp; it’s incompetence.
Except for the wipes, of course; the reviewers are right on about the wipes. Four of the reviews that I’ve read all point out that the patterned scene dissolves which look like windshield wipers, or stars, or ooze dripping from the top of the frame, are old-fashioned (New York Times), irritating (Starburst) and fail to capture the comic book spirit (Variety). They are entirely correct about that.
But I have a hard time following John Engstrom’s assessment in the Boston Globe: “Average filmgoers can enjoy the preposterous plot, the exultantly trashy dialogue, Craven’s direction — which constantly pokes fun at the movie’s low-budget tawdriness — and the knowing, though never arch, acting.”
How could the direction poke fun at its own tawdriness? I haven’t a clue what he’s talking about, and I suppose it’s too late to go and ask.
I guess what I’m saying is that the Swamp Thing reviews were really not very good. There are a couple exceptions, particularly Roger Ebert’s unaccountable hard-on for the movie, but on the whole, the reviews thought it was either a) okay for a kid’s movie, b) okay as a camp object of ridicule, or c) complete shit.
Here are some quotes that didn’t make it into the ads:
“The film fails dismally.” — Stephen Hunter, Baltimore Sun
“Poorly acted, childishly written and amateurishly directed.” — Pat Berman, Columbia State
“Pic disintegrates into a series of contrived chases.” — Variety
“A disaster on every count.” — Alan Jones, Starburst
“You’d have to wait for years for a dumber movie than this one.” — Jay Maeder, Knight-Ridder News Service
On the other hand, Eleanor Ringel of the Atlanta Constitution was tickled to death by the experience.
“Swamp Thing made my heart sing,” she writes. “This lovable little movie brings the DC Comics cult hero to oozy life with mucky metaphysical philosophy intact and just the merest touch of camp — mostly in its deadpan dialogue and the comic panel-style wipes swiped from the old Batman series.”
Ringel has nice things to say about all of the main players, and says that “Wes Craven, who used to specialize in hard-line shockers like The Hills Have Eyes, is obviously mellowing at a rapid rate. If he refilmed his chilling Last House on the Left, it would probably be made of gingerbread.” This is all very pleasant, but it feels like she’s writing about a different movie. “Swamp Thing may not be for everyone,” she concludes, “but I’d send my kids to it in a minute.” Oh dear.
Linda Gross at the Los Angeles Times has a similar and utterly baffling take: “Only Craven’s opening sequences contain graphic and realistic violence,” she asserts, “but the tone changes to fairyland almost immediately.” I can’t imagine what she’s referring to.
Just making a quick sketch, there’s the pocket snake sequence, multiple people shot with machine guns including a friendly fire incident, Alec engulfed in flames, a couple of boat explosions, and Swamp Thing crushing Ferret’s head. Ms. Gross describes this as “fairytale violence”. Yikes.
The views on Adrienne Barbeau’s performance are mixed. Variety says that she’s “the film’s only asset for adult audiences,” and she’s “thoroughly believable as a feisty, rough ‘n tumble heroine.” On the other hand, the New York Times says that she “goes through the entire movie with one expression and three costumes.” The Columbia State says she “looks totally miserable and sulky,” but the Baltimore Sun says that she’s “actually not disgracefully bad,” and the Boston Globe says she’s “peerless at looking mildly annoyed while being tied up, beaten, or stabbed.”
And then there’s good old Eleanor Ringel from the Atlanta Constitution, who writes, “Speaking of chests, Ms. Barbeau’s is so noticeable that every time she flattened herself behind a tree to hide from her pursuers, I couldn’t help but think, fat chance, lady.” Things were different in 1982.
Louis Jourdan’s reception is similarly mixed. Ms. Ringel of the Atlanta C. points to his shirtless scene as evidence that he’s in “fine shape”, which I suppose he is. The Baltimore Sun calls him “comically languid and reptilian,” and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune characterizes him as “suave and smug as ever.”
In the New York Times, Vincent Canby says that he looks “somewhat reconstituted even before his own beastly transformation,” and that he’s “parodying the style of Vincent Price at his most grandly secondrate.”
Canby also takes an odd little detour in his Arcane coverage: “Mr. Jourdan appears to be having fun with the character,” he claims, “who lives in an antebellum mansion, drinks potions from silver goblets and drives around the swamp in a limousine that wouldn’t seem to be the most efficient of swamp buggies, though it probably is airconditioned.” You need to keep control of your sentences; they shouldn’t just wander off like that.
But obviously the costume is going to get the heavy treatment. I’ve got four reviews that use the phrase “rubber suit”, one that calls it a “peeling, shabby, ill-fitting latex wet suit,” and another that says it looks like “a bunch of twigs, roots, and assorted algae cemented to a green tie-dye shirt, ballet tights, and stocking mask.” Nobody likes it.
According to the Baltimore Sun, Swamp Thing is “a laughably inauthentic central figure,” and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette points out that the costume “wrinkles when the creature walks, and bags at the knees and around the nose.” The New York Times says, “When, near the end, the two creatures slug it out in the swamp, it looks as if two guests at a costume party were fighting over the last hors d’oeuvre, which, of course, is Miss Barbeau.”
But I need to tell you about the big South Carolina kerfuffle. As you’ll recall, most of the film was shot at Magnolia Gardens in West Ashley, South Carolina, and Pat Berman at the State was not pleased with it.
“Swamp Thing is no credit to S.C.,” the review’s title boldly states, and goes on to suggest that after seeing the film, “several of the film’s benefactors might pay to have the credits changed to ‘made entirely in Georgia,’ or ‘in North Carolina’, or ‘in Wes’s basement’.”
After describing Swamp Thing killing Ferret by “squashing his skull until the blood gushes out,” Berman delivers her final thrust:
South Carolina is a beautiful state and is ideal for on-location filmmaking. Perhaps someday someone will make a good film here, not just any film. The Great Santini is the only serious feature effort made thus far. Swamp Thing is anything but a reason for state-wide celebrations.
A week later, a chagrined Susan Wenzel of the South Carolina Film Office writes in to take issue:
The S.C. Film Office was pleased that The State‘s Pat Berman took the time to review Swamp Thing, the first feature film shot in South Carolina since the state began active recruitment of the film industry in 1980. Although Ms. Berman was not impressed with the film, she is certainly entitled to her opinion.
The Film Office’s only concern is that the review’s headline and the concluding sentence create an unfair link between the film’s content and its impact on the state’s economy.
Despite Ms. Berman’s opinion of Swamp Thing, the film did bring approximately $1 million into the state — money that might otherwise have gone to Georgia or North Carolina or any of the other 45 states competing for the film industry dollar. More than 40 people found jobs as production assistants for the film, while countless others appeared in the film as extras or had speaking roles. Hotels and restaurants in Greater Charleston were utilized to capacity. Extensive amounts of equipment were used — either rented or purchased for the film.
As Ms. Berman correctly noted, the state does look beautiful in the film, and that fact will work to the state’s advantage when other filmmakers consider South Carolina as a potential location for film production.
In that sense, Swamp Thing is indeed a credit to South Carolina. For what Swamp Thing can mean to future film activity in South Carolina, there is ample reason for statewide celebration.
Since then, the South Carolina Film Commission website informs me, the state has hosted the production of The Abyss, Days of Thunder, Forrest Gump, the Six-Million Dollar Man/Bionic Woman reunion TV-movie Bionic Ever After, Major League III: Back to the Majors, The Notebook, Who’s Your Caddy? and Magic Mike XXL, so I guess things worked out okay, no thanks to dumb ol’ Pat Berman.
And then there’s the strange case of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, who positively gushed over the movie in their weekly syndicated movie-review show Sneak Previews.
In the seven-minute segment, Siskel and Ebert show two lengthy film clips — two minutes of Cable running around hitting people, and then two minutes of the film’s final battle, including Swamp Thing bringing Cable back to life with his glowing green hand. “Well, that’s sort of a routine action scene,” Ebert says after the first clip, which makes one wonder why they chose to include it.
“My trust in Wes Craven is vindicated!” Ebert announces. “Swamp Thing is a silly, goofy, weirdly inspired film, and it’s a lot of fun.” And Siskel agrees, “This is terrific. I sat there and was enjoying not only what was on the screen, because it was done so well in this comic-book style, but I was enjoying the fact that I was sitting there enjoying seeing a guy wearing a plant costume.” And if you can’t sit there enjoying the fact that you’re sitting there enjoying something, then what’s the point of going to the movies?
But, at the risk of harshing Siskel’s buzz, I’d like to close with some quotes from the review in the UK fan magazine Starburst, which in 1982 was about as close as you could get to fans writing lengthy harangues on the internet like… well, like the kind that I’m writing right now, I suppose.
Alan Jones writes:
Wes Craven had the opportunity with Swamp Thing to make his work accessible to a wide audience. Perhaps he has achieved that aim as Swamp Thing would seem a dead cert to head for a fast television play-off. Is it his fault that the movie is a disaster on every count?
So much is wrong with Swamp Thing, it is difficult to know where to start. One of the biggest mistakes was filming on location. This realism works against its fantasy origins to a distracting degree — anyone with any sense should have realised that to make it properly the project needed to be filmed in stylized studio interiors, although the design not to do so was obviously one of the many budgetary limitations imposed.
But by far the worst aspect of Swamp Thing is the special make-up effects, or more to the point, the lack of them. With what’s on show here, you would never have guessed that this area of film-making had progressed at all since Creature from the Black Lagoon and even that costume is better than any of the ill-fitting rubber suits that the actors find themselves decked out in here. If the film had been made with a pre-teen audience in mind, it is doubtful if even they would be fooled for a minute by costumes that can only kindly be described as sub-standard Doctor Who.
The most appalling cheat occurs during Arcane’s experiment with the formula on one of his henchmen. The transformation takes place under a table out of sight. Perhaps recent developments in this field with The Howling, An American Werewolf in London and The Beast Within have led us all to expect too much.
The only stunt that works really well is where Holland becomes a human torch but that’s probably because it was the simplest of the lot.
With Swamp Thing, you would never have guessed that Wes Craven had in the past delivered some of the most jolting shocks in the entire genre. If he had wanted to explode his hardcore maniac of violence image, he couldn’t have chosen a worse or more lifeless and trivial way to do so.
The reviews cited in today’s post are:
- Pat Berman, State (Feb 19): “Swamp Thing is no credit to S.C.”
- Vincent Canby, New York Times (July 30): “Swamp Thing: Fun and Fright“
- John Engstrom, Boston Globe (May 12): “Swamp Thing knows its place”
- Linda Gross, LA Times (March 25): “Swamp Thing Is a Hokey Horror”
- Alan Jones, Starburst (July 1982): “Review: Swamp Thing“
- Alex Keneas, Newsday (July 30): “Movie Review: Swamp Thing“
- Stephen Hunter, Baltimore Sun (May 12): “Cliches take the terror out of monster movies”
- Bob Lundegaard, Minneapolis Star-Tribune (May 28): “Swamp Thing won’t bog you down”
- Jay Maeder, Knight-Ridder News Service (March 21): “Swamp Thing: Camp was never like this”
- Eleanor Ringel, Atlanta Constitution (March 15): “Swamp Thing Is Something”
- John Stanley, San Francisco Examiner (April 11): “A Horror Film That Isn’t So Horrible”
- Marylynn Uricchio, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (May 8): “Swamp Thing: A monster film that sinks”
- Variety (March 11): “Review: Swamp Thing”
— Danny Horn