says Wes Craven’s script for Swamp Thing,
when we’re in very close, something bright pokes through. We see it’s a talon, perhaps three inches long. Then another, and then a whole hand of some sort — half eagle, half reptile — thrusts out.
Without warning, the transformed Arcane bursts out of his egg — a horrendous, lion-maned, hyena-faced monster ten times more horrendous than Swamp Thing. It lets out a terrifying SCREECH that shakes the very walls of the place!
Well, I don’t know about terrifying, but horrendous? Nailed it. I couldn’t agree more.
And here, standing revealed before us, is the Big Bad for the movie, and honestly, it could hardly look Big Worse. Here’s what Wes wanted:
Arcane straightens, up and up — to monstrous proportions. He turns towards the door, showing himself for the first time. The sight is awesome. A huge wedge of a head — red hawk’s eyes, a war dog’s face with terrifying yellow canines — a brutal bear-trap of a body — all muscle and spring-steel armor-plated scales.
Now, to be fair to a costume that does not deserve to be treated fairly, the descriptions in the script get more ornate as they go along. Page 107 says lion-maned and hyena-faced, with half eagle/half reptile talons, and on page 108, we get hawk’s eyes and a war dog’s face, which by the way what is a war dog. Then, on page 110:
Arcane’s now massive, nearly werewolfian face contorts with hatred as he clangs by, seeing the open door, raging on even faster.
This adds another animal to the mix, and implies that the creature is actually still a work in progress, three pages after the transformation. And finally, on page 112:
Next moment, Arcane shoots out from the muck where the underground stream bubbles up — and now he is fully, awfully monstrous — a formidable, perhaps overwhelming opponent for the exhausted Swamp Thing, shaking the water off in a huge spray, like a wolf-god.
Now he is fully monstrous? He’s been a monster for five pages so far. The only thing that stopped Wes from adding any further contradictory information is that the creature dies one page later, although Wes does try to slip this past the effects team:
Arcane is split asunder from the neck to the belly. Great emerald coils and yellow smoke pour out into the spring.
So imagine poor old Bill Munns, trying to figure out how to make “great emerald coils”, whatever that could possibly mean.
So this thing is supposed to be a werewolfian nightmare with a hyena face and a war dog’s face, a lion’s mane, red hawk’s eyes, and eagle/reptile talons, as well as spring-steel armor-plated scales, and somehow all of that is supposed to add up to a “wolf-god”. What we get instead is a charmless pigweasel with a mullet, lifeless rubber eyes, and a wetsuit that’s going to come apart the minute it hits the acidic swamp water.
It’s the eyes, really. The worst thing on this costume made entirely of worst things is that the eyes are just dead bits of plastic, which bear no practical resemblance to the eyes of hawks, hyenas or any other living thing.
It’s always the eyes, for costumes and puppets. If you get the eyes right, as they did with Yoda, E.T. and any given Muppet, then the character springs to life. Humans are incredibly sensitive to spotting living eyes — a genetic trait that goes back to the days when being able to tell the difference between a crouching tiger and an orange-ish rock was a vital survival skill.
You can get away with a lot if the character has real-looking eyes, a fact that the film has exploited for its entire runtime. The Swamp Thing costume looks silly, but Munns did a good job on the eyes, and it’s clear that there’s a living soul inside the creature, with real feelings. If Swamp Thing’s eyes looked like the Arcane monster’s eyes, then the whole film would fall apart, even more than it already did. It would have been completely intolerable.
So the decision to use a rubber mask instead of a face appliance that shows the actor’s eyes is hard to understand.
We’ve talked before about Bill Munns’ insanely compressed schedule: just six weeks to make several Swamp Thing suits, two Arcane suits, the regrowing arm and the Bruno dwarf outfit, plus the team had to keep fixing tears in the Swamp Thing costume every time he went into the water.
Unfortunately, Munns was handicapped by the producers not hiring the actors in time. For the Swamp Thing costume, Munns created a mold of 6’2″ stunt man Bob Minor, who was replaced by the 6’5″ Dick Durock halfway through Munns’ development time. So the team had to tear the suit apart and sew it back together to make it fit.
And then they did that again for the Arcane monster, which is hard to believe. The producers hadn’t cast anybody for the role when Munns started to build the costume, so he used the 6’2″ Bob Minor mold to get started… and then they cast Ben Bates, who was 6’5″.
“Naturally, nothing was even close to proper size,” Munns told Cinefantastique. “We found we needed eight more inches around the chest, and he needed his body piece to be four inches longer from shoulder to groin. It took four full sets of pieces to make two full suits, and my material and labor budget took a horrible beating.”
Of course, it was also a problem that Munns decided to over-complicate the Arcane mask. Cinefantastique reported, “The one-piece head of the monster is partly mechanized, with tubes connecting to air bladders that enable Munns to make the elongated snout move and the facial tissues contract, a most disquieting effect when one is holding the mask for a demonstration.”
All of this innovation is fine, but I see absolutely no evidence of it on screen. We don’t see the monster in repose, just standing around flexing his facial tissues. The creature goes AARGH, grabs a broadsword, swings it through the air, and goes charging out the door. When did they ever have a chance to use the air bladders? Why are you wasting time on luxuries, when the basic costume looks like crap?
And then, just to make everything worse, Ben Bates overheated and collapsed during the climactic swamp fight.
Durock was used to slogging around in the soggy Swamp Thing suit; he’d been doing it for the whole shoot. But for Bates, this was the first time he had to wear it outside in the swamp, and if they wanted to intentionally craft a scene that would make the new guy overheat, they couldn’t have done better than to make him wade around in calf-deep water, waving a sword.
So Bates falls down, unable to breathe in his deathtrap wolf-god suit, which they tear off him in handfuls, and give him oxygen and orange juice. And then Wes says that he wants to finish the fight sequence anyway.
Munns told Cinefantastique,
There was no one on the set who had any experience working in a suit. It’s dangerous, especially in water, where an actor can drown inside his mask before anyone realizes it. There was one young man, a local person, who was hanging around the stunt people, and they were talking about using him.
I had nightmares about having another guy just drop in the swamp. When you put someone in a suit that has never worn one before, he usually wants to show off and over-exerts himself, paying no attention to his rising body temperature or that his breathing is a little more difficult in a mask like that. An inexperienced person can come pretty close to killing himself.
I felt the only way we would get done that day was if I got in the suit myself and finished the scene.
“With some makeup artists getting almost as much media attention as movie stars,” Cinefantastique breathlessly concludes, “Munns is aware that a major assignment like Swamp Thing could have a dramatic impact on his career. But is he ready for fame, fortune and recognition to descend upon him?”
“I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it,” Munns replies. “Hopefully.”
Spoiler alert: it did not descend upon him. Munns worked on The Beastmaster in 1982 and The Return of the Living Dead in 1985 (not one of the George Romero ones), and that about wrapped it up for William Munns, career-wise.
He eventually became a full-time Bigfoot crank, operating a website called The Munns Report where he published hundreds of pages of lunatic rants about the Patterson-Gimlin Film being impossible to debunk because nobody has ever found the receipt for the ape costume. I guess if it doesn’t have mechanized air bladders, it’s not a good costume, according to creature expert Bill Munns. Stay alert out there.
Part 2 of our four-part Inhumans podcast!
70b.2: I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon
— Danny Horn