In 1978, Richard Donner’s Superman was an astonishing hit and ushered in the modern superhero movie in style. Its 1980 sequel was also a massive success, and DC Comics was keen to capitalize on the Man of Steel (the first one)’s box office success by bringing another of their classic heroes to the screen. But which one would they choose? The DC Universe has dozens of excellent characters to choose from, so the next one would seem obvious… if you’re weird. No, instead of Batman, for whom they’d wait a decade, they brought out a humanoid vegetable who lives in the marsh and tears people’s arms off. And they’d get new horror wunderkind Wes Craven, he of Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, to direct. Throw in some wholly unrealistic monster makeup and some weird, unnecessary nudity and you have none other than Swamp Thing.
The character of the thing from the swamp began life in a one-off issue of DC’s horror anthology, House of Secrets, in 1971, which eventually turned into a continuing solo series in 1972. Wes Craven was eager to prove to the film community he could direct a straightforward action movie, and so departed from his dark horror reputation, though Swamp Thing is certainly darker than Superman. And much less expensive. It was pretty clear Craven was out of his comfort zone, with the film never having a consistent tone and veering too far into melodrama. It also doesn’t help that the story is suited better to an hour-long episode of The Outer Limits.
The basic plot of Swamp Thing is your average superhero origin story. Government worker from some agency Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau) comes to the deep swamps of somewhere to assist in a scientific project operated by Dr. Alec Holland (Ray Wise) and his sister. Holland is working on a formula that will enable plants to grow in any climate and in any terrain. The government, knowing this could be a major money maker, on top of helping with food shortages, has placed an armed military unit in the area as security. Alec and Alice hit it off quite well and Alec is somehow able to use the swamp to make her want to make out.
Alec manages to unlock the secret of the formula and no sooner does he kiss Alice in celebration than all the military guys change sides and point guns on him, knocking Alice out in the process. Even Alec’s keeper, Ritter, isn’t what he seems and reveals himself (via Mission: Impossible-style mask) to be none other than Dr. Anton Arcane (Louis Jourdan), the renegade mad scientist/industrialist who hasn’t been seen for years. This is apparently very bad, despite the fact that we’ve never seen Arcane before and didn’t really know about him to begin with. Arcane wants the formula for himself to sell to the highest bidder, and when Alec refuses to give it up, Arcane’s goons shoot his sister. In a daring escape attempt, Alec and the formula are knocked to the floor and explode, catching Alec on fire. He runs for the swamp and dives in.
Alice wakes up and sees Arcane’s guys disposing of all the bodies of the innocent and she tries to get away, grabbing the seventh and most crucial of Alec’s notebooks as she goes. This begins the longest section of the film, which consists of Alice running through the marshland looking for some way to contact Washington whilst the thugs chase after her to kill her and take the notebook. She eventually comes to a gas station and meets a boy named Jude who, despite being 12, runs the place entirely by himself. It’s also around this time that we catch the first glimpses of the titular beast, played by actor/stuntman Dick Durock. He terrifies Alice, though it’s clear he tries to help her, and he tosses the bad guys around as though they’re on wires… because they are, and you can see that. There’s a scene in which Swamp Thing stops the bad guys’ Ford Bronco from running over Alice and he tears the roof off of it to get to them; however, the guy on wire duty pulls the roof off before Swamp Thing has even made the throwing motion. Now that’s strong.
Eventually, Swamp Thing’s arm is cut off but he and Alice are safe. It is here that Alice discovers that the creature is really Alec, having mutated from the formula and the being-on-fire, presumably. They make eyes at each other, even though he’s a hideous plant monster. Then we get a scene that probably stands out to people who saw this when they were younger. Alice decides to bathe herself in the swamp (genius) and we get a very long shot of Adrienne Barbeau topless, pouring water on herself. This movie was rated PG when it came out, and there was no PG-13 at the time, so that means the MPAA watched this and thought, “Yeah, a six minute scene where a woman pours water on her naked breasts is okay for kids to see.” A case might be made for this one scene, but later, there’s a dinner party at Arcane’s mansion with a stripper and a guy lecherously taking off a random girl’s top and fondling her. PG, guys.
So then the bad guys show up and capture Swamp Thing and Alice and lock them up in Arcane’s lavish dungeon, forgetting of course that there can’t be basements where there’s swamps. Arcane tests the formula on one of his bigger henchmen, turning him into a mutant dwarf. Swamp Thing tells Arcane that the elixir only enhances what’s inside the person. So because Alec Holland was a genius, he became a super-strong plant monster. Is that what he was trying to make happen? Arcane takes the formula himself and becomes a fish-bodied ape-bat-pig thing with a sword.
The Swamp Thing suit, though the face makeup is pretty well done and allows the actor range and expression, is very clearly a suit, and it moves like clothing instead of actual organic matter. This is still leaps and bounds better than the Arcane monster suit, which is basically a furry cowl and stationary face mask on top of the Creature from the Black Lagoon suit. It’s maybe the worst monster fight in a movie since one of the Gamera movies.
Swamp Thing has an okay story and characters, but is completely let down by the poor effects, boring action sequences, and overwrought dialogue and music. It’s a good thing Wes Craven made A Nightmare on Elm Street two years later, or his reputation might have permanently been tarnished. As for DC, until 1989’s Batman, the only non-Superman movies that were released were Swamp Thing and its sequel, neither performing particularly well. While we could believe a man could fly, we certainly could not believe a man was a plant. But we sure can laugh about it now.