Sunday, October 13, 2013

Monster Serial: SWAMP THING, 1982

Hello, boils and ghouls! October is upon us and that means one thing: HALLOWEEN! While most holidays get a measly day or two of formal recognition, orthodox Monster Kids prefer to celebrate it in the tradition of our people: By watching tons of horror movies. This month at THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY, we're going to be discussing some of our favorites every day until Halloween. So, put on your 3-D spex, pop some popcorn and turn out the lights .... because we're going to the movies!


Garbage is a natural byproduct of society. Sometimes those remnants are toxic, but occasionally the junk left over is an essential part of our ecosystem.

This is why creating “camp” is a fool’s endeavor. Like alchemy, the Spruce Goose or making a film where Arnold Schwarzenegger gets pregnant, trying to create artificial camp is just a terrible idea. People struggling to pay the rent are rarely amused by the idea of Hollywood spending millions of dollars to make something “so bad it’s good.” As John Waters once said, camp doesn’t go over well in Third World countries.

But, when camp happens naturally, it’s a wonder to behold.

I can’t imagine that director Wes Craven approached SWAMP THING as an opportunity to create a B-movie homage, though it also works on that level.  Dr. Alec Holland, a scientist working on a serum to enhance the development of plant life, is assaulted by criminals in his Louisiana lab and doused in the chemicals from his own experiment. Because this story is based on a comic, Holland doesn't die from shock, poisoning or the inevitable cancer that should result from this kind of incident. Instead, he's transformed into a superpowered monster.

Holland and a government agent played by Adrienne Barbeau, spend the rest of the movie getting into (and out of) scrapes with the badguys. It’s not a complicated film; all of the movie’s set pieces exist to slowly bring our heroes into conflict with the gang’s leader, Anton Arcane (Louis Jordan, who always appears to be slumming in whatever movie he’s in.)

Holland is played by two men: Ray Wise (who’d go on to greater accolades as Leland Palmer in TWIN PEAKS) as the human Dr. Holland, and stuntman Dick Durock as his mossy mutation.  There’s something to be said about the disconnect that exists between a movie's audience and CGI characters, how we instinctively know they’re not real and struggle to empathize with them, etc. I’m not sure SWAMP THING’s solution to this problem works any better. There’s so much difference between Wise and Durock that few people will ever mistake them for the same character, accidentally or otherwise. They might as well be playing separate characters.

There are a few interesting ideas bubbling beneath the surface which are handled as deftly as the material can allow. Curiously, the movie doesn't seem the least bit interested in ecological concerns, which is odd given the subject matter. Instead, the movie is occasionally interested in exploring what it means to be human. To it's credit, the movie asks (and answers) these questions through the story, and not through rote exposition. If we have a soul, the movie implies, it's evidenced in the things we create. Holland, a man devoted to nurturing life, is reborn as a creature made from the swamp he loves. He’s more a part of the physical world as a "monster" than he ever was as a human being.

And he accepts his new condition with the kind of humor and grace rarely seen in these kinds of films. Holland doesn't spend a lot of time moping around like some kind of mossy Batman. After losing an arm in a fight, Barbeau asks him if the injury hurts. “Only when I laugh,” he replies.

By contrast, Arcane wants Holland’s serum in order to prolong his own twisted life. Naturally, the serum turns him into a monster, making his exterior reflect his own twisted heart. Though it’s a little unclear on why he turns into some kind of armored werewolf monster, it's a stark contrast to the serene camouflage that Holland becomes. Think of it as Metaphysics for Dummies.

Part of the movie’s charm stems from its accidental place in cinema. Craven had already directed two well received horror films with THE HILLS AND EYES and THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, but he's always been a journeyman director with no obvious cinematic style. He paid the bills between his first two movies by shooting porn under a variety of pseudonyms, and SWAMP THING makes it clear that he's more a day-shift manager than an artist. Confusing matters even more is that the film was green lit during that tidal wave of fantasy cresting after the release of STAR WARS in 1977. Some of that film’s less-expensive visual flourishes are even recycled in SWAMP THING, yet it feels strangely appropriate. I wonder what modern audiences would think about the film's nostalgic trappings. Would they even notice it? Does the film's inherent kitsch cancel it out?

SWAMP THING also has the dubious distinction of being a monster movie that never wants to be scary. And, despite its comicbook origins, SWAMP THING is also not a “superhero” movie … whatever that means. Much like its hero, SWAMP THING is a film consumed with its own identity crisis, and the perfect movie to squander a Sunday afternoon with. It’s the kind of movie Franz Kafka might have made if he were born in Burbank a few decades later.

(Wallace McBride is the editor of THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY.)

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