Movie Review: Swamp Thing (1982)

There’s a pitfall for amateur movie reviewers. We tend not to have much experience in criticism (i.e. critical writing), so there’s a tendency to think that pointing out mistakes and flubs and inconsistencies (like Cinema Sins) counts as valid criticism. It is not. While it is true that proper, professional critics do have to note such things, it is not the be-all and end-all of their review.

I fell into that trap when just after watching Swamp Thing. I focused on all the things that made no sense at all to me – from the violation of Conservation of Mass to why the federal government has stashed a supposedly secret lab someplace down in the bayous and mangrove swamps of the Deep South – and they’re not even doing military research there.

But anyway……

I really shouldn’t be too hard on the movie for things like this; it is, after all, a comic book movie. Yes, kids, they did make movies about comic book characters way before the MCU was a glimmer in anyone’s eye. So one should allow for some bogus science and government and the like, especially in what is nothing more than an “origin tale”, and you just need to get things rolling.

The titular creature (Dick Durock) is what became of biochemist Alec Holland (Rick Wise) after a band of mercenary thugs working for Anton Arcane (Louis Jourdan, all European smoothness and sophistication), a Rich Guy who is obsessed with immortality, attacked and blew up his lab. Somehow, he thinks that what Holland is working on – mixing animal and plant cells together to make the plants hardier and more productive – holds the key. In the attack, Holland was set on fire and doused with a batch of his latest serum. He survives, but the glowing green goo (by the way, why do all these superpowerful chemicals look like the stuff in green glowsticks?) apparently fuses swamp algae with his body, turning him into a not-so-jolly green giant.

Before the attack, Holland falls in love (VERY quickly – there’s zero time set aside for the development of the relationship; the suggestion is that he’s a randy ol’ horndog who tries to seduce any reasonably attractive female that comes along) with Special Agent Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau), who has been sent down from “Washington” to check on his progress. She manages to filch the most recent of Holland’s notebooks from the lab during the attack. When Arcane finds out that she has (or at least knows where it’s hidden) the missing piece to the supposed Immortality Serum that he’s been looking for, Cable promptly becomes the Damsel In Distress that our hero must rescue.

Fairly standard stuff.

Director Wes Craven does a good job with what he’s given. He knows he’s doing a comic book movie and not a horror one; there’s no gore and none of the standard horror tropes. Almost all of the movie takes place in the daytime, so we can always see what’s going on, even in the fight scenes. Durock’s Swamp Thing costume is pretty much a green wetsuit with things stuck on it, but one can chalk that up to the budget and the technical abilities of the time. And he does do a decent job of selling it.

Things overall are quite competent. The acting is up to the task, the pacing works, there’s a touch of humor, and once you’ve accepted the basic set up, there’s nothing that makes you say “Oh, come ON now!”. There’s only one scene that I found problematic, and that’s Barbeau’s bathing scene. Yes, it’s tastefully done, and she’s got nothing to be ashamed of. But it comes out of nowhere, brings the story to a screeching halt, and does nothing to advance the plot. We already know that Holland / Swamp Thing has the hots for her; there’s no reason he needs to watch her do a little skinny dipping.

On the other hand, Cable is shown to be a perfectly competent Special Agent. She can handle herself in a one-on-one fight, pays attention to important things that others overlook, and isn’t disdained or talked down to for being a woman.

It still has its flaws, of course. But by dwelling on those, you miss the point. This isn’t some Gymkata or Starcrash, where you sit slackjawed at the screen wondering what the heck it was that you just saw. This is a decent enough monster movie for a rainy afternoon.

For some strange reason, after the success of the first two Superman movies, DC felt the next character of theirs that needed to appear on the silver screen would not be Batman or Wonder Woman – but a more recent minor character. Swamp Thing was created by writer Len Wein and artist Bernie Wrightson in 1971. This movie turned out to be a reasonable success, so DC decided to keep him around. He’s popped up in the DC Universe quite often, being seen with the Justice League on several occasions – even having his own TV series in the early 90s. He’s in a new series on the DC streaming service these days. Guess Holland really did find a sort of immortality.

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