The first Wes Craven movie I ever saw was “Swamp Thing”. For a few months in 1982, I was convinced that this was the greatest comic-book adaptation movie I’d ever seen. Therefore, it was also one of the greatest movies I’d ever seen.
In 1982? There was no “Batman” with Keaton and Nicholson. There was no “Iron Man”. Sam Raimi hadn’t unleashed “Evil Dead 2”, let alone “Spider-Man.” Comic book movies…well, they were mostly TV movies. And they were (mostly) awful. Google “Spider-Man TV series” or “Captain America TV Movie” if you don’t believe me. The pinnacle of comic-book adaptations was Richard Donner’s Superman, released in 1978.
But prior to that?
“Batman” with Adam West and Burt Ward. A TV show that debuted in 1966.
(Mind you, “Batman” starring Adam West is still light years ahead of the Joel Schumacher “Batman” movies, but… moving on…)
I started reading the “Swamp Thing” comics in 1982. I started with the Martin Pasko/Tom Yeates run. (There is a lovely look at this run here if you want to look.) And, yeah. I knew that there had been an earlier, original run, written by Len Wein and illustrated by Bernie Wrightson. I scoured flea markets and second-hand book shops for any and all of those issues I could find. Because, well… the covers looked awesome in the tiny little black & white reproductions in my dad’s Overstreet Comic Book price guide.
(This was (SIGH) “pre-internet,” kids. Feel my pain.)
Anyway, I can’t remember if I started reading “Swamp Thing” because I’d heard there was a movie, or if I was interested in the movie “Swamp Thing” because it was based on a comic book. Those two facts were so utterly intertwined in my head it seems impossible to consider them as seperate skeins.
The Pasko/Yeates’ comic was less… drippy and gothic than the original Wein/Wrightson run. It had an ongoing story-arc, for one thing. The original was much more of a stand-alone, month-to-month sort of series. And where the early run was all about Lovecraftian tentacle horror, the Pasko/Yeates run was much more concerened with Satanic cult-type threats. The horror wasn’t in monsters in basements, it was in the town full of “good people” who would sacrifice you on a bale of hay. And words. LOTS of words.
So… where was I? Oh. Right. Wes Craven’s movie.
The movie was a fairly straight-ahead retelling of the comic-book origins: Dr. Alec Holland is working on miracle “science stuff” in a swamp, when evil people arive and destroy his lab while Holland is still inside. Burned and twisted by the chemicals, Holland dives into the swamp waters where he undegoes a transformation into a gigantic plant-man creature… a “swamp thing” if you will. In his human form, Alec Holland was played by Ray Wise. (Years later, David Lynch would cast Wise as Leland Palmer in the TV series “Twin Peaks”; and if you don’t know why you should appreciate that, I’m very upset.) Stuntman Dick Durock was the “Swamp Thing” version of Holland. “House on the Edge of the Park” star David Hess played one of the baddies. The two “big” stars were Adrienne Barbeau (“Escape From New York”) as Alice Cable (the sort-of love interest) and Louis “Gigi” Jordan as Arcane, the utterly-a-villain Villain of the piece.
I remember reading about the movie in Starlog magazine before it was released in theatres. They made a big deal about how it had the longest run by a stuntman on fire. A lot of talk with Adrienne Barbeau about her character motivation. “It’s not a horror movie” she stated. “I don’t really like horror movies. This is more of a ‘Beauty & The Beast’ story”
And boy did I eat it up.
Not only was the hero a recognizable “comic book” character (some scenes were even storyboarded from the original comic panels), he was the best kind of character to a 10-year old’s mind: a monster who was a “good guy” under the horrific exterior.
(You will never convince me that the underlying appeal of Batman isn’t the fact that he’s essentially terrifying: a good guy in a bad guy’s outfit.)
I loved the way this movie made the “Monster” an overt hero. He was practically immortal as long as he was in the swamp. Super strong, immune to bullets, possessed of amazing healing powers… and yet, he yearned to be human again. Surely if this movie had been a hit (which it was most assuredly not, despite a favorable review from none less than Roger Ebert) we would have followed Alec Holland attempting to regain his humanity while wrecking havoc on any thug who stood in his way. It’s mana from heaven for a boy about to hit puberty.
I had no idea of Wes Craven’s filmography when I saw this movie. I did not know that he was the guy behind “Last House On The Left” or “The Hills Have Eyes”. Years later, when “Nightmare on Elm Street” was released, I didn’t make the connection that this (arguably seminal) piece of horror cinema was created by the same guy who’d made the first “real” comic book movie I’d ever seen. I dismissed those movies as “gory garbage.”
It wasn’t til years later, when I actually, y’know… WATCHED those movies, and read interviews with Craven, that I realized that here was a genuine auteur. One who worked in the shadows of the grindhouse genre movies; albeit ones of a slightly higher pedigree than the Herschel Gordon Lewises. Craven knew how to hit the buttons of an audience who wanted a cheap thrill of violent release. But there was always (well, almost always) an underlying thread of tenderness in his films. I’d argue that the tiny moments of tenderness is exactly what makes “Last House…” or “Hills…” so god damn disturbing. And nowhere did he deploy it to greater effect than in “Swamp Thing”.
(And yes, I will argue that “Swamp Thing” is a more “tender” movie than the worthily dull “Music of the Heart” that Craven made in 1999 as an attempt to break out of the horror genre.)
Watch the scene where Swamp Thing tries to act like Alec Holland in the burnt-out shell of his lab. Holding beakers in his vine and slime encrusted hands to no avail. There is a genuine pathos and sympathy for the “monster” that James Whale could only hint at in his Frankenstein movies of the 30s. As a little kid watching this, I didn’t think twice about the absurdity of that scene. It just made sense to me. And it touched me. In a weird way, it prepared me for movies like “Remains of the Day” and “Paris, Texas”.
Adrienne Barbeau was right. It really is always about beauty and the beast. And Wes Craven, more than most, got that.
Wesley Earl Craven
8/2/1939 – 8/30/2015