I’d never seen Wes Craven’s 1982 film Swamp Thing prior to taking on this project. I honestly don’t know how I never saw it, since it seems like it would be my bailiwick. I wasn’t as into comics when I was little, however. I went straight for the jugular when it came to genre fiction and immersed myself from an early age in horror. I didn’t start seriously taking note of the comics world until my teens. Also, by the time I did start showing an interest in comics, Swamp Thing wasn’t necessarily the comic hero I was looking for.
Interestingly, Craven knew nothing of the character when he agreed to take on the movie. He stated in a commentary on the movie that this was because the church in which he grew up didn’t permit comics. Perhaps he meant that, because he grew up not reading comics as a child, he never saw the value of doing so as an adult, since Swamp Thing didn’t debut until 1972—around the time that Craven was baptizing himself in the horror genre with his first film. However, when you get offered the chance to direct another (mostly) well-funded film? You at least show an interest.
And so it was that Craven dove into the Swamp Thing mythos, emerging not only with a keen desire to direct the film but also to write the script. Perhaps he learned his lesson with the co-writing duties on Deadly Blessing. Or perhaps he simply could not resist the inspiration he found submerged in the depths of the creature’s swampy abode. Whatever the reason, the end result was campy and fun and exuding that charmed naturalistic interaction among characters that easily was one of Craven’s greatest writing skills. Plus, as Roger Ebert wrote of this film, Craven “betrays a certain gentleness and poetry” within his script.
It was, in fact, no secret that Craven wanted to be more than a director of horror movies. In truth, he’d never intended on choosing this genre as his ultimate path. However, there was a clear vein of fascination within him when it came to exploring the darker elements of humanity. As someone who experienced a slice of Baptist living through my schooling, I would attribute this to being constantly surrounded by the discussion of sin, the damning of souls, images of crucifixion and torture in the afterlife. I don’t think that people truly understand the torment that is religion upon a young mind. It can be brutal and warping, especially when force-fed upon a child with no counterbalance.
With this film, Craven got to remove himself from that darkness and explore a (slightly) less traumatic world, and to do so with the consideration and erudition of a mind that never seemed to cease exploring, questioning, examining, or creating. Craven’s creature is gentle and patient, and even capable of finding laughter and joy in his unexpected and rather dismal situation. That’s not to say he isn’t capable of causing pain or even killing, but it’s as a last resort rather than as an only solution.
Again, there is a delicious element of camp all through this film—that sense of “mad scientist” storytelling, wrapped in an adventure caper, and tied together with a gory little bow for good measure. Just a little gore. Because Craven. There’s also a bit of what even Craven described as gratuitous nudity. There was a prevailing and persistent notion throughout the 80s that genre movies needed to shoe-horn in as many gratuitous shots of naked breasts as possible, to entertain the young male demographic they knew was their target audience. Because, clearly, boys lack the ability to be entertained unless there’s the promise of BEWBS.
[Loba Tangent: Interestingly, there were even more BEWBS in the European release of this film, and when Warner Home Video released the film on video here in the States, they “accidentally” released the European version. I’m sure there were lots of happy boys getting way more than their parents assumed would be in a PG-rated movie.]
In addition to the persistence of pointless female nudity in this film (and genre fiction in general), we also get something that has always irritated me: the “Tripping Heroine” trope. Yes, the lead female character, Alice Cable, trips and falls a few times in this film—enough times that Craven’s daughter Jessica called him on using such a tired trick. Her disappointment would later lead Craven to sit down and consider merits for a new heroine he was already working on…but that’s for another discussion.
Quite a few recognizable names appear in Swamp Thing, including Adrienne Barbeau, Ray Wise, Louis Jourdan, David Hess (Krug from Craven’s The Last House on the Left,) and Craven’s future second wife, Mimi Meyer. Interestingly, Dick Durock pretty much stumbled into the role of the Swamp Thing in a fluke that would serve him quite well throughout a good portion of the rest of his career. Craven hired the stunt man to don the Swamp Thing costume to perform a lot of the more rigorous action scenes that Ray Wise’s character would need to do. However, he looked so different in the costume from Wise that Craven couldn’t get the scenes to blend convincingly enough. In the end, Wise appeared only as the human version of Dr. Alec Holland and Durok became the eponymous character. When the inevitable sequel came along in 1989, Durok reprised his role and then proceeded to play the character for all three seasons of the television show. Not bad for unplanned.