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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Panel Vision - Swamp Thing '82

Edited by Robert Beach

So by this point you’ve probably heard that over the weekend we lost horror legend Wes Craven. Of the many titans of horror, Craven looms incredibly large, having completely redefined the horror landscape on no less than 4 separate occasions. His impressive body of work includes classics like Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream.

In addition, his work includes as bizarre-yet-iconic cult classics like The People Under the Stairs, The Hills Have Eyes, Serpent and the Rainbow, and Last House on the Left. Craven also had a wide body of stranger and unfairly looked over installments, including the one I’ve chosen to spotlight today in memory of this film legend: Swamp Thing. 

(this print by Francesco Francavilla

1970s Comics at the Big Two

Swamp Thing is one of the stranger creations of a strange mind like Craven’s. Not the film itself, the actual content of Swamp Thing is fairly standard for the ‘80s. No, I’m referring to the very fact that someone adapted Swamp Thing at all. In case the Panel Vision banner didn’t give it away, Swamp Thing is an adaptation of a comic book character, a relatively obscure DC comics hero. Swamp Thing first shambled to life in 1971 in a short story in the DC anthology horror comic House of Secrets. In the ‘70s, comics were undergoing a strange sort of shifting aesthetic. 

As the ‘60s dwindled, editorial oversight at both DC and Marvel realized that they were now facing a body of readers who had been following comics for a decade. Even though their readership was pretty secure, they were also growing up and going to want more grownup stories and aesthetics from comic books. This is part of why the ‘70s is my favorite era of comics; it was the time when publishers were trying to maintain a reader base with more mature story structure and content while still catering to younger sensibilities. 

A big part of this push was the reintroduction of horror comics and horror aesthetics into the world of the big two publishers. This is what led to stuff like Marvel comics’ Tomb of Dracula and Ghostrider comics. On the DC side, they opted to revive their past as was their custom.  The main push was with anthology comics: some twisted classic characters like the Spectre to tell more horror-oriented stories while others were straight revivals of old comics like House of Secrets.

That’s where Swamp Thing first appeared as a single-issue story that proved shockingly popular, prompting DC to give him a solo comic of his own. The solo comic is decent, but never proved a massive success, leading to Swamp Thing fading away after only 13 issues. The character would’ve remained consigned to the dustbin of obscurity if it hadn’t been for Wes Craven.

Wes Craven's Influence 

Prior to Swamp Thing, Craven had already been established through his uniquely disturbing blend of low-rent exploitation cinema with hard-edged brutality. By this point, he had already made the now iconic Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes. Both of which made him a critical curiosity and cult favorite if not exactly a blockbuster filmmaker and it’d be another 2 years before Nightmare on Elm Street made him a sought-after director; however, Nightmare on Elm Street may never have happened if not for Swamp Thing. 

As both a life-long movie geek and comic geek, Craven wanted to produce a B movie-type flick, so he approached DC at about adapting the forgotten character of Swamp Thing. DC had already enjoyed major success at the start of the decade with Superman and Superman II. The two films were produced by WB, so they agreed to let Craven make the Swamp Thing film. This was actually Craven’s first interaction with WB. This was also part of why he eventually came back to them through the subsidiary of New Line Cinema when most other studios had turned him down for Nightmare on Elm Street. 

The Swamp Thing movie itself is…okay. That’s really about the sum of it, hence how much of this review has been based around the surrounding history and making of. It’s by no means a bad film and is way better than some of Craven’s late-period disappointments like Curse or My Soul to Take, but it’s still nothing mind blowing. Honestly it’s more impressive for how rare a beast it seems to be among DC Comics adaptations and ‘80s cinema. It’s no secret DC Comics has always wanted good adaptations, especially good adaptations that don’t involve Batman or Superman. The fact Swamp Thing got a movie (and it’s pretty good) is like a Herculean feat in and of itself.

Swamp Thing '82 

The movie is a pretty basic retread of the character’s origins; the brilliant scientist Alec Holland is developing an animal/plant growth serum thing when an accident blows him into the nearby swamp he foolishly located his laboratory in. In this case, Craven alters the origin to have the “accident” be the result of sabotage by the villainous Anton Arcane who hopes to steal Holland’s research for bad doings. Out of the explosion comes the hideous human plant creature Swamp Thing that enacts brutal vengeance on Arcane and his forces. 

As I said, the weirdest thing about Swamp Thing is how rare its blend of aesthetics actually is. The stuff with Swamp Thing’s creation and visual realization of the character are deliberate references to the classic Universal monsters. The eerie atmosphere of the stillness of the swamps is straight out of Creature From The Black Lagoon while Swamp Thing’s monstrous anti-hero nobility is drawn heavily from Bride of Frankenstein. Additionally, all of the films transitions are done with purposefully antiquated wipes from scene to scene as a deliberate homage to the horror classics. 

Craven blends this aesthetic with a serious grounding in B-movie tropes and mechanics from the ‘50s.  There are "Schlocky" latex masks, creepy mansions with hidden dungeons, elaborate laboratories, and monster action from the Swamp Thing himself and some nudity from Adrienne Barbeau. It’s an odd blending, yet one that perfectly fits the overall ‘80s cinema scene of odd-duck directors who grew up with movies making homages to the movie junk food they enjoyed as kids. 

Swamp Thing '82 Legacy 

In a way, Swamp Thing was ahead of its time. Nowadays, the idea of sympathizing with the monster is fairly common ground, but in 1982, that was actually unheard of. It would be another 4 years till Troma’s Toxic Avenger came around, which ultimately feels like Swamp Thing 2.0 at this point, and gave the idea a second life to set us up for stuff like Monster Squad, Beetlejuice, Nightbreed to round out the decade.

By the time the ‘90s came around, the idea of sympathetic monsters was more acceptable, and it’s basically commonplace given the success of stuff like Twilight or True BloodSwamp Thing was the first to ever attempt this approach and really succeed at it. Despite the film being relatively forgotten today, it was actually a major success.

Swamp Thing was a strong success given its weird B-movie nature and obscure title character. The film spawned a direct sequel, a brief animated series, and a live-action TV show that lasted 3 seasons. And yet, it’s greatest achievement was leading to a Swamp Thing comic revival.  To capitalize on the presumed success of the film, DC actually produced a new Swamp Thing comic in 1982 called Saga of the Swamp Thing. That book eventually came under the stewardship of comics legend Alan Moore, and he turned it into a major title full of surrealist weirdness and adult storytelling.  

Moore’s take on the character became a major hit and the standard realization of Swamp Thing, eventually migrating over from the main DC universe into the DC adult-oriented imprint Vertigo.  Even the supporting characters in Swamp Thing became major hits as this was the comic where John Constantine, English street wizard, first appeared. Given that Constantine’s Hellblazer comic was another of Vertigo’s flagship titles alongside Swamp Thing, it’s safe to say without Wes Craven and his Swamp Thing movie Vertigo Comics wouldn’t exist. Just another amazing achievement in a great talent gone too soon.   

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