Alec Holland is turned into the Swamp Thing through the actions of some incompetant paramilitary henchmen working for Dr Anton Arcane, an alleged genius who is after Holland's Magic Formula. Oh, and the female lead, Alice Cable, is sexually harassed many, many times.
Dr Anton Arcane (Louis Jourdan)
Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau)
Doctor Alec Holland (Ray Wise)
Ferret, Arcane's Commando Leader (David Hess)
Bruno, Ferret's Henchman (Nicholas Worth)
Harry Ritter, Holland's Chief of Security (Don Knight)
Charlie, Holland's Assistant (Al Ruban)
Swamp Thing (Dick Durock)
Arcane Monster (Ben Bates)
Dr Linda Holland, Alec's Sister (Nannette Brown)
Jude (Reggie Batts)
Arcane's Secretary (Mimi Craven)
Censorship Rating: PG (but there is some nudity and horror themes in it ...)
"Swamp Thing" was directed by Wes Craven (Nightmare on Elm Street and other horror films are probably what he's best known for) but it probably isn't one that he brings up often at parties. It comes from a deep, dark time - the 1980's - when comic book films were rare and the Richard Donner / Christopher Reeve Superman had come out a few years before to make a lot of money. What probably attracted Craven to "Swamp Thing" was its horror theme... and the fact it could be shot for a low budget. Almost wherever you look, "Swamp Thing" proudly shows off its B-grade roots, for good and bad (mostly bad, sometimes hilariously so).
Opening location: a swamp. Some cliche-ridden text tells us something about a genius and evil and a monster "too powerful to be destroyed, too intelligent to be captured". It has absolutely nothing to do with what happens in the movie and doesn't make a lot of sense to boot.
Cut to a helicopter flying over the swamp. It carries a big-haired woman and grey haired man. Back down in the swamp where some paramilitary types are making their way through the trees. They are moving stealthily but in single file and close together (which is a bit of a military no-no according to my limited knowledge). One guy, who is in a red bandana ala Rambo, is closest to the camera. His name is Ferret [not that we learn this until much later on... in fact, we don't learn the names of many characters until a long time after we first see them on screen].
Cut back to the helicopter, which lands. It is met by a boat carrying a man who the woman is replacing. "What, they sent a woman out here?", says the guy who is leaving (sexual harassment count [SHC]: 1). [As an observation, the woman doesn't look particularly well dressed for working in a swamp.]
Cut to another guy out in a boat. He's by himself and also isn't particularly well dressed for being in a swamp. Hopping out of the boat [and probably ruining his shoes and pants as a result] he stumbles across the paramilitary squad, but is caught when Ferret leaps from off-camera. The man manages to escape when Ferret tries to attack him with a machete. After a brief struggle and badly-thrown punch, he is re-captured. Ferret pulls a poisonous snake from his pants [hello, Dr Freud!] that bites the man on the face. He screams, but all this does is scare some birds.
The woman arrives at camp, which is set up in an abandoned church. The grey-haired man is on the boat with her (his name is Charlie) and tells her that this operation is being wound up in the near future. Apparently "Washington" [what, the entire state? The capital city?] has decided that the research and its main researcher, Dr Alec Holland, needs to be out of the swamp.
Getting off the boat onto the dock, she is leered at all the men who see her (SHC:2). Charlie takes her into a "high-tech" [read: lots of flashing lights on equipment with long names] monitoring station. "You probably haven't seen half this stuff", says Charlie (SHC: 3) [because whoever is employing them to work in this swamp probably just sends incompetents to work on field missions (unfortunately, given what happens later on, this appears to be true)]. However, the woman proves him wrong by naming some equipment. Charlie is impressed. The woman sees a flashing light, which apparently means a sensor is malfunctioning. It's a good thing that no-one else is working in that monitoring station, keeping an eye out, or else that paramilitary squad might have some trouble attacking the church [oops, hope I didn't spoil anything for you].
We cut back to the main who was bitten by the snake. Apparently the paramilitary guys just let him go after being bitten. Fortunately for them, he dies without raising an alarm and within earshot of the camp. How do we know it's earshot? Because we can hear someone yelling about covering up the boat so they aren't discovered [because yelling is a great way to remain inconspicuous too]. Finally, we get some introductions - the woman is Alice Cable and the yelling man is Harry Ritter, Project Field Supervisor. Cable tells Ritter that one of the sensors is malfunctioning. Ritter dismisses it. We find out that this operation is being pulled back to Washington because someone called Arcane has gotten wind of it. Ritter dismisses Arcane, then pointedly tells Charlie and Cable not to tell Holland about it.
One "high-tech" security door later and we are in a lab. Here, Cable meets Drs Linda and Alec Holland and wisecracks with them as they search for a 'Coopers Digger' (which looks like a cross between a rabbit and an otter) in a pool of fetid water. Apparently, Drs Holland are working on a Formula. Alec, displaying very good hearing, offers to accompany Cable to investigate the broken sensor. Cable agrees to take Alec, the single most important person in this operation, out to investigate the sensor unaccompanied by anyone else and doesn't tell anyone she's taking him. [What kind of training did she get from "Washington", anyway?]
One costume change into a very ugly top later, Cable is taking Alec across the swamp in a boat. After some tedious dialogue [eg Alec feels like a tree; swamps could feed the world] they get out of the boat and set off through the swamp on foot. This ruins Cable's boots [boy, you sure came equipped to work in a swamp, didn't you Alice?]. After warning about quicksand and alligators, Alec tries to put the moves on Cable by using a swamp orchid and talking about "a million messy miracles" that happen in the human body [smooth Alec, real smooth (SHC: 4)]. Cable tells Alec to save it for his wife. They find the sensor, only to discover it's been ... sabotaged!
They arrive back at base, where things are eerily quiet ... until people start shouting at Cable for taking Alec out of the area without telling anyone. Alec leaps to Cable's defence, but apparently a "stupid broad of an agent" has no place around Alec Holland (SHC: 5). Ritter says that the broken sensor was being repaired by an agent who was attacked by an alligator so they didn't get round to fix it. This doesn't make a lot of sense to me [apparently a lot of agents go off into alligator-infested swamps alone and no-one really cares about fixing broken warning devices in this operation] but everyone in the movie buys it.
A loud explosion comes from inside the lab. Racing in with guns drawn, the agents find that Linda Holland has managed to create some glowing green magic Formula. She demonstrates its explosive capabilities by sticking her unprotected fingers in it (ah, Science!) and then splashing drops onto the ground.
Cable wonders what Alec is up to. Although Alec explains using lots of "high tech" equipment and five dollar words, the short of it is to "create a plant with an animal's aggressive power for survival" [again: ah, Science!]. Alec's aim is to feed the world with his Formula. Cable wonders if this type of science could be misused, but Alec is unconcerned. They experiment on an orchid. Cable manages to offend Alec by being overly flippant about his work, but also finds out that Linda and Alec are siblings rather than married.
Alec discovers that where Linda had dropped the Formula on dead wood, new shoots are now growing. Excited, he calls Linda and snogs Cable (SHC: 6) [perhaps women aren't safe around Dr Alec Holland after all]. Cable goes out to tell Ritter of the success.
Outside, night has fallen very quickly. The paramilitary squad has invaded the camp, but Cable only finds this out when she sees Charlie die on the video monitors. She is attacked by Ferret, but manages to escape him [and pretty easily at that]. Outside, she disarms one man and shoots another [thus becoming more effective than every other agent in this operation] but is captured when Ferret leaps at her from off-camera. [In fact, this appears to be Ferret's superpower - the ability to teleport around and surprise people by leaping from off-camera. He does it a lot throughout the movie].
The squad use Cable to access the lab and knock her out [Ferret also has Judo Chop-action ala Austin Powers]. They grab the Hollands and manage to upset Alec by making a few poorly worded threats and the breaking of an empty beaker.
Ritter appears, revealing himself to be Arcane in disguise. Arcane threatens Linda to make Alec cooperate. Alec cooperates and is the process of handing over his notebooks when Linda makes an attempted escape [sheesh, can't these soldier-types keep anyone captured for longer than 30 seconds?]. Arcane shoots her in the back. [This seems a bit unnecessary - it looks like there is a man about two meters away from the only door leading out, plus how far would Linda get now that the base is covered by Arcane's henchmen? - but I guess we need to see how evil Arcane really is.]
Arcane quotes some Nietzsche to console Alec [because Nietzche is famous for his sympathetic writings]. In response, Alec makes a break for it [these paramilitary guys really do suck] but is stopped by Ferret. During the fight the Formula is knocked over Alec and explodes. Engulfed in flames, Alec runs out into the swamp and dives off the pier. During this excitement, Cable grabs a notebook and escapes. Arcane takes the rest of the notebooks and leaves, telling his men to clean up the camp [ie a "no witnesses" type of clean up, not a "clean up your room" kind of clean up].
The henchmen have finished this clean up by morning, dumping bodies in the swamp. Cable hides the notebook she has in the burnt-out remains of the lab before getting caught by Ferret [who - you guessed it - leaps from off-camera]. Cable also gets dumped in the swamp, where Ferret Judo Chops her and attempts to drown her which the other henchmen find quite amusing. Suddenly, something ... some Swamp Thing ... appears from underwater, dragging Ferret in and overturning the boat. Swamp Thing carries Cable from the water while the paramilitary guys try to shoot him, either showing 1) that Swamp Thing is immune to bullets, or 2) the henchmen shoot as well as Stormtroopers. Swamp Thing hides Cable in some bushes, then goes off to deal with the guys who are trying to shoot him. He takes out a two of the henchmen, notably the two who go off alone. Oh, and one henchman accidently shoots another henchman. [Hope you hired these guys on a cut rate, Arcane...]
Cable gets away. This is her third escape in about 6 hours of film time.
We shift to a mansion. Arcane monologues to his secretary, who is 1) an attractive-ish blonde, 2) sycophantic to the extreme, 3) a very wooden actor, and 4) Mimi Craven, who was Wes Craven's wife at the time. [That's quite a package. According to IMDb.com, this was her first film.]
Anyway, Aracane talks about how that although Holland was talented, genius does what it must and blah blah blah - he obviously loves the sound of his own voice. Regardless, his alleged genius is foiled when he finds out he's missing a notebook. At this point, his henchmen call in to report their problems in the swamp.
[Aside: I'd like to take a moment here to discuss Aracane's alleged genius. Despite talking himself up a lot, at best he appears to 1) do impersonations, 2) quote famous people, 3) hire people who are stupid and incompetent, and 4) monologue in an arrogant fashion. None of these make you a genius - in fact, the hiring of his ineffective cut-price henchmen just makes Arcane appear worse, since apparently he'll sacrifice ability for devotion. I'll agree that he is driven and ruthless, but overall, Arcane just isn't very smart. For instance, finding out that he is missing the final notebook, he is immediately foiled. Sure, he should attempt to recover the notebook, but it would have make him look smarter if he had also attempted to complete the Formula himself and almost succeeded.]
Anyway, Arcane meets with his henchmen back at the swamp [which is apparently just outside his mansion]. The paramilitary guys make excuses and Arcane is disappointed to hear that they let Cable escape [alone, unequipped and into an alligator-infested swamp, which makes her chances of survival somewhere near 100%].
Cable comes across an out-of-order phone box, then [bigger and just next to the phone box, but not visible until it appears on camera] a delapidated petrol station. Sitting out front is Jude [who looks like a teenage version of Urkel and is just as great at komedy (as opposed to comedy, which is actually funny). Unfortunately (or maybe not...) the actor playing Jude speaks low, with his voice occasionally breaking, making it hard to work out what he's saying.]
Cable uses a phone inside the gas station to call her agency in "Washington". The agency puts her through to her immediate superior, who just happens to be Ritter. Since Arcane "replaced" Ritter, Cable ends up leading Arcane straight to her.
Arcane and his goons show up at the petrol station, forcing Cable to flee into the swamp. Although it looks like Cable could easily escape by going cross-country, she elects to rest on, then run straight down, a well-defined track obviously used by vehicles. Realising that she is trapped on this track by the swamp, Cable again tries to run, but trips [because otherwise the henchmen's truck couldn't catch up]. [Two things here: 1) if I was ever faced with a truck trying to run me down, I certainly wouldn't hesitate on going into a swamp, particularly if I've already been in swamp water repeatedly; and 2) I'm sure that Cable keeps getting spotted due to the hideous fashion disaster of a top she is wearing.]
Fortunately, Swamp Thing leaps out to save Cable. The henchmen try to run Swamp Thing down in their truck [although the sound effects indicate that they slam on the breaks before impact, which isn't the best way to run someone over as far as I know] but he just catches the truck and rips the roof off. One henchmen is thrown into the swamp water (he lives) while another is thrown into some leaves (who dies). Swamp Thing also appears to be immune to bullets.
It is here that we get the first good look at the Swamp Thing costume. Although not great - it looks a bit rubbery - it really isn't terrible either. The face is pretty good, actually looking like Swamp Thing of the comics. Overall, it would make a very passable Halloween costume and doesn't show up too badly on film.
Cable looks to get away from Swamp Thing by going into the water [so, you won't go into the water to avoid an oncoming truck, but will get wet to avoid a swamp creature?]. Swamp Thing goes to follow, but Cable tells him to shoo. Swamp Thing shoos. Jude shows up and wonders what happened. Cable doesn't tell him about Swamp Thing. Jude takes Cable to a hunter's cabin "for a fresh change of clothes" (SHC: 7) and because "the swamp's no place to be at night".
Back at the mansion, the henchmen (well, Ferret and his second-in-command Bruno) wonder what Swamp Thing is. They want to give up. Arcane convices them to continue (actually, he says the equivalent of "just get Swamp Thing" and they drop all reservations) and tells them to use Cable as bait.
Swamp Thing goes yelling throughout the swamp, scaring the birds.
Cable, wearing a fresh set of well fitting clothes [exactly what kind of hunter's cabin was this, anyway? One with an attached mall?] has Jude take her back to the church. [In a bit of cultural stereotyping, the white woman (Alice Cable) just sits there while the black man (Jude) does all the work of actually driving the boat. Also, isn't there anyone else at her agency Cable should be calling about this operation? Maybe they'd like to know it has been compromised or something?]
Swamp Thing also makes his way back to the church. Finding Linda's pendant, Swamp Thing has a flashback to when he was Alec. He tries to do some science-type things (ie pour things into beakers) but breaks things by accident. Frustrated, Swamp Thing goes all Hulk-smash on the remnants of the charred lab.
Cable is a bit scared off by this, so she just grabs the notebook and runs away [and actually does the work this time in getting the boat moving too!]. Swamp Thing watches her leave before stopping to admire the beauty of nature.
The henchmen, this time equipped with powerboats and mounted machine guns, close in on Cable, but Swamp Thing distracts them. Cable and Jude decide to set there for a while and watch what is going on [idiots!]. The henchmen go after Swamp Thing by getting really close to the reeds where they know he is hiding. After this doesn't work so well, they start to shoot him from a distance and pound him with grenades, which works much better. Swamp Thing disappears.
For a moment anyway - having learnt a trick off Ferret, Swamp Thing jumps from off-camera and onto the henchmen's boat. Throwing his foes off the boat, the big green guy manages through luck to make two powerboats collide [and as well all know, whenever two things collide, they explode as well].
The henchmen regroup on Arcane's big boat. Drying off, Bruno says that Swamp Thing is really "smart". [Another way of interpreting what has happened - and one with lots of proof - is that the henchmen are just really dumb.] Arcane monologues about Swamp Thing being "like a brilliant chess player" and a "beautiful, dangerous woman" [still no indication of genius there Arcane] and decides to keep after Swamp Thing.
Cut back to Cable, who decides to stay with Swamp Thing. She gives Jude the notebook and tells him to deliver it [way to pass all your responsibilities to someone else Alice!], then leaves him. Moments later there is a cry and Jude appears unconscious / dead in the bottom of the boat. Cable is grabbed by Ferret after he [yet again] comes in from off-camera.
Swamp Thing takes the scenic route in getting to Jude. Using his green glowing swamp magic, Swamp Thing brings Jude back to life. Jude gives Swamp Thing the notebook.
Cable is taken aboard Arcane's boat. It takes about a minute before Ferret is putting the moves on her (SHC: 8), but Cable knees him in the groin and escapes. She swims to shore, but Ferret follows, machete at the ready. Swamp Thing shows up, saying Cable's name. Ferret then cuts off Swamp Thing's arm, which results in Swamp Thing losing his temper and crushing Ferret's head. Cable faints.
The henchmen call for Ferret from the boat. Arcane decides to head home for the day. [So why come out here at all, Arcane?]
Cable wakes to find Swamp Thing offering her flowers. She realises that Swamp Thing is Alec, albeit now green and a slow talker. Apparently reading the notebook has caused Swamp Thing / Alec to remember. After a bit of bonding, she decides to take a gratuitously nude bath in the nice, clean, refreshing swamp. Swamp Thing watches her for a while (SHC: 9) before going off to throw the notebook away.
Cable gets out of her bath and is just dressed before Arcane shows up. He has his henchmen throw a net of Swamp Thing to capture him. Finally, after so many attempts, his henchmen actually catch something the first try and keep it caught. Swamp Thing reveals that he knew of the trap, but "the only way out is through".
Back at the mansion, a rather dull-looking party is being thrown (SHC against waitress: 1). Arcane calls for a toast while a tied up Cable (in a new dress) looks on. With the eyes of the room on him, Arcane monologues. After mourning the loss of Ferret (his bandana is draped over an empty chair) Arcane toasts Bruno's success. After the toast, Arcane reveals that Bruno has just drunk some of Holland's otherwise untested Formula [ah, Science! for the third time]. As a result, Bruno mutates into a dwarf wolfman and scares the other guests.
Arcane goes down into the dungeon to find out why the Formula didn't work as it did for Alec. Swamp Thing says that the Formula "only amplifies your essence" - in short, the Formula judges you then changes your body to suit your true personality. Arcane decides to drink the potion because he is a "genius" [yeah, and saying I'm the King of England doesn't make it so either] and the Formula will obviously enhance that genius. Bruno is locked up with Swamp Thing and Cable. Arcane goes back upstairs and drinks the Formula, topping it off with another monologue [oh, and apparently his mansion really is right on the swamp].
Unsurprisingly, Arcane's transformation doesn't go well. His final form (after a few horrific changes) looks like a bad monster-of-the-week from the original Star Trek series. Arcane gets angry, goes all Hulk-smash on the lab equipment, then grabs a sword.
[I thought and thought and thought, and can't even come close to describing what the Arcane monster looks like, except super-lame. Given that was what Arcane turned into though, what does that say about his "inner essence"?]
Back in the dungeon, Swamp Thing reaches into some sunlight and regrows his arm. With new-found strength, he breaks his chains and frees cable. Bruno shows them a secret switch that lets them out of the dungeon (the switch is there "in case a guard ever got shut in by mistake", which probably happens a lot with these moronic henchmen) and Swamp Thing and Cable escape back to the swamp via a natural spring. Bruno distracts the Arcane monster to help them get away.
Arcane follows Swamp Thing back to the swamp so we can have ourselves a good ol' monster fight. [The fight itself is a bit ponderous, but I have to feel for the guys in the suits - they are fighting in full latex costume while in knee-deep water in the middle of a swamp. I'm sure it wouldn't have been pleasant.]
During this rather slow fight, Arcane stabs Cable with his sword. After dispatching Arcane for the first time, Swamp Thing uses his green glowing swamp magic to bring Cable back to life. Swamp Thing then kills Arcane with his own sword.
Swamp Thing decides to stay in the swamp. He tells Cable to "tell our story" to the world. Jude shows up and they both watch Swamp Thing wander into the distance.
"Swamp Thing" is a below-average b-grade movie that falls down because it is just too slow. It isn't particularly interesting to watch, suffering from poor characters and some pretty bad dialogue.
On the positive side, some of the special effects are pretty good for the budget (Arcane's transformation scenes are interesting to watch) and Swamp Thing's costume is pretty reasonable. Dick Durok, who plays Swamp Thing, should be singled out for special attention - he puts on a great peformance as Swamp Thing, making his character as close to what Swamp Thing is in the comics as you could possibly expect. He obviously got something from it, reprising his role as Swamp Thing in a sequel and then again in the "Swamp Thing" television show.
However, the narrative is terrible - since so little really happens (long-winded overview above aside) it seems full of filler material. "Swamp Thing" seems to suffer a bit from Originitis-A, which is where a comic book film spends too much time on showing how the character came to be what he is. Some time could have been saved by letting Swamp Thing realise he was Alec earlier, letting him actually talk to Cable. All that wandering through the swamp and yelling just isn't that interesting to watch.
My other big problem with "Swamp Thing" is that it is full of characters who have no common sense. Alice Cable appears to be the worst field agent in history, having arrived in a swamp unprepared, taking a VIP off-base without telling anyone, not informing her unnamed agency that the operation has been compromised and handing off a major piece of information to Jude to look after while she just hangs around the swamp. The henchmen are just morons, but occasionally funny in an unintentional Keystone Cops-kind of way. Arcane is quite simply a poor villain, which is a pity since a good villain can make a b-grade film very watchable.
It'd be hard to recommend "Swamp Thing" for anyone to watch, unless they were big fans of the comic. Even then, be warned...
I don't read the comic and have only come across the character in passing. However, I'm pretty sure that Swamp Thing's origin was altered quite a bit for this movie - Alec Holland's true love is Abigail Arcane, niece of Anton Arcane, but she doesn't show up in this movie at all. Also, from memory Anton Arcane was more into insects (setting up a dichotomy of Alec / Swamp Thing / pure nature against Anton / insects / corrupted nature). A lot of the metaphysics of that surround Swamp Thing were also missed.
On the plus side, the costume used in the movie does come pretty close to capturing the look of the character, while Dick Durock plays the big green guy very well.
UPDATE 20 AUG 2005:
Cat Prickett wrote in with a lot more information about the history of Swamp Thing, which I've placed below. Thank you Cat!
"In the Swamp Thing comics, Alec and Linda Holland were husband and wife, which makes the movie's version of them as siblings frankly a bit creepy. "Alice Cable" is obviously supposed to be the Swamp Thing's love interest Abigail Cable -- as you noted, Abby was Anton Arcane's niece, but she didn't keep her maiden name when she married Matt Cable. Also, Abby is a social worker, not a scientist or government agent or whatever.
The character who seems to have been most dramatically lamed-down would be Anton Arcane. Arcane is a being intent on gaining immortality; he's been around for a very long time due to his talent of bodily possession, and he's effectively no longer human. The reason behind the insect motif seems to be less a "corrupted nature" thing and more a demonic thing, likening him to the Lord of Flies. In the "Love and Death" story arc I found him to be one of the scariest comic book villains ever.
The original origin story for Swamp Thing, as written by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson, was that Drs. Alec and Linda Holland had created a super-plant-growth formula with which they hoped to help feed the world; upon refusing to comply with some corporate baddies who wanted to use the formula for their own purposes, the Hollands' lab got blown up with them inside. Alec's body was propelled into the Louisiana bayou, where the growth formula caused the swamp's foliage to transform his dying body into a new creature.
Now, as Alan Moore pointed out when he took over the series, the Hollands' miracle formula is meant only for plants -- it shouldn't have any significant effect on animal tissue. Since Moore took the reins at a point where the Swamp Thing had apparently been killed, he used this as an opportunity to dissect the character both literally and figuratively, explain why he didn't really make sense as originally written, and rebuild him in a way that does. Later on, under the hands of Moore and other writers, the Swamp Thing was guided to the revelation that he's actually a sort of earth elemental.
If you're ever interested in reading some of the series, the best place to start is Saga of the Swamp Thing. The introduction tells you all you really need to know about what was happening previously. This is followed by the equally brilliant Love and Death, famous for containing the first issue which voluntarily forwent the 'Comics Code Authority' stamp."
At the end of the day, Swamp Thing just isn't good (or bad) enough to truly enjoy.
The Arcane monster earns one point all by itself. Lots of other little things (eg Arcane's monologues, the henchmen, Ferret's off-screen teleportation power, Cable's bath in the swamp) combine to give it the other one.
Date of review: 13 January 2005