Before Spider-Man's Sam Raimi revealed his comic book transformation talents in 1990's Darkman, Wes Craven showed he had the right stuff to apply a limited budget to a DC comic to create campy fun with his 93-minute Swamp Thing. Of course those were the early 80s—before box office riches of the Scream franchise turned the heads of producers. Early Wes Craven B-movies relied on creativity and subtle humor as they clunked along. Swamp Thing also sports a superior heroine and a classy villain, along with some great supporting location work by a South Carolina swamp.
As the camera pans over the lush swamp in the opening, a warning about how the creative genius of one man collides here with another's evil dream, creating a monster
Too powerful to be destroyed,
A fitting prelude, and one that really doesn't give away the essence of the story. Immediately the camera switches overhead to a helicopter, where Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau) jokes about area restaurants that is equally countered with a remark about alligator snacks and a reference to Washington D.C. She appears to be flying in on government assignment, but we are left wondering about this as the camera then switches to a swamp militia going through mysterious maneuvers below. Whether they are good or evil will soon be resolved, though casting David Hess (from Last House on the Left) as militia leader is a pretty obvious clue.
Too intelligent to be captured.
This being still pursues its savage dream.
Cable soon hooks up with idealistic Dr. Alec Holland (Ray Wise), a scientist desiring to cure world hunger who conducts his research in the swamp because "this is where the life is." He has just come up with a luminescent lime-colored formula that gives aggressive animalistic behaviors to plants, causing them to grow at enormous rates—nearly as fast as he falls for Cable. No sooner are the results of the experiment known than the evil Dr. Antone Arcane (Louis Jordan) shows up on the scene with a gang of thugs. Holland spills the volatile formula all over himself, leading to a private burning man festival that continues like firecrackers when he jumps into the swamp.
That's when the real fireworks of the campy drama are set off. Barbeau shows her stuff (in more than one way) and is no mere damsel in distress. More along the lines of Alien's Sigourney Weaver, Barbeau outsmarts the adversaries most of the time or punches them out or kicks them in the balls when confronted. Watch out when they gang up on her—that's when her benevolent green swamp creature protector tosses the thugs aside like toothpicks.
OK, so it sounds hokey, but it's still fun. Monsters from classics predictably fall for the beautiful women—in The Creature from the Black Lagoon and King Kong, the beauties lead to their downfall. However, more recent cartoon super heroes like Spider-Man, Batman, and Darkman find that they must isolate themselves from mankind for one reason or another. What about the creature in Swamp Thing then? As a hybrid of the two, what fate lies ahead for him? If the box office had been larger, we might have seen sequels address this more than leave things as ambiguous as Craven does in this film, but that is one of its charms.
Scattered throughout are touches of unpretentious humor that tie the audience in with the characters. One of the funnier sequences occurs when the evil Arcane tests out the formula on one of his unsuspecting henchmen, and Craven uses non-professional actor Reggis Batts to comic perfection as Jude, a laid back African American teen. He has running commentaries for the confrontations he witnesses and cleverly times his, "There goes the neighborhood" quip when meeting the swamp creature.
It also contains some beautifully shot swamp scenes, and appropriately cartoonish editing wipes in the well-paced melodrama. Other cuts show remarkable artistry for such a low budget film—an early human scream transitions to another set of characters listening to screeching bird calls. Had Craven stuck with this style into the 90s, his hardcore legion of fans would continue to pay homage to his low-rent flicks, but there's no money in that. Still, those who can see the beauty of Swamp Thing realize that Craven can craft a masterfully entertaining film on a limited budget; in fact, some of his best work was done long before Hollywood dumped megabucks on his projects.