Long before what we now understand as the Golden Age of Comic Book Movies, the pickings were slim for fans keen on seeing their favourite spandex-clad superheroes on the silver screen. Richard Donner’s Superman had only opened in 1978 and the public at large was most likely not ready to embrace comic books as a serious source material for cinematic treatment. Granted, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America and others featured prominently on TV, but I don’t think I’d be too far off the mark if I assumed these works were never taken as anything more than entertainment for children.
So why exactly would Wes Craven, a man who had remained more or less consistently faithful to the horror genre, become attracted to a comic book material, which – by the way – was completely niche? I have scratched my head about this for a while now and I don’t think I have a solid enough answer that would satisfy my curiosity completely. However, it has to be said that Swamp Thing, as it was written, bore very few similarities with other mainstream comic book properties like Batman, Spider-Man or Superman. In fact, its closest relative in this regard would probably The Incredible Hulk, and only because it was also at its core a gothic horror. However, while The Incredible Hulk was directly related to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Swamp Thing did not have such a singular and immediate connection.
Instead, it is probably best described as a distillate of inspirations drawn from Frankenstein, The Phantom of the Opera, Beauty and the Beast and Herbert George Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau. As such, the mythos surrounding the character of Dr Alec Holland – a scientist who suffers a tragic accident and becomes a human-plant hybrid – lends itself to project very many themes upon. It not too difficult for it to become a straight-up cautionary tale about man’s tragic pursuit of godly powers, or equally to turn it into a gothic romance. And something tells me that Craven was more likely drawn to the former, rather than to the latter of these two narrative possibilities, the play on the mad scientist archetype.
In fact, it might be conceivable to see his take on Swamp Thing as a veiled continuation of his own journey as a storyteller, which began with The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, as these two films carried a fair degree of criticism aimed at the American society of their respective times: one of them was satirizing the hippie counterculture and the other the post-WWII advancements in nuclear technologies and the Cold War. In this spirit, Swamp Thing could serve as a discussion about the role of science in society and even an illustration of the danger it poses to the natural world. Naturally, this was hardly new at the time. The Blob and Soylent Green were early reflections upon the dangers of global warming while The Night of the Living Dead and Westworld carried messages more squarely aimed at the pursuit of scientific discovery.
Craven’s adaptation of Swamp Thing manages to capture both of these mindsets, which is both its most interesting trait and the cause of its undoing. On one level, it is simply fascinating to observe this neo-gothic collage of themes and ideas evolve into a veiled environmentalist sermon, which still carries a distinct exploitation flavour within its own genetic code. However, it eventually goes completely off the rails and descends into incomprehensible madness by the time the credits roll, which – ironically enough – makes the entire film somewhat comparable to the now infamous adaptation of The Island of Dr Moreau directed by Richard Stanley and later John Frankenheimer.
I think it’s safe to say that Swamp Thing was a bizarre movie for Wes Craven to make because he clearly wanted to return to an exploitation aesthetic he briefly abandoned with Deadly Blessing, while at the same time he was working with material that simply asked for a slightly different treatment. As depicted by Craven, Swamp Thing is perhaps a bit too campy for its own good, as its stylized and low-fi production value works against the viewer immersion. In short, it is undeniably difficult (especially now) to see past the poor special effects, acting deficiencies on behalf of every single cast member, tonal inconsistencies and story-level inadequacies that would easily be overlooked in a bona fide exploitation picture.
However, I don’t necessarily think Swamp Thing truly aspires to be one. In all actuality, I am not sure what it aspires to be in the first place as it is equally a corny adaptation of a comic book property that nobody heard of at the time, a solemn indictment of scientific discovery disguised in genre apparel, and an accidental precursor to The Toxic Avenger, both in terms of its production value and tone. It’s a movie that wants to be taken seriously and be tongue-in-cheek at the same time which only makes it look ludicrous because there is very little else in it to hang your hat onto.
Put simply, Swamp Thing was just too far ahead of its time because audiences at the time were completely unequipped to take a movie like this with even a modicum of seriousness and any studio would not throw enough money at it to make the film look the part either. Thus, it is just a bizarre oddity – an exploitation gothic horror loosely based on genre literature from the turn of the century that raised critical questions regarding man’s scientific pursuits while it wasn’t busy tipping the hat to Ed Wood and Roger Corman.