Blu-ray review: Swamp Thing (1982)

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Swamp Thing (1982)
88 Films, certificate 15 (out 25 March)
Originally written for Dark Side magazine

The opportunity to write and direct a screen adaptation of the Len Wein / Bernie Wrightson horror comic came at an interesting juncture in Wes Craven’s career. Having navigated his way out of hardcore pornography through exploitation cinema (The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes) into the horror mainstream (Deadly Blessing), Swamp Thing allowed Craven to demonstrate his ability to handle action scenes, location work, special effects and a relatively tight $2.5m budget. Unfortunately, despite bringing the project in on schedule and within Avco Embassy’s cost estimates, it would be nearly three years before A Nightmare on Elm Street earned him wider recognition (by which time any comics fans picking up Swamp Thing on VHS would probably wonder why it diverged so much from Alan Moore’s 1983 reboot).

The movie was clearly aimed at a family audience, although 88 Films has chosen to go with the ‘European cut’; this version features brief nudity excised from the original US theatrical release, most notably a sequence in which its well-endowed heroine Adrienne Barbeau (The Fog, Escape from New York) skinnydips under the no doubt sexually frustrated gaze of mutated biologist Alex Holland (stunt man Dick Durock, who stepped in to play the beast of the bayou after Ray Wise (Twin Peaks) found the costume too clumbersome). Heading the cast as the urbane mad scientist Anton Arcane is Hollywood veteran Louis Jourdan (1977’s Count Dracula), who was most likely fulfilling a contractural obligation when he reprised the role in Jim Wynoski’s decidedly less effective 1989 sequel The Return of Swamp Thing.

In the excellent commentary track hosted by Sean Clark (Horror’s Hallowed Grounds), Craven readily admits there were problems with the production values – Jourdan’s climatic transformation into some kind of sword-wielding werewolf is more comical than comicbook – but Swamp Thing remains a fun romp, much of its charm lying in its being produced in an era before computer graphics became a kneejerk panacea for lazy film-makers.

Extras: slipcase, 16pp photobook and A3 poster (limited edition only); commentary by Wes Craven, which drops out during the nude scenes; interviews with production designer Robb Wilson King, critic Kim Newman; original trailer. The HD restoration is very nicely handled and my only regret is that 88 Films weren’t able to import the additional commentary by makeup artist William Munns and interviews with Adrienne Barbeau and Len Wein which appeared on Shout Factory’s 2013 Blu-ray (although that release omits Ms Barbeau’s steamy ablutions).

Heavy On the Cheese

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A rather leftfield thought struck me about the choice of actress Brie Larson to play Captain Marvel in the latest MCU cgi-fest, a move which has not escaped controversy. Might the casting team have confused her character with the original Captain Marvel, now billed (for convoluted legal reasons) as Shazam and long nicknamed “the big red cheese” by comics fans. After all, if you’re looking for a dairy product, why not a Brie? In any case, all these corporations really care about is the cheddar.

Hey, I didn’t claim it was a good theory…

Comics Clearance

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Just a quick note to mention I’m currently shedding quite a few comics from my collection (plus another I inherited). They’re going up in batches at my eBay account.

The latest item to get snapped up was a copy of Sandman #1, which I’ve since learned the new owner plans to get CGC-graded and slabbed before framing and displaying. He also only plans to make one such purchase each year, which isn’t quite how I’d define a comics fan, unless all he was interested in was the Dave McKean cover.

No More Heroes

No Capes Required

[From Procrastinations #5, 2008. This was the first half of a projected memoir inspired by the editor’s choice of ‘comics’ as an over-arching theme, but the second installment remains in the aether.]

 

You never forget your first love, and my own was comics. Not just the weekly anthologies peculiar to these shores, but the American superhero titles which in an oh-so-recent era were crammed into rotating metal racks in almost every corner newsagency. For every copy of Valiant or The Dandy, a glossy-covered and freshly-imported Fantastic Four or Tales to Astonish.

Shortly after I hit my teens, US tv executives finally wised up to the fact that comics were popular enough to merit their own series, thrusting their versions of The Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man and Wonder Woman upon the telesphere. That the last of these – Lynda Carter, a former Miss World USA in a shiny basque – proved the most accurate translation to screen pretty much sums up just how useless the rest of the field was.

~~~

superman-the-movie-movie-poster-1978-1010359887By the early 1980s, the success of Superman: The Movie and its first sequel – not to mention the middle-section Star Wars fables – had raised the ante. Tv networks and the direct-to-video market both tried to respond, but their hands were tied: soon as you bought the licensing rights to a major-league superhero and set aside the cash for minimal special effects, there was nothing left to license the requisite supervillains. Let’s be frank here: watching some bland goon in a spandex costume “battle” a gang of rogue bikers (The Flash), minor Mafia hoods (The Punisher) or manic mystics (Supergirl) is mildly more entertaining than stirring your own teacup.

Even the heightened cultural profile of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and the Alan Moore / Dave Gibbons breakthrough Watchmen failed to persuade tv execs to shift gear. Whilst both Superboy [1988-92] and Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman [1993-97] survived into a fourth season (the latter finally jumping the shark with an unbelievably absurd nativity reprise), neither had any more dramatic depth than most of the ludicrous yarns churned out during DC’s “silver age” (the birthplace of such atrocities as Krypto, Bat-Mite and Superhorse).

~~~

The launch of Smallville in 2001 marked a signal change in screen superheroism – with DC (now part of the Warner Bros cartel) aping Marvel by switching the focus from caped crusading to the more personal traumas of a teenage metahuman. Whilst the series remained in constant danger of fixating upon the “meteor mutant of the week” format, its attempt to dissect Kal-El’s family life – previously as impenetrable as the quasi-“S” on his chest – was an obvious nod to the genre influence of Miller and Moore.

The background detail, of course, was the sudden availability of cinema-quality special effects for higher-budget tv series. Where once George Reeve would hop out of a set window and assume his audience would presume he could actually fly above the cardboard skyline, Tom Welling could now juggle tractors and catch passing bullets with an ease unseen since the classic 1940s Fleischer Studios animations. Indeed, the only manoeuvre this version of Clark Kent couldn’t perform was slipping out of his civilian clothes (semi-regulation red and blue, ‘natch) into the uniform we all know so well: franchise copyright turns out to be even more powerful than Kryptonite.

~~~

But this remained ersatz Marvel: there was still a crying need for a series in which the central characters amounted to rather more than the sum total of their multi-coloured gym shorts. We needed tortured souls, twisted egos, doomed affairs, deranged villains, acts of personal bravery undermined by arrogance and self-interest – and all of this built into an intersecting cascade of story-arcs.

~~~

In other words, we needed Heroes.