Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. And yet others thrive on a tone not easily marketed in Hollywood. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these films for what they get wrong — when they get it wrong — and what they did right in spite of the wishes of the studio or the director.
This week: The Return of Swamp Thing
The comic book movie took a long time to get right. 1966’s Batman: The Movie set a camp tone which simultaneously makes it a classic and the model many producers would follow in the decades to come; often to the project’s detriment. 1978’s Superman eschewed camp in favor of a genuine representation of the character. This would turn out to be an outlier as the sequels would get closer to camp — with varying results — and comics were once again meant to be “funny.” This prevailing notion would finally fall away with 1989’s Batman and eventually give way to the “serious with quips” tone of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But in the midst of these developments two Swamp Thing movies were made in the 1980s. Both sort of fly under the radar because they’re both low budget and fairly cheesy. It made the selection difficult, but in the end, 1989’s The Return of Swamp Thing became this weekend’s cheesy movie.
Though, to be honest, either is worthy of the honor.
The plot centers on Abby Arcane (Heather Locklear) a Los Angeles area florist who, after consulting with four different therapists, decides she must resolve her long-standing issues with her step-father Anton Arcane (a returning Louis Jourdan). Somehow, he survived his rather decisive defeat in the first film and resumed his attempts to recreate a serum devised by Dr. Alec Holland (Ray Wise in the first film). The serum allowed Holland to cheat death and become the bayou-dwelling creature known as “Swamp Thing.” As opposed to developments in the comics, both films plainly state Swamp Thing is a reborn Alec Holland as opposed to a sentient plant creature with the doctor’s memories. It’s important to point this out because it informs the tone, which we’ll discuss later.
Abby arrives at the Arcane mansion, where he realizes Abby’s unique genetic structure may hold a clue to perfecting the serum. He invites her to stay, but immediately sends her to another part of the house with Dr. Lana Zurrell (Sarah Douglas), who is in a romantic relationship with the doctor despite his clear preference for blondes.
Since this is a Jim Wynorski movie, all of this set-up is to get to the things he actually likes filming. But for once, that focus is not on breasts. Instead, Abby’s return coincides with a leach-man monster escaping Arcane’s lab and terrorizing the nearby swamps. A very confident Swamp Thing (Dick Durock) emerges from the murky depths to do battle with the leach-man, befriending local kids Omar (RonReaco Lee) and Darryl (Daniel Emery Taylor) in the process.
Not long after, Abby realizes her plight and decides to leave Arcane’s mansion; running into Swamp Thing. The two have an immediate bond via quips, but its cut short when Arcane’s men grab Abby and turn Swamp Thing into sludge. The remaining material makes its way to Arcane’s compound, where a reconstituted Swamp Thing aides Abby’s second escape from the house. But it is only a matter of time before she’s captured again and Swamp Thing must face Arcane and a monster actually fit to fight him.
And if the plot sounds like a reasonable enough story from a Swamp Thing comic, that’s not where you will find the charm. Instead, it is once again comes from director Jim Wynorski. As we’ve discussed at length with some of Wynorski’s other films, he’s sort of a big kid at heart. And during the 1980s, he gravitated toward this sort of material, though usually with more nudity. The Return of Swamp Thing might be his most kid-like movie we’ve discussed to date. The quips come slower as he trains his camera toward the action scenes. Both Swamp Thing and the leach-monster look fantastic and their fight is pretty well-done considering the tiny budget he had to work with. It even ends with Omar and Darryl landing a couple of good quips. Later, Abby’s second escape from Arcane features plenty of gun-play and pyrotechnics while Swamp Thing’s final fight with a monster sees a lavish lab set turn into rubble and flames. Clearly, its the sort of explosion-heavy comic book movie any 9-year-old boy would want to see.
To an extent, it is no wonder he focused on those aspects as, otherwise, the film would be just a little too much like the original. Written and directed by Wes Craven, the 1982 film features Durock as more conflicted Swamp Thing and Adrienne Barbeau as Alice Cable; an ass-kicking amalgamation of Abby and comic book character Matt Cable. In lighting and production design, the film is meant to evoke the more serious nature of Superman while also displaying a slight sense of humor with Alice and Jude (Reggie Batts); a character she meets during the adventure. Nonetheless, Swamp Thing still comes off cheesy because the serious tone supports a dreadful looking Swamp Thing costume and an oddly shallow story.
While Durock looks great in close-up — the actor’s ability to emote though the mask would win him the part in the sequel and the eventual 1990s Swamp Thing television series — the wider shots reveal an over-sized wetsuit affixed with vines to suggest a creature made of plant matter. While it gave Durock a lot of movement, it looks like something straight out of a 1950s monster flick. If that was Craven’s intent, the one can charitable say he was trying to give a goofy rubber monster some pathos.
Wynorski, who appreciated Craven’s film, knew two things he would have to do: change the tone and get a much better costume. Both of these decisions are to the film’s credit. Swamp Thing just looks great from just about every angle and distance. And Durock’s ability to give a performance through the improved costume proves once again why he was the only person to ever play the part in live action until Derek Mears assumed the role in the new DC Universe series.
Meanwhile, the change in tone fixes a deep conceptual problem within The Return of Swamp Thing: its essentially a remake. Jourdan returns because one of the production companies involved demanded a key actor from the first film appear, making the film feel too familiar. Additionally, the broad strokes of the plot — provided by writers Neil Cuthbert and Grant Morris — replicate the plot progression of the first film minus Holland’s transformation into Swamp Thing and Arcane’s transformation into a werewolf creature toward the end. According to Wynorski, he and Deathstalker II star John Terlesky rewrote the script to better suit his strengths as a director and introduce a more humorous tone, which would hide some of the repeated plot points. For the most part, it works, although it is fair to say the intentional camp lands less successfully than in some of Wynorski’s earlier films.
Locklear, for her part, is a pretty able Wynorski heroine. While not as ready for battle as the ladies of Lost Empire, she delivers a few well-placed quips. Ironically, she is both too good and too bad of an actor to make the lines land as effectively as less-trained performers like Deathstalker II‘s Monique Gabrielle; who also appears in the film as one of Arcane’s henchmen and features in a memorable scene in which she and the head of Arcane’s goons talk about their battle scars. Jourdan, meanwhile, is laughably bad here. As in the first film, he’s just too old to get involved in the action and ends up a very weak opponent for Durock’s Swamp Thing — the reason Craven turned him into a werewolf and Wynorski introduced a separate monster for the finale. But in The Return of Swamp Thing, his inability to enjoy the Wynorski tone of dialogue makes him the most out-of-place person in the whole production. Though, it should be said, there is cheese value to be found in the actor losing his footing amid something he cannot comprehend.
The cheese of both films can also be found in recreating 1950s creature features and eschewing the increasing sophistication of the Swamp Thing comic book at the time. As mentioned above, the character in the comics learned that it was a creature who merely had Alec Holland’s memories and not the man himself. This meant he could never become human and the revelation sent Swamp Thing on a new, startling direction. It also added an element of horror Craven would have made a meal of had the idea been available to him at the time. As it is, the first film tries to give the character more pathos, even if the costume hobbles that attempt. The Wynorski Swamp Thing would also benefit from the revelation as it would make his more settled and confident voice make sense. Of course, neither movie has the budget or scale to give Swamp Thing the nuance it deserves.
And yet, they are both fun films to watch with things to offer viewers with the right mindset. The first is an almost-legit monster movie made on a shoe-string budget. The latter is a goofy almost-children’s movie with great creature effects. The Return of Swamp Thing edges the first film out in cheesiness by virtue of Wynorski and his sensibility for low-budget pictures, but either would prove to be a fine, cheesy 90 minutes this weekend.
Swamp Thing and The Return of Swamp Thing are available for rent on Amazon Prime. They are also available on Blu-ray.