Over the last few decades, comic book movies have reached heights of storytelling and spectacle that readers could never have DREAMED of. But for every triumphant high—The Dark Knight, The Avengers—there have always been a good number of stinkers… some bad enough to become punchlines or talking points, but most mediocre and ultimately forgotten…
Until they end up here.
The Discount Spinner Rack is where you’ll find the worst, the weirdest, and the most puzzling of comic book movie misfires. We’ll take a look at the things that actually work and the parts that absolutely don’t, and decide whether it’s worth your time and your dime. In the end, movies will be marked down on a scale from $1.00 (a surprise gem) to $0.05 (better used for kindling). In this year’s special HALLOWEEN SPOOK-TACLUAR EDITION, let’s take a stroll through the swamplands of Louisiana as we revisit the campy creature-feature, The Return of Swamp Thing!
So Swamp Thing has had a… unique impact on the pop culture landscape.
Created by the acclaimed team of Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson in the early ‘70s, Swamp Thing was initially a big hit with comic readers: Dr. Alec Holland, a brilliant scientist, is working with his wife on a revolutionary “bio-restorative formula” meant to accelerate plant growth and end world hunger. But just as their experiments are successful, mercenaries hired by a sinister organization blow up the lab, the explosion dousing Holland in the formula (and also SETTING HIM ON F%$#ING FIRE). He escapes into the swamp, where the chemical transforms him into a huge half-plant, half-man creature that would come to be known as the Swamp Thing1! The book sold well for the first twenty or so issues… but soon enough, sales dropped, and after a few flailing attempts to spur reader interest, the comic was cancelled in 19762.
Then came the movie.
In 1980, Michael Uslan and Benjamin Melniker licensed the film rights to Swamp Thing under their Batfilm Productions banner—presumably to keep the lights on while they were fighting tooth-and-nail to finance a Batman movie that no one wanted to make3. And the ’82 Swamp Thing film that resulted may just be one of the most historically important comic book movies in the entire genre. Not just because it was the last film writer/director Wes Craven would make before going on to do A Nightmare on Elm Street (one of the main heavies is even named “Krug”)… not just because it was only the second-ever feature-film adaptation of a comic-book superhero onto the big screen4… but because it may have indirectly been the root cause for the entire superhero movie boom as we know it.
It’s like this: when Swamp Thing first went into production, DC Comics decided to capitalize on the new mass-media exposure for the character by putting out a new solo title—the first the character had had since ’76. And just like the original book, sales started out strong, but started to plummet after about a year-and-a-half. So DC editorial, basically disinterested in the fate of the book, handed total creative control over to a young, largely unknown British writer who’d just come aboard with issue #20.
And that writer was ALAN-FRIGGIN’-MOORE.
Moore’s legendary run on Saga of the Swamp Thing ELECTRIFIED the comics industry—kindling the notion that even mainstream American comics could be sophisticated, adult reading material. This paved the way for Moore’s groundbreaking miniseries Watchmen, as well as similar works from other creators all across the industry… including Frank Miller’s seminal work The Dark Knight Returns, as well as Moore’s own book Batman: The Killing Joke—two works essential in finally getting Uslan and Melniker’s Batman film off the ground. The ’89 Batman, as it turned out, was a paradigm shift in American blockbuster cinema, opening the floodgates for branded IP as the new dominant force in Hollywood and—after inspiring a slew of pulp hero knock-offs like The Shadow and The Phantom throughout the ‘90s—eventually made possible the arrival of X-Men in 20005. Which set the stage for Spider-Man in 2002. Which opened the door for Iron Man in 2008, which basically rolled out the red carpet for The Avengers and the MCU as a whole and…
Yeah. Basically, Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing is the reason Disney is taking over the goddamn world.
The character himself hasn’t made NEARLY so huge a dent in the pop culture landscape, of course… but trust me, he’s been there.
Probably his biggest splash came in the form of the USA live-action TV series, Swamp Thing—the network’s highest-rated scripted series at one point. It’s a bizarre artifact of its time, featuring one-off stories in which Swamp Thing helps stop assorted science-based dangers all while befriending a family who lives by the swamp6. Then there was a short-lived animated series on Fox; five episodes were produced, shamelessly tailored to promote a line of action figures being released by Kenner (the vehicles in the series look EXACTLY LIKE the toys Kenner had produced, right down to the spring-firing missiles) 7. There’s not much to say about this one, aside from the fact that it has one of the most ANNOYINGLY AWFUL THEME SONGS in the history of television. Finally, this past year, a prestige-quality Swamp Thing TV show was produced for the DC Universe streaming service… and was cancelled before the first episode had even AIRED, the service claiming that the series was too expensive to continue8. (It was a damn good show, though.)
But before all that… there was The Return of Swamp Thing!
It’s hard for me to say exactly how or why this film came to be, as there’s not much production info available anywhere online9. But while work was finally being finished on that long-gestating Batman film, producers Uslan and Melniker were somehow able to carve out time to produce a sequel to Swamp Thing, which would end up released the same year. Since Wes Craven had moved on to greener10 pastures, the producers turned to up-and-coming director Jim Wynorski (of Chopping Mall fame) and gave him a $7 million budget—the highest he’d ever worked with.
Stuntman Dick Durock returned to reprise the titular role, and the producers also managed to wrangle Louis Jourdan back as the villainous Dr. Anton Arcane (despite the fact that the LAST film had ended with him transforming into a jackal/lizard hybrid monster, before getting hacked to pieces with a broadsword). On top of that, they managed to land up-and-coming model/actress Heather Locklear (of Dynasty fame) to play the new romantic lead: Abigail Arcane, Anton’s estranged stepdaughter11, who in the comics had gone on to become the Swamp Thing’s one true love (by 1989, the two were actually already MARRIED).
The first Swamp Thing had been silly, but soulful; it gave you the chance to empathize with its creature and his plight, even as it indulged in pulp action and unabashed absurdity. Now, with the character having ushered in a new era of sophistication and maturity in comic book storytelling12, surely the producers planned on bringing even more of the hero’s celebrated depth and complexity to the big screen, right?
IN THIS ISSUE: Camp. Pure, shameless, undeniable camp.
The Return of Swamp Thing feels like a swing at making a PG-13 Toxic Avenger. The hallmarks of exploitation cinema are all there: mad scientists, underground laboratories, copious monster suits and creature effects, and a scant female cast of buxom women in low-cut tops. Arcane’s lead henchman, literally named “Gunn”, dresses like Che Guevara. The local sheriff sounds like Boss Hogg. There are two annoying kids running around screeching at each other, whose sole ambition is to ogle nudie magazines and sell a photo of the Swamp Thing to the tabloids. This is a bona-fide, textbook “B-movie” to its core.
Swamp Thing himself is bizarrely retrofit as the triumphant, romantic hero of the film. He’s confident, charming, lantern-jawed… all traces of tragedy or pathos have been drained out of him. His first three appearances are marked by him charging out of the swamp to save an endangered innocent, a valorous trumpeting theme song playing behind him. And most tellingly, this is the ONE piece of Swamp Thing media in which they don’t modulate his voice at all; rather than sounding monstrous or inhuman, Swamp Thing sounds like Dick Durock himself—a man’s man with little-to-no affect, like a scientist or an adventurer in a ‘50s sci-fi movie.
This Swamp Thing is basically Superman.
Swampy’s newfound virility and charm stems from the fact that THIS movie, unlike the first film, is angling to be an authentic, true-blue romantic comedy. So let’s talk about Abby Arcane.
Heather Locklear, pretty though she undeniably is, is not a terribly good actress. Her Abby Arcane is a jibbering, shallow, borderline-psychotic13 Valley Girl stereotype with a bizarre fixation on plant life even BEFORE she meets our hero. At first glimpse of the towering man-marsh, of course, she’s smitten—immediately going moon-eyed over his strong chin, broad shoulders, and healthy green foliage. After the second time Alec saves her from danger14, Abby directly proclaims him her boyfriend… which provokes an exchange that basically sums up the whole movie:
SWAMP THING: You said it yourself: I’m a plant.
ABBY: That’s okay… I’m a vegetarian.
Locklear’s chipper, sunny California-girl routine never flags, never falls away to reveal any kind of humanity beneath it. Taxi driver gives her sh*t on the ride to the mansion? She smiles and makes snarky jokes. Anton’s evil scientists capture her? She smiles and makes snarky jokes. Two redneck creeps come within inches of sexually assaulting her in the middle of a swamp? She smiles and makes snarky jokes.
Supposedly she’s come to Arcane’s home to find out what happened to her mother, who died under mysterious circumstances… but you never get the feeling that she’s more than mildly annoyed at Arcane, like he’s a deadbeat uncle that borrowed a hundred bucks and keeps finding excuses not to pay it back. Her performance is pure artiface: a hollow plastic bauble hoping to coast by on a dazzling smile and shining blue eyes.
But that’s okay. Because we’re not here for the love story, anyway.
It’s Halloween: we’re here for the MONSTERS!
Compared to the first Swamp Thing, Return is a goddamn Monster Mash. The film opens with a classic horror “monster in the wilderness” sequence that introduces us to the Leech Man—that handsome fellow you see above. Then we get to see a menagerie of grotesqueries in Dr. Arcane’s laboratories: a small but impressive assortment of human-animal hybrids, including a disturbingly detailed Roach Man that Arcane orders to be destroyed in his… er, human-sized microwave? Finally, near the end of the movie, one of the head scientists is himself transformed into a creature with a giant cranium15, who of course ends up in a final-act showdown with our hero (and who gets his ass thoroughly handed to him). The monster stuff is GREAT—the suits and make-ups look cool, and the fights are exciting, well-choreographed brawls. So it’s kind of a shame that they make up so little of the film’s total runtime; the creatures, it turns out, are merely a side effect of Anton Arcane’s experiments to achieve immortality.
(HOW Anton Arcane survived the previous film isn’t very clear; all the film has to say about it is that he was discovered in the swamp by two of his underlings and restored to health—from, y’know, getting hacked to pieces by a f%$#ing broadsword. But this is a film in which the mad scientist’s laboratory boasts such features as open, bubbling punch bowls of unidentified red liquid, as well as an indoor water fountain and koi pond. I doubt they were sweating the details.)
Fact is, Louis Jourdan really has far too much class to be in this movie. And the thing is, he knows it—so, ever the pro, he decides to play down to the material. No longer is Anton Arcane the cold-blooded, detached nihilist of the first film, calmly dealing with problems and responding to setbacks by quoting Nietzsche; now he’s more akin to an exasperated hotel manager, trying to rein in a staff full of simpletons and doling out catty asides with surprising gusto. He’s also far more gleefully evil, practically twirling his mustache as he jokes to Abby that Satan “has a lease [on his soul], with an option to buy.” One thing that HASN’T changed is his opulent, decadent lifestyle—most of his time in the film is spent lounging in luxury and romancing Dr. Lana Zurrell (played by Sarah Douglas, of Superman II fame!). Yes, Jourdan is absolutely a Bond villain in this film, and he’s having the time of his life playing it.
Swamp Thing defeats him by throwing a chair at him.
This is a bizarre trifle of a film, loaded with oddball moments and juvenile humor—from the assorted visual gags (like Gunn reading a magazine titled “Mercenary’s Life”) to the running Greek chorus of Darryl and Owen (the two annoying twerp kids I have assiduously avoided talking about, yet who pop up repeatedly throughout the movie). It seems very much written with an audience of twelve-year-old boys in mind: plenty of action, lots of cool monsters, babes-a-plenty… but no cussing, no nudity, and no depth or dimension its the love story beyond “I want you to be my boyfriend!” They made a film to appeal to kids just as the comics were trying their hardest to appeal to adults; it’s like 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife.
The Return of Swamp Thing is simplistic to a degree that borders on condescending, but of course, that’s the joke—they set out to make a dumb monster rom-com action movie starring America’s favorite swamp creature, and by God, they did it. Whether that’s a worthwhile accomplishment is a distinction I’ll leave to you.
IS IT WORTH YOUR DIME?: If you have a taste for goofier B-movie fare, then sure, you could certainly do worse. It may lack a heart and soul, but it’s got enough cheap laughs and schlocky thrills to keep you entertained throughout.
— Assuming, of course, it doesn’t frighten you out of your skin! MHU-HU-HA-HA-HA-HA-HAAAA!!!
DISCOUNT PRICE: $0.25
- Born on the Bayou: Possibly the weirdest and most distinctive feature in this wonky little film is its opening credits, which play out over images of Swamp Thing comic book covers—primarily, the surreal and beautiful covers of Alan Moore’s run. Because the covers were apparently chosen at random, there’s a lot of odd out-of-context DC imagery that pops up, like Arkham Asylum or Swampy wearing a Green Lantern ring. And the whole thing plays out to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s classic hit “Born on the Bayou”, which… yeah, it’s a little on the nose.
- The Death and Return of Swamp Thing: So about halfway through the movie, Arcane’s goon squad manages to corner Swamp Thing… and just as he’s about to escape into the water, they blast him with a grenade launcher and BLOW HIM TO PIECES16. But after the thugs leave, the chunks of swamp muck that land in the water congeal together and float into a sewer main. Before long, green slime starts flowing out of a bathtub faucet in Arcane’s mansion… glomming together in the bottom of the tub until, finally, SWAMP THING draws back the curtain and steps out triumphantly! (Hey, it was a fun way to get him outta the movie for fifteen minutes or so…)
- Them Eyebrows, Tho’: At one point, Gunn and Miss Poinsettia (a largely silent mercenary femme fatale played by Penthouse pet Monique Gabrielle in a clingy tank top) start snipping childishly at each other. They get into the whole routine of trying to one-up each other’s combat scars, which of course gets them both hot and bothered, but then someone walks in, etc. etc. But throughout the scene, I just couldn’t stop looking at Poinsettia’s eyebrows, as they were just endlessly jumping up and down with every word she spoke.
- Steamy Hallucinogenic-Tuber Action: In a moment taken straight from Alan Moore’s run on Saga of the Swamp Thing, Abby and Alec consummate their romance when Abby eats a piece of a tuber from Alec’s body and goes on a shared hallucinogenic trip with him. But while Moore’s version of this was a truly psychedelic experience, in which Abby and Alec traveled through the Green and psychically connected with each other, as well as all the living things on the planet… THIS film depicts the connection as a hallucinated PG sex scene with a now-human Alec Holland17 in a misty hot spring. Bit of a letdown.
- Swamp Thing Approves: There really is nothing that can beat this moment. Having defeated the Leech Man and amidst the cheering of little brats Darryl and Omar, our hero rears back and—like a cereal mascot or a video game hedgehog—gives a great, big thumbs-up straight to the camera. It’s pure cheddar, Swiss, gouda, mozzarella, brie, processed—every kind of “cheesy” under the sun, wrapped up in a single glorious shot. And all I can say is: God bless you, Swamp Thing.
NEXT ISSUE: I mentioned it last time, and I meant it. The next spin around the rack is a look at the worst Spider-Man film that wasn’t produced in Turkey: The Amazing Spider-Man 2!