Friday, 8 July 2016
In July 1971, DC Comics released issue #92 of its mystery anthology series House of Secrets, featuring a horror-themed story from the pen of legendary scribe Len Wein (co-creator of Marvel Comics icon Wolverine, and writer on such titles as The Incredible Hulk, The Amazing Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Thor, Batman, and Green Lantern over his long and illustrious career) and illustrated by artist Berni Wrightson (whose often grimly beautiful art was a mainstay of series such as House of Secrets and its sister publication House of Mystery, as well as the appositely nomenclatured Eerie and Creepy before progressing to adorn novels like Stephen King's Cycle of the Werewolf ). This dark pulp tale was a man-into-monster story reminiscent of the horror and sci-fi B-movies of the 1950s, and told of a scientist transformed in a laboratory explosion engineered by a jealous rival into a green muck-encrusted bog-dwelling travesty of humanity called 'Swamp Thing'.
This one-off gruesome gothic proved popular enough to be spun-off a year later into its own title, and issue #1 of Swamp Thing emerged from the briny depths to menace mankind in the October of 1972. Over the next few years Wein (and later Gerry Conway, creator of Marvel's violent vigilante the Punisher) steered the saga of the Swamp Thing as the shambling revenant that was once Dr Alec Holland and his eternal struggle against the machinations of the diabolical Dr Anton Arcane, as well as his burgeoning girl-meets-mockery of a man romance with Arcane's niece Abigail. The fortunes of the comic book waxed and waned throughout the mid-Seventies, until there was a revival of the title in 1982 when Embassy Pictures released a motion picture adaptation directed by horror maven Wes Craven (creator of such ghoulish delights as The Last House on the Left , The Hills Have Eyes , the monumental A Nightmare on Elm Street , The Serpent and the Rainbow , The People Under the Stairs  and the sporadic Scream tetralogy [1996, 1997, 2000 and 2011]). A year later, the writing reins were entrusted by Wein to British up and comer Alan Moore, a decision that would turn around the fortunes of the book as well as totally revamping it in style, tone and direction. Moore - later to become a titanic cornerstone of the graphic novel with such feted tomes as Watchmen, V for Vendetta, From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen - shook up the meandering monster magazine by transforming it into a labyrinthine Southern Gothic with strains of environmental, social and societal issues as well as turning the basic founding principle of the protagonist. No longer was Swamp Thing Dr Alec Holland transformed by a combination of flames 'n' formula into a creature of the quagmire - now we discovered that the titular tree-man was actually the essence of the mire itself - the very embodiment of the elemental spirit of Nature itself, known as 'the Green' - infused with the essence and intellect of the late scientist. Not a man who had become a plant, but a plant who thought it was a man.
Away from the 2-D of the printed page, the Craven film came a year or so too early for Moore's psychedelic regeneration of the title, but is a fairly faithful rendition of the 1970s and early '80s incarnation engendered by the Wein / Wrightson axis. Craven assembled a fine cast for his circa three million dollar picture, including Ray Wise (recognisable to genre fans as Leon 'Don't touch me, maaaan!' Nash in Paul Verhoeven's future-shock classic RoboCop , and forever to be known as the haunted Leland Palmer in David Lynch's mindfuck mystery Twin Peaks [1990 - 1991]) as Dr Alec Holland, and Adrienne Barbeau (at the time married to legendary horror director John Carpenter and earning the title of Scream Queen through appearances in Carpenter's The Fog  and Escape from New York , as well as Creepshow [George A. Romero, 1982], the splendidly-titled Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death [J. F. Lawton, 1989], and the Edgar Allan Poe diptych Two Evil Eyes [Dario Argento, George A. Romero, 1990] as well as providing the purring tones of Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman in Batman: the Animated Series [1992 - 1995]) as government agent Alice Cable, an amalgamation of the original comic characters of Abby Arcane and Swamp Thing's best frenemy Matthew Cable.
As the movie's villainous contingent were David Hess (who had started out his career as a songwriter, penning Elvis Presley's "All Shook Up" and Pat Boone's "Speedy Gonzalez" among others, before starring as the vicious and demented Krug in Wes Craven's notorious The Last House on the Left , before adding his intimidating presence to two Italian features by Ruggero Deodato - he of Cannibal Holocaust infamy - The House on the Edge of the Park  and Body Count ) as Arcane's thuggish henchman-in-chief Ferret, and as the diabolical Dr Anton Arcane himself the ever suave and sophisticated presence of Louis Jourdan (matinee star of such classics as The Paradine Case [Alfred Hitchcock, 1947], Decameron Nights [Hugo Fregonese, 1953], Three Coins in the Fountain [Jean Negulesco, 1954], and Gigi [Vincente Minelli, 1958] before going on to give a superlative turn as the lord of the undead Count Dracula [Philip Savile, 1977] and face off against an eyebrow arching Roger Moore as Kamal Khan in the 007 adventure Octopussy [John Glen, 1983]).
Jourdan lends an aristocratic and debonair air to the perfidious Arcane, the presence of whom is felt long before his physically appearing due to his name being mentioned in the muted whispers between the staff of Holland's bayou-based research lab as a kind of bogeyman, before a stylishly dramatic reveal as the laboratory is overrun by hired mercenaries led by the despicable Ferret. Holland's head of security, Ritter (Don Knight), appears to have betrayed the project and let the armed intruders into the complex:
"No", cries a betrayed Holland as he as overpowered by goons, "No, Ritter. Not you!"
"No, Dr Holland. Not Ritter" says the once-familiar man before him, before his voice suddenly becomes that of a stranger. "Ritter, poor fellow, is long dead." Then he reaches up and begins to peel off his face!, which is now a lifelike latex mask of the kind oft-employed by the IMF team on Mission: Impossible, and Ritter's face comes away to real the saturnine features of Holland's nemesis.
"You have heard of, but never seen me, so i will introduce myself" says the sinister stranger, casually sitting atop a laboratory table and aiming a gun in Holland's direction. "My name is Arcane."
And just like that, Louis Jourdan plays a far superior Bond villain to Kamal Khan, a year early.
The plot of the movie unfolds along the lines of the original comic book saga, with the villains' attempts to get their hands on Holland's unique 'bio-restorative formula' - a green glowing goo that looks very like Dr Herbert West's resurrecting refreshment in Re-Animator (Stuart Gordon, 1985) and can cause flowers to spring from wooden floorboards in a shower of sparks as if by magic, and promises to yield harvests of tomatoes the size of beachballs growing int he desert to cure famine - ending in a destructive inferno, as Holland becomes a human inferno, plunges into the brackish brine and becomes the titular titan of the tarn. Holland's new monstrous alter ego, Swamp Thing (played by 6' 5" stunt performer and actor Dick Durock, who had played another shambling green comic book character as the transformed 'Evil Hulk' Del Frye, going toe-to-toe with Lou Ferrigno's Gamma-ray Goliath in The Incredible Hulk two-parter 'The First'), has to fight for survival as Arcane's men hunt him through the swamplands (Craven making great visual use of the verdant South Carolina locations) to extract the only remaining traces of the bio formula: his blood. Arcane is on a quest for immortality, and believes that the unique regenerative effects of the fluid can give it to him. When a sample of the formula is tested out on his hulking henchman Bruno (Nicholas Worth, Hell Comes to Frogtown , Darkman ), shrinking him into a stunted ratlike creature (Tommy Madden) Arcane demands answers from the concoction's creator.
"Why doesn't Bruno have your strength?"
"Because he never had it", says Swamp Thing. "...It only amplifies your essence. It simply makes you more of what you already are."
Arcane's monumental ego judges that if Bruno's true self was revealed as a rodentlike parody, then his inner truth - his genius - will become manifest as a living god. Drinking the tincture, he goes through a startling transformation into a grotesque chimaera - a werewolf mixed with bear and boar, Arcane's monstrous inner self red in tooth and claw. This of course leads to a Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man / King Kong vs Godzilla style clash of the creatures, as we flip genres slightly from Man Into Monster tale to full on Monster Mash. Our swampy hero engages the Arcane monster in battle, as Alice watches on relegated from tough government agent to damsel in distress (and discovering that diaphanous white nightdresses might look great as fenland fashionwear, but aren't really the correct attire for the terrain) and eventually triumphs, leaving the once brilliant and urbane Arcane a slain pig-man oozing the strangest of ooze as he lies in the bracken - a slaughtered swine festooned in slime. Not the most dignified of ends.
Which made it all the more startling when he reappeared as right as rain to menace our hero once again in The Return of Swamp Thing (Jim Wynorski, 1989). Dick Durock resumed the eponymous role, now in an improved costume that more closely resembled the portrayal of the character in the comic series, rejoining the eternal struggle with the seemingly indestructible Arcane - essayed again by Louis Jourdan - whose survival and restoration to human form were hand-waived in a few lines of dialogue from Arcane's evil scientist sidekick Dr Rochelle (the wonderfully named Ace Mask, who seems to have been one of Wynorski's lucky charms, appearing in his Chopping Mall , Not Of This Earth , 976-EVIL II: The Astral Factor  and Ghoulies IV ) about finding him dying in the swamp and bringing him back to the laboratory to restore him. Director Wynorski (helmer of many a z-grade B-Movie, in addition to the aforementioned he's churned out such dubious delights as Sorority House Massacre II , Scream Queen Hot Tub Party , Munchie , Vampirella  and The Bare Wench Project ) wholeheartedly embraces the 'comic book' aspects of the property, with lurid coloured lighting gels and split-screen effects giving the movie the air of a comic book brought to life, an effect previously achieved by George A. Romero in the 1982 portmanteau horror anthology Creepshow.
Also starring Heather Locklear (Firestarter [Mark L Lester, 1984], and long-running roles in TV series T. J. Hooker [1982-1986] and Dynasty [1981-1989]) as a ditzy 'Valley Girl' portrayal of Abby Arcane far removed from the original, Sarah Douglas (eternally to be known by genre fans as Ursa in Superman: the Movie [Richard Donner, 1978] and Superman II [Richard Lester, 1980], as well as the tyrannical Queen Taramis in Conan the Destroyer [Richard Fleischer, 1984]) and the buxom charms of the director's then-partner Monique Gabrielle ('star' of such wonders as Emmanuelle 5 [Walerian Borowczyk, 1987], and Planet of the Erotic Ape [Lou Vockell, 2002]), this lurid, garish and hyperactive spawn of the more introspective original is certainly fun if lightweight fare - though it does take on one aspect of the Alan Moore comic run by treating the audience to the possible cinematic first of a human / plant sex scene (Cheryl's tree rape in Sam Raimi's seminal 1983 The Evil Dead notwithstanding), as Abby gnaws on a tuber / root from Swampy's body (steady, there!) and enters an altered state where she can see him as the naked human Alec Holland before an extremely 1980s soft-focus love scene plays out. Whether the viewer reacts with a freak out or a 'Cop out!' will entirely depend on whether you want your girl-on-dirt-monster action implicit or explicit.
Whilst a third cinematic outing for Swamp Thing has to the date of writing yet to materialise, a year after Wynorski's effort the property made the transition to the small screen courtesy of Universal Television and DiC Enterprises. Durock once more donned the foam latex bodysuit to play the Green Man himself, opposite British actor Mark Lindsay Chapman (Annihilator [Michael Chapman, 1986], The Langoliers [Tom Holland, 1995], Titanic [James Cameron, 1997], Legend of the Mummy [Jeffrey Obrow, 1998], and stretches in US soap operas such as Dallas , Falcon Crest , Days of Our Lives [2002-2004] and The Young and the Restless ) as Anton Arcane. I was first made aware of the existence of the series via a cursory, cussing and cutting review in the April 1992 edition of The Dark Side magazine, which castigated the CIV Video release of four selected episodes of the show (under the title The New Adventures of Swamp Thing) as 'truly abysmal', with '[t]epid effects, awkward, cliched dialogue and poor performances' which 'make this a tape to be avoided at all costs', and closed closed with the reviewer's 'doubt [that] video shops will be swamped with orders for it anyway'*. This roused my 12 year old self's interest as much for the invective heaped upon the project as for the revelation that there was a television incarnation of one of my favourite comic book characters, but alas neither a VHS copy of the above artifact nor a television broadcast (certainly not a terrestrial one) materialised.
* Video Vault review by Norman Taylor, The Dark Side issue cover date April 1992, Stray Cat Publishing.