Back to the Bayou: Revisiting the 1980s Cult Classic ‘Swamp Thing’ Films

Julien Neaves, Editor

It’s going on two years since DC Universe series Swamp Thing aired its final episode following its abrupt (and still unexplained cancellation) but it still stings. It was an excellent mix of dark superhero drama and horror and was easily one of the best of the genre. I’m still holding out hope that it resurfaces at some point, though that feels increasingly unlikely.

The series focused on the titular humanoid/plant elemental comic book character created by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson. And it was just the latest of several media adaptations as old Swampy has previously featured in a 90s live action series, a 1991 animated series, and two 1980s films. And it’s the latter two cult classic films which I will be chatting about today. With a smelly, mosquito-infested, monster-sized SPOILER ALERT let’s retro-review these two bad boys:

Swamp Thing (1982)

I’ve still got one good hand…

I will forever be grateful to horror maestro Wes Craven for creating two of my favourite horror franchises: A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream. But I will reserve my praise for his directing of superhero horror film Swamp Thing. Not sure what happened here, but this thing (no pun intended) is bad. Like rancid swamp water bad.

The film follows eccentric scientist Alec Holland (Ray Wise of Twin Peaks, RoboCop) who is researching a revolutionary plant formula in the swamps of the American South. When he is attacked by the forces of an evil paramilitary leader/scientist named Dr Anton Arcane (Octopussy’s Louis Jordan) he is inadvertently transformed into the titular creature. As Swamp Thing (Dick Durock) he tries to protect government agent Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau of The Fog, Escape From New York) and stop Arcane’s nefarious plans.

I would laugh but I just feel sad looking at this poor guy

Let me talk about what works here. And don’t get too comfortable, it’s a short list. Wise and Barbeau have cool if brief chemistry. The Swamp Thing suit looks okay. And Jordan plays Arcane with an understated deviousness. And that’s about it.

The comic-style wipes are annoying. The plot is as flimsy as pond scum and is mostly Cable getting in trouble and Swamp Thing rescuing her. Rinse and repeat. The action is weak, looks terrible and feels interminable at times. It’s supposed to be a horror film but the only thing scary is how bad the dialogue is. The film also stops to show gratuitous nudity, both a random Barbeau bathing scene and an inexplicable stripping party scene. And the climax features Arcane turning into a wolf-like, sword-welding monster that looks like a Halloween reject. He actually looked decent in the first stage of his transformation and they really should have left it at that.

I kind of wish this film was worse so it could at least be an unintentional so-bad-it’s-good comedy. But sadly, just like it’s swampy setting, this one just plain stinks.

Editor Jules’s Score: 3 out of 10

The Return of Swamp Thing (1989)

So uh, do you still have a…umm…you know…down there?

This sequel came out seven years later and was helmed by B-movie veteran Jim Wynorski. And it is by no means a good film, but at least it’s a competent one. Dick Durock returns as Swamp Thing and the new suit is much improved, though he does play the character a bit too light and quippy this time around. Jordan is also back as Arcane after he was resurrected by two scientists and changed back into human (we don’t see any of this but it is explained in the dialogue). In the sequel Arcane is seeking to use his stepdaughter Abigail “Abby” Arcane in an experiment to preserve and extend his life.

Abby is played by TV darling and one of the prettiest women ever to grace a screen, Miss Heather Locklear. In this her second film role (her first was 1984’s Firestarter) she seems fully aware what kind of movie she is in, and plays it completely tongue-in-cheek. She brings a great, bubbly energy and of course is just great to look at. Her character immediately falls for Swamp Thing because she loves plants, which doesn’t make much sense but this is not a film you go into for intellectual stimulation.

So what else you got? Bananas? Strawberries? A ripe avocado?

No folks, this is a film all about the camp and it fully embraces that. The action is still not the best but is much better over the original, with the highlight being a one-on-one battle between Swampy and a grotesque monster created by Arcane. The villains assisting Arcane are also better, namely the lovely Sarah Douglas (Ursa from Superman and Superman II) as scientist Dr Lana Zurrell, Joey Sagal as wild, over-the-top henchman Gunn (of course that’s his name) and the gorgeous Monique Gabrielle as femme fatale Miss Poinsettia.

The sequel also doubles down on child actors and, while I didn’t hate Darryl and Omar, they did feel a tad unnecessary. I was also looking forward to seeing Swampy clash with the other monsters in the climax and was disappointed when he only fought the human henchmen. The ending with him healing Abby also felt like a rehash of the first film.

But despite those issues I had fun with The Return of Swamp Thing and I found it a breath of swampy air after the mucky original.

Editor Jules’s Score: 5 out of 10

So what did you think of both Swamp Thing films? And which do you prefer? You can check out more classic superhero content below:

From Blade to Blankman: Top 5 Black Comic Book Films of the 90s (RMR Turns 5, Part 4 of 6)

Revisiting Horror-Inspired Superhero Darkman at 30 in 4 Slices

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Julien “Editor Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film (Cariwood), creating board games and I am an aspiring author. I say things like “12 flavours of awesome sauce”. Read more.