THE RETURN OF SWAMP THING (1989)
Director: Jim Wynorski
In a few of my other reviews and on my blog, I may have implied that while Marvel Comics have been cranking out dozens of movies based on their characters over the years, DC Comics have stuck by their old standbys of Superman and Batman. But that's not entirely the case. DC has also done movies based on comics from their Vertigo imprint, as well as Catwoman, Steel, and Swamp Thing. But while Catwoman and Steel were unbelievably awful movies that have been largely forgotten, Swamp Thing developed enough of a cult following that it spawned a sequel seven years later. That sequel, The Return of Swamp Thing, ended up being just a poor, poor decision from start to finish. Want to know why?
Abigail Arcane (Heather Locklear) has been struggling with the mysterious death of her mother. To help achieve a sense of closure, she heads down to the swamps to reconnect with her estranged stepfather, mad scientist Anton Arcane (Louis Jourdan). You may be wondering how the heck he can show up in the sequel after turning into a monster and getting stabbed and left for dead at the end of the first movie. The answer is simple: he's an evil scientist, so evil science saved him. The equally crazy Dr. Lana Zurrell (Sarah Douglas) used some wacky experiment to resurrect him and return him to human form, but that serum is now wearing off and causing Dr. Arcane to age at a rapid pace.
Seeking a way to slow Dr. Arcane's aging to a crawl and grant him immortality, his team of scientists have been merging human DNA with a assortment of creatures. There hasn't been any success in finding what he's looking for, but it does result in a small army of hideous mutant freaks. But with Abigail's recent arrival to his compound, Dr. Arcane thinks he may have had a breakthrough. The DNA of Abigail's mother served as the catalyst for the original formula that brought him back to life, and because she and her daughter share a similar genetic code, Dr. Arcane believes that Abigail is the key to unlocking the recipe for eternal life.
But once Abigail catches wind of what her stepfather has in store for her, she flees into the swamp. She is quickly discovered and befriended by Swamp Thing (Dick Durock), the walking, talking pile of vegetation himself. The two bond over their common enemy, and a really awkward romance blossoms between them. Yeah, I know she's a human and he's more plant than man, but Abigail's a vegetarian, so it's okay. (For posterity's sake, that's the movie's logic, not mine.) But, like any comic book movie worth its salt, good and evil will come to blows, and Swamp Thing and Dr. Arcane have an explosive final confrontation in Arcane's laboratory.
The Return of Swamp Thing is, without a doubt, one of the silliest movies I've ever seen. I honestly cannot believe that someone produced this movie and thought it was good enough to release theatrically. What's more baffling is that there's absolutely nothing about this movie that shows that anyone involved took the source material seriously. During the period between the first and second movies, the character of Swamp Thing had been predominantly handled by Alan Moore, who redefined the character and established the series as a gothic, supernatural horror saga. But I guess the powers that be chose not to follow in the comic's footsteps with The Return of Swamp Thing, creating a sci-fi comedy that is basically one big joke.
So let's begin the critiquing with the direction by Jim Wynorski, a filmmaker who's made developed a rather extensive résumé via his work on dozens of lame B-grade horror movies and glorified softcore pornography. I don't believe anyone would accuse Wynorski of being a good director who makes genuinely good movies, and I doubt that The Return of Swamp Thing is one that would change your mind on the matter. Wynorski's work here is consistent enough, though, but it's underwhelming and ultimately unimpressive. He just doesn't really do anything to make the movie stand out. The same can be said for cinematographer Zoran Hochstatter, whose camerawork is pedestrian at best. Wynorski does, though, manage to get an acceptable musical score from composer Chuck Cirino. Cirino's music sounds similar to the work of Enrico Morricone at times, so if you're going to imitate someone's music, it might as well be someone good.
The best aspect of the production is the monster makeup effects. Swamp Thing's costume is a drastic improvement over what we saw in the previous movie, looking like Dick Durock just spent a month doing nothing but crawling around in the muck and mire of the swamp. And we can't forget the fantastic-looking half-man/half-creature mutants, either. We've got appearances from a cockroach man, an elephant man, an alligator man, and most prominently, a leech man. The creatures are wonderfully disgusting, though it's disappointing that they weren't used in a movie of better quality.
And then there's the script, penned by Grant Morris and Neil Cuthbert. And after watching the movie a few times, I'm beginning to think that the person or persons who approved this script for production had to be on the most massive drug trip of all time. I say that because it has to be one of the stupidest, most completely inane things ever written. The dialogue is atrocious, the characters are just plain dreadful, and nothing in it makes sense. There's the useless subplot where two annoying kids try to take a picture of Swamp Thing so they can sell it to a tabloid, along with the utterly idiotic scene where Arcane's chief security guards compare scars ala the famous scene from Jaws. Other than to pad out the running time, is there any reason at all for this crap to have been written, not to mention filmed and actually left in the final cut of the movie?
And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention one of the stupidest parts of the movie, the most bizarre love scene I've ever seen. I mean, I thought the sex scenes from Showgirls and BloodRayne were bad. But The Return of Swamp Thing's just might blow them out of the water. So here's the scene: Swamp Thing has saved Abigail from her stepfather's goons, and they're really falling for one another. Abigail starts putting the moves on him, and Swamp Thing is all, "You weirdo, I'm a giant plant." Her response: "It's okay, I'm a vegetarian." I wish I was making that up, but it's a direct quote. Oh, but it doesn't stop there. Swamp Thing decides to indulge her, giving her some kind of root from his body to eat. Abigail eats it, and proceeds to hallucinate that she's having a romantic liaison with a regular human man. It's not steamy or exploitive or anything like that, it's just really weird. Not only does the scene make no sense at all, but it's a scene that really makes you sit back and wonder just what you're watching and why you're watching it.
Bringing up the rear is the cast, none of whom are really worth talking at length about. But I guess I'll have to talk about them anyway, because this paragraph would only be two sentences long if I didn't. Louis Jourdan returns as the villainous Dr. Anton Arcane, and he once again receives top billing. And why is that? In both movies, Jourdan is given the full star treatment, when you'd think that it would make more sense for Dick Durock the actor actually playing Swamp Thing would be the headliner. It's like how Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman outranked Christopher Reeve in the Superman movies, or how Jack Nicholson and Arnold Schwarzenegger were given top billing over Michael Keaton and George Clooney in their respective Batman movies. But I guess there's no sense in complaining about something as trivial as that. Anyway, Jourdan hands in practically the exact same performance from the first Swamp Thing movie, only hammier and even more over the top. It's like he decided to become a combination of Cobra Commander, Dr. Claw from the Inspector Gadget cartoon, and Dr. Evil. He is entertaining at times, like during the scenes where he's arguing with his character's pet parrot. But other than that, you get the feeling that he knows just how bad this movie is, and that he'd rather be anywhere on the face of the planet than on the set. And I can't say that I really blame him, either.
Next on the list is Heather Locklear, who had recently made a name for herself with her roles on T.J. Hooker and Dynasty. And if those shows were two steps forward, The Return of Swamp Thing is ten steps back. The movie didn't exactly help her career, and her performance didn't exactly help the movie either. Locklear plays the role like she barely has a brain in her head, while delivering her lines almost as if she was supposed to be playing a Valley girl. She is charming, don't get me wrong, but I couldn't help but wonder just what she was thinking when she went into the role. The rest of the supporting cast is more of the same. Sarah Douglas is okay, I guess, as Dr. Arcane's assistant. But the thing is, you can tell by the look in her eyes during the movie that Douglas came to the realization that her career had hit rock bottom. She was great in Superman II, but it seems like she just went into a tailspin afterwards. It's a shame, really. Meanwhile, Ace Mask and Joey Sagal are humorous in their minor roles. (And for the record, "Ace Mask" is one of the coolest names ever. It sounds like a Mexican wrestler.) And then there's Monique Gabrielle, who could probably be out-acted by a mannequin. Seriously, she's terrible. Her performance is so wooden that she was probably fighting off a swarm of termites during the filming of her scenes.
I would also be remiss if I didn't mention RonReaco Lee and Daniel Taylor as the aforementioned kids who want to sell a picture of Swamp Thing to a tabloid. I thought the "Jude" character from the first movie was awful and useless, but Lee and Taylor's characters duplicate that while the actors add "annoying" to the mix. Lee isn't too bad, but he's the lesser of two evils. Like I said before, the characters are useless and their subplot is unnecessary. Were Morris and Cuthbert so hard-up for material to get the script to feature-length that they had to keep this crap in? I will say though, that for all their annoyances, Lee and Taylor do provide the movie's funnier moments. But that one compliment is like finding a tiny diamond in a giant mountain of turds. Last but not least is Dick Durock, who returns to the title role of Swamp Thing. If anything, Durock contributes the least bad performance of the movie. I didn't particularly care for his work in the first movie, but Durock steps it up for the sequel by being entertaining in a silly way. The character has very little depth, if any at all, but Durock does as good a job as he can. And he must have impressed somebody, because they brought him back to reprise the role on the live-action television show from the early '90s.
Perhaps the weirdest thing about The Return of Swamp Thing is that it was not only released in the same year as Tim Burton's modern classic Batman, but that both were produced by Benjamin Melniker and Michael Uslan. The mere notion that the same two guys produced both one of DC's goofiest movies and one of their best in the same year just boggles my mind. But that said, The Return of Swamp Thing is one of those flicks where the label "so bad, it's good" most certainly applies. I implied earlier that the movie's failure to take the source material seriously was a bad thing. It certainly made a bad movie, but the movie doesn't even take itself seriously, which makes it somewhat endearing. And the movie's opening credit sequence various art from the Swamp Thing comics, set to Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Born on the Bayou" is worth the price of admission all by itself. And I wouldn't be surprised if the licensing fees for that song ate up ninety percent of the movie's budget. But in any event, The Return of Swamp Thing is a movie that I can't really recommend to the general public, but would give to anybody who holds an appreciation for campy B-movies with no sense of shame. Thus, I'm going to give the movie two stars. I've most assuredly seen better, but I've seen a whole lot worse.
Final Rating: **