Collins’ Crypt: Plea For A SWAMP THING Done Right
On the new Blu-ray special edition of Wes Craven's 1982 Swamp Thing, there's an interview with creator Len Wein that made me cheer and then hiss in a span of about 9 seconds, which is pretty impressive. The cheering part stemmed from when he (rightfully) explained that a feature version of a comic book almost HAS to make changes - there are things that work well on the printed page that wouldn't work on film, and vice versa. "You have to write for the medium you're working in," he says, and he's 100% right - something the idiot fanboys who get all up in arms when someone suggests changing part of an origin story or combining events that occurred in two different issues (or in Raimi's Spider-Man films, across two universes, since it took parts from the original and the "Ultimate" version of the story) will never get through their thick heads.
But the disheartening part came next, when he discussed a proposed modern film version of Swamp Thing, and how producer Joel Silver (attached to the project at one point) sat down with him and started off the meeting by saying "If we're going to do this, we're going to do it right - all CGI", which Wein wholeheartedly agreed with. His bias is due in part to the problems with the practical suit on Craven's film, which not only caused many problems (the material would deteriorate over time - you can plainly see holes in the costume in at least one scene), but didn't allow for any of the animated elements that are part of the character. Of course, this goes against what he had just said - just because Swamp Thing in the books had roots and vines that would move/grow on their own, doesn't mean the movie had to, but it is admittedly a cool element that the movie lacked.
However, him and Joel Silver are wrong - the real way to go about any modern cinematic Swamp Thing is to combine practical and CGI, in a manner not wholly unlike what they did for Mama earlier this year (a fitting example since Guillermo del Toro is currently the most likely candidate to bring him back to movie screens*). In that film, the bulk of the time we see the monster it was a person in a suit, but things like hair and some of its motion were aided with CGI enhancements. This allowed for the best of both worlds - they had a flesh and blood creature for the actors to interact with (and look much better on-screen, more often than not), but without animated practical elements slowing them down. And the work on Hansel & Gretel for Derek Mears' character was incredible - the actor was rigged with a giant prosthetic to create his troll character live on set. Craven's film, even without tendrils or vines swarming their way around Dick Durock's body, had a ton of problems - the actual swamp shooting location was a nightmare to work in, the producers kept pulling back the budget, etc - so Wein's experience on the few days he was on set was hardly the ideal way to sell someone on the idea of doing things correctly, as even though CGI unfortunately gets used more often than not nowadays, there continues to be improvements made to doing it the "old" way.
The irony, of course, is that while they were working on Swamp Thing with star Adrienne Barbeau, her then-husband John Carpenter was off making The Thing, a film that boasts a LOT of "tendril" type effects, all done practically, and they all look fantastic even today on a high definition disc. In 30+ years, few monster movies have provided effects work even half as good as Rob Bottin's work there, and even the top-notch FX showcase films that came along later, such as From Dusk Till Dawn, start to look dated in ways Bottin's work never will - and that movie ALSO had a blend of real effects mixed in with 1s and 0s. If Wein happened to stop by Bottin's shop, he probably would have a higher opinion of the craft, and thus wouldn't need to be convinced nowadays that going all CGI would be a nightmare for his creation.
That said, if a new Swamp Thing movie wanted to draw from the comics, there's certainly a case to be made for CGI with some of the smaller creatures. One bummer about the 1982 film is that there's no other monster until the film's final 10 minutes, when arch-villain Arcane becomes an embodiment of evil (which translates to "A thing that looks like an owl that mated with a werewolf, carrying a sword for some reason") and henchman Worth becomes this little monkey thing (played by a little person in makeup). Neither of them are on-screen much, and even with all the issues the filmmakers had with the Swamp Thing suit, it's Oscar-worthy compared to these two things. I assume budgetary limitations even from the start kept Craven and co. from diving into the source material's wealth of monsters; as early as issue 2 in the original 1970s run by Wein and Bernie Wrightston, Swamp Thing faces off against the "Un-Men", a group of a dozen or so creatures with almost no humanoid properties, which would have to be done with advanced puppets/animatronics (like The Thing) or, when it was available, CGI. Surely a new film could be forgiven for going that route with some of these little things, though again it would be ideal to use practical effects for the ones you see the most, with CGI used to fill out the ranks behind them.
Neither existing film (the less said about Jim Wynorski's 1989 sequel, the better) featured any of the series' weirder elements, something I can't imagine will be the case if del Toro has any say on the matter. Alan Moore's run on the book during the 1980s had the intriguing idea that Swamp Thing wasn't a man who was turned into a monster, but a PLANT that had taken on humanoid qualities (as well as the consciousness of Alec Holland, Swamp Thing's true identity), and along the way he had more interesting villains than Arcane (who served as the antagonist in both films, despite being killed in the first). There were even giant killer flowers at one point, plus a "Parliament of Trees", who have protected plant life throughout history. Any of this would be more exciting than the generic mad scientist/power hungry men villains featured in the other films, which could have featured any generic superhero (or even just some Rambo-esque badass) and played out as straight action films. With Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy film garnering strong buzz, it seems audiences are willing to accept something a little more out there, and to me it makes sense for DC to try with a character like Swamp Thing instead of one of their big guns (I don't need to see Batman fighting killer plants).
In short, I'm excited at the idea of seeing this character done right - obviously anything closer to monster movie than "Guy in a suit punching people through buildings" is more up my alley, and there's a wealth of crazy creatures (and built in license to create more) that could be a lot of fun to see on screen. Pacific Rim aside, we haven't gotten a lot of monsters on-screen lately, and a Swamp Thing movie (with the built in DC brand) could be a good place to start. But please, for the love of god, put a guy in a suit when you do it - we need to make up for Mr. Wein's bad experience on the first attempt, sure - but there's no need to go crazy and trust a bunch of computers to do it "right".
Scream Factory's special edition Blu-ray of Swamp Thing is now in stores; in addition to Wein its got new interviews with Barbeau and Reggie Batts (Jude), plus the ridiculous trailer and new commentaries by Craven and FX man Bill Munn. Not as extensive or essential as their other sets (it's a shame none of the footage of Ray Wise in the suit could be found, as much of the film was shot both ways), but definitely worth picking up if you're a fan of any of its principles, and as with Captain America it's nice to see comic book hero movies operating on a smaller scale.
*As with all del Toro projects, I won't believe it's actually happening until he's actually shooting. But I can't imagine anyone doing a better job with the character than him, so hopefully it pans out, whether as a solo film or part of the Justice League Dark project. And if it IS del Toro at the helm, then there's nothing to worry about anyway - no way in hell he'd ever do an all-CGI creation for such a major character.