The Savage Stack - THE RETURN OF SWAMP THING (1989)

Jim Wynorski's rubbery creature feature is still one of the best comic book cinema sequels ever.

There’s always going to be – for lack of a better term – a stack of films we’ve been meaning to get to. Whether it’s a pile of DVDs and Blu-rays haphazardly amassed atop our television stands, or a seemingly endless digital queue on our respective streaming accounts, there’s simply more movies than time to watch them. This column is here to make that problem worse. Ostensibly an extension of Everybody’s Into Weirdness (may that series rest in peace), The Savage Stack is a compilation of the odd and magnificent motion pictures you probably should be watching instead of popping in The Avengers for the 2,000th time. Not that there’s anything wrong with filmic “comfort food” (God knows we all have titles we frequently return to when we crave that warm and fuzzy feeling), but if you love movies, you should never stop searching for the next title that’s going to make your “To Watch” list that much more insurmountable. Some will be favorites, others oddities, with esoteric eccentricities thrown in for good measure. All in all, a mountain of movies to conquer.

The seventy-third entry into this unbroken backlog is the low rent, campy but brilliant comic book cinema sequel, The Return of Swamp Thing...

It seems strange now, but in '82 comic book movies really weren’t a thing yet. While Richard Donner’s Superman ('78) proved that many would believe a man could fly, there weren’t many other productions green-lit in the wake of that monumental motion picture. Superman II ('80) came and went – with Richard Lester taking over for a dismissed Donner – raking in a solid amount of dough by making audiences “kneel before Zod”. But it wouldn’t be until '82 that another DC character would finally be brought to the big screen by the unlikeliest of directors.

Made for a mere three million, Swamp Thing was Wes Craven’s attempt at proving his action prowess to studio suits, as up until this point, the filmmaker was known solely for his horror and exploitation output. Films such as The Last House On The Left ('72), The Hills Have Eyes ('77), and Deadly Blessing ('81) proved successful with 42nd Street audiences and on the drive-in circuit, but didn’t exactly instill confidence in those looking to bankroll movies featuring explosions, stunts and big stars (unless you considered Michael Berryman or Ernest Borgnine “marquee names”). In this regard, Swamp Thing remains an anomaly in the earliest part of Craven’s career: the largest left turn he’d take until probably '99, when the Nightmare on Elm Street ('84) shock auteur would (unfortunately) try his hand at dramatic fare with the Meryl Streep-starring Music of the Heart.

Based on the character created by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson, Craven's Swamp Thing tells the touching love story of Dr. Alec Holland (Ray Wise) and Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau), government scientists stationed in the swamps of Louisiana, who are working on a classified project to help end world hunger. Yet just as Alec and his sister, Linda (Nannette Brown), are on the verge of a major breakthrough, paramilitary thugs (headed by David Hess - one of Craven’s Last House rapists) storm the lab. Under orders from Dr. Anton Arcane (Octopussy [‘83] villain Louis Jourdan), an immortality obsessed madman, they kill Linda, destroy the lab, and send Dr. Holland screaming for the bayou, his “secret formula” having set him on fire. While the mercenaries hunt for an escaped Alice, Dr. Holland hounds them, the serum having melded his DNA with that of the surrounding muck, transforming him into the titular rubbery hero.

At its core, Swamp Thing is a sort of pop art Beauty and the Beast-cum-'50s monster movie; Dr. Holland’s transmuted superhero quests to find the woman who kissed him just as the mercs stormed his backwoods shack of a lab. In the big green beast, Alice sees a beating heart that still belongs to the brilliant scientist who just wanted to feed the world’s starving children. Yes, it’s a story as corny and clichéd as they come, but that’s part of the picture's charm. Craven works in broad, gothic strokes that actually add a surprising amount of gravitas to what otherwise would be a goofy, “man in suit” action/horror hybrid. A scene where Swamp Thing – portrayed by Dick Durock post-transformation – returns to the ruins of his lab only to lament the loss and smell the flowers that have grown in its place is quite touching, as Durock conveys quite a bit of passion from beneath what looks to be pounds of rubber. Craven is able to make the audience feel sympathy for the green devil in the same way Raimi would later evoke compassion for Peyton Westlake in his very similar (both thematically and narratively) invented superhero opus, Darkman ('90).

The belated sequel to Craven's superhuman sidetrack – Jim Wynorski's The Return of Swamp Thing ('89) – exponentially ups the camp factor, and also the creature feature elements. Opening with our man from the muck protecting a group of machine gun-toting goons out to uncover a hidden moonshine still, Wynorski – who was mostly known for helming the lo-fi Vestron Video schlock classic Chopping Mall ('87) – stages our hero's throw down with an incoming marauding mutant like it's a WWF bout. The beasts bump uglies and punch the shit out of each other, before Thing vanquishes the shrieking, bloody-mawed monster to the bog's darkness. It's a really great sequence that embraces what sort of diversion The Return of Swamp Thing truly is: a disreputable midnight movie cash-in on a title that didn't make a huge dent at the box office, but became popular over the years via the rise of VHS. 

Where Craven and the producers of the original Swamp Thing tried to pass their movie off in the press as a parody of '50s "mad scientist" schlock, Wynorski applies an almost Sirkian tongue-in-cheek approach to this supernatural romance. Durock's second take on the character – who was overdubbed without the director or the former stunt man's knowledge – comes off like the Rock Hudson of movie monsters. The green suit is almost garishly muscled, vines looking like veins on his bulging body. The ADR voice is deep and manly, sounding like Ron Kirby, the loving gardener from Sirk's classic All That Heaven Allows ('55), and allows Swamp Thing to sweep Dr. Arcane's daughter, Abby (Heather Locklear), off her feet once the evil experimenter returns to the bayou in hopes of perfecting his latest crop of creations. Like its predecessor, the lovey-dovey aspects of The Return are some of the best parts, as both Durock and Locklear are clearly having a ton of fun in this boggy take on classic fairy tale archetypes. 

They never really explain (at least in any coherent fashion) how Jourdan's Dr. Arcane survived the last film – where the scientist turned himself into a wolfish fiend – but frankly, it's tough to care about such trivial plot consistencies when you have a work actively embracing its low rent place on the filmic food chain. Instead, Jourdan is vamping it up just as much as Locklear, chatting with a snarky parrot and chewing on the flimsily constructed lab sets like he hasn't had a meal in ages. His henchmen are all orange jump suit-sporting, automatic weapon-wielding thugs, dopily trying to take advantage of Abby before Swamp Thing swoops in and saves the day. It's all very silly and feels like play-acting, but again, this is part of the movie's immense allure. Everybody seems in on the elaborate, goofball joke Wynorski is playing. 

Adding a layer of oddity to the proceedings are a pair of crass sub-Our Gang trailer trash tykes – Omar (RonReaco Lee) and Darryl (Daniel Emery Taylor). The two juvenile derelicts get together for nights of MTV and spank magazines, before being saved by our hero and embarking on a journey to capture his photo, believing in their little hearts that it'll sell better than Bigfoot. This pair of misfits land just this side of annoying, spouting off inane nonsense like "look at all these babes!" when opening one of their prized Playboys, or screeching whenever they see one of Swamp Thing's genetically modified foes. Nevertheless, including them in the narrative only helps to emphasize who the intended audience for The Return of Swamp Thing truly was: budding horror dorks who would grab the box from their local tape shop and run home to watch the prosthetic-laden lark with their pals at a late night sleepover. 

The Return of Swamp Thing holds a special place in the hearts of genre geeks who grew up during the '90s and watched a ton of MonsterVision With Joe Bob Briggs (where Wynorski's sequel was a staple). After Joe Bob gave us the drive-in totals, The Return of Swamp Thing ripped into our budding brains and planted a weird, creature feature seed. After it, you wanted to run out and grab a million kaiju pictures to marathon, as this round of comic book craziness plays like their down to earth cousin. Almost thirty years later, Wynorski's picture has aged surprisingly well, and acts as a reminder of when these sort of movies weren't taken that seriously, mostly because they didn't even take themselves that seriously. 

The Return of Swamp Thing is available on Blu-ray/DVD combo, courtesy of the MVD Rewind Collection.