Swamp Thing succeeds–to the degree it does–both in spite of Wes Craven and because of him. Craven is not an inventive low budget filmmaker. He does nothing to compensate. The Swamp Thing costume is bad, has lots of movement below the chest. Craven shoots it head-to-toe instead of obscuring it. There’s a real disconnect between Craven’s handling of the costume and with the special effects in general and the film in general, because Craven’s not playing Swamp Thing for laughs. The other big problem Craven brings to the table is his inability to film an action scene or scenes in the open (on open water, with a clear sky). Swamp Thing cuts from good composition to bad composition almost every shot during the middle. It’s extremely disconcerting.
But, like I said, it still succeeds… because even with turning Louis Jordan into a wild boar, Craven takes the film seriously. Swamp Thing is not smart. Craven’s script is riddled with holes and is, at times, dumb. But he’s earnest. He creates two excellent character relationships–Swamp Thing and Adrienne Barbeau and then Barbeau and her teenage sidekick, played by Reggie Batts. The most successful thing about the Swamp Thing romance–well, it starts when it’s still Ray Wise as the human version–is Craven sells it in a short amount of time. The whole movie takes place over three or four days and the establishing romance takes place in–story-time–a few hours the first day, at most. But Craven, Barbeau, Wise and later Dick Durock sell it.
A lot of the film’s earnestness has to do with the actors. While Jordan (gloriously) adds relish to his ham, Barbeau, Wise, and Durock all play it straight. Barbeau runs around in skimpy outfits–heels in the swamp too–but her performance is great. The stuff with her and Durock, who I never realized was so affecting in the Swamp Thing costume before, is great. But the stuff with her and Batts is somehow even more touching, since the romance is kind of expected, but the genuine human concern element is not.
Craven shoots all of the swamp scenes on location, both a good idea and bad (those wide open spaces I mentioned before), and the film does have some lovely cinematic moments. Especially when the Harry Manfredini score is in its soft parts and not the action ones (Manfredini’s action music is a fit for Craven’s action direction). Unfortunately, the scenes in Jordan’s villainous hideout… a mansion, leave a lot to be desired. Craven’s script is short on establishing Jordan’s character other than giving him a staff of young female assistants and dumb macho mercenaries.
Because the film’s so short, because it moves so fast–and because the action scenes are impossible to remember–Swamp Thing leaves a good impression. One remembers the successes–thanks to Barbeau and Batts–and excuses the failures. But some of it, the haunting beauty, does come from Craven… though he gets crucial help from the natural locations and Manfredini’s score.