For most of his life, Evan Dossey generally avoided horror films. The genre made him profoundly uncomfortable. This meant he had enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Over the years, he has asked family and friends which essential horror movies he needs to see and spent the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. Once again, he’s sharing the month with those folks — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.
The Return of Swamp Thing was the sequel no one wanted to a movie few people watched (at least in its first run).
Searching box office numbers for 1982’s Swamp Thing yields few answers. The film did not crack the Top 10 in box office for the weekend of February 19, 1982, which was its listed release date. But it found new life in the salad days of cable TV, playing as an early HBO favorite, approaching the due it should have gotten in its theatrical run.
The second go-round, The Return of Swamp Thing, promised better box office returns. But the film grossed less than $200,000 during its short theatrical run in 1989. And while both films are heavy on camp, Return‘s heavy lean-in on laughs brought sillier comic-book and classic monster-movie tropes and created a B-movie worth the big, green monster’s time.
Return took a novel approach that another creature-feature franchise, Gremlins, would employ the following year in Gremlins 2: The New Batch, taking an earnest but still somewhat campy original film and creating a comedy that spoofs itself to great effect if not meaningful box-office returns, picking up the original film’s characters and two lead actors, and even playing a flashback clip from the original.
But Return‘s cherry-picked continuity allows them to bring back the evil Dr. Arcane, played with aplomb by Louis Jourdan, despite his apparent death in the first film with no discussion as to how he reverted to his normal visage (after morphing into a monster in the first film’s climax) or how he survived his apparent death.
But now Dr. Arcane has a late wife and a stepdaughter named Abby Arcane, played by 1980s TV starlet Heather Locklear. Abby, a plant lover, wants to know how her mother died and is going to her stepfather for answers.
Of course, Arcane is continuing his experiments on both animals and humans, hoping to find a genetic combination that will allow him to be healed from the degenerative disease that is threatening to kill him.
Meanwhile, Swamp Thing (Dick Durock, returning to the suit from the first film) is lurking around the swamp, looking to derail Arcane’s plans and finish the job he started in the first film.
While the film lacks the gravitas of Wes Craven’s original vision, director Jim Wynorski’s balls-to-the-wall approach fully embraces the character’s inherent silliness and launches the sequel into new territory, infusing Craven’s heavy camp with a more earnest vision — a Naked Gun-like take on monster movies that somehow still manages to touch all the right spots.
The opening sequence — with a group of hooched-up, machine-gun-wielding douchebags looking to rob a moonshine distillery only to find a rampaging leech monster ready to suck them dry — is fantastically frightening even as you laugh. The scene is a lead-in to an absolutely iconic opening-credits sequence, setting Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Born on the Bayou” to comic-book panels. It’s Wynorski’s batshit anticipation of Tim Burton’s Batman introductory credits and answer to Richard Donner’s Superman opener. In terms of preparing the viewer for the movie it opens, it stands with either of them.
Locklear is a perfect female lead — a damsel-in-distress in a classic way from her piercing blue eyes to her too-fitting affinity for vegetation. It only takes a few minutes to realize her clumsy line delivery is by design.
Speaking of overacting, it abounds, from Jourdan’s scenery chewing to Joey Sagal stomping around like Jeff Fahey’s cocky younger brother as Gunn, the sleazy henchman. He provides a few of the film’s funniest moments, including his rather explosive exit via live grenade down the pants. It’s his exasperated, resigned “Aw, shit, man” that sells the moment.
Sarah Douglas, who played Ursa in Superman and Superman II), here plays Dr. Zurell, Arcane’s right-hand woman and lover. Douglas interestingly plays her part straight, as if she’s fighting against the entire film’s tone by bringing an entirely serious presence to the film. Her role, while small, is a perfect tonal shift amid the over-the-top cheesing.
Chosen for his stuntman bona fides in the first film, Durock brings a cynical everyman persona to the role. He’s a larger personality in the sequel but an oddly pragmatic one for a superhero of this type. He’s called a monster and certainly looks the part but plays things like the weary dad of a group of unruly preschoolers who knows both his powers and his place in the world and has grudgingly accepted it.
The Swamp Thing suit is a marked improvement from the awkward rubber monstrosity of the original. The new costume eliminates the ill-fitting rubber stretching often visible in the first film, adding mossy touches and better makeup so effective it was reused for the Swamp Thing TV series on the USA Network a couple of years later.
But the rest of the monster costumes are spot-on in their imperfections, with the right amount of slime to accompany the unnatural bobbing that is a dead giveaway for an ill-fitting mask. The film’s climactic battle between Swamp Thing and a mutant monster isn’t so much thrilling (though it’s competently filmed) as it is sublimely goofy.
The Return of Swamp Thing is an unabashedly silly film, one that strikes the right balance of science-fiction hijinks with a sense of fun. It’s a loving homage to genre exploitation pictures, one that both lampoons B-cinema and fetes the magic of movies, somehow managing to capture both in the same film. It’s a hidden gem in not only comic-book cinema, but in 1980s schlock and in old-time pictures.