The Wynorski Project
The Return of Swamp Thing
Beautiful blond Abigail decides it’s time to leave the safety of her plants and find out what really happened to her late mother. This means leaving California and visiting the estate of her evil stepfather, Anton Arcane, deep in the Louisiana bayou. Turns out he’s almost dead himself and requires Abby’s perfect genetic structure to complete the rejuvenation process necessary for him to survive. Fortunately for her, his mortal enemy is a dreamy living plant with muscles known as Swamp Thing, who takes an instant liking to the blond vegetarian. Very little blood is shed, no breasts are bared, stuff explodes and there’s a happy ending for our unique onscreen couple.
It sounds bizarre to suggest that a film that features a love story between Heather Locklear and a stuntman (Dick Durock) in a green plant suit is probably the closest Jim Wynorski has ever gotten to a making a satisfying mainstream movie, but it’s true. Of all his films so far documented on this blog, The Return of Swamp Thing is easily the most entertaining and professionally made. The film especially deserves credit for being better than the first Swamp Thing, a film directed by the more talented Wes Craven, that suffered due to unforeseen budget setbacks and the fact that the original Swamp Thing costume had an unfortunate tendency to disintegrate when put anywhere near an actual swamp.
While still full of classic Wynorski-isms (jokey references to his actors’ past work, Abbott & Costello type comedy, Monique Gabrielle, Ace Mask, running time lengthening opening and closing credits) the film doesn’t suffer under the weight of them like Deathstalker II and Not of This Earth did. I suspect a large part of the credit goes to producers Benjamin Melniker and Michael E. Uslan, who both remain best know for their involvement in the Batman franchise, beginning with Tim Burton’s 1989 film all the way to the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises, but it is entirely possible that this is just a coincidence and the film is simply proof that even a broken clock can be right two times day (see also Fred Olen Rey’s Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers).
Despite not being credited for the screenplay (that honour goes to Neil Cuthbert and Grant Morris), Wynorski’s influence on the script is obvious and in his commentary he credits Chopping Mall’s Steve Mitchell and Deathstalker II’s John Terlesky with helping him on the rewrite. It isn’t hard to guess who wrote what in the film, as certain scenes and jokes definitely feel more Wynorskian than others (ie. the subplot involving the two boys trying to get a picture of Swampy, the scene where Monique Gabrielle and Joe Sagal flirt—three years before Lethal Weapon 3—by comparing scars a la Jaws, all of Heather Locklear’s one-liners), but in this case Wynorski was fortunate enough to have a cast talented enough to wring some entertainment out of them.
Sarah Douglas, for example, is typically excellent as Dr. Zurrell (an almost Kryptonian sounding name that recalls her most famous role as Ursa in Superman II), as is Wynorski regular Ace Mask, who adds a layer of hilarious banality to his evil mad scientist. Sagal and Gabrielle are both great as Arcane’s chief henchpeople and the scenes featuring the two young boys are all saved by the gleeful performances of RonReaco Lee and Daniel Emery Taylor.
Both Louis Jourdan and Durock return from the first film and both give the weakest performances. Jourdan disdained the movie and returned only for the paycheck and his indifference is evident onscreen (Wynorski gets him back by having a parrot make a Gigi joke in one scene), while Durock was clearly cast more for his physique and experience as a stuntman than his dramatic chops. It doesn’t help that his voice is clearly dubbed by another (uncredited) actor.
That said, a huge amount of credit for the film’s success has to go to Locklear, a TV actress whose comedic talent has often been overshadowed by her seemingly inhuman blond California beauty. I remember that when the film first came out, my local newspaper reviewer suggested in his review that he couldn’t tell if her performance in the film was one of the best or worst he’d ever seen. That it’s impossible to tell whether or not she’s in on the joke is the key to the film’s success. As Abigail, Locklear is often funny, but never campy, a distinction that is also true for the whole movie as well.
Of course, though, the film’s humour is likely to be the element that alienates most comic book fans, who resent the dark worlds they take seriously being lightened in any way. This is especially true for Swamp Thing, a character who grew infinitely more complex after the 1982 release of Craven’s film via the pen of Alan Moore, whose reputation as the genre’s great literary genius was first earned from his work on Saga of the Swamp Thing. Fortunately for my enjoyment of the film, I’ve never actually read any of those comics and am therefore immune to any of the potential sacrileges committed onscreen, leaving me to admire it for what it is rather than detest it for what it’s not.
Truthfully, though, it is difficult to imagine how any filmmaker could be expected to bring the true comic book character onto the big screen. In comics the Swamp Thing is able to transcend his appearance and become a noble, tragic figure, but on film he’ll always be a guy in a silly green suit or (sometime in the future) a CGI cartoon. That’s not to say it couldn’t be done, just that in 1988—when the sequel was made—the budget Wynorski had to work with simply would not allow for a serious take on the material. And, it has to be said, if that was what the producers actually wanted, they never would have hired him in the first place.
Still, The Return of Swamp Thing isn’t a perfect film. It’s chief flaw being the kind of simplistic plot that people who’ve never actually read comic books typically associate with the genre. Were it not for the humour and absurdity of its central romance, it would be a much less satisfying, empty film where not much of consequence actually happens. The saving grace of Wynorski’s tone being that by reducing the dramatic stakes, it allows us to ignore how small the film really feels and instead enjoy it for what it is.
Six films in and I fear we might have reached the pinnacle of Wynorski’s career. The Return of Swamp Thing truly represents the bizarre miracle of cinematic alchemy in which a hack filmmaker's usual formula for once turns to gold instead of remaining lead. Knowing what I do about Wynorski's later work, it’s hard to hold out hope that I will be happily surprised to see its success replicated somewhere along the way. Perhaps there’s a hidden gem lost somewhere in his Jay Andrews filmography, but since that seems doubtful, it’s hard not to end this review without feeling a touch of melancholy. Is it possible that our subject made his last good movie over 20 years ago? For my sake, I hope not….