There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.
What to watch
Swamp Thing, Wes Craven’s 1982 movie about DC’s Swamp Thing, a comic book character created in 1971 by writer Len Wein and artist Bernie Wrightson. The film stars Ray Wise as Alec Holland, a scientist whose covert, government-funded work on the untapped potential of plant life — as both a food source and a bioweapon — draws the attention of a megalomaniac, Anton Arcane (Louis Jourdan). When Arcane’s guerrillas storm Holland’s laboratory, they kill Alec’s sister and chase him into the swamp where they assume he dies when the lab explodes. Instead, the facility’s various chemicals and experiments transform Alec Holland into the green, leafy, twiggy Swamp Thing. With the help of another government scientist, Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau), the creature seeks to stop Anton’s nefarious plans.
Why watch now?
Because the first episode of DC Universe’s Swamp Thing is available today, with subsequent episodes arriving each week.
The creative teams working on the DCU’s live-action original series have been making some bold choices, aimed at die-hard DC fans. Season 1 of Titans turned the basic origin story for Marv Wolfman and George Pérez’s classic 1980s version of the super-team into a dark, sprawling adventure, with the heroes traveling far and wide, gathering assets for a big fight still to come. Doom Patrol’s recently concluded first season adapted some of the more bizarre and surreal comics Grant Morrison wrote in the 1990s, featuring a sentient street named Danny and a bodybuilder named Flex Mentallo who can alter reality by moving his muscles.
Both of these shows skipped over the earliest incarnations of their superheroes, and instead jumped straight into the eras that produced the best stories. When Swamp Thing was announced, some fans wondered (or perhaps hoped) that this new series might do the same, diving directly into the 1980s Swamp Thing stories penned by Alan Moore. Instead, writers Mark Verheiden and Gary Dauberman stick to Swamp Thing’s roots, retelling the Wein / Wrightson origin story, which was honestly pretty great, and it established a look and a tone for the character that Moore and others would later honor with their versions.
The first two Swamp Thing episodes (made available to critics prior to today’s premiere) introduce Andy Bean as Alec Holland, now a corporate-backed scientist who gets killed while investigating a sort of “plant plague” that’s been sickening the locals. Crystal Reed plays Abby Arcane, a CDC team leader who is also racing to save the small Louisiana town where she grew up. Verheiden, Dauberman, and their excellent cast take their time establishing the characters and the location, keeping the title monster mostly off-screen, for now. (Any connection between Abby and the character Anton Arcane also goes unmentioned… again, for now.)
The TV Swamp Thing does effectively play up the horror elements of the original comic, telling a story about spooky phenomena in the sweltering South, with a lot of grotesque images of human bodies ripped to pieces by creeping vines. Craven’s Swamp Thing also makes great use of its wilderness locations (shot mainly in South Carolina), but it’s more of a combination of a gothic romance and an action-adventure. Once Alec transforms into the Swamp Thing (played by Dick Durock), he becomes Alice’s protector and admirer, lurking in the shadows and emerging to keep her safe from Arcane’s goons. The film has a dreamy atmosphere but the bones of a slam-bang B-movie, with lots of scenes of the monster demolishing vehicles and crushing skulls.
Who it’s for
Fans of 1970s comics and classic Universal monster movies.
The character of Swamp Thing was introduced in a DC horror comic, House of Secrets, but once he landed in his own ongoing series, Wein and Wrightson retooled the basic concept of an avenging plant monster, fitting it into the more episodic, adventure-driven mode of 1970s comics. Swamp Thing squared off against mystics and mad scientists, and anyone else throwing nature out of balance. Craven’s Swamp Thing is very much in the spirit of those original stories, with Jourdan’s Anton Arcane representing the kind of high-minded sociopath whose attempts to manipulate the natural world demanded the righteous beat-down only a swampified Alec Holland could provide.
But Craven was also an old-school horror guy, and he made the most of his opportunity to do a old-fashioned rubber-suit monster movie. He filled the film with the pathos of Frankenstein or Creature from the Black Lagoon, eliciting sympathy for the shambling beast at the center of his picture. In a way, Craven’s Swamp Thing is like a remake of Creature from the Black Lagoon, but with the “Gill-man” as the good guy, and the Amazonian adventurers as the creeps. And Adrienne Barbeau makes for an all-time-great damsel in distress who’s helpful to the hero and able to take care of herself but still captures hearts when the rogues are about to get the better of her.
Where to see it
TubiTV for free with ad breaks. The much more tongue-in-cheek 1989 sequel, The Return of the Swamp Thing, is also available for free on Vudu (again, with ads).