We lost a genre titan ‐ and by all accounts fantastic human being ‐ this week with the death of Wes Craven. His output had its highs and lows, but the mark he left on the industry is undeniable. After delivering a pair of nasty thrillers in the ’70s he proceeded to launch a franchise, a horror revolution and potentially even a studio with the success of A Nightmare on Elm Street in the mid-’80s. He then repeated that feat in the ’90s with Scream, and we’re still paying for it with MTV’s new series. (I kid. Not really. The show is not good.)
Everyone has their favorite Craven, but it’s probably safe to assume that no one would choose Swamp Thing as their #1. (Well, no one aside from legendary Austin artist and noted Swamp Thing cosplayer John Gholson anyway.) That’s understandable ‐ it’s goofy, low budget and something of a mess ‐ but the movie holds a spot in my nostalgic heart as a reminder of afternoons spent watching it on HBO as a kid. Crazy cartoon action, PG-rated boobs and some ridiculous transformations made it my kind of after school special.
Scream Factory released the film to Blu-ray earlier this year, and it features a commentary track with Craven and Sean Clark (of Horror’s Hallowed Grounds). Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for Swamp Thing.
Swamp Thing (1982)
Commentator: Wes Craven (writer/director)
1. Craven directed Swamp Thing back to back with Deadly Friend ‐ his first two Hollywood features ‐ and he recalls crew members joking on-set about the typical hotshot director trajectory of unknown to well-known to unknown again. “Who’s Wes Craven? Wow, Wes Craven! Who’s Wes Craven?”
2. Producer Michael Uslan is one of the people who brought Craven into the project after having purchased the rights to the Swamp Thing comic as well as Batman. “Which at that time nobody thought would ever be made, so Michael did very well in the ensuing years.”
3. They filmed in the swamps of South Carolina, and it was fairly miserable. “It was during a ferociously hot summer with very, very high humidity, and there was a black caterpillar plague, so they were in the trees in big clumps and would drop down on your head and sting you.”
4. Craven was unaware of the Swamp Thing before being approached to direct the adaptation because he had no access to comics while growing up. “They were forbidden by the church I was raised in.” He found the idea fascinating though, and after reading through the series he was ready to jump in fully.
5. The Swamp Thing’s costume led actor Dick Durock to take frequent, spontaneous breaks due to heat exhaustion. Ben Bates, who plays the villainous creature later in the film, actually flat-out fainted during one scene.
6. He has nothing kind to say about the completion bond company on this film. “I won’t name any names, but they were not friendly, and they were not helpful. They just played the tough guys all the time.” They demanded Craven cut scenes from the third act so they could stay on schedule and under budget.
7. He tried to keep Ray Wise in costume throughout the film so he could emote as Swamp Thing, but he just looked so clearly different from Durdock that they ended up using none of the footage. Until that realization Craven shot each scene featuring the Swamp Thing twice, once with each performer.
8. Clark asks about the exchange between Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau) and Dr. Alec Holland (Wise) when she tells him to “Save the malarkey for your wife Holland!” The character isn’t married so Clark wonders if something was cut from the script or film. “They went out of character for a moment there,” jokes Craven, “and were talking to each other as actors.” He actually doesn’t remember but suggests it’s probably due to a cut scene.
9. Craven mentions working with Steve Niles (30 Days of Night) on a five-issue comic book series (last year’s Coming of Rage) and discovering just how economical you have to be due to the limited space within the page. He appreciates the switch between learning in the early ’80s how to adapt a comic to the screen and having to learn now about condensing story for maximum impact on the page. It’s in his contract that if the comic ever got adapted for the screen that he would get to direct.
10. More than any other actor, it was Louis Jourdan who wanted to go over every line of dialogue and make suggested changes.
11. Stuntman Anthony Cecere, who also did the Freddy burn in A Nightmare on Elm Street, “taught himself how to do it by trying various chemicals on himself around the family swimming pool and setting himself on fire.”
12. They looked at some back lots in Los Angeles as possible shooting locales ‐ “I think the Creature from the Black Lagoon pond was still in Hollywood at the time, but it was relatively quite small” ‐ but wisely settled on filming in a real swamp. The only exception was the action scene involving the men in boats chasing and fighting with the Swamp Thing which was filmed on a small lake outside LA.
13. Young Reggie Batts plays local teen Jude, and while Clark rags on his performance just a bit Craven defends him. “I thought he did a pretty good job,” he says but acknowledges that “by casting somebody local we didn’t have to abide by all the SAG rules for children which are pretty stringent.” Clark says that Barbeau is still in touch with Batts.
14. They caught some grief from the guy who owned the limousine used for Arcane’s character after he witnessed them fish-tailing it in an effort to turn around. “He just totally flipped out, ‘That was not in our contract!’”
15. The scene where Alice trips twice while being chased prompted Craven’s daughter to turn to him and say sternly “’Dad, girls don’t fall down when they run,’ and I never forgot that.”
16. One scene he regrets having to cut for budgetary reasons involved an underwater chase through flooded tunnels.
17. Clark asks if the Swamp Thing’s healing ability was originally from the comics, but Craven doesn’t fully recall. “I believe it was,” jokes the director, “and I felt like [Steven] Spielberg sort of stole it for E.T.”
18. The studio behind Scream wanted Drew Barrymore to have a shower scene in the opening scene. Craven nixed it.
19. Barbeau’s topless scene was shot and intended for use solely in the European release and therefore not included in the American one. “It was one of those things of just gratuitous breast-ness,” says Craven, and while the PG-cut teases a brief profile the full scene is the absolute definition of gratuitous. This is crazy news to me though as one of my big memories of seeing the film as a kid was just this scene, but now I don’t know how that could have been. Thankfully, Clark actually has the answer. “When it first came on on DVD through MGM they released the European cut in the States. Once it was discovered they immediately recalled it.” He says MGM contacted her to see if she would just sign off on the mistake, but she refused citing the terms of her contract. Now I’m wondering which cut HBO was showing every other day in the middle of the afternoon when I was just a wee lad.
20. Bruno’s (Nicholas Worth) transformation after being dosed with the formula isn’t quite what Craven had envisioned. The same goes for Arcane’s creature, and when Clark asks for the director’s thoughts his immediate reply is a big sigh.
21. Craven points his ex-wife Mimi Craven (“She kept the name.”) in the scene where Arcane views the swamp from his porch. They had met her on a flight doing location scouting and invited her to the set for a bit part that ultimately became far bigger. “Mimi I think was totally in love with her master,” he says, “and she called him Mister Jourdan.”
22. He didn’t work again for nearly two years after this film’s release. “I kind of felt like I had had my chance and kind of blown it and would probably never work again. Normally I feel that after almost every film.”
23. The idea for A Nightmare on Elm Street came to him during production on this film, and that’s the only positive that came out of it career-wise. He survived a few years off the paychecks from this and Deadly Blessing, but that quickly dried up. “I went through all the money I had saved, I lost my house, and I was literally selling my goods, and I think I borrowed from Sean Cunningham five grand to pay my taxes that year.”
Best in Context-Free Commentary
- “There were alligators everywhere. People in South Carolina just sort of treat them like New Yorkers would treat pigeons.”
- “At this time she [Adrienne Barbeau] was married to John Carpenter, so I always felt like he was looking over my shoulder even though he was never there.”
- “David [Hess] was a little perverse on this movie.”
- “Oh my god, I’m working with a guy who was in Gigi!”
- “Damn, people keep leaving. I just went to my 50th college class reunion last week, and 25% of the class is dead.”
- “I learned a lot of things on this film. One is you never talk to the actors about your problems as a director. They don’t want to hear that, they want to hear that you’re totally in control, that if someone’s standing in your way you just trample right over them.”
- “This is pretty bad if I do say so myself.”
- “Louis [Jourdan] loved taking his shirt off.”
- “This movie’s also a good lesson in not writing too many pithy lines for your characters to say.”
- “After this movie I vowed never to have a woman tied up like that again, it just looks so corny. But if it’s gotta be somebody tied up Adrienne Barbeau’s a good choice.”
Swamp Thing is a goofy movie that never quite finds its tone, and while Craven acknowledges its many shortcomings ‐ and how it almost destroyed his career ‐ it’s clear he sees it for what it is in retrospect. His appreciation of the people he worked with is clear, and his kindness, respect and insight have been the traits most frequently mentioned by those who knew him.