Monday, 30 September 2013

Gogol's Triple-Bills: Mucky Buggers and Swamp Things

If you go down to the swamps today you're sure of a big surprise. Actually that's not true because outside of The Muppet Movie the only thing that is likely to result from a visit to the swamp is to be eaten by a part-vegetable muck monster. So confident was I that this was the case that I started to delve into my collection to pick three fine examples of the well-worn sub-genre of swampy plant creatures. I soon realised, however, that this was far from the case. With exception of the Thing From Another World (Christian Nyby, Howard Hawks, 1951) most plant monsters are of the giant variety (Audrey, Triffids, Biollante) while most swamp lurkers are in-bred simpletons and the occasional killer croc. With such slim pickings I had to complete my list with a fairly unimaginative choice. Still, all three are fun in their own way. So put on your waders, grab a flashlight and look out for leech men as we go deep into the fetid swamps searching for... things!

Swamp Thing (Wes Craven, 1981)

Based on the DC comic character Wes Craven's Swamp Thing is a mostly successful adaptation. Smiley Doctor Alec Holland (Ray Wise) is chucked into a swamp by rival scientist Arcane (Louis Jordan) along with a vial of volatile and glowing secret formula that turns him into the ghastly yet gallant Swamp Thing (Dick Durock). Arcane, spurting lines with an outrageous accent and a mouthful of scenery, needs to hunt down the last of Holland's notebooks which is the hands of Cable (the awesome Adrienne Barbeau). What follows is a battle of wits as Arcane tries to capture both the book and Swamp Thing, while Swamp Thing tries to protect Cable and while Cable tries to avoid everyone.

Now I say battle of wits because that's what Arcane keeps telling us is going. He even goes to far as to describe Swamp Thing as a great chess opponent. In reality the battle is entirely witless. Arcane's comedy thugs capture Cable, Cable kicks them in the balls and runs away. Thugs chase Cable. Swamp Thing rescues Cable. Arcane thumbs his fist in defeat. Cable runs away and sighs with relief. Arcane's thugs turn up to capture her almost immediately and the cycle begins again. Throw in a smashed up jeep, a couple of fanboat/jetski stunts and a gunfight here and there and you've got the first hour and change of this movie. Plus, for a movie that is shot in a swamp it is also curiously un-atmospheric. It's not bad, but it's like eating a meal with a cold. You know it should taste nice but it's just a little bit flavourless.

That's not to say it's not any fun. Swamp Thing is a big guy in a rubber suit which, although not great, works pretty well for the movie. Actually, screw it, if you can overlook some weird creases and the dodgy mouth piece he's a pretty cool monster. The stunts are nicely staged and Jordan makes a fun villain. Plus you have the awesome Adrienne Barbeau (did I remember to tell you she is awesome?). Once again playing a role that could be the usual eye-candy/damsel in distress she actually kicks considerable arse and even with her extremely unnecessary topless bathing scene still manages to come out of this with dignity. In fact she pretty much holds the movie together.

It's in the third act though where the film comes alive. Fully embracing the classic horror tropes Craven throws in secret dungeons, mad experiments, a monster in chains, a white gown for the leading lady and lashings of mist. Plus, Swamp Thing gets to fight a monster. It's a pretty goofy werewolf-come-armadillo with googly eyes and a broadsword, but it's a monster none-the-less.

As great a way to end the movie as it is you can't help but leave wishing the whole movie was this much fun. Still, Swamp Thing remains a slightly edgier comic adaptation. It's like an episode of The Incredible Hulk TV series but with blood and occasional nudity.

The Return of Swamp Thing (Jim Wynorski, 1989)

Swamp Thing is back, as is Louis Jordan and Dick Durock, and this time they are bringing Sarah Douglas and Heather Locklear with them. This is a real departure in tone from the first movie as it really ups the goofiness of the whole thing. Opening with comic book panels and Creedence Clearwater Revivals Born on the Bayou you can immediately tell they are not trying to build any kind of atmosphere. Throw in some obnoxious kids and even more comedy thugs and you've got what amounts to a Troma movie made for children.

Please, please, please do not going into this expecting, well... anything. Anything except a better monster suite for Swamp Thing and a greater quota of cool monsters for him to wrestle with.

There is also a weird moment where Swamp Thing gives Arcane's daughter (played by Locklear) a bud picked from his body (eww) that allows her to hallucinate that he is fact a handsome blonde hunk so that he can have sex with her (EEEEWWWWWW). I would have killed to have it cut out of the hallucination so that we could see her grinding against a massive heap of heavy-breathing pond scum. Alas we have to make do with the far less sexy... I mean funny... sight of Locklear and hunky Durock.

The Return of the Swamp Thing can be a fun monster mash if watched in the right mood. Me? I'm always in the mood for sexy pond s... I mean monster mashes (dammit).

Man-Thing (Brett Leonard, 2005)

This is probably the most genuinely effective of the three. Loosely based on Marvel's Man-Thing character, this tells of a cynical oil tycoon drilling sacred swamp land and re-awakening the vengeful guardian of the swamp. There are murder subplots, in-bred thugs, black magic, sex and death.

The film plays like a genuine horror rather than a superhero story, with Man-Thing being kept largely in the shadows until the third act. Considering the film suffered a number of budget cuts during production the film looks surprisingly expensive, with some great sets and heapings of atmosphere. The monster itself is pretty awesome too. It is a huge hulking practical suite with a few, surprisingly effective, CGI extensions.

In fact the only thing that prevents this from being something special is the cast. Don't get me wrong they are all fine, but none of them really stand out. All this film needs is a shot of charisma and it could be well above the usual straight to DVD fodder.

These three films should sate all your swamp creature needs ranging from goofy to fun to atmospheric, at least until someone comes along and makes a proper Swamp Thing movie.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Icons of the Overlooked #10: Adrienne Barbeau

Adrienne Barbeau came from a stage background having appeared in Grease and some more... um...  provocative productions. These other productions, plus some modelling, firmly cemented her as a sex symbol as she moved into film in the late seventies and early eighties. Yet Barbeau was less interested in the superficial and sought out roles that gave her more to do then just wear low neck lines and run. That is not to say she didn't have a lot of those roles, but even when she did she gave them a depth often not there in the writing.

Genre films have always struggled to balance toughness with femininity. Often women were hired because of traditional notions of beauty and any toughness was largely unconvincing, while in the nineties women could only seem to be seen as tough if they essentially de-feminised themselves. Barbeau, however, perfectly balanced the two elements. She is someone who wasn't in the least bit masculine, yet there was never a doubt she was in total command of her performance and persona. She could look gorgeous while shooting a look that would convince you she'd be able to kick your arse if she wanted to. It was this dichotomy that defined her career.

In Swamp Thing (Wes Craven, 1982) her character finds herself assigned to a research project deep in an inhospitable swamp. It is made very clear from the start it is a tough job that requires work in
conditions that even burly men can't tolerate. When the facility is attacked by a rival scientist and his mercenaries she manages to hold her own in a way her none of the male security are able to. She relieves one attacker of his assault rifle, uses it to blow another into the swamp and finally floors a third, straddles him and punches him in the face in way that would please an MMA fighter. In fact whenever she is captured, which is frequently, she fights her way out only to be “rescued” by Swamp Thing once she is well on her way.

Wearing fairly sensible clothes, short curly hair and little make-up her sexuality is dialled-down considerably. Yet her later topless scene, as gratuitous as it is, completely destroys any notion of her being a de-sexualised ice queen. As the film adopts the conventions of the classic monster movie in its third act (scary castle dungeon, mad experiments etc) she is saddled with being the distressed damsel in a flowing white dress. Yet she effortlessly slips into this trope without compromising her early badassery.

Her work with then Husband John Carpenter on The Fog (1980) and Escape From New York (1981) exemplifies this, especially when we look at the latter. Dressed in in a cocktail dress that is almost obscenely sexy Barbeau never plays the character as a sex object. In fact she is the only character in the film that seems to match the toughness of the uber-manly Snake Plissken.

Even when given thankless roles, such as the Lamborghini girl in Cannonball Run (Hal Needham, 1981), she manages to throw in an ever-so-slightly subversive element to her performance. Her role in this movie is to essentially drive fast and then, when caught, expose her cleavage to the arresting officer so that he lets her go. Yet rather than playing it as a bimbo she suggests this character is clearly in control of her sexuality and does this as a careful and calculated manipulation of the simple-minded men. I'm not suggesting this is an unappreciated feminist role by any means, but considering the narrative function of the character it could have been a lot worse.

Which is, funnily enough, almost the title of her autobiography. Someone who calls their own book There Are Worse Things I Could Do, obviously has some self-awareness and a sense of humour. Her recent cameo in Argo (Ben Affleck, 2012) also shows she is well aware of her place in cinema. Yet despite b-movie favourites like Creepshow (George A. Romero, 1982) and Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death J.F. Lawton (1989) her filmography is littered with a range of film and TV work. Plus, unlike many actresses, her age does not seem to have shut her out of work. In fact she has worked quite steadily providing vocals for cartoon series and video games and recent roles in film and TV, most notably in Carnivale.

So yes, she has a large chest. Get over it. Because despite what is going on below her neck what is going on above it is far more engaging. With absolute command over her own toughness and femininity it is gobsmacking to think she was never given her own vehicle to star in. I would have totally bought her as a Dirt Harry style cop, or a badass space pirate or... well... anything.

Those missed opportunities aside, Adrienne Barbeau remains an unappreciated film icon in that she is only appreciated for the b-movies she made and, even in those, is often only appreciated for her physical assets.