The Bayou of Love
Why are we drawn to bad movies? What is their allure? These are the questions I asked myself on a recent summer night, when the auburn sky was turning black and the time for bed drew near. As I often do, I found myself scouring Prime Video in a desperate search for something, anything to help me unwind, to help turn myself off for the evening. It is in these moments I turn to something that doesn’t sharpen my mind, but instead numbs my senses. I slide through the Recently Added column, and there I find a film I haven’t seen in decades, a film that for a time in the 90s was the go-to Saturday afternoon feature when the movie you were actually watching went to commercials. Without thought, without hesitation, I turned out the lights, burnt a candle, and laid down to watch The Return of Swamp Thing.
The sequel to the Wes Craven-directed cult classic, 1989’s The Return of Swamp Thing was the first strike of an onslaught of Swamp Thing content in the late 80s/early 90s, an assault that included a television series on the USA Network, an incredibly short-lived animated series produced by DiC Entertainment, and a kickass action figure line from Kenner. It stars Dick Durock, Heather Locklear, Louis Jourdan, and Sarah Douglas, and is a tongue ’n cheek homage to the B-movie monster drive-in flicks of the 1950s with high emphasis on the camp.
Not much has changed since the original Swamp Thing. Dr. Anton Arcane (Jourdan) is back to his human form (after having been turned into a hideous monster with a boar’s head at the end of the last film) and is still conducting nefarious genetic experiments at his remote compound facility in the bayou. Meanwhile, the mutated Bigfoot of the swamp, Swamp Thing (Durock), formerly known as Dr. Alec Holland, still lumbers around as a mysterious creature of the wilderness, rescuing innocent civilians and fighting the mad scientist’s fiendish creations.
But things change when Abby Arcane (Locklear), a florist who’s admittedly more into plants than she is people (as evidenced when she says, “Why can’t men be more like plants?”), decides to pay her vile stepfather a visit in order to get some answers about what happened to her mother. Seeing this confrontation as opportunity to eventually harvest Abby’s perfect DNA in order to keep his human form, Arcane accepts her into his mansion under innocent pretenses. Abby soon finds herself in danger and is immediately rescued by Swamp Thing, who just happens to be, you know, a plant. A bond between the two quickly forms and naturally (or unnaturally?), love blossoms.
The chemistry between Swamp Thing and Abby is something out of a bad romance paperback. “Is there a Mrs. Swamp Thing?” Abby asked, biting her lip. “No, I’m a bachelor,” he proclaimed, dimples blossom from his botanic smile. Later: “You said it yourself, I’m a plant,” he insisted, masculinity radiating from his voice like chlorophyl. “That’s okay. I’m a vegetarian,” Abby replied, caressing the vines protruding from his chiseled biceps, feeling the cabbage-like texture of his skin.
Oh yes, as I’m sure you’re wondering, Abby and Swampy do embrace in passionate coitus, and yes, it is as awkward as that sounds. But not as much as it could’ve been. In one of the film’s strangest scenes, Abby consumes a seed plucked from the herbaceous superhero’s own body and makes love to Swampy in his human form as Dr. Holland in a scene so romantically stylized, every shot appears to be a cover of a Johanna Lindsey novel. Clearly, the intention was to spare us from one of the most bizarre love scenes ever put to film, but in doing so they rob us of one of the most bizarre love scenes ever put to film, and shame on them.
If you haven’t gathered by now, The Return of Swamp Thing is extremely thirsty and this strange, lustful nature solidifies itself in the tone with such prominence and pronounced intent that it feels as though you were watching a porn parody edited for television.
For the most part, the sexualized vibe of the film (just a reminder that we’re talking about a Swamp Thing movie here) is presented in such a goofy, tongue-in-cheek sort of way that it is hard not to laugh with the film, but sometimes it is as gross and awkward as you imagine. Take Dr. Arcane’s mercenaries, for example. Staffed 50/50 with grotesque, fully-clothed men who look like roadies at a Ted Nugent concert and sexy women who look like Sports Illustrated swimsuit models, they’re the textbook definition of male gaze wish fulfillment.
Arcane himself is presented by the film as though he were a militant Hugh Hefner. Aside from his playboy bunny commandos, a number of his scenes are spent in his private quarters with one of his scientists, Dr. Zurrell (Douglas), whose primary motivation in the film is to swoon over Dr. Arcane despite him showing little to no interest in her. Also, according to prior events glossed over in this film, Arcane was able to charm over and marry Abby’s mother if only for the purposes of his experiments, which begs the question, what is it like going on a date with an evil mad genius and how does one with such grotesque peculiarities in his underground laboratory woo a self-respecting woman into marriage?
Oddly enough, the film rarely seems to comment on Arcane’s loverboy lifestyle, apart from showing him in bed with Zurrell. No doubt, Jourdan plays the character the same way he played him the first go-around, as a mad doctor whose only focus is doing mad doctor-y things. Only this time, he is navigating halls staffed with beautiful women, but he never says anything, does anything to suggest that he enjoys this. This is perhaps because Arcane’s compound wasn’t staffed by Arcane himself but a lecherous film director, producer, or casting director, who just wanted to look at pretty women.
We’ve mostly focused on the film’s big, horny elephant in the room, but The Return of Swamp Thing has an entire parade of elephants in its room with one of the largest, most impossible to miss being that somewhere down the line, somebody to decided to overdub Swamp Thing with an uncredited voice actor, replacing his tragically monstrous voice with that of a basic, K-Mart variety action hero. Decisions like this, as well as delivering an A-Team-esque visual of Swamp Thing driving past explosions in a jeep, rocket the already-heightened cheese factor well beyond the stratosphere. There’s no safe landing for the film. It’s either self-destruct shooting for the stars or burn up in re-entry.
Visually, the only improvement The Return of Swamp Thing has over the original film is the titular creature himself. Wes Craven’s film was plagued with budgetary problems and an ever-deteriorating suit held together by scotch tape, and even in his best shots, Swamp Thing looked rubbery and out of shape. But here, Swamp Thing is given a makeover with plenty of vines, foliage, and an accented bone and muscular structure with a whole lot of “oomph!” This Swamp Thing is lean, mean, and fit, and definitely hits the gym and lectures you about protein intake and workout regimens when he’s not busy saving your ass from Dr. Arcane’s minions.
The Return of Swamp Thing is no doubt one of the worst sequels ever made, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have a good time watching it. I found myself smiling a lot, laughing at its overt goofiness and silly one-liners (and there are a couple really good ones, especially a kicker involving a vasectomy) and even found myself digging its glowing green comic book look. Suffice to say, not once during this absurd film did I ever regret watching it, not for a damn second. For better or worse, The Return of Swamp Thing has no shame in its radioactive campiness, and does more than to wear it on sleeves, it proudly has it tattooed on its forehead.