Written by: Neil Cuthbert and Grant Morris (screenplay), Len Wein & Bernie Wrightson (comic book)
Directed by: Jim Wynorski
Starring: Dick Durock, Heather Locklear, and Louis Jourdan
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Me? Your Boyfriend?"
"You said it yourself: I'm a plant."
"That's okay, I'm a vegetarian."
"You said it yourself: I'm a plant."
"That's okay, I'm a vegetarian."
On its face, The Return of Swamp Thing feels like it should be easily dismissed nonsense. Given that it arrived seven years after the original film and features Jim Wynorski replacing Wes Craven at the helm, you’d be forgiven for assuming the worst about it: that it’s a junky cash grab, or perhaps even an effort to leech off of the comic book craze inspired by the Bat-mania sweeping America in 1989. And while some of this might even be true, it’s a feature rather than a bug, especially when it comes to Wynorski, one of the VHS era’s preeminent no-budget madmen, here operating with more talent and resources usually afforded to his productions. Few filmmakers have made a living off of stretching meager cocktails of karo syrup, latex, and gratuitous nudity with as much aplomb as Wynorski, so it’s little wonder that The Return of Swamp Thing feels like a kid rummaging through a candy store. Even within the constraints of a family-friendly PG-13 rating, he imagines DC’s swamp avenger into a raucous romp of a creature feature. Perhaps it has more in common with a Cannon Films joint than the contemporary Marvel factory’s refined adaptations, but we count that as a blessing around these parts.
Technically a soft reboot of the property following the 1982 film, Return once again finds the nefarious (and miraculously resurrected) Dr. Arcane (Louis Jourdan reprising the role) engaged in bizarre, highly questionable experiments involving human-animal hybrids. This time, he’s doing so in search of a serum that will reverse aging and keep him alive forever; however, he’s done an awful job of it so far, as his secluded mansion and the surrounding bog are crawling with failed experiments that terrorize the locals. Only Swamp Thing himself (Dick Durock) stands between Arcane and his potential victims, including the mad doctor’s own step-daughter Abigail (Heather Locklear), who arrives at the mansion looking for answers about her dead mother.
The spirit of The Return of Swamp Thing is perhaps best exemplified by its opening titles: set to blaring, jaunty strains of CCR’s “Born on the Bayou,” it features a montage of gloriously vintage comic book covers, a signal that it’s not shying away from its source material. While Swamp Thing purists might naturally balk at this particular adaptation—which, in truth, isn’t very faithful at all—there’s little doubt Wynorski embraces the four-color panache of funny books, infusing it with 80s action nonsense by way of Saturday morning cartoons. Never one to bother with pretense, Wynorski loads Return with the stuff of pre-adolescent fever dreams: scantily-clad bodyguards toting machine guns, kids scouring their parents’ house for porno mags, and plenty of rubbery monsters beating the hell out of each other. Hardly a scene unfolds without the feeling that Wynorski is just emptying the tank in an effort to appeal to the sort of degenerates (read: very much us, thank you very much) that lap up this sort of nonsense, and it’s quite appreciated: Return of Swamp Thing is the sort of movie that’s best appreciated by an audience that’s made a tacit agreement to ride shotgun alongside its director’s juvenile whims.
It’s the same pact one has to make for, well, just about every Wynorski movie. Doing so entails accepting bizarre terms and agreements, like an entire subplot where a couple of tykes encounter Swamp Thing and spend the rest of movie trying to snap a picture of him for a monetary reward that may or may not exist. As far as random asides go, it’s fairly gonzo, made even more so by the actors’ precocious turns, especially Daniel Emery Taylor’s. He’s Darryl, a hyperactive hillbilly horndog whose southern-fried drawl feels like it’s been piped in from the deepest, twangiest nether-reaches of Alabama. I would watch an entire film dedicated to the exploits of Darryl and his buddy Omar (RonReaco Lee), a couple of lovable scamps whose presence really captures Wynorski’s wonderfully puerile wavelength.
But Wynorski is also a generous filmmaker, at least within budgetary restrictions. Instead of only giving viewers a glimpse of his pint-sized duo’s adventures, he also graciously provides Heather Locklear as the actual protagonist, here facing off against Arcane, now reimagined as a fully unhinged Bond villain (by way of Dr. Moreau) following Jourdan’s appearance in Octopussy. And if that weren’t enough, Sarah Douglas appears as Lana Zurrell, Arcane’s mad scientist sidekick and new lover, thus providing the audience with an abundance of wickedly over-the-top performances. It’s reflective of how there’s just so much goddamn much going on in The Return of Swamp Thing, a movie filled to its brim with sleazy, absurdly mustachioed henchmen, scummy rednecks, and riotous carnage. This is not a film that’s lacking in incident: I mean, even the bizarre romance that unfolds between Abigail and Swamp Thing takes on a hazy, melodramatic tenor during a strange sequence where Durock sheds the makeup appliance so the two can (presumably) bang without it being too weird. It is, of course, very weird, anyway, perhaps even more so.
Arguably most importantly, there’s also an abundance of Monster Kid catnip here. Between Arcane’s failed experiments (including a pesky giant anteater that appears throughout the film) and Swamp Thing himself, a candy-colored splash lurks in every scene, waiting to burst forth and allow Wynorski to embrace all of the sensibilities guiding the film, be it comic books or his own specific brand of goofball action movies. In his prime, Wynorski was nothing if not quite self-aware, and The Return of Swamp Thing is a total, knowing hoot that is sincere only in its commitment to entertain you with ludicrous dialogue, goopy practical effects, wild, fiery stunt work, and a cheeky, sitcom style end credits sequence ripped off straight from Predator. It’s a great example of a director delivering exactly what’s expected of him and skyrocketing over an extremely low bar in the process. Return is a surprising entrant in the conversation about sequels that can easily stand alongside—or maybe even surpass—their predecessors, a fate made all the more unlikely by the move from Craven to Wynorski. Nobody ever said this world had to make any goddamn sense at all.
Case in point: as if we cult home video hounds weren’t spoiled enough in recent years, MVD recently kick-started the Rewind Collection, a new label dedicated to various semi-obscure efforts. The Return of Swamp Thing is the fifth entry (and yes, the spines are numbered for you completists that will be driven mad by such things), and, if it’s any indication, this definitely a label to watch. Not only does the film boast a new 2K restoration, but it’s supplemented by tons of extra features, including two audio commentaries. One is a solo commentary by Wynorski recorded in 2003, while the other finds the director joined by composer Chuck Cirino and editor Leslie Rosenthal. This trio also appears on a set of three newly-recorded on-screen interviews (with the latter two actually being conducted by Wynorski) that run for a total of nearly 30 minutes. Executive in charge of production Arnie Holland—who is also now the rights holder—also appears in an interview with Wynorski, wherein he explains the film’s unlikely journey to such a robust Blu-ray edition that also features multiple promo clips, TV spots, PSAs, the original theatrical trailer, a promo reel, and a photo gallery.
A mini-poster is also tucked away inside the case, which sports a faux-distressed VHS look that pushes the right nostalgia buttons for a certain generation that gleaned cheap, almost forbidden thrills from renting the likes of The Return of Swamp Thing. And while it’s not mandatory that one retreats to their 8-year-old mindset to enjoy the film as an adult, it certainly doesn’t hurt to pay it a visit as you crack open the retro-styled case, free the tape—ahem, disc—and slip it into your player.
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