Justice League Dark sounds kind of cool, I don’t know. Unlike any of those other DC movies, it has a for-real talented director with things like a track-record scheduled to direct it all of the sudden. Let’s look at the somewhat sketchy cinematic history of characters in that particular DC Comics franchise.
A pre-Nightmare on Elm Street Wes Craven’s bid for the big time, Swamp Thing is a reminder that some tales are as old as time. It goes a little like this: a small-time cinematic crook, stealing our attentions with unholy little anti-pleasers like the wonderful The Hills Have Eyes (Craven’s best film), is conscripted by Hollywood. And the results are a quagmire of stifled filmmaking, timid poetics, and oddly carefree glimmers of wonderment and innocence that suggest a more kitschy, amused director in Craven’s case just waiting to break out from the Big Time, corporate sanding-down of the material. The film is trampled by Craven’s inability to let loose, but in the rare moments where Swamp Thing emboldens him to not only pay homage to but stir the weirdness of his predecessors and inspirations, the film is amusing enough.
It doesn’t start out that amusingly though, with a rote little ditty about scientists in the Everglades – Alec (Ray Wise), Alice (Adrienne Barbeau), and Linda (Nanette Brown) specifically – up to usual scientific shenanigans before the positively vile Louis Jourdan (playing a character, but he’s Louis Jourdan) interrupts with an explosion and Alec is presumed dead. Little do they know, the compound the scientists were investigating combines with the poetic, avenging murk of the swamp and, presumably, Alec’s inner-protector to produce Swamp Thing (Dick Durock, latex-ed to hell). At which point, the film loses its inhibitions and forgoes narrative complicity completely, evading temporal story development for an askew mismatch of inelegant bayou-bound combat and Craven’s interjections of B-movie cunning and visual poetry limned from the art house crowd.
So it’s an odd gumbo, this bile-covered brute of a film, and the A-structure is entirely limpid (Craven is woefully ambivalent about the fighting choreography, and the film’s almost nonexistent editing rhythms don’t help either). Partially, the escapade is a maximal-budgeted Charles Pierce picture (see The Town that Dreaded Sundown) without the geographical know-how, inlaid sense of community, or the failed-auteurist drive for artistic inspiration that admittedly was seldom matched by artistic achievement in Pierce’s case (but he was trying!).
Oddly, this particular film would spur the success of a series of Alan Moore comics that deconstruct the Swamp Thing character, turning him into a mythological corporealization of plant-like sentience meant to defend against the wrath of the human species. More importantly though, the series was a sort of Charon-like tour guide through the miscreants and oddballs, as well as the nooks and crannies, of DC comics at its most uninterested in corporate success. Oddly, I say, because the actual film is considerably less roused to do anything much more than slog through the kind of murky-watered, Southern adventure picture that, somehow, Burt Reynolds wasn’t available for. All the more power to Moore, I guess, for kick-starting something unholy and bedeviled when the film that spurred it is mostly content to sit around and stare at you like a husk of tempered nothingness.
But Craven’s personality emerges intermittently, if not unscathed, and he has traveling companions. Wises’ melodramatic smirk serves him well as cheery do-gooder Alec. Jourdan is palpably dispassionate by the material, obviously flummoxed at the B-picture drek his smug, supercilious acting style predisposed him to appearances in, but his smarmy indifference is an obvious fit for the nihilistic villain of the piece. But the real star of the film is the wily tone, presumably Craven’s ode to the B-pictures of his youth here filtered through a heavily-affected, amusingly lyrical strain of melodramatic, silly elegy. Roger Ebert already quoted two of the best lines, although I’d like to clarify. Barbeau to Swamp Thing “Does it hurt?” Response: “only when I laugh”, intoned with an anti-comic surrealism after having never presumably laughed before. The other: “There is great beauty in this swamp” (solemn brooding) “if you know where to look”.
Largely, it’s a film of moments like those in search of something more, which is a fair appraisal if also a reminder that the film never coheres or exceeds its disparate construction material. Off-the-rocker references abound, mostly rooted in Craven’s obvious admiration for the lyrical innocence of the Universal Horror films from his youth and their collective expression of horror as a wide channel for feeling out and agitating the world rather than a strict edict of “frighten above all”. Other prime frustrations: the superior German title for one of Werner Herzog’s most paranoid offerings is also quoted in a line that is too outré to not reflect an homage, which … well, more power to Craven.
My personal favorite, however, involves a child witnessing Swamp Thing for the first time. His response? “There goes the neighborhood”, in a sitcom-inspired intrusion that wonderfully leaves us suspended in animation with the incongruity of a young African-American child spontaneously present in the film for the sake of who knows. The B-movie essence here is a sense that anything is plausible, and the appropriate response to a towering hulk of protoplasmic swamp algae is not pandemonium but mild bemusement. Which is, in essence, the appropriate response for the film as well.