Swamp Thing (1982) Retrospective

 

SUMMARY

Doctor Alec Holland (Ray Wise) and his sister Linda (Nannette Brown) have built a laboratory in an abandoned church in a remote swampland. Holland, a brilliant research scientist and humanist, has developed a bio-restorative formula that will stimulate plant growth. With it, Holland hopes to grow vegetables in the deserts of the world, ending starvation forever. So important is his discovery that the U.S. government has dispatched two agents, Ritter (Don Knight), and Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau), to guard the secret. However, the fiendish Arcane (Louis Jourdan), who dreams of ruling the world, sees Holland’s formula as a tool by which he can tyrannize and extort his way to global domination. Arcane plots to steal the formula. He sends his henchmen, Ferret (David Hess) and Bruno (Nicholas Worth), to attack Holland’s lab.

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A fierce battle ensues, during which Holland’s sister, in trying to flee with the precious notes, is killed. Holland, grief-stricken, attacks Arcane. During the struggle, a vial containing a sample of his formula is shattered, spills over Holland, and then bursts into flames. Burning, screaming in agony, Holland rushes to the swamp and plunges in. He sinks, is lost to sight, and does not reemerge. Arcane thinks Holland is dead, and, gloating, claims his prize. However, beneath the ooze, a startling transformation is taking place. The formula, mixing with the swamp vegetation and Holland’s own body chemistry, gives him new life as a hulking, hairless, slimy, root-bound … Swamp Thing!

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Within his horrid shell, Holland’s mind is still his own, and it seethes with the memory of the death of his sister, and the treachery of Arcane. He vows revenge. Nearly invincible by virtue of his inhuman strength and his ability to regrow severed limbs, the Swamp Thing sets out after Arcane and his henchmen.

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What follows is nothing less than a chess game of death in the fog-choked swamps, as the Swamp Thing pursues Arcane, and Arcane’s mercenaries pursue the Swamp Thing and Alice Cable, who has fled with Holland’s all-important experiment notes.

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BACKSTORY

SWAMP THING was created in 1970 for DC comics by Len Wein, Berni Wrightson, and Joe Orlando. “The short story was one I came up with on the train in one day,” Len Wein recalls. I was at a party with Berni Wrightson, and Berni had. just broken up with his girlfriend. He was all depressed, and I said, ‘Oh, I’ve got a story that might really appeal to you.'” Wein had no name for his story at the time, and he kept referring to it as “that swamp-thing I’m writing.” The name stuck. “Berni said he’d love to do it, and it became very successful.”

In 1972, however, the Comics Code was liberalized sufficiently to allow werewolves, vampires, and swamp monsters to return to the four-color page. The first issue of Swamp Thing appeared in the summer of 1972, with story and art by the same team who had created it two years before, writer Len Wein and artist Berni Wrightson. The story was a lengthened and revised retelling of the same one-shot story in House of Secrets.

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Successful indeed. The comic became an instant bestseller, won various awards in the field, and achieved cult status among those in the know. “People would say it really affected them, made them cry and so forth,” says Len Wein.

Berni Wrightson, certainly one of the best illustrators in the field, drew the first thirteen issues. But then an attempt was made to enlarge the scope of the comic, bringing in guest superheroes, changing the format and logo. New writers and artists were brought in. According to Len Wein, the spirit of the first strips was lost, the personal nature of the stories was compromised. Eventually, as sales began to decline, the series was ended, but those first issues are still considered classics.

Wes Craven studying script
Wes Craven studying script

DEVELOPMENT

The film version, as conceived by writer-director Wes Craven, is a distillation of several of the first issues, plus the work of his own imagination.

“I wasn’t familiar with SWAMP THING until (co-producer] Michael Uslan showed me the comic book,” said the 40-year-old Craven, who also wrote the film’s screenplay. “I read comic books when I was a kid, but that was more like Superman, or Batman. The fascinating aspect of Swamp Thing is that he was a monster with a human being inside that maintained all of his mental capacities and emotions. It had what I saw as a ‘Beauty and the Beast’ feeling. “How does a human being feel about his darker side, his ugly side? And can somebody love that?” asked Craven, indicating a concept in the screenplay that most intrigued him. “I was fascinated by the idea of putting in a love interest with the monster. If the monster is a man inside I wanted him to have real human emotions, to be embarrassed, afraid, amazed at his strength, and to fall in love with a woman and realize it’s impossible. To make it more human, I feel that I’ve added all those elements that were a little lacking in the comic book.”

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Craven was given near total freedom by DC executives to adapt the story as he saw best. And while he retained many of the major themes of the original comic created in 1971 by Len Wein, Berni Wrightson and Joe Orlando, many of the details, characters and events were altered or invented to suit the demands of the big screen. For example, in the comic book, square-jawed Matt Cable is a federal agent charged with the safety of the scientist. But for the film, Craven traded a square jaw for a smooth breast, and cast Adrienne Barbeau as security guard Alice Cable.

Instead of his wife, the Linda Holland of the film will be Alec’s sister. She is played by Nannette Brown, an actress chosen by director Craven from a long list of South Carolina actresses. Since South Carolina was the set of all the exterior swamp scenes shot, the producers demanded that local talent be used in as many cases as possible. Nannette Brown is a native of Beauford, South Carolina and has appeared in many local stage productions. Swamp Thing is her feature film, debut.

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Having Alec Holland a bachelor allows for an interesting Combination of characters. Taking Dr. Holland’s romantic interest in the comic book, his wife Linda, and the government agent Matt Cable, the Swamp Thing film will feature Adrienne Barbeau as Alice Cable, government electronics, expert who is assigned to protect the Hollands.

“Alec is a love interest there throughout the Holland is a scientist stationed in the film. And Holland’s sister (Nan Brown), swamp to do plant research; the names who is killed early on, was his wife in of the major characters can all be found the comic, leaving him without a love interest throughout the comic story.” Virtually all of the incidents in the film other than Swampie’s affair with Cable—have precedence in the comic book, according to Craven. “I took things from the entire run of the comic book,” says Craven. “For instance, there is a sequence in one of the books where Arcane becomes a monster, though there it’s a werewolf-creature.”

CAST

Actor Ray Wise was selected to portray Dr. Alec Holland and the Swamp Thing, although he actually plays one-and-a-half roles in the film. Wise will be recognizable to millions of soap opera fans as the character Jamie Rollins from the long-running Love of Life program. However, it is a lucky coincidence that Wise looks remarkably like Wrightson’s drawings of Holland in the early issues of the Swamp Thing comic book.

Wise tested in full Swamp Thing makeup along with actor/stuntman Dick Durok to see who would actually portray the monster on the screen. However, although Durok will be seen in the film’s final version as the moss-encrusted creature, it is Wise’s voice that will be heard whenever the creature speaks.

“I like Alec Holland very much,” Ray says of his character. “He’s curious, searching, and inquisitive. He’s a regular kind of guy, physical to a certain degree, and can be angry and provoked. All in all, if you’re going to have a creature, that’s the kind of guy you should have inside.”

Adrienne Barbeau, script girl, and Swamp Thing (Dick Durock) take a break
Adrienne Barbeau, script girl, and Swamp Thing (Dick Durock) take a break

“In the comics,” observes Uslan, “it was very difficult and even painful for Swamp Thing to speak. Wrightson or the letterer or whomever, devised a special word balloon to convey this idea. Of course we couldn’t do that on film, but we’re trying some special sound filtering to give the creature’s voice an incredible and unique tone. And Ray Wise will speak all of the monster’s dialogue!”

 Craven had approached a number of “name” actors to play Arcane including Christopher Lee before considering Louis Jourdan, the French actor who portrayed Dracula in the recent PBS adaptation.

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Jourdan, a thin, introverted man, admitted that his quiet exterior is a facade that shields his insecure personality. But he added that an actor, especially in the type of role he was playing, needed to hold something back and not throw everything into the characterization, or else it would lose its effectiveness.

“Arcane is a very intelligent man, a very dedicated man,” Jourdan explained “He is dedicated to evil, therefore this is a villain, but we attempt to make villainy as attractive as possible. I try to make the audience not like the character, but understand him. Arcane is mad, but doesn’t behave at all like a madman.

Dick Durock wets down Ray Wise before filming
Dick Durock wets down Ray Wise before filming

“I tried to do the same thing in DRACULA,” he added, “to render the villain attractive. Dracula was a dedicated man who really believed that he was giving life eternal here on earth. I never played it like some kind of monster. You must bring him to some human level or he wouldn’t be interesting.”

“I make villainy attractive,” says actor Louis Jourdan, and no one who has seen the BBC production of Dracula could argue with that statement. Jourdan’s elegant, low-key interpretation of the title role won him praise from all corners of the fantastic film world. Jourdan brings that same subtle approach to the role of Arcane in SWAMP THING, and thus emphasizes the reality of pure evil in a fantastic setting.

 Led by Jordan’s film version, Arcane (who is also a wizard/ Scientist as in the comics), is the commando team of Ferrett and Bruno. This pair, along with, others, is the film version of the henchmen sent after the Hollands. Here, they are working for Arcane, whose castle lies in the same swamp where the Hollands are secretly working.

Ferrett is portrayed by actor David Hess, a multi-talented individual who has had equal success as a composer, writing such diverse material as the 1950’S Elvis Presley hit All Shook Up to the score of Craven’s film The Hills Have Eyes. His captainship, of the United States rugby team, from the year 1968 to 1971 conditioned him well for his portrayal of the commanding mercenary forces soldier in Swamp Thing.

Nicholas Worth, who has most recently appeared as a guest star on television’s WKRP in Cincinnati and The Greatest American Hero plays Bruno, the second in Command of Arcane’s commando troops. In the course of the Swamp, Thing feature, Bruno undergoes a horrifying transformation which is the film’s version of Wrightson’s comic book visuals of Arcane’s Un-Men.

 Adrienne Barbeau, who plays agent Alice Cable in SWAMP THING, made her jump from television (where she played Carol in Maude) to movies with John Carpenter’s THE FOG Adrienne played a California disc jockey who is terrorized by ghostly, murderous mariners that live in an cerie realm of fog. She then joined Burt Reynolds and Roger Moore and many others in the cast of THE CANNONBALL RUN. For her next film she rejoined John Carpenter (also her husband) for his futuristic adventure ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK.

Adrienne has also made a number of television movies in the genre of terror and suspense, including Someone’s Watching Me, The Darker Side of Terror, and Red Alert. Adrienne is an activist on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment and low-cost women’s health care. She writes poetry and musical lyrics, and plays racquetball to keep in shape.

I think we’ve made it real, and made it work. Certainly the character has a lot more dimension than the one I played in CANNONBALL RUN. SWAMP THING is a monster movie. We’re basically talking about BEAUTY AND THE BEAST or KING KONG. I’m in love with him, or however you would define a relationship between a person and a monster. The fact that he’s a monster is much less important than the emotions entailed. The monster is played by a wonderful stunt man who had a lot of pathos and empathy that I could respond to. I accepted it all as truth and went from there.

SWAMP THING is comic book fantasy, and not the type of film I would choose to see. I’m not really interested in science fiction. I don’t enjoy the tension because I have enough tension in my life. In movies like OUTLAND or HALLOWEEN, when the audience knows what the character doesn’t know that there’s danger. I’m uncomfortable with that. 

I find STAR WARS very violent, also didn’t appeal to me because I’m much too down to earth. I usually don’t take films on an allegorical level. – Adrienne Barbeau

One of the things that I’ve most enjoyed about Swamp Thing is the action. They handed me an M-16 the other night, and I had a real good time with t; it was like I was born to it. “But I didn’t know just how strenuous it was going to be. I’ve done most of my own stunts, and there were a couple of days there where I was waking up in the middle of the night because of the pain, having been tossed around. David Hess is a strong man, and he’s not used to being tentative we have a couple of scenes where he’s supposed to subdue me, and I get thrown into the swamp and held under the water. And there’s a lot of running days of doing nothing but running, though I don’t know if that’ll show up as screen time.” The role played by Barbeau constitutes the major difference between Wes Craven’s film treatment and the original comic book creation.

In Swamp Thing’s comic book world, the character was a male Matt Cable, a military security agent who hounds the swamp creature, convinced that it is responsible for the demise of Dr. Alec Holland. As it happens, the character of Matt Cable has become quite a cliche in the years since the comic debuted, thanks largely to the wide exposure of a similar character in The Incredible Hulk TV series. Barbeau, as Alice Cable, plays a government electronics expert who, like Matt Cable, is assigned to protect Dr. Alec Holland, his sister, and the precious biorestorative formula. When Dr. Holland becomes the abominable Swamp Thing, however, Alice’s reaction to the shambling muck encrusted creature is somewhat different.

Despite her initial fear and repulsion, Alice actually comes to fall in love with the mossy man-brute. “We haven’t filmed that yet,” Bar-beau says of her romance with the monster, “and I’m not quite sure how it’ll be done.” Despite her marriage to another leading light of fright films, Barbeau admits to total unfamiliarity with the work of Wes Craven upon first being offered the Cable role. “I told John what was going on, and when Wes’s name came up, he knew his work and spoke very highly of it. I’d read two earlier drafts of the script before the final script, and was very impressed by what he’d written and, later, by how he went about changing it.” Later, Barbeau mentioned that she’d never seen the Swamp Thing comic; Carpenter recommended that to her as well, and she picked up a few back issues, to familiarize herself with the style and atmosphere.

Principal photography was shot on location in and around Charleston, South Carolina
Principal photography was shot on location in and around Charleston, South Carolina

PRINCIPAL PHOTOGRAPHY

“We’re going for a sort of stylistic approach,” he said. “Low angles, strange shadows, weird colors and fog. A comic book look, but in tandem with a very realistic human way of approaching it. We’re trying to keep the emotions very human. We’re underplaying it a lot, and not trying for a camp look.” Bringing a comic book character to life is never easy. And SWAMP THING is no exception. “It’s the most difficult shoot I’ve ever done,” admitted Craven, who divided his time between setting up shots, running the actors through rehearsals and standing in for off-camera actors while filming reaction shots. “I’m quite often literally up to my ass in bugs, alligators and water snakes. I have water moccasins on the set and a lot of sickness in the crew. I’ve got big, elaborate sets that are difficult to work with, and costumes that fall apart because the acidic water eats them up in a take or two. And we’re a little behind schedule and over budget. Back in Los Angeles I run a lot, five or six miles a day, sometimes 15 miles. But this has taxed my physical limits, and I think I’m holding out better than those people on the set.”

In addition to working in and around the atmospheric swamps, Craven also shot many of the film’s interiors in South Carolina. But even the simple matter of building a proper set did not come without its problems. Holland’s laboratory, for example, was constructed in a north Charleston warehouse by a crew of local carpenters apparently unfamiliar with the ways of Hollywood.

“A lot of the people on the construction crew-many have worked on houses, barns, sheds, whatever have in the course of making the movie developed tremendously,” Craven said. “But when they started off by building the interior of Holland’s lab, they built us a set that couldn’t be moved by an atom bomb—there were no wild walls. It was all two-by-fours and all real construction. So we had to come in and saw it apart with chain saws in order to get on the set.”

The lab is the setting for the first major confrontation between Holland and Arcane, which ends with Holland’s fiery exit from the lab. The set is small, almost claustrophobic, the result of serious budget pinching. “We didn’t have enough money to build a really big exterior set,” Craven said, “so we were tied in to a small interior set. It’s very difficult to shoot in there.”

An arboretum filled one end of the set, a small library-study area and a short set of steps leading to the exit was at the other. The lab was littered with familiar paraphernalia: test tubes, vials of colored liquids and several video monitors displaying formulas and graphic designs. A potted plant lay cracked on a table, having apparently broken out of its confines as a result of the growth formula. An incongruous Coke can sat atop one of the tables.

       Adrienne Barbeau & Swamp Thing (Dick Durock) rehearse scene in swamp

“We really attempted to recreate many of the comics actual visuals,” Producer Mike Uslan boasts, “right from the very beginning. In Swamp Thing #1, Berni illustrated the instantaneous growth of a swamp plant due to the properties of the Hollands’ bio-restorative chemical. To bring it up-to-date, Wes’ script describes the experiment as based on DNA, hoping to combine the genes of plants and animals. Not only is it keeping with more modern theories, and not only does it help to explain the transformation of the Swamp Thing, but it provided us the opportunity to use some stop motion special effects to recreate the rapid-growth plant sequence.”

   Although this sequence promises to be a startling one, the single most talked-about sequence is the terrifying Scene where, covered with burning chemicals, Dr. Holland races, Screaming from the abandoned barn and into the murky surrounding swampland. “It’s an, abandoned church in the film.” Uslan points out, “but we wanted to capture Berni’s startling ‘burn scene’ as closely as possible. Stuntman Tony Cecere was standing in for Ray Wise in the scene, where the Hollands’ secret lab explodes.

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He did not use the usual heavy and bulky protective suit used in most such ‘human torch’ scenes, but applied a special gel to his skin to protect it from the flames. When Craven called for ‘action,’ Tony slammed through the church’s doors, fell to the ground, ran through 50 yards of forest and plunged himself into the swamp waters. The crew went wild with applause! He had to do the entire thing over for the interior shot of the lab and received an equally enthusiastic reaction from everybody!”

Stuntman Tony Cecere doubled for Wise for the shot, wearing a specially-modified suit that allowed him to safely withstand the intense heat that caused visitors to the set 30 feet away to fall back in alarm. As Cecere entered the corridor he hesitated for a moment, waving his blazing arms for dramatic effect, before bursting through the exit door where blankets and fire extinguishers deaden the flames.

For this scene, stuntman Tony Cecere, his body coated in a flammable gel, was to stand in for Ray Wise’s Alec Holland. Holland has just survived the lab accident that will eventually bring about his change into the Swamp Thing; totally ablaze, he plunges through the door of the cabin where he ‘keeps his lab, and out into the surrounding swamp. Cecere is what is known as a fire technician, not to be confused with a pyrotechnician, who handles explosives and other flammable materials. Cecere’s job is even more demanding, because he sets fire to himself and others for a living. Watching a fire stunt performed can be easily described. In this instance, a man who is totally wrapped in flame runs 120 feet in about 30 seconds, and then his flames are put out by his fellow crew members.

“The thing of it is, whenever you’re in the flames, you have to shut your eyes and not breathe,” says Cecere. “You breathe fire, you’re dead. Instantly—it singes your lungs. You can get some air, if you can’t hold it, by controlling the flames as you’d control water. If you’re moving forward, the flame’s goin’ back—and as soon as you stop, they swirl around in front of you.” The greatest demand for fire stunts is in television, and Cecere has done most of his work in that medium.

Adrienne Barbeau prepares for her death scene — with sword wound on chest

The most essential tool of Cecere’s trade is the flammable gel that he coats himself with for his stunts. This gel is chemically engineered to burn without spreading the fire to the medium that carries it, so there’s no need for bulky asbestos padding.  

The dangerous stunt work in Swamp Thing was only a small part of the problems faced by the production company. Filmed in places such as Cypress Gardens, Fairlawn Plantation and Magnolia Plantation in South Carolina, the film was guaranteed an eerie and moody series of ready-made sets, perfect for what Craven and the producers were seeking for Swamp Thing. However, with abundant swamplife surrounding them, the Swamp Thing crew were constantly plagued by alligators, and a variety of poisonous snakes and other creatures. With the possible exception of some poison ivy and mosquito bites, the crew escaped the areas without harm. “The swamps were incredible,” remarks Uslan, “and they helped cause many delays by just having to haul everyone out there day after day. Adrienne Barbeau did some of her own stunt work and during a sequence where Ferrett (Hess) was attempting to push her out of a boat, he fell into the swamp. We lost a half day of the shooting schedule waiting for him to wash up and dry off.”

Until recently, stuntman Dick Durock might have looked at a role like Swamp Thing as a joke. But when he guest-starred as a monster on a two-part HULK episode last year, Durock began taking the parts seriously, using body language, pantomime and eye movements to actually act the role.

                 Effects crew prepare Swamp Thing for ‘rejuvenation’ scene

“Basically, I just think about the characters,” Durock explained. “It has nothing to do with Stanislovsky or any theory. It’s just a simple thing: know where you are, why you’re there and who you are. There are always going to be limits imposed by your costumes and working conditions, but you can’t allow your costume to dictate the character.

“There are also other artistic considerations,” he continued. “We didn’t want the creatures doing a John Wayne, cowboy-saloon type of fight. “We tried to make the moves broader and more heroic. We wanted to try and show something superhuman.”

Durock was especially concerned with having his emotions read properly through his rubber mask. “If Swamp Thing was supposed to be smiling, I couldn’t always tell,” he said. “It might come out as a grimace instead. I could practice in a mirror, but that would only show me the basics of how the makeup was going to move. I had to depend on Wes Craven to tell me if the emotion was coming through. You may feel that you’re expressing something, but it may look hokey.”

The extremely uncomfortable working conditions made Durock’s job even more difficult. He spent more than six weeks inside the suit, with only a few days off. The swamp was black-like primordial ooze and every nick or scrape was an invitation to disease. And even the casually-dressed crew members were passing out from the heat and exhaustion.

“When I got overheated,” he explained, “I’d throw myself in the water and float. At least that way I could get down to the temperature of the swamp.”

Durock’s experience gives him a unique understanding of the problems and complexities involved in modern makeup technology. “In the old days a guy could just throw on a fur shirt and go play the Wolfman,” Durock said. “Today, you have to spend two or three hours a day with your makeup people. Considering the hardships that my suit had to go through, Bill Munns and his team did a marvelous job. The suits were meant to be used one day, then dried out, sewn, repaired and rested for another three days. But the weather screwed us up and we got into a bind on the schedule. After working a 16-hour day, they’d have to sew the thing back together and dry it out overnight, so we could start the next 16-hour day in the morning.”

Although playing Swamp Thing was one of Durock’s more demanding assignments, he’s looking ahead towards even more ambitious projects. “I’m really starting to enjoy playing characters,” Durock said. “There’s nothing wrong with doubling for a guy or playing a part under a costume, but it’s too easy to get locked into something. People might think that it’s all you can do.”

  Swamp Thing (Dick Durock) relaxes in boat between takes
Swamp Thing (Dick Durock) relaxes in boat between takes

While Swamp Thing’s “look,” thanks to the incredible Bill Munn’s costume, is an exact recreation of the image envisioned by Wrightson in the DC Comic, the producers were still looking for a “new” monster for their film. The opportunity came with the film version incarnation of Arcane. While human in appearance in the early stages of the movie, Arcane’s evil wizardry leads to his transformation into a creature who is as equally startling as Swamp Thing himself. The original second appearance of Arcane in the 10th issue of Swamp Thing’s comic book adventure, has the evil madman looking like one of Dr. Frankenstein’s rejects. While horrifying in its own right, it wasn’t what Uslan, Melniker and Craven were looking for. They found their image in Munn’s Arcane monster costume which is ” a combination of Lion, Lizard and Warthog,” says Uslan. Uslan is fond now of remembering the trials he experienced with Swamp Thing now that the film is going through its final post-production work.

 SPECIAL EFFECTS

The highlight of the film, even more so than Barbeau’s au natural swim is expected to be the three monsters spawned by Holland’s growth formula: Swamp Thing; the Arcane monster; and one of Arcane’s henchmen, Bruno, who is transformed into a four-foot beast resembling a drowned rat.

The complex makeup requirements are being handled by 32-year old Bill Munns, who previously worked on SAVAGE HARVEST, where he created several “bodies” to be chewed up by lions, and THE BOOGANS, a forthcoming Taft International release. Munns was one of several makeup artists contacted by the producers, and his $80,000 bid landed him the job.

“Immediately when I saw the comic book I became fascinated by the character of Swamp Thing,” said Munns, who began work in January with a crew of nine. “I thought that the original artists’ design was quite exceptional. Some artists like to change things just to prove that they’re being creative. But in this case, I felt the character had to be created as faithfully as was technically possible.”

Originally Munns and Craven considered the use of a complex, full scale cable-activated head, which was soon abandoned because it wasn’t expressive enough. Instead, extensive facial appliances and a full-body foam latex suit were relied on, designed around the frame of 6’5″ stuntman Dick Durock. Not only was Durock big enough to be a monster, but his face was the right shape: they needed an actor with a small nose to match the flat physiognomy of the Swamp Thing.

The light, flexible latex suit was reinforced to handle the weight of immersion in water. But disaster nearly occurred when the suits were brought out to the swamps. The groves of cypress trees secreted a tannic acid, raising the acidity of the water: the rubber began to corrode after a short time. The solution? Spray an antacid onto the costumes before the plunge into the swamp, thereby reducing the corrosive effects.

Although Munns decided to stay close to the original strip when he designed the Swamp Thing, there was no guide for the design of the Arcane monster in the comic books. That’s because Arcane is an amalgam of three or four characters from the original comic book. Craven’s script called for a werewolf type creature that had been featured in an early episode, but Munns objected.

“Because so much werewolf stuff was being done,” Munns explained, “anything we did would be considered a follow-up to that, so we decided to go into a new area. I was given the freedom to submit a preliminary design, and once they saw the head and body sculpture in miniature, they accepted it without change.”

With the support of Craven and his producers, Munns designed a beast with the mane of a lion, the face of a bizarre boar with a reptilian body. Early stages of the transformation were simulated with body appliances, which took several hours to affix to stuntman Ben Bates. But for nearly all of the Arcane monster’s appearances, Bates wore a five-piece costume that slipped on, literally, like a suit: the lower half was worn like a pair of pants, and the upper half was slipped on like a jacket. The one piece head of the monster is partly mechanized, with tubes connecting to air bladders that enable Munns to make the elongated snout move and the facial issues contract, a most disquieting effect when one is holding the mask for a demonstration.

Arcane’s metamorphosis occurs in two stages. He drinks the solution and begins to alter. “Arcane’s hand begins to change and blister, “Munns explained. “He looks in a mirror and realizes he is changing. He begins to smoke and appears to be burning up from inside. A crust forms over his entire body, but later we find it was only a strange metamorphosis, and the crust breaks away and the Arcane monster emerges.”

Bruno, the unwitting mercenary who drinks the growth serum at Arcane’s command, is another monster that does not have any roots in the original comic strip. Played by Nicholas Worth, the crazed killer in DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE, the character is sympathetic, almost mouse-like, which makes his transformation into a giant rat somewhat appropriate. Diminutive Tommy Madden plays Bruno in costume.

 Although the original comic book lasted only a few years, DC Comics plans to bring Swamp Thing back, taking advantage of the publicity and interest they anticipate the film will generate. Original author Len Wein will serve as the comic’s editor, supervising a new writer-artist team.

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 Makeup artist William Munns and his small crew watched helplessly as the acidic swamp water corroded the rubber and bleached the colors of the head-to-toe foam latex costumes. Munns had been given only six weeks to prepare the complex makeups required by the script, and was barely able to complete the suits before they were needed on the set; no time had been available for testing them on location.

When shooting had begun in the South Carolina swamps last spring, Munns was horrified to discover that even simple movements would stretch and tear the fragile costumes. Keeping the suits in one piece had become a daily nightmare. When the suits were in the water, Munns’ three-person crew would stand on guard, ready to undo whatever damage the swamp had done.

But neither Munns, nor the actors inside his latex costumes, were fully prepared for the strenuous fight sequence. Dick Durock (Swamp Thing) and Ben Bates (Arcane) had to battle the swamp and their own soggy costumes as much as each other, and the combination was taking its toll.

Suddenly Bates rumpled to his knees and signaled for help, overcome by the heat that had built up inside his costume. Struggling for air, his cable-activated mask and foam-latex suit were literally torn from his body in the rescue effort.

Munns in the Arcane suit

Bates was out of action, but Craven still wanted to complete the fight sequence that day. “There was no one on the set who had any experience working in a suit,” said Munns, a burly, bearded 32-year-old working on his first major production. “It’s dangerous, especially in water where an actor can drown inside his mask before anyone realizes it.

“There was one young man,” Munns continued, “a local person, who was hanging around the stunt people, and they were talking about using him. I had nightmares about having another guy just drop in the Swamp. When you put someone in a suit that has never worn one before, he usually wants to show off and overexerts himself, paying no attention to his rising body temperature or that his breathing is a little more difficult in a mask like that. An inexperienced person can come pretty close to killing himself. I felt the only way we would get done that day was if I got in the suit myself and finished the scene.”

SwampThingMutant-Dr.-Arcane

Reluctantly, Munns donned a duplicate Arcane suit and slipped into the swamp. His big moment in front of the cameras? Arcane’s death at the hands of Swamp Thing, complete with liquid urethane “guts” bubbling out from the middle of his foam latex chest. Somehow, it seemed appropriate.

 Something of a neophyte in the field of makeup effects when he was first hired, Munns was called on to provide top-quality makeup effects at a bargain-basement price. He was hindered by a painfully short pre production period, poor planning on the part of his producers and inhospitable location conditions. And that’s not to mention the trauma of his impromptu death Scene. To say William Munns paid his dues on SWAMP THING may be something of an understatement.

 “The mere fact that we finished the film was a major accomplishment,” he said. “It was a complex task, often confusing or frustrating, with frequent unexpected twists.”

One of the more unexpected aspects of the project was that Munns was contacted in the first place. Unlike most of his previous jobs, he doesn’t know who to thank or blame for recommending him to producers Mike Uslan and Ben Melnicker.

“They had contacted Dick Smith first, but he was committed to GHOST STORY and was, of course, unavailable,” Munns explained. “Mike Uslan then told me that they got the book, Making a Monster (which features profiles of 25 noted makeup artists), and went down the list contacting everyone who wasn’t dead. It’s possible that some of them might have passed along my name. By the time I got around to asking about it, they had forgotten.”

Working from an early draft of the screenplay, Munns began to prepare his bid. Presumably, other makeup artists around the country were doing the same, competing for the prize assignment. Shortly before submitting his proposal, Munns went to a shop that deal in used comic books and purchased a copy of the first issue of “Swamp Thing.” Munns was captivated by the powerful drawings of Berni Wrightson.

“As soon as I saw the pictures of Swamp Thing, I knew exactly what they were looking for,” Munns said. “I had a feeling that it was potentially a classic character, and it had to be created as faithfully as possible. The pictures in the original comic books were abundant enough and detailed enough—especially a full-page shot of the head that ran in the first issue that I felt I could work perfectly from that.”

On the day after Christmas, Munns met with Wes Craven to discuss the project. Munns explained that he wanted to duplicate in rubber and plastic what Wrightson had drawn with a pen, even though the comic character was never designed to fit on a normal human frame. “The profiles of Swamp Thing when he’s walking, and when he’s relaxed, show his head in front of his body, not on top of it,” Munns explained. “But it’s a physical impossibility to do that with a real actor.”

To remain faithful to the artwork, Munns wanted to take a muscular actor and build up his shoulders with foam padding an additional four to six inches. He then proposed building an oversized mechanical head, to be positioned in front and on top of the actor’s own head, to create the proper profile. “The real actor wearing the suit would look out through little mossy areas around the throat, and his nose would actually be the Adam’s apple,” Munns said. “That’s where we started off.”

Munns sculpted a life-size head based on his idea. Since the entire face would be a mask operated by a complex servo-motor system. Munns didn’t have to worry about fitting a human face inside the flat physiognomy. He also sculpted a foot-tall version of the creature, showing body details.

At the same time Munns was working to remain faithful to Wrightson’s Swamp Thing concept, he looked to his own inspiration to create the film’s second costumed character, the Arcane Monster. Arcane is the story’s villain, played without special makeup for most of the film by French actor Louis Jourdan. But towards the end of the film, Jourdan drinks the same experimental plant growth formula that has turned scientist Alec Holland into Swamp Thing, precipitating a dramatic transformation of his own. Craven’s original script described the Arcane Monster as similar to a werewolf that had been featured in an episode of the Swamp Thing comic.

With THE HOWLING and AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON both in production at the time, Munns convinced Craven that it might be a better idea to think up something a little more original. Munns sculpted a full-size head and a foot-tall figurine, combining a reptilian body with a head of a bizarre boar, and sent them along to New York with his the sculptures of Swamp Thing and his bid of $80,000 to handle the film’s makeup effects.

A month later, Munns was selected to do the film. That’s when his problems started.

“They were still very leery of the mechanical head, largely because I couldn’t show them one that I, or anyone else, had done that was fully operable,” Munns said. “Wes wanted something that could walk from a long shot to a close-up, which would have prohibited the use of cables. I felt that servo-motor control would be better. But it seemed the more they thought about it, the more they built up a resistance to it. It was vetoed by the producers as untried, and by the director as not potentially expressive enough. They kept on asking, ‘Can’t you do it on an actor’s face?”

Munns could, of course, but only by sacrificing Swamp Thing’s unique profile, which no one wanted to do. It was agreed to keep the oversized head and shoulders for medium and long shots, using a muscular stuntman wearing a simple pull-over mask. To allow the creature to display a full range of emotions in close ups, another actor-Munns wanted one with large eyes and a flat nose to keep as close as possible to the look of the comic book-would have his shoulders padded and wear conventional appliance makeup on his face.

By mid-February, the dual-Swamp Thing approach had been agreed upon. The major problem remaining was the calendar: the film was locked into a late April starting date in anticipation of the threatened director’s strike, set for June. Even if Munns had been able to start work immediately, he still wouldn’t have had the full twelve weeks of pre production time he had originally requested. But the producers had not yet secured the film’s financing, and Munns had to sit idly for more than a month until the money started flowing. He was left with only six weeks to create the suits and other special makeup effects required by the script, including the transformation of Louis Jordan into the Arcane Monster, and of Nicholas Worth into a three-foot creature dubbed the “drowned rat.”

“Whenever prep time is so drastically reduced, the end result is no time to test and refine the suits or test rig the effects,” Munns explained. “Some of the latex pieces were literally taken out of the oven and put into the suitcases headed for the location while still warm.”

Working frantically to make up for lost time, Munns and his 10-member crew went to work. He took a full body mold of Bob Minor, a muscular, six-foot-two-inch stunt man and began sculpting the full-scale figure of Swamp Thing in clay, using as a starting point the original head design he had submitted to the producers months before. With the sculpture nearly done—and only three weeks remaining before the finished costume would be needed on the set Munns was stunned to discover that Minor had been replaced on the film by six-foot-five-inch Dick Durock, whose relatively slender physique was hardly suited for the muscular Swamp Thing.

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With no time to start over.” Munns sighed, “and no way to pad Durock to resemble Bob Minor’s form, we had only one possible recourse, aside from quitting altogether. We broke down the body sculpture into twelve sections, as the negative molds, threw out the dupe positives and merely slush cast the foam latex ” thick in the negatives. This thin skin of latex foam was then form-fitted around Durock to produce the slender suit seen in the film.”

In other words, Munns was forced to wing it. The late change put Munns in an unusual position for a makeup artist: if he had balked, the film might not have been able to proceed on schedule. “They asked me, realistically, if it could be done,” Munns recalled. “I told them, ‘Yes, it can be done. It won’t be easy, but it’s possible.’ They went right ahead and figured, ‘Okay, fine.’ At that point, I was hesitant to put my foot down and say, ‘You can’t do this,’ or ‘You can’t do that,’ because I knew that if they didn’t start up in three weeks the film just wouldn’t go.”

Switching the men inside the suit was more than just an inconvenience for Munns-it altered the very look and nature of the creature. “When they sent over Durock everything began changing,” Munns explained. “Because he was tall enough, they wanted to eliminate the oversized head. And then Wes Craven cast Ray Wise to play Alec Holland, and Ray had stipulated that if he got the part, he wanted to play Swamp Thing in the close-ups. They sent him over to me to take a mold of his face. As soon as he left, I got on the phone and called the production offices in New York and told them that he had the worst possible nose in the world to try to hide under a Swamp Thing mask.”

Munns warned Craven that using Wise in appliance makeup would require a major redesign of the face, moving it far from the comic book look originally planned for. But Wise was committed to the role, and Munns reluctantly reworked the head, fitting the actor’s nose inside. “I did a sculpture of a Swamp Thing type face on Ray Wise’s face mask,” Munns said. “They seemed to feel that it was satisfactory.”

 Other changes from Munns’ original design were more, shall we say, sensitive in nature. “There was the curious matter of Swamp Thing’s genitalia,” said Munns. “From the start, Wes Craven wanted to avoid the sexless, neutered style of body suit so commonly done. We agreed that Swamp Thing had to have as much ‘reality’ as possible. Wes felt that since the creature was originally a man, there should be some remnants of his manhood remaining. So in my original sculpture of Swamp Thing, included a short, thick root amid all the other flowing roots of the torso. But when all concerned met to view the sculpture, the consensus was that it was simply too conspicuous. “The offending root was removed,” Munns continued, “and it was reluctantly agreed that if there was ever to be a Son of Swamp Thing, he’d have to be adopted.”

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Creating the Arcane Monster was not going much better for Munns than his frustrating work on the title character. To meet his schedule, Munns had begun sculpting the body for the creature before any actor was even considered for the part. Since Bob Minor was six-feet-two (Dick Durock had yet to arrive on the scene). Munns sculpted the Arcane Monster on a 6’2″ body form left over from his work on an earlier job.

“Weeks later,” Munns recalled, “Ben Bates, a six-foot-five-inch giant of a stunt man, was sent to me for fitting. Naturally, nothing was even close to proper size. We found we needed eight more inches around the chest, and he needed his body piece to be four inches longer from shoulder to groin. Things like that. It took four full sets of pieces to make two full suits, and my material and labor budget took a horrible beating.”

Munns had begged the producers not to send him anyone who hadn’t already been signed for the film. So he was somewhat shocked when Bates casually mentioned he hadn’t signed a contract and was considering taking on another assignment. “His physique was so unusual with a very high waist and legs that looked like sequoia trees that if we fitted the suit to him in one piece, it would be impossible to find anyone to fit into the suit.” In anticipation of such a disaster, the suit was broken down into several pieces which could be easily, individually altered if the need arose. Naturally, Bates stayed with the production until his fateful day in the swamp.

Munns, of course, wasn’t alone in his struggle to meet the shooting deadline. His 10 person crew, including three graduates of the Los Angeles makeup school where Munns taught during the ’70s worked nearly nonstop for days at a time. Doug White was responsible for the more than 25 gallons of foam latex needed for the hundred or so molds used to create the suits. Dave Miller and Steve La Porte helped with the sculpting, including the creatures’ hands. Bob Bliss, Marcia Semones, Michelle Triscari and Gloria Carter were involved in various lab chores, including punching the hair tufts for the Arcane Monster’s face and chest and sewing the costumes together.

 Before the Swamp Thing costume was shipped to the location, Munns spent a day testing it, suiting up Dick Durock to see how he and the costume would stand up to water. The tests went fine. But when it came time to perform on camera, things never went quite so well. For example, Munns’ top priority was figuring out why the suits were falling apart.

“Whenever Dick moved a certain way and stretched part of the suit, the rubber would literally break apart,” said Munns, who found that the problem was the swamp’s acidic water. “When Durock would bend his legs, the knee would start to open up. If he would bring his arms forward, the back of the shoulders would crack. Ken Horn, Esther Mercado and Deborah Schankle (Munns location assistants) were always standing around with a needle and monofilament thread and between every take they’d bring him over and sew up whatever had split open.”

9

Munns said that other problems with the suit were caused by poor planning, which forced Bates and Durock to suit up and sit around all day without working. “The wear and tear caused by these wasted hours and days was tremendous,” he said.

“Swamp Thing would sometimes spend hours thrashing around in the swamps doing master shots and then we would be told to get him ready for a close-up. By this time, the face appliance was so soggy and filthy that no glue would stick to it and no makeup would clean it up.”

Durock, of course, was never meant to do the close-ups. But that was all changed when Craven first saw Ray Wise in his Swamp Thing makeup.

7

“They decided the resemblance wasn’t close enough,” said Munns, who was commuting between the location and his California shop where he was still working on the Arcane Monster. “I tried to explain that any differences they might see were because they had the two of them side by side, outside of the dramatic context. I thought they were close enough so you would not know the difference. But all the arguments seemed to be in vain.” Weeks later, Craven decided to try the appliance makeup again to reshoot a lengthy dialogue sequence between Swamp Thing and Adrienne Barbeau, but Munns didn’t know which version would be used for the final film.

Suddenly, with that one possible exception Dick Durock became the one and only Swamp Thing, and his makeup, originally designed only for long shots, became the focus of intense scrutiny. Instead of using just two or three face masks for the five and a half weeks of scheduled shooting as had been planned, Durock was given a new face every three days. Unlike Wise’s makeup, which was glued directly to his face, Durock’s mask was attached to the back of the suit. While not as subtle as a facial appliance, Munns felt the mask was suitable. “Any time it was relatively snug to his own face, it transmitted facial movements very well,” he explained.

Durock was even called upon to play most of the creature’s dialogue scenes presumably Ray Wise will dub in his own voice later which were being constantly augmented as shooting continued. “In the first draft I read, there were no more than four lines of dialogue, with maybe two or three words each,” Munns recalled. “A lot of the writing was actually done when Wes was on the location. There were constant changes going on—changes in concept as well as dialogue.”

Munns worked with Craven on perhaps the most basic problem of all: making the suits look lifelike, instead of like soggy, foam latex costumes. Human and animal skin is elastic, able to stretch and contract to fit an infinite variety of positions. Foam latex is fairly rigid, and tends to buckle and fold in odd places, more like clothing than anything organic.

 “Any suit that isn’t totally affixed to the body like real skin has a totally different sense of stretch and flex,” Munns explained. “I think that’s a problem that every person who has ever done suits has had to deal with. If you want something with almost no buckling, you have to have something which can be stretched in every direction so it has the potential for contracting instead of folding. You’d have to make the suit smaller than the person, and you’d have to make the material so light and so elastic that it would have to be like pantyhose. But you’d have a suit so fragile all a person need to do is breathe on it the wrong way to damage it.

“The suit sometimes looks like it’s loose,” Munns added, “but you’d be surprised how difficult it was to get Durock in and out of it. It took two or three people pushing, pulling and shoving just to get it on and off. If we had made it any tighter, I doubt we could have gotten him into it.”

Audiences who have seen early previews of SWAMP THING are somewhat mixed in their opinions of the makeup work. Munns admits that there are a number of things that could have benefitted from more time and more money, but he is satisfied and feels his producers were satisfied, with his performance. “I know there were some points where they were worried things weren’t working out right,” said Munns. “There was also some disappointment in how long it took to suit up the characters. Other than that, I think they were very pleased. I haven’t heard anything to the contrary.

Swamp Thing Suit

In his original proposal to director Wes Craven and producers Mike Uslan and Ben Melniker, Munns sculpted this full-size head (made of slip rubber and filled with polyfoam) based on the drawings in the “Swamp Thing” comic book. Munns wanted to build a fully mechanical head-including remote-controlled eyes—to be operated by sophisticated servo controls. The idea was vetoed by the producers as untried, and by Craven because he didn’t think it would be expressive enough, forcing Munns into a more conventional route.

Michele Triscari, Marcia Semones G. and Esther Mercado (1-r) take a full-body plaster cast of 6’2″ Bob Minor, originally selected to play Swamp Thing. Molds of his head and hands were taken separately. When the dried plaster is removed, it forms a “negative” impression of Minor’s body, from which “positives” can be made. Munns sculpted the body of Swamp Thing in clay over a fiberglass positive.

Doug White prepares several of the more than 100 molds needed to make the suits for Swamp Thing and the Arcane Monster. Normally, latex pieces are created in a two-part mold: the inside is a “positive” of the actor’s body, and the outside is a “negative” of a clay makeup design. But since the stunt men for the film were signed so late, a process called “slushing” was employed. White merely poured liquid foam latex into open “negative” molds of the clay sculpture. Munns had to mend, chop and glue, literally forming a new suit around Durock’s body.

Munns actually made suits for two Swamp Things: Dick Durock (shown having his face mask painted by Ken Horn) and Ray Wise, who plays Dr. Alec Holland, Swamp Thing’s alter ego (inset). Wise, who was to play the creature only in close-ups, hugs his suit, which extended to his waist. The face was a separate appliance, glued to Wise’s face. But Wes Craven didn’t think the two Swamp Thing’s looked alike, and used Durock almost exclusively.

Deborah Schankle (kneeling), Ken Horn and Esther Mercado fit Dick Durock into his full body costume, a daily three-hour ritual. Horn concentrates on the creature’s face, while the others secure and blend the edges on the other six pieces of the suit. Note the two extra masks at lower right, one already used and one still unpainted. Durock needed a new “face” roughly every three days.

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Esther Mercado uses a commercial, urethane based carpet adhesive to glue down the edges of the Swamp Thing suit. Munns figured correctly that if it was strong enough to keep carpets glued even after they’re washed, it would be strong enough to survive the South Carolina swamps. To test it, Munns suited up Durock and had him float around in a California reservoir. The “moss” that covers Swamp Thing’s body is actually the same material used for bushes and similar details in model railroad set-ups. Besides its decorative quality, it helped hide the seams in the suit.

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CAST/CREW
Directed/Written
Wes Craven

Produced
Benjamin Melniker
Michael E. Uslan

Ray Wise as Alec Holland
Adrienne Barbeau as Alice Cable
Louis Jourdan as Anton Arcane
Dick Durock as Swamp Thing
David Hess as Ferret
Nicholas Worth as Bruno
Don Knight as Harry Ritter
Al Ruban as Charlie
Ben Bates as Arcane Monster
Nannette Brown as Dr. Linda Holland
Reggie Batts as Jude
Tommy Madden as Little Bruno

CREDITS/REFERENCES/SOURCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY
Cinefantastique v11n04
Cinefantastique v12n02
Fantastic Films #27 
FANGOR1A #15
FANGORIA #17

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