For a long time you have gone to bed very, very late. In the depths of a night as dark, opaque and disorienting as the high-octane Belgian beers that share your fridge only with cheese, Chateldon and strawberries, surrounded by so many bespoke shirts your cleaning lady complains she only has time to iron, you sink into the surf of an empty series of channels, searching for an escape before inevitably drifting into bittersweet dreams.
Muck and dreck. Rubber suits. Supporting actors who can only be described as the even poorer man’s Ivan Raimi and Dweezil Zappa, if such a thing were possible. The Return of Swamp Thing. And Louis Jourdan as Swampy’s archenemy, Anton Arcane, played not as the misshapen ghoul of the comics but as the stock smoothie villain, all sleek dinner jackets, silk pajamas and dressing gowns. You know he had long experience in that, from his relatively recent turn as Kamal Khan in Octopussy back to roles as the archetypal cad Rodolphe Boulanger (whose boots were always too well polished) in Madame Bovary and the treacherous aristocrat de Villefort in The Count of Monte Cristo opposite the fey king of the miniseries, Richard Chamberlain (ironically, this version of the Dumas story was essentially a shot-by-shot remake of a French version with Jourdan in the title role), and earlier opposite the delicious Leslie Caron in Gigi.
Who dressed these old actors taking their second- or third-billed roles in bad movies and miniseries or their guest star appearances in TV shows, appearing like they do out of time if not out of place in their finery, their undeniably elegant manners, their Continental charm? There’s a loneliness to it, an isolation that resonates with you this dark night. And you realize that you’re watching, amid the clichés and dreadful acting and self-aware embarrassing cheese, one of the last reminders of old Hollywood, of the old-school LA tailors like Eddie Schmidt and Jack Taylor who dressed the swells back when Slim Aarons was photographing them, of the old French tailors like Cristiani, who counted Jourdan among their customers, and even, through his Gigi costar Maurice Chevalier, a link back to a very real past of the 1920s Paris élégants who frequented the shirtmakers of rue de Rivoli, avenue de Castiglione and place Vendôme. Here in this low-budget, low-rent schlock, hanging on for the paycheck and dangling by a last thread of credibility, hanging on like you for the clothes, for ways to make life seem real.
The central, ironic conflict of Swamp Thing and his archenemy Arcane pits a man who has flamed out, lost his humanity in the most painful circumstances possible, seeking to regain some sort of self, against a man who would eagerly and literally give up his humanity in the pursuit of gain and power. Two different types of monsters, one haunted by what he has lost, one obsessed by everything he stands to gain, both mired in the tropes of bad filmmaking. Moral: on’t let yourself be ruled by your possessions or the pursuit of them, lest you one day awake to regret what you have given up. Have you lost your self, become, in Alan Moore’s words, “a ghost dressed in weeds,” aware of your own emptiness? Or even worse, have you willingly sacrificed your humanity for an empty thrill of growing forests of suits, sheaves of shirts, hoards of handmade shoes, become the sort of monster on the inside who welcomes the void and the darkness? It is so easy, more than ever now, to see and pursue beautiful things, and easier than ever to let that pursuit consume you.
You can find meaning even in a terrible film.
Other reasons to watch: This is schlock with very little to redeem it. Heather Locklear is at her least unbearable as Arcane’s ward Abby, while fans of Superman II will appreciate Sarah Douglas’ turn here (she played Ursa in that film to authentic style icon Terence Stamp’s General Zod). Dick Durock maintains as much quiet dignity as Swamp Thing as a man in a heavy green rubber suit can muster, soldiering on with stoicism into the TV series this movie spawned. While certain of The Return of Swamp Thing’s plot points and themes owe a debt to Alan Moore’s magisterial run on the comic series Saga of the Swamp Thing, the film uses them so clumsily such a debt might be better forgiven. Still, The Return of Swamp Thing’s title sequence, a montage of covers from the Swamp Thing comic book series set to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Born on the Bayou,” is to me the best three or so minutes of any comic book movie ever (suck it, Nolan).
Man or monster? In your acquisitive fervor remind yourself that the suits and trappings of your own pretensions don’t merit mortgaging your soul to Mammon.