[To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the cult classic Heathers, we're celebrating all week long with "Heathers of Horror" special features highlighting our favorite horror performances by women with the same name as the iconic clique from the 1989 dark comedy! Check here to catch up on all of our Heathers Week special features!]
Zoom! Pow! Zap! These are the familiar utterances of my childhood, as comic book heroes on the screen were given over to the less ethereal and the more pragmatic: diamond thieves, bank robbers, maybe the occasional mad scientist to remind you of the fantastical origins of the material. Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing (1982) had certain campy elements, but didn’t completely reach that sugar-coated rush I was looking for. (Sorry, Mr. Craven; I still adore you.) Jim Wynorski’s The Return of Swamp Thing (1989), however, is overflowing with teeth-rotting material that my inner 10-year-old craves.
Let’s be clear: I’m down with the grittier iterations of comic books that have boomed at the box office; when I read Batman as a child, there weren’t a lot of laughs. But the ‘60s TV show appealed to the little kid, with the bright colors and tongue-in-cheek swagger. The stakes weren’t huge, as we knew they would be back for the next episode. Henchmen would be dispensed of with a few rights and lefts before that week’s guest villain put our heroes in a predicament. This is what Wynorski’s film taps into: the low stakes, virtually plotless candy-coated escapism of my youth. And someone actually gave him a budget!
Okay, not a huge budget, and nothing near to what the big screen Batman cost the same year (a couple of the producers here executive produced that massive blockbuster), but a budget nevertheless that allowed Wynorski better technical specs to go along with his silliness. And Return is nothing but silly; subtlety has never been Wynorski’s forte, whether it’s the killer robots in Chopping Mall (’86) or redoing Corman for Not of this Earth (’88), or countless more exploitative and less worthy DTV fare. Churn comes to mind when describing his overall oeuvre as a director; Return shows that when given the means (and some outside help) he can create something that can be enjoyed for what it has, instead of liking it ironically for what it doesn’t.
The story has florist Abby Arcane (Heather Locklear – Firestarter) heading south to visit her stepfather Dr. Anton Arcane (a returning Louis Jourdan) down on the plantation; never mind the fact that he was decimated in the ’82 flick, this is comic land, where renewal is as certain as the changing seasons. Once there, she makes two discoveries: first, that her stepdad has plans to use her DNA to perfect his anti-aging formula, and second, she learns she has a surprising thirst for vegetable-based supermen. The rest of the film has Swampy (also back for more, Dick Durock) shutting down Arcane’s operation while trying to save his fair maiden from his clutches.
That’s it, really, and how much more do you need? There are plenty of explosions, henchmen (and women; Wynorski regular Monique Gabrielle has a significant supporting role), a couple of evil sidekicks for Arcane (including Superman II’s Sarah Douglas), and nifty half creatures holed up in his lab. All this at the service of a secondary DC hero that I always enjoyed reading as a little one and never thought I would see on the screen.
That the films differ so much from the source material doesn’t make a difference to me; I enjoy the fact that the ’70s spawned horror-based heroes in the first place, and Swamp Thing the comic catered to readers looking for differing locales and motivations. He was always going to be a niche character; there’s only one bayou-based Gothic hero that counts, and it’s him.
So Wynorski chooses to pull away from the comics even further than Craven, and focus on the base appeal to kids: danger and excitement, no matter how ridiculous. There should be no shame in that, and if your youngster is just starting out with horror, this isn’t a bad one to throw on, either. Arcane’s lab is filled with transmutations galore, and they’re surprisingly well done by Carl Fullerton (Friday the 13th Part 2) and a host of other talented artists.
And make no mistake, this film is geared towards kids, or at least the young at heart; there are two boys in the film (Daniel Emery Taylor and RonReaco Lee) who practically steal it, acting as the Greek chorus of the glades as the action unfolds. It’s also more or less chaste, at least by Wynorski’s standards; there is no nudity, but a rather amusing faux lovemaking scene between Durock and Locklear propelled by the eating of a magical leaf. It looks like a Harlequin romance cover flip book, and is decidedly in the cheesy spirit of the proceedings.
As is the cast; Jourdan brings as much mustache twirling as he can muster (sans facial hair), Durock plays Swamp Thing likes he’s filming PSAs for the Louisiana Tourism Board, and Locklear is nothing less than cheerful throughout. She’s required to do a lot of the comedic lifting herself, and if some of the jokes don’t land, don’t blame her—she came to play and gives it her all.
The Return of Swamp Thing was built for 10-year-olds by a man who never turned in his inner 12-year-old’s badge, and I’m glad he didn’t, because I’ll never relinquish mine. And neither should you.
Stay tuned to Daily Dead all week long for more "Heathers of Horror" special features, and check here to catch up on all of our previous features celebrating Heathers Week!
Image credit: Top image from MVD Rewind Collection's Blu-ray cover for The Return of Swamp Thing.