DVDanger: 'The Incredible Melting Man'/'Swamp Thing'

Morphing, melting and transmogrification clog up your screens

Something odd happened to movie monsters. Remember when they hated being inhuman and would kill themselves in a hail of sparks or volcanos or burning windmills? When did they get all "Oh, I'm OK with being me!" on us? Seriously, that leads to Twilight and that can stop right there. Me? I want my monsters railing against their condition.

I want them screaming that they have been plagued and deformed by the ills of science. I want The Incredible Melting Man to shake his degenerating fist at the heavens, and I want Swamp Thing to weep bitter tears for his lost humanity into fetid, swamp-infested water.

So a word to the B-movie wise. If you can get past the flat delivery when Burr DeBenning dolefully intones, "Oh god. It's his ear!" without braying with laughter, then you're probably missing the point of The Incredible Melting Man.

William Sachs' 1977 horror misfire features astronaut Steve West (Alex Rebar) who gets irradiated on a trip to Saturn and returns as something that should, under no circumstances, be confused with Richard Wordsworth in The Quatermass Xperiment. The slowly dissolving creature must feast on human flesh, or he will steadily dissolve into a steaming pile of glop. Not that he's completely brainless. He does recoil in horror from the old couple pulling some terrible borscht belt routine in a lemon grove. Meanwhile his old friend Dr Nelson (DeBenning) launches the world's most incompetent manhunt for him.

This pile of goo has a certain if inexplicable fond place in may film fans' hearts. Maybe it was the time (1977 was a giddy era for genre buffs.) Maybe it was that it became a Mystery Science Theater 3000 favorite. For me, it was that I remember the amazing lobby cards (anyone else remember them? They were awesome.) It was the way they framed West's pustulant orange fizzog against a powder blue sky. But then again, the lobby cards were why I wanted to see Humanoids From the Deep, so we all know how reliable they are.

First off, the film has all the production values of a mid-season episode of The Six Million Dollar Man. All the money went on hiring Rick Baker to create the melting man, although legend has it that that Rebar refused to wear half the prosthetics, so that was cash well misspent. The money shot, when West collapses like a rotting gourd, is pretty spectacular. Although, as Baker says, considering that his assistants on this went to be a who's who of 80s practical effects gurus, it's a damn shame the rest of it doesn't look that good.

There are so many mysteries to The Incredible Melting Man. Why, even after much of his skin has turned into irradiated suppurating lesions, does he still have eyebrows? Why is he being treated in what looks like a warehouse? Is this really the weirdest episode of Storage Wars ever? Why does that nurse run through a glass door in slooooooow mooooottttiiiiooooon? How does that child not know the rules to hide and go seek? Why are there only three people involved in a government hunt for a flesh-eating astronaut? Why does Doctor Nelson's wife invite all three over for a dinner party?

Actually, it's probably so she can deliver the only sensible line of the entire movie. "I've never seen such a feeble excuse for a search in my life," yells Ann Sweeny as long-suffering Judy Nelson, wife to DeBenning's horribly incompetent scientist. She's kind of right. In fact, it probably would have been a much better plan if she'd been running the entire operation. Instead, General Perry (played by veteran TV show bit player heavy Myron Healy) assigns Nelson to the job. It's OK. He's got a geiger counter. That'll help.

Then Perry flies down to assist him as they stumble through the California hills. Maybe he's helping. maybe he just wants a break from his general's office (which actually looks like a disused power station control room.) Maybe, as he dress indicates when he gets off the plane, he's going for an incognito round of golf.

If this all has the feeling of a badly written, poorly acted piece of 70s soap opera crap, there's good reasons for that. Like Healy, most of the cast were day players and bit part performers. But even they deserve better than this.

The Incredible Melting Man was originally entitled The Ghoul From Outer Space and yeah, I know what you're thinking, and Baker was thinking the same thing too. Why the hell would anyone want to make a film called The Ghoul from Outer Space in 1977? (Double embarrassment for Baker: This was his first gig after designing the cantina aliens for Star Wars.)

So it's probably safe to blame Sachs as the chief instigator. Best known for the campy space parody Galaxina, Sachs made his real money dubbing Italian movies into English for dollar theaters. As a director, he clearly had no singular vision for what this gloppy mess was supposed to be. In the interview included here he wanted "the right mix of kitsch and horror" and blames the producers for taking all the kitsch out.

OK, it's funny in places, but that's not the same thing as an actual horror comedy. Baker pretty much throws Sachs under the bus saying it only became a horror comedy because the horrific scenes were inadvertently hilarious. Somewhere, he claims, there's a missing surreal edit, one with black and white sequences and silent passages, which sounds awesome. Or at least more bizarrely fascinating than this baffling hodge-podge.

And how bad is Rebar as the titular decomposing astronaut? If you want a good reason to watch The Incredible Melting Man, (and I'm not trying to give you one), it's to prove that there's a lot more to being a good movie monster than putting on a mask and schlepping around going "urg urg urg." Let's just say Rebar is no Kane Hodder.

By contrast, Dick Durock has earned a place in the monster canon for his time under the rubber mask as the titular star of Swamp Thing. This was Wes Craven's 1982 film adaptation of DC Comics then-failing monster comic …

Oh, wait, hang on, some of you are probably confused. Hold up.

Yup, this was before Alan Moore took over in 1982 and completely re-invented the title as an eco-horror. So no sign of The Green, no John Constantine, and in their place a much more conventional Frankenstein-style warning about the perils of science.

The lead role is split into two halves. The great Ray Wise plays Alex Holland, a scientist working on a top secret government project on cellular regeneration in a swamp and …

OK, let's stop right there. Look, I know we all love this because it's Craven and we get Adrienne Barbeau, but this always drives me mad. Why do scientists in movies do their research in the dumbest. Possible. Places. Take Deep Blue Sea. Why do they research sharks in an open sea pen in the middle of nowhere? Why not, you know, build an aquarium? In the desert? Wouldn't that make far more sense? Same here. Why does the government let Holland build his lab in the middle of a swamp? Why not Bethesda? Come on, folks! Reason! Logic! Paved roads!

OK. Back to the film.

So Wise plays the cocky Holland, but after a hideous accident he is transformed into Swamp Thing, and that's where Durock takes over. He made his reputation as a stunt man and on-screen heavy, but became synonymous with the part of Swamp Thing through this film, the campier-still sequel and the happily ignored TV series. With good reason: There's a tragedy in his eyes when Swampy returns to the lab and finds his dead sister's locket, while the moment when he sniffs a flower is pure James Whale Frankenstein.

By contrast, Barbeau's character is cripplingly badly written. This is a government agent (of unknown agency) who turns up in the swamp in a business suit, but then suddenly becomes a mistress of karate and a sharpshooter. That's a serious problem, because she's really the lead here. Swampy is mostly seen stomping around wordlessly in what is clearly a rubber suit. At least she has the good grace to admit that, from where she sat, reading the original script, the end result was a compromised POS.

The pleasure of Swamp Thing is really all about the bad guys and supporting cast (There's a glorious moment when one of the henchmen refers to an "abdominal Snowmen.") Louis Jourdan (Hollywood's go-to suave Frenchman for decades) mixes camp and evil as chief villain Arcane. It's all the more shocking that he could turn in any kind of performance, because he was still in cloistered mourning for his son, who had died briefly before filming. Meanwhile Craven did everyone a favor by casting David Hess as the gun-toting Ferret (I had the pleasure of meeting Hess a few years ago at Fantastic Fest and he was one the most pleasant and sweet-natured actors I have ever met, completely belying his performances.)

And even if you don't want to drag yourself through the swamp with Barbeau, it's all worth it for Reggie Batts, the child actor who plays swamp kid Jude. His entire performance comes with a splendid subtext of "white folks are crazy" that echoes what the audience will probably be thinking. Somehow Red Shirt (who do most of Shout! Factory's extras) hunted him down for this disc, and it's a killer interview. Frankly, Batts should have been a script consultant on this, because it's clear he has more of an idea about the history of Swamp Thing (and even his Marvel cousin Man-Thing.) As comic creator Len Wein puts it in his own interview, the film occasionally waves at the original comic (but it's more out of politeness.)

This was Craven's attempt to go mainstream, his fourth or possibly fifth trip behind the camera. The Last House on the Left still stands as a work of subversive metatextual genius, while The Hills Have Eyes is a paean to the savagery within us all. Then there's his sole excursion into hardcore porn with incest shocker Angela, The Fire Woman (still a lot of controversy about whether this was directed by him or his Hills producing partner Peter Locke. Whichever one it was, they hid their shame behind the pseudonym Abe Snake. Which may be for the best.) Then there's Hittite horror Deadly Blessing, but least said, soonest mended.

So where does it stand in the Craven canon? Eh, somewhere below The People Under the Stairs and above Shocker. Personally, I think he's best when he's applying that doctorate of his to the meaning of horror: The Serpent and the Rainbow, Scream, A Nightmare on Elm Street, New Nightmare, This? It's OK, especially if you're yearning for a historical diversion. But I wouldn't wade through the Bayou to hunt down a copy.


Swamp Thing is out Aug. 6 from Scream! Factory on DVD/Blu-Ray combo pack; The Incredible Melting Man is out now on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory. Next week on DVDanger: We'll be looking at all that heavenly glory with the Bruce Lee Legacy Collection.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

DVD Watch, DVDanger, The Incredible Melting Man, Swamp Thing, Adrienne Barbeau, Dick Durock, Wes Craven, David Hess, Len Wein, The Ghoul From Outer Space, Rick Baker, Ann Sweeny, Burr DeBenning, Louis Jourdan, Myron Healy

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