Do you find monster movies that revolve around damsels, décolletage, and men in phony rubber suits pathetic or endearing? If the latter, you may well find room in your heart for Swamp Thing, an old-fashioned creature feature that already seemed anachronous when it hoisted itself up out of the mud of early-1980s genre cinema. As movies like Alien, Altered States, and Scanners put a grim, often grotesque spin on ideas about biological transformation, Wes Craven–surely one of the grimmest of horror directors in the 1970s–embarked on a PG-rated fairy tale about a gentle scientist whose own experimental chemicals turn him into a super-powered hulk made entirely of plant matter. As Craven’s contemporaries busied themselves with tales of human bodies rent asunder by sex, drugs, and the military-industrial complex, the director of Last House on the Left was making a story of tender love in the wilds of South Carolina, where a wound to the breast can be healed by a clump of swamp moss and a beast’s severed limb can regenerate through the judicious application of sunlight.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the film or its reputation, let me give you an idea of just how disreputable the 1972 Wes Craven version of The Last House on the Left really is. I saw it in film school, in a horror-film class that was being taught by a professor who had stepped in at the last minute, after the one who had actually programmed the syllabus fell ill, so he was unfamiliar with some of the films that had been scheduled. The semester went pretty well went pretty well until the day we screened The Last House on the Left. The prof — a fine teacher and an expert in film in his own right — stood in front of the class afterward and declared that he had always considered himself a First Amendment absolutist. Until that day. Screening Last House for the first time, he said, had convinced him that there was a good case to be made for censorship. His argument was essentially that the film was sadistic and utterly worthless, the product of very small minds, a debasement of not just its cast and crew but of the audience members as well. I complicated matters somewhat by raising my hand and noting that The Last House on the Left was based on an Ingmar Bergman film, The Virgin Spring. As a defense of the film goes, I admit now that’s pretty weak sauce, but it’s what I had. And it worked, to a degree. I don’t think it necessarily changed his mind about the film, but it altered the tenor of discussion. Slightly.