Review Date: January 26, 2012
Released by: Elite Entertainment
Release date: 6/6/2006
Region 0, NTSC
In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention first of all that I contributed to this release of Larry Buchanan’s Curse of the Swamp Creature
. No, I have never worked for Elite Entertainment. I didn’t have anything to do with their decision to release the movie, nor did I locate the film print or have anything to do with its transfer. In fact, I didn’t even realize I had contributed to this release until after it was already in the stores.
How is that possible, you ask? Well it all began in 1997, when I was fourteen years old and started writing a number of "plot summaries" for the Internet Movie Database. Most of these summaries were for older, schlocky horror films of the type that I frequently review for this site. At the time there really wasn't a lot of information about movies like this on the web, so I also spent time adding cast members and character names to film entries. One of these entries was for Curse of the Swamp Creature
, which I wrote a summary for, and to which I also added cast and crew names.
In 2007 I was browsing the IMDb and somewhat randomly decided to look up some of my old plot summaries. I happened to read the one I wrote for Curse of the Swamp Creature
and had a sudden feeling of déjà vu. I had not looked at any of my summaries in at least five years, and yet, I realized that this particular summary I had seen somewhere else very, very recently. It wasn't until I went to my shelf and picked up Elite Entertainment's release of this film, which I had bought a few weeks earlier, that I realized what had happened – my plot summary was on the back of the case! Someone at Elite had copied and pasted the damn thing, and now here it was on the back of a DVD which at that time was being sold in every Borders, Best Buy and FYE in America. To add the irony, at the time I was living in Portland, Maine, just one municipality over from Elite’s headquarters in the town of Scarborough. While I could have been angry at such blatant plagiarism, I honestly felt much more flattered than anything else, so much so that a few years later I even bought an extra copy of this disc and had the cover framed. So thank you, Elite Entertainment!
We open at the Fly ‘n Fish, a rural restaurant, bar and hotel in the bayou country. Oil company honcho Driscoll West (Bill Thurman
) is having a beer when he is approached by Brenda Simmons (Shirley McLine
), an employee of the establishment who strikes up a conversation with him. But West soon grows suspicious – Brenda seems to know an awful lot about what West is doing there. West goes up to his room where he discovers Brenda’s erratic boyfriend Ritchie (Cal Duggan
) going through his personal belongings. The two get into a fight and Ritchie stabs him dead. Hotel owner Frenchie (Roger Ready
), who is also Brenda’s secret lover, agrees to help them dispose of the body. But there is another issue that they are going to have to deal with: a geologist named Rogers is going to be coming to the hotel to meet West and then head out into the swamps with him. Brenda comes up with a great idea – she will tell Rogers that she is his West’s wife and Ritchie is his assistant, and that West couldn’t make it but that he has instructed them to accompany him into the swamps. Soon after, geologist Barry Rogers (John Agar
) arrives at the hotel, and accompanied by local guide Rabbit (Charles McLine
) they all head out into the swamps.
Meanwhile, deep in the heart of the swamps, one Dr. Simon Trent (Jeff Alexander
) has built himself a house and a laboratory in order to conduct his experiments away from the prying eyes of civilization. Trent is quite mad, and his work centers on trying to move animals up and down the evolutionary chain. He has been using the local swamp people as guinea pigs by turning them into mutated reptile men, although all of his subjects so far have died in the process, necessitating that Trent dump their bodies into his pool full of alligators in the backyard. His assistant Tom (Anthony Houston
) has some ethical concerns about what they are doing, concerns which Trent addresses by drugging Tom in his sleep and using him as the next guinea pig. Trent also has a wife named Pat (Francine York
) whom he keeps prisoner, as she has realized what a monster her husband is.
Trent starts to receive reports of the oil surveying party being in the vicinity, and in order to keep them from just blundering into his domain he sends a servant to invite them to the house, where we will be able to keep an eye on them. Barry, Brenda, Ritchie and Rabbit accept the invitation, but things start going wrong when Pat goes into Trent’s laboratory and destroys the mutated Tom, ruining what would have otherwise been a perfect experiment. Trent decides to turn Brenda into a mutant in Tom’s place and kidnaps her from her room. But things are going from bad to worse, and the voodoo practicing swamp people have decided enough is enough and set out looking to avenge all their loved ones lost to the mad Dr. Trent!
In the second half of the 1960’s, American International Pictures hired Texas director Larry Buchanan to make series of color, low budget films that would primarily exist to spruce up the company’s TV packages. Because the company had not produced any full color films until the end of the 1950’s it was at a disadvantage in a market that increasingly wanted color content for broadcast. At the same time, the lack of film unions in Texas allowed production to be done very cheaply. Figures given for the Buchanan films’ budgets – all of them made under the banner of Azalea Pictures – have ranged from a low of $20,000 to a high of $35,000, but whatever the actual figure it’s clear just from watching any of them that very little capital was expended. Of the eight films made by Azalea Pictures, seven are horror/sci-fi productions and five are known to be remakes of 50’s AIP movies. The odd film out is 1968’s Hell Raiders
, a war picture that is now being reported as being a remake of AIP’s Suicide Battallion
, an Edward L. Cahn production from 1958 (although both films are so hard to see that it’s difficult to tell whether or not that is the case).
In this instance, Curse of the Swamp Creature
is a remake of 1957’s Voodoo Woman
, also directed by Edward L. Cahn. The Buchanan remakes have a well-deserved reputation for being carbon copies of the originals – right down to dialogue being virtually the same line for line in many scenes – although here there are actually significant differences here between remake and original. Voodoo Woman
was set in some anonymous, nondescript tropical country, probably one of the newly independent states of Africa, but you couldn’t really tell. Its treasure hunters were after gold, and its mad scientist was using native voodoo – not evolutionary biology – to create monsters. In that film Tom Conway played the evil scientist, Marla English was the femme fatale who becomes a beast and Mike Connors was the ostensible “hero” (more later on why that is in quotes).
Larry Buchanan’s remakes have a reputation for being worse than the originals, usually considerably worse. That reputation is well deserved, although the gap in quality between Voodoo Woman
and Curse of the Swamp Creature
is actually not that significant, and in some respects the remake even has a better story. The original film is better thanks to overall superior performers and somewhat more polished production values, but not by all that much. Those who can still find Voodoo Woman
to view – it was only briefly available on VHS in this country and has yet to see a DVD release – will surely find that it is an enormous mess, even by AIP standards. Roger Corman’s It Conquered the World
and Day the World Ended
– both remade by Buchanan – are not good in the classical sense, but do happen to have many good qualities, especially for low budget productions. Edward L. Cahn’s The She Creature
and Invasion of the Saucer Men
– both also remade by Buchanan – are entertaining, if not quite as much so as the Corman films. But Voodoo Woman
is a mess from beginning to end. It’s not just that the dialogue is trite, the monster corny and the acting hammy – that can be said for all the other AIP 50’s films – but also that the film is claustrophobic and boring, representing a painfully slow seventy or so minutes. The jungle set – there is no exterior photography except for a few moments of stock footage – is never convincing and is obviously a soundstage. This artificiality lends a distinct sense of unreality to the whole picture.
Curse of the Swamp Creature
also has a distinct unreality, although it happens in a different direction. Whereas Voodoo Woman
always felt like something taking place on a cheaply decorated soundstage, the remake was filmed entirely on location in and around the swamps of northeastern Texas. While some of the locations are not convincing – Dr. Trent’s house is quite clearly a suburban dwelling, despite attempts to make it seem like it’s in the middle of nowhere – the swamp locations themselves are beautifully distinctive, as is our limited view of the local area in the form of the Fly ‘n Fish lodge. Yet while these are unmistakably real locations, the atmosphere of the production is anything but. This movie is right up there alongside such movies as Kong Island
and Manos, the Hands of Fate
in its surreal, dreamy atmosphere. Nothing seems to happen, and yet everything that does happen seems to be happening at once. The strange, slow pace of everything, and the often terrible dubbing of the location dialogue, makes it feel like a dream that is barely remembered the next day, and like a dream, once you’re in it you have trouble remembering how it started or how long you’ve been experiencing it. The hilariously bad swamp creature, which only makes an appearance at the end, is just icing on the cake. Considering that many viewers must have seen this in the 2 AM broadcast time slot back in the 60’s and 70’s, well, it’s no wonder that some of them remember being confused by the whole ordeal and perhaps not even being sure if what they saw was real when they remembered it later.
There are distinct and uncomfortable racial themes that flow through Curse of the Swamp Creature
. The production itself faced racial difficulties; in his autobiography Buchanan remembered how they couldn’t get a local hotel to lodge their out of town black actors, and thus local black families had to be found who were willing to let them stay. While the film takes no overt stance on racial issues, it nonetheless treads into awkward territory when the modern viewer realizes what Dr. Trent is doing out in these swamps. Trent is quite mad and not picky about whom he experiments on. Several times in the movie – first on his assistant Tom, and then later on Brenda – he experiments on white characters because it is the most convenient option for him. Yet it is very clearly implied that the majority of his victims have been from the local black community, and that the reason he’s out in the middle of the swamps is not just because he needs the swamp life for experiments, but also because he needs human lives, disposable humans who will not be terribly missed, and in Texas in 1966 poor, bayou-dwelling blacks would have been a lot less likely to have been missed by the authorities. Eventually the local black population rebels against Trent, forming a lynch mob that manages to kill the Rabbit character before Trent decides to unleash the swamp creature for his own protection. Before that moment, though, we see other bits that cause real discomfort, including how at one point Tom is shown questioning Trent’s methods (as Trent ominously feeds his pool of alligators). Tom, who has clearly already been a party to multiple homicides, has ethical concerns about the work, and we wonder whether he would have been more concerned had the victims been a different group of people.
One feels very, very sorry for poor old John Agar, who by this point in his career had sunk to the point of guest starring in not one, not two, but three Larry Buchanan productions, plus another shot-in-Texas horror flick called Night Fright
directed by Buchanan collaborator James A. Sullivan. Yet while the Barry Rogers character is ostensibly the hero of the film, like the equivalent character in Voodoo Woman
he is very much the hero simply by default. He is the only man left standing when it’s all over with, and so he must be the hero, even though he does practically nothing except stand and sit somewhere near where the action is going on. The screenshot at left perfectly sums up Agar’s contribution to the film. In an unusually busy composition for a Buchanan picture, there we see Jeff Alexander ordering the mutated Brenda to kill someone, while behind him Francine York pleads with her to find the spark of humanity left in her and disobey the order. And next to York is John Agar, standing motionless with a blank expression on his face, saying nothing, doing nothing, barely seeming to be aware that anything is going on. Agar is reported to have spent much of the 60’s mired in alcoholic dazes, and one has to wonder how aware of his surroundings he even was at that moment. Did he even realize that the camera was rolling? Did he hear Buchanan yell “action”? Could he even remember shooting this scene the next day, or was he like so many of the viewers who have sat through Curse of the Swamp creature
over these past forty-five years: left wondering later if it was not all just some weird and crazy dream?
While the image quality of this release is far from perfect, it is still leaps and bounds ahead of how Larry Buchanan’s films have typically looked on home video. Because the Azalea films got mostly TV play, most of the prints of them floating around have been faded, scratchy and splicey dupe elements that had been projected for broadcast screenings a couple hundred times. While this Elite Entertainment disc does show some wear and tear, overall quality is quite pleasing, with strong colors and a pleasing level of detail, although the transfer is regrettably interlaced. While there is definitely some grain present (as one would expect from a 16mm production) it never overwhelms the visuals, and this is without a doubt the best I have ever seen the film look.
Orion Pictures was known have ownership of the negatives for the AIP-TV/Azalea films, and presumably all such materials are now in the custody of MGM, who released Buchanan’s Mars Needs Women
under the Midnite Movies line a decade ago. With MGM now releasing made-on-demand discs of their catalog, including MODs of such public domain favorites as Dr. Blood’s Coffin
, we can certainly hope that sooner or later we will see an official and even better looking release of this and the other Azalea titles.
The sound quality here is problematic. With its extensive outdoor location shooting, Curse of the Swamp Creature
features far more ADR than other Buchanan movies, but the quality of the sound recording is all over the place. Some dialogue sounds crisp and clear. Some sounds muffled and hard to understand. Some dialogue is recorded at a reasonable volume, while other bits are recorded so low that I had to rewind the disc and turn up the volume. Some light to moderate background popping and hissing was also audible during quiet moments.
There are no supplements on this disc.
I have never attempted to watch Curse of the Swamp Creature
while drunk or stoned, but being just the slightest bit tired is enough to whisk you away into the movie’s bizarre, otherworldly atmosphere. It’s a bad movie, very bad indeed, yet once you are in the middle of it that badness hardly seems to matter as the production puts you under its bizarre spell. This particular release of it was very easy to find in stores and online up until a few years ago, when it seemed to go out of print without any warning. That’s too bad, because despite the regrettable interlacing this is still a pretty good release, and pretty good releases of Larry Buchanan movies can be tough to come by. But I consider this disc to be fully worthy of having my plot summary on the back cover, and anyone with a stomach for the like of Buchanan is encouraged to seek it out.
Movie – D
Image Quality – B-
Sound – D+
Supplements – N/A
- Running Time –1 hour 20 minutes
- Not Rated
- Chapter Stops
- 1 Disc
- English 2.0 Mono