Some movies are just bad. That's not always a bad thing. There can be much entertainment and amusement in a truly, gloriously bad movie. But sometimes a movie is just bad.
Enter producer-director Larry Buchanan's 1966 roadkill of a film (too underwhelming to get 'car crash' status) Curse of the Swamp Creature. To get it out of the way, the existence of the titular curse is debatable. There is a creature (also titularmore than one, actually, but only one counts). Without that, the movie would be far worse. Perhaps just a little worse.
Made with all the technical skill of Edward D. Wood, Jr., it lacks his "gift" for unintentional humor and his exuberance for the material and filmmaking, in general, that gives a great deal of fun and charm to his films.1 To take a more contemporaneous director of the genre, Herschell Gordon Lewis, whose cheaply made gore films were bad in the technical sense (in acting and execution) but, unlike Buchanan's film, have not only extensive and creative use of blood and gore, but have an intriguing quality of absurdity/surreality that make them memorable. Curse of the swamp Creature? Well, some movies are just bad.
Possibly a remake of 1957's Voodoo Woman (Edward L. Cahn)3 or simply just a rehashing of common horror (with a touch of science fictionno, with apologies to Harlan Ellison, this is definitely "sci-fi") genre cliches. There's a mad scientist, Dr. Simond Trent, deep in the swamp working on his theories of man's evolution from reptiles (plenty of stock footage of alligators and snakes to work with), with less than stellar success (the experimental 'mishaps' get tossed into the alligator poolcovered with a metal-ribbed dome of what could be mosquito netting or perhaps wire mesh). The opening shows how serious he is about keeping people out of his Swamp. Though it's a bit hard to take him seriously when he looks like Hunter S. Thompson's younger nerdier brother speaking in a sort of affected pseudointellectual Lee Marvin voice. Or something.
"I'm the bookkeeper. I work in the motel office."
"I see. You look like a bookkeeper. I should have guessed."
A geologist comes to the small middle of nowhere Texas town with the belief that there is oil in them thar swamps. He checks into THE FLY'N FISH hotel, a place that should be in something far sleazier than this film tries for; all flat carpets, wood paneling, and el cheapo mismatched furniture (out-of-date even then). Makes the Bates Motel look like the Hilton (doesn't even measure up to the Motel Hellofor the two or three that get that reference). His room includes two adjoining walls that are almost completely covered with curtains (to hide the lack of windows in the set, no doubt) and an air conditioner that is simply stuck into the (wood paneled) wall. Not in a window, smack in the middle of the wall.
Do you live around here?"
"I live...I have a place down the road."
"When I was driving in I didn't see many places."
"Well, it's off the road."
The hotel's bookkeeper acts like she's picking him up when, in fact, her accomplice Ritchie is tossing the geologist's room. The owner/barkeep ("Frenchie," a man with nothing discernibly French about him) is in on it, too, stalling by bringing him another bourbon before he leavesa whitish/milky-looking substance in a tall glass. Things must be different in the swamp.
After catching the thief in his room a struggle ensues during which the geologist is killed. Since there is a need to cover it up quicklythough it's the off season for fishing, a partner is expectedBrenda Simmons, the "bookkeeper," decides to pose as the geologist's wife (yes, it doesn't make sense but the partner buys it and in the context of the rest of this thing, the audience gives up and does as well).
The partner arrives. Mr. Rogers (and he's called that at least once). Played by John Agar who began his career in John Ford westerns before drifting into this kind of schlock. He's ostensibly the hero.4 Brenda, Ritchie, and a guide ("Rabbit") take off for the swamps in what probably ate up most of the budget, since there are actual outdoor scenes in the boat, traveling through the swamp. (Brenda dressed in whiteincluding hatposed lounging at the back of the boat puffing a cigarette and Ritchie holding a rifle that looks a hell of a lot like a wooden one I got as a kid from Toys 'R Us.)
"Incredible. Wonder what they're doing around here. Well, it's highly unlikely they'll find my little...retreat. but if they do, I must play the good host, mustn't I? hahahahahahaha"
The Dr. isn't alone in the swamp. He has his helpers (who that sort of guy would probably call "colored folk"), an assistant (Tom, who later becomes a victim), and a bored, disaffected wife. The swamp community (as it were) alert him to the "explorers'" presence with a modified, poorly done version of African talking drumsthey bang on a lot of stuff (making a drum sound regardless if the object struck is metal or wood) to warn him. Not surprising, almost all outdoor dialogue seems to be overdubbed in post production. Of course the soundtrack seems a bit out of sync anyway. It was filmed in 16 mm mono (aspect ratio 1.33:1, approximately the dimensions of an American television screen). It looks it.
"Yes, but acclaim. That's nothing. To create life. To move it at will up and down the evolutionary path. That's something.
We soon learn of the Dr.'s studies. Transmutation. He's turned crocodiles back into fish (devolution as sci-fi and science-impaired hacks might term it). Then, about thirty minutes into the movie (close to the halfway point), you see the creature. A webbed clawlike hand reaches briefly out of the cloud of dry ice. That's it for now (this isn't the final creature anyway). The creature(s) is(are) played by Bill Thurman5 who was also the murdered geologist. (Yeah crocodiles. In Texasit's best one forgets anything one might know about science and evolution. Trust me.)6
Once in the swamp, the crew maintains its high standard of technical quality. Either the day for night wasn't functioning, was poorly used, or they simply decided to film in the shade (or dawn/dusklook at the sun shining on objects) and pretend it's night time. There's no illusion that they aren't filming during the day and you need clues like lanterns and people going to sleep to know what time it's supposed to be. Or just assume the whole thing takes place at night. It really doesn't matter.
The lab looks like a recycled set from some movie made ten years earlier and the inside of the Dr.'s house could be a redressed FLY'N FISH. Most of the rooms have ceiling fans that suspiciously cast shadows on the wall that could only be due to a light source above the ceiling.
Since the experiment was a failure, Tom becomes the new guinea pig. The Dr. creeps into his (motel-esque) room and injects him. The bed is in the middle of the floor. Presumably accounted for by a lack of fourth wall in the studio and placed so the camera could get a slightly overhead shot. But that might be giving them too much credit.
Meanwhile, the community is getting upset because of a missing boy (he was killed in the opening sequence). They suspect the Dr. ("We're poor but not blind in the swamp"). Well, why notwho wouldn't suspect him? "Is there something I can do for you, old man?" (he asks fumbling with a roll of bills). "My son is gone. I just want to see the man who brought evil to us." Ooh. Another plot thread. Things start moving now. Slowly.
The wife wants to escape. The community led by the Dr.'s right hand man (until then playing an overseer role like some prewar "South" picture) plans some voodoo. Then the Dr. talks to the unconscious Tom, trying to indoctrinate him ("Obedience is the key to survival"). The "guests" arrive. They are received for some interminable dialogue (to be kind) around drinks. This segues to the community doing a sub Hollywood-esque quasi-voodoo ceremony that might be offensive if it wasn't so poorly done. Writhing, scantily clad women, fake plastic skulls, snakes, torches, drumming, large pseudo-African fright masks, the Dr. in effigy, and some kind of Easter Island-totem pole thing someone set up in the clearing. All this drumming in the middle of the night (how do we know? someone says it isignore the sunlight on the water) works up Ritchie's curiosity.
"What's all the drumming about. Say man, what's all the drumming about?"
"When there's something to be done, all the folks get together."
"They talk it over?"
"They do more than talk it over. You ever heard of snake magic?"
"These people worship snakes. They have this dance..."
"What about it?"
"It's not my place to tell you about it."
If only it ended there. If only he'd listened to the warning that if they get caught "something bad" will happen. If only the man didn't take him to the ceremony. On the plus side, the movie switches to the wife trying to get Rogers to take her away from her "insane" husband. Disbelieved, she destroys the Dr.'s experiment. Not a good idea. The sleeping Brenda becomes the next victim.
Meanwhile, the right hand manmasked and leading the ceremonyexhorts the people to become the "instrument of revenge" against the Dr. Hiding in the darkness of broad daylight, Ritchie is left by the other man and warned of the quicksand (in this swamp, "quicksand" is shallow water that a person pretends to sink into). Things pick up some more. Someone gets gut-stabbed (hunching over in mortal pain just before the knife goes in) and the killer wipes the blade on his pants. Then a scene that could have degraded the film into true sleazethe attempted rape of a deaf/mute girlhad it not been a failure. And was so poorly done. Less said the better.
By now, the community is on the move and the end is nearing. That is a good thing. Finally, a full-blown creature appears. Green bald cap, ping pong ball eyes with cat pupils, protruding eyebrow ridges, pointy ears, and fangs. Real quality stuff. Right up there with the rest of the movie. The seam from the back of the bald cap is clearly visible when the creature turns. What follows is one of the quickest and most anticlimactic endings for a horror movie I can recall. Almost merciful. But still bad.
Coda: the wife, all cheerful in her Suzanne Pleshette (circa "The Bob Newhart Show" years) hairdo, and Mr. Rogers leave the swamp in a plane. Apparently a couple now. Or something. It appears that the titular "curse" was the film, itself. But that level of self-referentiality might be giving the guilty far too much credit.
1Though Wood is "known" as the world's worst director, the title is undeserved. It is largely a matter of having been appointed that appellation and, through repetition and "marketing," has stuck. Since his Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) was once voted the worst film of all time, the title for director and film has become unquestioned assumption. There is no need to hold illusions of his "skill," but it's simply not accurate. It's not his worst film. It seems most of the people who refer to him and the movie in those term do so because that's what they've always heard (it did make it into an early "Seinfeld" episode: "The Chinese Restaurant") and many have probably only seen Plan 9.... Wood was an inept director to be sure, but people who really think he was the worst director (and director of the worst movie) simply haven't seen enough movies.
2Trust me, this is far more interesting than the above movie. Lewis has a masters degree in journalism and taught college-level English before moving into radio, then television (as a director and later in advertising). After becoming partner in an advertising business (his partner later moved on, leaving Lewis with ownership), he came to realize he couldn't make a living in it (with only 108 channels on the air in the United States at the time, it was hard to break into the business and be successful). He and a friend decided to enter the feature film industry and as many before and since have discovered, the best way to do it (and do it cheaply) is through exploitation films (just one year earlier, Russ Meyer made his first film). Lewis started with a rather tame sex-based melodrama. He would later make a number of very soft exploitation flicks with requisite nudity to draw an audience. The speed that they could be written and shot turned them a profit. After about 30 films of this type (only seven remain), Lewis and his partner tried their hand at horror, making the bloody Blood Feast which has the claim to the world's first gore film (1963). It was enormously successful (for an independent exploitation flick). They would go on to do a few more movies before the partnership split. Lewis continued in the same vein (pun intended), expanding his subject matter slightly (swingers, teens gone bad, two children's filmswhich he didn't write) as well as the horror/gore stuff. His movie career dried up in the early 1970s and he went back to school, so to speak. He has since written several books on advertising, marketing, and public relations. Several of his books are available on amazon.com as of this writing and all are well reviewed by readers. He also writes columns for marketing and advertising industry publications. Really.
3A pretty unremarkable director of b- or c-grade content. Mainly genre and exploitation stuff: horror, western, gangsterthe stuff that would fill out a double or triple feature bill at the theater or the drive-in. How he managed to sneak the excellent It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958) onto his filmography baffles.
4Okay, Agar did make some good genre flicks like Tarantula (1955), Miracle Mile (1988), and Roger Corman's The St. Valentine's Day Massacre (1967). He also did three uneven John Wayne westerns between 1969 and 1971 (I do admit a certain soft spot for '71's Big Jake). But still....
5Thurman had something of a diverse career, with roles not only in horror flicks but a number "good" mainstream Hollywood films, including The Last Picture Show (1971), Steven Spielberg's The Sugarland Express (1974) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and some others.
6Yes, it is true that there is one species of crocodile in the US: the creatively named "American crocodile" (Crocodylus acutus). It is primarily found in Mexico and Central and South America and is only found at the southern tip of Florida (the Evergladesthe only natural environment home to both alligators and crocodiles) and around the Keys in the US. Not Texas. So there.
(Lightheartedly dedicated to someone who once claimed there is more information packed into my footnotes than in some other writeups. See what you wrought?)
Sources: Curse of the Swamp Creature taped from the American Movie Classics channel, info on Herschell Gordon Lewis from http://18.104.22.168/halloween2001/hgl/hgl1.shtml, alligator stuff from various relevant sites, some info and factchecking from the Internet Movie Database