Curse of the Swamp Creature (1966) *
Director: Larry Buchanan
Runtime: 1h 20m
On only my second review in my gill-man cycle I’m already beginning to doubt the soundness of my original plan. You see, this particular sub-genre of mid-century horror/sci-fi films includes three films by Larry Buchanan, in addition to all the normal sorts of dreck I usually subject myself to. Buchanan’s personal story is inspiring, orphaned at a young age he grew up practically penniless, but nonetheless managed to claw his way to the top of Hollywood fame… Well, got a job directing features for American International Pictures’ television unit, same difference. There he would cement a reputation as one of the worst filmmakers in history, churning out remakes of earlier AIP films for television syndication. Unfortunately this process required he pad his films out to fit a specific time slot, and as a consequence they are all saddled with an almost unbelievable amount of filler. What’s worse, the films he was given to remake were invariable among the worst of AIP’s features from the 1950s. Make no mistake, Buchanan was not remaking The Wasp Woman (1959) or the Beginning of the End (1957); instead he had the unpleasant job of making something entertaining on the basis of The She-Creature (1956) or Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957) or, as was the case for today’s movie, The Voodoo Woman (1957). Even a filmmaker with a scrap of talent and a decent budget would have a hard time making something worthwhile out of those turkeys. Still though, you have to respect Buchanan, if not his movies. Few people have the courage to pursue something they love as fervently as Buchanan pursued filmmaking, even though they are absolute garbage at it. As someone who has let several dreams slip by just because it was obvious I was unsuited for them, I cannot help but admire, and even envy, Buchanan’s gumption.
The film begins in what we are told is the darkest depths of a swamp but looks like a nice house in a well-to-do small town. Hell, it even has a well-maintained lawn, a sidewalk and a driveway! In this improbably suburban lair, Dr. Simond Trent, a mad scientist, tries and fails to bring life to some god-forsaken gill-man abomination he’s whipped up in his lab. The script doubtlessly calls for him to dump the aborted monstrosity in a swamp where it is devoured by alligators. But with no swamp available near the house, Buchanan has his mad scientist toss the body in a pool, where he happens to be keeping a congregation of alligators as pets. Forget about his crimes against humanity, Trent should be worried about Animal Control catching on to all those unlicensed animals he’s keeping in his pool. Trent starts off the movie rather less popular than is normal for mad scientists, the locals aren’t quite at the point where they collectively go for their pitchforks and torches, but the occasional odd vigilante still shows up to avenge some murdered family member or try to put an end to the mad doctor’s reign of terror. One such attacker jumps the doctor as he makes his way back from the pool, only to be stopped by Valjean the doctor’s hired thug and chief bodyguard.
Trent maintains a larger household that you would expect for an anti-social goon obsessed with turning people into ichthyoid abominations. In addition to Valjean he keeps another, significantly less competent though more physically imposing, thug under his employ named Tracker. There’s also Tom his lily-livered assistant, whose always prattling on about medical ethics, and not conducting unauthorized human trials and other ivory tower academic nonsense. How he hasn’t caught on to the doctor’s ghoulish experiments is anyone’s guess, but often enough brilliant technicians are blind to any problem that isn’t immediately in front of their glasses. Finally there is his wife Ann, who seems far too young and beautiful to be married to an old fish-fixated creep, but you know what? Love finds a way. Like Tom, somehow she is under the impression that all her husband is doing is de-evolving alligators back to their primordial ancestor; she has no idea about all the people he’s tried the same technique on.
At the edge of Trent’s swamp, one such outsider has recently arrived at the local dive: The Fly N’ Fish, a seedy hotel/bar/airport that is a real institution in East Texas to this very day. The man is named Mr. West, and is an oilman in search of probable petroleum deposits in the untracked wilderness around Trent’s compound. The Fly N’ Fish doesn’t get many visitors this time of year (fishing season has presumably closed for the year) so West’s arrival attracts the attention of some of the inn’s seedier employees. Hostess Brenda and bartender Frenchie keep West occupied at the bar while Brenda’s expendable boy-toy Richie paws his way through West’s belongings. Unfortunately, they aren’t able to hold West’s attention very well, and the old man catches Richie in the act of rifling through his briefcase. What follows is a not just a poorly choreographed fight scene (if you expect an entertaining fist fight out of a 1960s American movie then you are already quite a fool) but a nauseatingly shot one. Seriously, the camera bobs up and down erratically, and zooms in and out of the action seemingly at random. It seems like Buchanan was an early pioneer of the shaky camera that far too many Hollywood action movies mistakenly consider exciting. The fight ends with Richie stabbing West to death. The villainous trio is left at a loss for what to do, after all they only wanted to rip off the oilman, not murder him. Getting rid of the body is easy enough, after all hiding a dismembered corpse in the swamp is child’s play, but unfortunately West was planning to meet a geologist named Barry Rogers in a few days before heading out into the swamp to prospect for oil. Brenda decides the best course of action is to impersonate West’s wife and have Rogers lead her and her goons to the oil.
The group starts their journey into the swamp, but as they begin their journey the film starts to resemble the world’s worst adaptation of Heart of Darkness instead. Unseen natives prowl in the dense woods as their boat makes its way upriver. Mysterious drumming echoes out from the swamp as the ship gets closer and closer to Trent’s laboratory. In theory, this drumming should fill the viewer with a feeling of dread at what horrors await the explorers in the depths of the swamp, though in practice all it’s going to do to the audience is make them annoyed. Imagine if you had a nightly Beatnik poetry circle in the unit above your apartment and you’ll start to get the idea of how annoying this ceaseless pounding really is.
Back at Trent’s laboratory, the mad doctor murders his assistant Tom and tries to turn him into a fish man. All is going pretty well for the doctor until his wife find out what he’s doing and pulls the plug on the whole thing. Trent is suitably upset at his wife for spoiling his latest experiment, especially since it’s getting harder and harder to abduct more test subjects from the local villagers. After chastising his wife and locking her up in her room, Trent returns to the lab to sulk for a while. Fortunately for him, the clueless oil expedition is en route directly for his door, providing him an ample array of test subjects for his godless experiments.
The most entertaining aspect of Curse of the Swamp Creature is the sheer incompetence of the filmmaking. The absurd locations (like Trent’s suburban home in the swamp and swimming pool full of alligators) and ludicrously shabby monster costume are only the most visible examples of the film’s fundamental incompetence. There are also subtler examples, like the scene where Richie answers the phone without having it ring first, presumably because someone forgot to dub in the sound effect of a ringing telephone. Were the film as chock full of such incompetence as the average Ed Wood Jr. movie, it would qualify as a full-blown anti-classic, unfortunately it’s almost as hard to make an anti-classic as it is to make the regular variety. Curse of the Swamp Creature, along with most of Buchanan’s features from this era, is saddled with far too much empty filler in order to make it fit into a TV timeslot. There just isn’t much entertainment to salvage from the endless scenes where nothing much happens. The odd moment of humor and absurdity save the film from being totally unwatchable, but not by much.
The worst part though is that for the first 70 minutes of an 80-minute runtime we get to see no more of the monsters than a shot of their hand and a figure covered in cloth being dumped into the alligator pool by Dr. Trent. About five minutes of monster-based action just isn’t enough to make a good monster movie, I don’t care how well crafted the build up is. For what it’s worth, the monster is impossibly crappy (the eyes are made out of Ping-Pong balls and painted). So at least the brief cameo by the titular creature is mildly entertaining.