FEBRUARY 13, 2012
I try not to get too excited about Maneater films, because even at their best they're just "decent Syfy movies", but I did have a smidgen of hope for Swamp Devil, because not only did it star Bruce Dern, but it was written by Gary Dauberman, who was an uncredited writer on Final Destination 5, adding many of the things that made the movie so good (including the ending, from what I understand). Luckily, my optimism wasn't unfounded; while hardly the sort of movie I'd run out and buy so I could watch it forever and ever, it's one of the more enjoyable Maneater films and even brushes with "genuinely good horror movie" territory every now and then.
It's amusing to me, many of the Maneater films I've really liked deal with non real world monsters. The series' name seems to suggest every day animals: tigers, wolves, sharks, etc, but my favorites are this, Sea Beast (a Predator-esque water monster), and High Plains Invaders (aliens). Maybe they should stick with stuff like that, stay away from wasps or whatever (that is, if the series is still going; seems like it's been a while since I've seen any newer titles).
Anyway, what makes this one work is an emphasis on characters (there's only like 10 people in the movie) and an actual motive for the monster. Usually these things are unleashed and just kill whoever they come across; not that there's anything wrong with that, but they all start to blur together after awhile. However, I'll never forget that Swamp Devil involved a giant tree monster (think an Ent from LOTR crossed with a skeletal demon) who is actually the reincarnation of a guy who was executed by five locals back in the day. Bonus: the guy was a murderer, so it's not a "wronged man seeks justice" thing; our victims don't exactly deserve their punishment like in Dark Night Of The Scarecrow or whatever, which gives it some added suspense. A big issue for me in a lot of these movies is I find myself rooting for the monster since the "victims" are all scumbags, so I like that this guy is more like Freddy, seeking revenge for the death that he actually deserved.
And Bruce Dern! He's one of the five guys that Swamp Devil is after, and the only one with an Oscar nomination, so you know he'll last a while and possibly even survive. The early parts of the movie deal with the idea that he is actually the one responsible for the murders, which I sort of wish they had played with a bit longer. My guess is that they knew the movie would end up on Syfy and thus couldn't be too vague without losing the audience, so the "mystery" over whether he is responsible or if it is actually a Swamp Devil doesn't have any chance to work - we see the thing in the first 20 minutes.
Hell even the CGI isn't as bad as I've come to expect. Since he's just a giant tree with super extendable limbs, he's kind of "natural" looking, as opposed to the usual spider-crab monstrosities that pass for monsters in modern horror movies. And he's often around trees, so the underwhelming compositing actually works in the movie's favor - he's not supposed to be blending into the scenery all that much, so he sticks out but has the same stuff behind him, which keeps it from looking too silly (relatively speaking I mean; he's still a giant walking tree). Plus the attacks are cool - impaling with branches and stomping are his MO, and it never got repetitive to me.
The heroine is played by Cindy Sampson, who I'd love to believe everyone recognized from Supernatural, but alas the ratings suggest otherwise (first six seasons are on Netflix Instant now! Catch up!). I like her; she's got a very natural presence and yet here she is fighting a tree monster, before heading off to deal with her boyfriend's penchant for attracting all sorts of ghouls and ghosts. Someone get her in a slasher movie or something! And she has good chemistry with Nicolas Wright, a childhood friend who still harbors a crush on her. Like the "Is it Swamp Devil or Bruce Dern?" subplot, there's a mystery about his character that is revealed almost as quickly as it was introduced, but ultimately it just keeps the action going for the 3rd act, in which our survivors try to escape Swamp Devil (he can't pass the county line) and the body count rises. Apparently Dern broke his leg shooting these scenes - gotta love that an Oscar nominee in his 70s is still doing his own stunts. I've had the pleasure of listening to him at a New Beverly Q&A - he's such a great character with tons of stories.
It just goes to show how much the slightest effort in a script can make a difference in the final product. The cast, the budget, the locations... all of these things are in line with every other Maneater movie, so why does this one work while something like Hellhounds or Eye Of The Beast is borderline unwatchable? So many producers or directors are quick to blame the budget for their movie's lapses, but I can usually look past budgetary limitations if the script shows some effort. A decent story as the backbone for your bad FX and dull locations can still produce a decent movie; great FX and a globe-trotting production don't mean shit if the script was dogshit (see: Transformers sequels).
What say you?