Man-Thing  (2005)R

CapeTentHalf a tent

This is not a superhero movie. It’s a monster movie. The kind of monster movie where every little creepy moment is amped up with overblown music to let you know that you’re supposed to be scared now. It’s set in the bayous of Louisiana, and tries to get a lot of mileage out of the local color. But that color is often rendered in neon hues, as they bathe the mangrove swamp with lurid green floodlights.

This film appears to be an attempt at a cash-in ripoff of Ang Lee’s Hulk, based on the similarity of the once-human title character being large and green. The influence of that film is noticeable. Unfortunately, it shows far stronger influences from a whole world of cheap shitty B movies. It doesn’t just use the clichés of monster movies and nature-strikes-back movies and scary-redneck movies, but slasher movies and ghost movies and even cowboy movies.

Three fourths of the film consists of nothing but an unseen presence in the swamp gradually picking people off, in a way that the implausibly oracular Native American characters explain as an attempt to drive out the Evilco oil drilling operation, but in practice just amounts to completely aimless violence against whoever happens to cross the monster’s path. By the sixth or eighth victim it all starts to seem like the plot is running in place on a treadmill, rather than going anywhere. From the first kill-a-random-victim-while-they’re-fucking-(and-showing-off-someone’s-Rubbermaid-tits) to the final solve-all-those-tough-ecological-problems-just-by-killing-the-bad-guy-(who-conveniently-confesses-to-murder-first), this is one damn clichéed-ass movie.

The one cool thing about it is the monster — the title character — and most of the time they hardly show it. They show a tiny glimpse of something that looks like a person, and then whoever is stumbling around in the mangrove swamp inevitably starts shooting at it without bothering to check who it is. Nor do they give the monster much sense of acting purposefully as something other than a completely random menace. In fact, they give it just enough of a hint of purposefulness that you can’t figure out whether it’s supposed to know what it’s doing or not. There’s no sense that the monster is really any sort of heroic avenger, or protector of Japan, or anything like that (as you would generally expect of a comic book character). It kills the good guys as easily as the bad guys. With the humans, you know instantly who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy (J. Morton Evil of Evilco has practically got a sign on him saying “monster bait, $1.49” from the first moment you see him) and there are no surprises. Only the monster does anything unexpected. Or rather, anything that makes you wonder what the fuck its agenda is, if any.

This film has a reputation as a stinker. I think it was originally supposed to come out in the fall of 2004, then it got postponed until spring of 2005, and then it was shunted off to the Sci-Fi Channel without ever being distributed to theaters. It is said that audiences at the first theatrical test screening walked out in the middle of the movie. Those who have seen it seem to be in universal agreement that the film has no favorable points of any kind. So, I was hoping for a truly bad movie. Unfortunately, despite the weak points mentioned above, it turns out that this doesn’t really suck any more than Swamp Thing does... the other film may have a far better script, but it’s so marred by poor execution that once again, the DC movie can’t beat the Marvel movie.

Because, however cheap and crappy an derivative most of the movie is, the final act kind of rocks. It’s only then that you see what the Man-Thing looks like, and it’s pretty cool — a mix of CGI and practical effects that, within the limited budget, combines the best of both. (Elsewhere, the practical effects are rather good, but be warned that they’re mostly used for mutilated corpses.) The final multi-way showdown is tense, scary, and satisfying, and keeps cop-outs to a minimum. Also, though overblown, the score by Roger Mason is pretty darn good. I certainly don’t want to oversell it, as much of the movie is tiresome, but I’m enough of a B monster fan that when the credits roll, I feel happy to have watched it.

Historical note: There were several instances in which the two leading superhero comix outfits, DC and Marvel, both came out with the same idea within a month or two of each other. Though officially the close timing of these coincidences has been used to absolve both companies of any charges of plagiarism, when it happens enough times you’ve gotta know that people in one company were leaking ideas to the other. Probably in both directions. Anyway, Man-Thing hit the stores a month earlier than DC’s very similar Swamp Thing, and so gets marginal right of precedence. But Swamp Thing had more immediate success and remains better known. Both are somewhat based on the old EC Comics monster known as Heap.