What I'm Watching: Swamphead
Welcome back, Triskelions. Today's review is yet another of the "Had forever, not reviewed yet" variety, and it's also another 80s throwback, Swamphead.
After a swimmer comes across an old dagger at the bottom of a lake, it calls forth the ancient entity known as Swamphead to wreak havoc in the 80s, with blood and gore, and baffling feats of strength that leave the locals confused and frightened.
"If this is just some stupid burglar, then he's a pretty smart one!"
The cops and medical examiners dutifully investigate, but the movie portrays pretty much every figure of authority as ineffectual goofballs that are only there for comic relief. This leaves much of our heroing to be done by the local kids who hear rumours of the murders and check things out, as kids are wont to do when they hear about dead bodies in the neighbourhood. That's pretty much straight out of the 80s horror playbook, except "Swamphead" makes the cops REALLY ineffectual, to the point of caricature.
And much like classic 80s horror, the kids go camping, and the horror head follows them, since one of the kids took the evil dagger that summons the head.
"No way man, I don't care if there is a crazyman's head out there, we're staying!"
Back to the 80s checklist, we have the requisite party in the middle of nowhere with a local band, and dancing robot! But none of them are safe when Swamphead floats into the party and kills everyone, including the robot. Look, I love this 80s homaging, but where the hell did the 80s dancing robot trope come from? Outside of the Rocky movie and Short Circuits, as someone who grew up in the 80s, this was Actually Not a Thing, but everyone seems to think it is. ...And to be honest, I am okay with this.
Now, while all this sounds like good, silly, 80s throwback fun, things become problematic once they get into Swamphead's origins. He was once a mighty warrior who's family was brutally murdered for no good reason by 'savage Indians' whom the guy then goes on to hunt down and kill. But he gets killed first, and beheaded, and cursed to live on. The 'savage Indians' trope isn't quite so in your face here, and could've been way worse, but still starts down a road of offensiveness the movie gleefully skips down, because making fun of people is cool.
I really could've done without the rampant homophobia and constant making fun of the mentally challenged that the movie relies on for a lot of its humour and dialogue. Now, there's some defense the movie can weakly put up saying, well, the people are horrible people being dicks, and people were worse in the 80s but...like I said, the defense is pretty weak. Sure, people were more likely in the 80s to use slurs as common language to make fun of people but here's the thing. This isn't the 80s. It's 30 years later. We KNOW better. You can still get your raging assholes without resorting to such things. Or at least toning it WAY WAY back.
And the actor playing the mentally challenged character in the movie *is* actually handicapped, and the film makers try and use that as an excuse by basically saying, "He's actually like that! That makes it okay!" And...no. No it does not. They treat him as a joke, even if it is just filming the guy doing what he does. Showing things like him running around in soiled underwear while a dog licks his ass (I am not exaggerating one bit here) just because That Is What Happened, does not make it right, or not exploitative.
I could've let the Native American offensiveness slide, since curses like that are a genuine horror trope, albeit a bad one, from the 80s and such. But they pile on with the language and portrayal of the disabled, and it just becomes too much.
Recently I reviewed Lost After Dark, another 80s throwback, and I had fears of the movie looking terrible because it was done by friends of friends, and you always have that suspicion when people you know do things and people hype them up, it's just folks making a movie in their backyard...well, why do I bring this up? Because Swamphead has EXACTLY the look I feared Lost would have, in spades. It looks rushed, cheaply made, and the effects are basically a fake head people throw around and puppet on a stick.
Now, don't get me wrong, that's not a criticism. I love that shit. Watching the hilariously, deliberately terrible effects is a blast. You know this movie is no budget going in, and that is just fine for this sort of thing. It's just an interesting contrast that my fears of a hyped movie by friends was going to look cheap, when it absolutely blew the production values of THIS movie out of the water.
Also, both movies seem to hate lightning, but I digress...
The head of Swamphead is *great*. It's cheesy as all hell, and only just a step above the raccoon puppets of Bloodmarsh Krackoon. When the movie goes into full horror massacre mode, and revels in its low budget cheesiness, the movie is AMAZING, and I love it. Now, if it could just stop being so damned *offensive*, it would be something special.
"Damn you, Swampheaaaaaaad!"
The movie really sings in its final battle, because it ditches all the problematic shit aside, and just focuses on our main characters being attacked. The movie is too focused on actually killing people in increasingly over the top ways *with a severed head* to bother with the other stuff anymore. It's got the requisite gag of grabbing the head in a sheet, and having the actor swing it around like the head is yanking him around, and that's perfect. And the simple effect of just flinging the prop head at things is a hoot.
When the movie is focusing on the horror and the head, it is amazingly fun low budget horror trash, in the absolute best ways possible. It really needed more of that, and fortunately MOST of the movie is the good stuff, but it unfortunately piles on the problematic elements to kill time and give us plenty of assholes to kill off during the first half of the movie, which is unfortunate because that will turn away a lot of people before the great stuff comes up. And I quite frankly would not blame anyone turning this off the instant they see them making fun of the mentally challenged. I am honestly not sure if the good outweighs the bad, and it probably comes out to be fairly even, which is a shame.
On top of all that, the movie leaves you supremely frustrated. Once everyone is dead, and it's just down to our one last lead character and Swamphead, we are at least given a confrontation between them, that's pretty epic and awesome. EXCEPT, at one point the kid tosses Swamphead away into the nearby swamp, and we see the marsh bubbling, and a growl and okay, this is gonna be the Last Big Fight and...CREDITS.
WTF? That's not an ending. You literally could not give us just *thirty seconds more*, and either kill Swamphead, or kill the kid? Just that little, tiny bit, to actually end the movie? The teensiest tiniest moments, just even five seconds would do the trick. Instead you just stop dead in the middle of the fight?? The movie literally could have stopped anywhere during the fight, with that logic. Any moment. Any point of conflict. What kind of ending is that?! I'll tell you what kind of ending, IT ISN'T AN ENDING. It's like the budget ran out all of a sudden or they ran out of film and couldn't do a single frame more of filming. I would've even accepted just a final scream of audio confrontation!
They DO briefly cut to a moment midcredits where Marty says yeah, he killed Swamphead! So...what happened? DID the money literally run out, and they couldn't finish the damned fight? Ugh. Such a horrible way to end a movie I was already struggling to find any goodwill to try and get people to see the stuff that IS good here.
And there is good! But, well, you know. This is such a hard movie to recommend, since it does have genuinely cool stuff, for a cheesy low budgeter. When it's good, I really enjoyed it. But then they have those very large moments of being truly offensive. IF you can get past those things, there's fun to be had here, and quite a bit of it. But that is one gigantic If. Overall it has that low budget throwback charm, but the movie constantly shoots itself in the foot with poor choices.
So yeah, if you want to see Swamphead, I ain't gonna stop you, and I'll even say you're likely to find some fun cheese in there, knowing this is low budget trash cinema in all the best ways. But be forewarned what else you will find buried in the muck...
Sigh. SO close...