Man-Thing (2005)


Starring a bunch of Australian actors doing the worst Southern accents you’ll ever hear

Directed by Brett Leonard

This may very well be the easiest review I’ve ever written because I can tell you exactly where this movie version of Marvel Comics’ Man-Thing went wrong. For one thing, this reinvention of the Man-Thing character is so ill conceived that you aren’t even sure if the monster is supposed to be emphasized with or feared, and to be perfectly honest, it has so little in common with the original comic book version other than its physical appearance – which has also been tinkered with – that if the movie wasn’t called Man-Thing and the monster didn’t bare a resemblance to the Marvel Comic character then they could just as easily have called the movie anything else and nobody would have been the wiser. Still, this movie could have used a lot less man and a lot more thing. The title monster is barely in his own movie and even when he does show up he doesn’t do all that much. On top of that, Brett Leonard’s direction completely falls flat with every attempt to generate a foreboding mood or a genuine scare. What we end up with here is an uninteresting movie with uninteresting characters involved in an uninteresting plot based around an uninteresting monster.

In the original Man-Thing comic, Ted Sallis was a scientist working in a lab out near the Florida Everglades. He was trying to recreate the super serum formula that created Captain America. When bad guys showed up to steal it, Sallis injected the still experimental serum into himself to ensure it wouldn’t fall into wrong hands and fled into the swamp. The serum combined with the mystical forces in the swamp where his flesh was eaten away and replaced with vegetative matter turning him into the hulking creature that would become known as Man-Thing. In addition to being virtually indestructible, it was also highly sensitive to emotions, and when provoked to anger, it would generate an acid-like substance that burned those whose fear it sensed. While the monster still had Ted Sallis’ soul and some basic cognitive reasoning, it was still unable to speak and intelligence wise was still considered to be more thing than man. That spark of humanity is what made the Man-Thing a sympathetic character.

Now contrast that origin with this new Man-Thing. Ted Sallis is now a Seminole Indian that we never see but everyone talks about. In order to secure some old Seminole territory in the swamp to drill for oil or something along those lines, the bad guy had him killed and buried under the rig. The Seminoles have an old legend about a guardian spirit in the swamp and, sure enough, Ted Sallis’ skeletal remains magically transform into the Man-Thing. The monster doesn’t seem to show any signs of humanity and pretty much kills indiscriminately as if it were Jason in a swamp. The tagline for the original comic was “whatever knows fear burns at the Man-Things’ touch”. The new tagline could be “whoever gets in Man-Things’ way will be impaled or ripped to pieces”. I don’t think he had the burning power anymore although in one inexplicable scene he seemed to infect a guy with the swamp itself. I’m still not sure what that was all about. Instead of his signature ability, this new Man-Thing has a whole bunch of mossy tendrils on its upper torso that constantly flail about like Doctor Octopus suffering from Parkinson’s disease. The monster’s agenda is now as murky as the swamp it lurks in because as I previously stated, it just kills everyone it comes across and not just the people responsible for his murder and for destroying his sacred habitat.

I can understand the origin change to a certain degree. Comparisons to Swamp Thing would be inevitable and referencing Captain America in a film not actually set within the confines of the Marvel Universe would be laughable. But just making him a swamp monster version of The Crow, albeit with no sense of justice or compassion, only makes this new Man-Thing a really one-dimensional monster. If this new Man-Thing sounds like the more intriguing version of the character to you then maybe you’ll enjoy this movie. Heck, if the movie had actually proved to be creepy or exciting then I still might have enjoyed it for what little there is.

You got a hunky new sheriff from up North that arrives in this backwater Florida town where there have been a string of disappearances and dead bodies. You got a pretty blonde whose primary reason for existing is to provide the hunky new sheriff with a love interest. You got a mystical Indian shaman that occasionally performs a little mumbo jumbo for the heck of it before finally explaining to the new hunky sheriff and his new pretty blonde girlfriend what is actually going on. You got a mysterious Yul Brenner look-a-like running around the swamp that also knows exactly what is going on and keeps trying to save the new sheriff’s life. You got an annoying photographer running around the swamp trying to get pictures of the monster people claim to have seen. You got a pair of father and son evil industrialist villains that are played way to over the top even by comic book movie standards. The dad alone struck me as Yosemite Sam crossbred with the Montana Militia. I halfway expected him to yell out, “Well, I’ll be hornswaggled!” at any given moment. Every so often the dry banter is interrupted by the Man-Thing popping up for a quickie kill. All of this is based around the swamp itself, which Brett Leonard films so that it appears to give off the same neon green glow as the code language in the Matrix films making it look too glossy and artificial for the kind of spooky atmosphere the movie is shooting for.

It’s obvious the story is going for a slow reveal style but Leonard does an ineffective job building any sort of tone other than dreary dullness. What little there is going for the movie is crammed almost entirely into the last 10 minutes. I kept waiting for the film to come to life but very little of anything happens until the last half hour. Man-Thing opens with a really nice prologue that did a great job setting up a mood that the director was unable to sustain and closes with the monster finally taking center stage. Those two highlights bookend the movie. Unfortunately, there’s an awful lot of time to fill in between. The fact that the first victims of the Man-Thing were a young couple in the midst of having sex pretty much told me right away that this movie wasn’t going to be bringing anything fresh to the table.

And a personal note to Brett Leonard: I have lived in the Deep South my entire life and the only place I’ve ever heard accents like the ones just about everybody in the movie speaks with are in movies like this and episodes of Jerry Springer, which is just as fictitious. Damn near every character in Man-Thing sounds like Scarlett O’Hara to the next power. By filming in Australia and casting almost exclusively Australian actors, they all try to cover up their Aussie accents with preposterously overwrought Southern accents, and they are clearly so self conscious about trying to mask their natural accents that it affects their performances, and not in a good way. At times it seemed less about acting and more about keeping up the facade. Other than the Native American characters, the only one that didn’t seem to be trying to overdo a Southern drawl was the actor playing the sheriff, and that’s only because his character was supposed to be a Yankee. He still had to hide his Aussie accent and didn’t always succeed as it came shining through in many a scene. When telling a co-worker about the movie the following day I described his character as a “Yaunkie”.

Maybe in more capable hands than Brett Leonard’s this could have been a creepy, albeit cheesy monster movie, but instead it just ends up falling flat. Man-Thing desperately wants to be a horrific mood piece ala Pumpkinhead but only succeeds in playing out like a typical Sci-Fi Channel original movie with somewhat better production values. I can see why Lions Gate kept this one on the shelf for so long before deciding they might as well unload it on the Sci-Fi Channel. It’s a pity because I’ve always been a sucker for swamp monster movies and they come along so rarely these days.

1 1/2 out of 5

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