A series of freak murders around Bayswater Swamp prompt the arrival of new sheriff, Kyle Williams (Matthew Le Nevez) who discovers victims have plant-life sprouting out of their innards. Father and son property developers, Frederick (Jack Thompson) and Jake Schist (Patrick Thompson) cast suspicion on local miscreant Rene La Rogue (Steve Bastoni), but Kyle learns their oil refinery is trashing the environment, prompting protests led by schoolteacher Teri Richards (Rachael Taylor). More murders follow and Native American mystic Pete Horn (Rawiri Paratene) warns “something is out there”, a creature identified by kooky monster researcher Mike Ploog (Robert Mammone) as the Man-Thing, shambling guardian of the swamplands.
Marvel Comics’ moss-encrusted Snuffalupagous look-alike was co-created by Stan Lee, Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway, but it was idiosyncratic comics scribe Steve Gerber (creator of Howard the Duck) who wrote most of the stories and inspired this screen adaptation. An interesting change of pace from Marvel’s usual superhero fare, the film starts promisingly - as a horny teenager falls afoul of the monster and splatters blood onto his shrieking girlfriend (sexy Imogen Bailey generously provides topless nudity and performs the umpteenth cover version of “Tainted Love” on the soundtrack) - but gradually sinks into its own bilge water.
A key aspect of the original comic book was “whatever knows fear burns at the Man-Thing’s touch.” Meaning those brave enough to look beyond its hideous visage discover a rather tragic and noble beast. Gerber’s Man-Thing eventually became a rather lovable anti-hero, sharing adventures on other worlds alongside Howard and other supporting characters, as protector of “the Nexus of All Realities”. While the nexus is mentioned in passing, this adaptation posits Man-Thing as a killing machine, albeit an environmental avenger, which would be a lot more interesting if Hans Rodionoff’s screenplay explored the racial tensions and anti-pollution angle with any real conviction. Instead, much of the screen-time is occupied by minor characters trudging around the swamp before they’re killed, including greasy gator hunters the Thibadeaux brothers (John Batchelor and Ian Bliss), and the annoyingly Pete Horn, who guzzles sugar and willingly offers himself to the monster for no discernible reason.
The monster is mostly confined to the sidelines, but is an impressive CG creation. Brett Leonard, director of The Lawnmower Man (1992), makes the swamp a suitably murky, green inferno, evocative and eerie, but overdoes the shock cuts and frazzled camerawork. This robs the monster attacks of any real impact, although the climax memorably features one character being pumped full of pollution. Leonard also plays coroner Val Mayerick, adding to a plethora of in-jokes that include characters named after Steve Gerber and artist Mike Ploog. The film was originally intended for the straight to video market, which might be why it looked so threadbare on the big screen.