THE PLOTThere's a new sheriff in town. No, really. And when we meet him on his first day at the job, he's confronting a group of eco-radicals chained to some construction equipment. It appears the local oil baron, Mr. Schist, is dredging up the sacred Indian swampland and tensions are rising. By the time Sheriff Kyle reports for duty people are already starting to go missing, including the previous sheriff he's come to replace. Who's behind these mysterious disappearances? Is it oil tycoon F. A. Schist, a man so evil he actually MWAH-HA-HAs after explaining his plans to his son? Or is it eco-terrorist Rene, a man who thinks an ankle-length black leather duster makes a logical choice for wading in swamps? Could it be those wacky Thibadeaux brothers, because everybody knows where there's a swamp, there's crazy in-bred homicidal cajuns. Or maybe it's just the monster we see kill a man in the very first scene of the film.
THE POINTAt the time I'm writing this, movies based on comic books are big business. Both Ghost Rider and 300 have just spent weeks at #1, TMNT is opening there, and the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man sequels will likely follow suit. In terms of box office draw, comics (or "graphic novels" if it makes you feel smarter) are currently the top dog. But don't despair, B-fans, there's still plenty of room for them at the bottom too.
Case in point; 2005's direct to DVD Man-Thing. Pity the poor makers of Man-Thing. They had to know they were in trouble when, in a year which saw the near universally panned comic adaptation Elektra receive a wide theatrical release, Man-Thing barely managed a premier on the Sci-Fi Channel. If you're familiar with the Sci-Fi Channel, you know it takes a lot of heat from genre fans for churning out low budget quickies like Octopus and Swarmed. But are these films really that much different from the fodder which used to fill out the second half of drive-in double bills; films like Tentacles and The Deadly Bees? Lord knows I've watched both of those, so why not give Man-Thing a try.
If you approach this movie as a Saturday matinée time killer, there is stuff to like about Man-Thing. The direction is competent and workmanlike, the acting ranges from "really trying" to "hamming it up nicely", and the swamp set looks pretty good. But if you're looking for that elusive buried treasure of a film, it's probably best to go somewhere else. The characters never rise above stereotypes, the plot holes are cave sized, and the CGI is marginal at best. The most crippling blow to Man-Thing, however, is a script so formulaic that the average viewer can predict every upcoming scene with 100% accuracy, up to and including the big climatic show down. As B-movie creature features go, Man-Thing is pretty much by the book.
And that's where this movie loses me, because whatever book the filmmakers were using, it sure as shootin' wasn't Man-Thing! You see, I was already a bonafide comic book nut by the time I entered elementary school, and along with the usual books featuring guys in spandex, I was trying out some of the odder titles on the rack. And boy was Man-Thing odd. As scripted by Steve Gerber, Man-Thing was part-horror, part-satire, and all-weird. Stories ranged from broad pop culture parodies of stuff like Star Wars to bizarre metaphysical ruminations on the nature of reality. Needless to say, none of the comic's intellectual subtext made it anywhere near this movie. Even more irritating is the characterization of the Man-Thing itself. The monster presented in the comics was fairly benign until provoked, but the creature in the movie is nothing short of a rampaging indiscriminate killer. He's Jason Voorhies covered in moss and twigs. In the end, nothing is left of the original source material other than a few names, an environmentalist storyline lifted from a single issue, and the idea of a monster in the swamp. Everything else is a complete misrepresentation of the book I enjoyed in my youth.
Poor Man-Thing. All I can say is... welcome to the club. Us religious types are used to being misrepresented; sometimes by non-believers, sometimes by other religions, and almost always by the nation's media outlets. As frustrating as it is when others get things wrong, though, it's even more so when the misinformation comes from inside our own church walls. Sadly, some people just don't know much about their own religion. And lest anyone think I'm just talking about Christianity, just take a look at the following story.
In 2002, Russell John Smith, ordained Satanist and founder of the Order of Perdition, was tracked down and arrested for molesting his own daughter. In his defense, he claimed the abuse was a legitimate part of his religious observance, no different than the black candles and goat’s head he kept in his basement. Since molestation was a part of his "theology", he shouldn't be prosecuted for simply exercising his lawful freedom of religious expression. (Oh, did I mention Smith was also a corrections officer in Virginia?) Now, despite what every marginally talented stand-up on Comedy Central would have you believe, no organized religion likes for these kinds of things to happen. It even upsets the Satanists. After the capture of Russell John Smith, the activist group Darkness Against Child Abuse (I did not make that up. Google them.) quickly denounced Smith and issued statements declaring that his actions had nothing to do with the true teachings or practices of the Church of Satan. If Smith had bothered to read his own group's charter, he would have known that "Do not harm little children." is number 9 on their list of the 11 satanic rules of the Earth. (Seriously, I’m not making this up.) Intentionally or not, he was misrepresenting his own church's "theology", and it was making the rest of the Satanists look bad. Or worse. Or bad "bad" instead of good "bad". I don't know, whatever, but you get the point.
Whenever I'm asked why the Catholic Church pushes religious education so much, these kinds of things are one of the reasons I give. Obviously, religious education alone isn't going to stop all of the misrepresentation out there, especially if it's being done on purpose, but it has to help. Cripes, even the Satanists figured that out. The Catechism states that "the movement of return to God, called conversion and repentance, entails sorrow for and abhorrence of sins committed, and the firm purpose of sinning no more in the future." No classes required. But the Catechism does go on to say that religious education "aims at bringing their conversion and faith to maturity, in response to the divine initiative and in union with an ecclesial community." In short, if you're a member of an organized religion, you have a responsibility to educate yourself on the teachings, both for your own spiritual growth and the good image of your fellow members.
And if you're a screenwriter working on an adaptation of another one of my childhood memories, would it kill you to do more with the source material than just flip through the pictures?
THE STINGERAccording to figures in the 2006 Official Catholic Directory there were approximately 154,000 adult converts, 729,000 high school students, and nearly 3.5 million elementary students enrolled in parish religious education programs. To some, that number may seem excessive, but I like to think of it as nothing more than a good start.