Yes, yes, and yes: clearly some of this is owed to my age, and I admitted as such above. Each of us no doubt will have a solid handful of films that – no matter how ill-conceived or poorly produced – will always mean something greater to us than does the sum of its parts. Perhaps you saw this title when you were particularly low, and it somehow lifted you up. Perhaps it was the first project you sat through with a significant other. Or perhaps it’s one of the oldest formative experiences you enjoyed on the silver screen, and – despite a lackluster script or maybe even some fundamentally goofy performances – you simply refuse to see the grit from the grindhouse. Whatever that core truth may be, these movies stay with you. You cherish them for what they are. And you really don’t give a damn what others say about it. Such is just the nature of finding inner peace before the glow of the movie projector.
Well, regular readers of this space know all-too-well that I have quite a few, but the one that generally befuddles most of my audiences is my unabashed love for 1982’s Superhero/Fantasy Swamp Thing. Written and directed by the late and great Wes Craven, it’s a mighty bit of screen schlock that’s filled with some moments of unbridled lunacy, mind-bogglingly bad practical effects, and high camp. Acting-wise? There’s only the underplayed or the vastly overplayed moments. As for the script? It’s an exceedingly simple affair – though it’s almost hyperbolically committed to the comic book sensibilities of the era – and might be a feature voted ‘Least Likely To Ever Be Inducted Into The National Film Registry.’ A friend of mine once told me it’s about as bad a film as can ever be made – much less has been made – and, yet, I cannot look away.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the film’s IMDB.com page citation:
“After a violent incident with a special chemical, a research scientist is turned into a swamp plant monster.”
Naturally, it’s perfectly common for storytelling to evolve over the years. Not every release is going to look and sound like Superman – The Movie (1978), one of cinema’s highwater marks despite its somewhat muddled ‘turn back time’ finale. Tim Burton certainly proved in 1989 that things could get darker and grimmer with his theatrical presentation of Batman. 2008’s Iron Man – what with its big name draw of Robert Downey Jr. in the titular role – ushered in, perhaps, the most modern era of superhero sensibilities; though the Marvel Movie Universe has kinda/sorta succumbed to a bit of a rough patch as of late, its directors and screenwriters are still painting in as many colors as is humanly possible with their bold and politically-correct tendencies.
No, back in the days of my distant youth, a little ‘something something’ called Swamp Thing was more the norm than it was the exception. Surprisingly, Superman never quite launched a trend – certainly not the caliber that George Lucas’ Star Wars had done with space fantasies in 1977 – and the only guess I can make is that maybe studios were hesitant to start heading down that alley when they were all so heavily invested in one potentially high-cost adventure already. Special effects were expensive, and – even worse – making audiences believe a man could fly week-to-week wouldn’t be cheap. Why risk it when they were already achieving respectable TV ratings with Wonder Woman (1975-1979), The Amazing Spider-Man (1977-1979), and The Incredible Hulk (1977-1982)? Those were reasonable hits, and none of those heroes flew (per se). In fact, it wouldn’t be until 1981 that a man in a cape would fly similarly in The Greatest American Hero (1981-1983), and I suspect this only happened because the price of effects work finally made a procedural a stronger prospect for network executives.
For the modest budget of somewhere between $2 and $3 million dollars, Swamp Thing delivered audiences probably what they expected – more of the same from the TV superhero line-up – which was namely little more than a big actor (Dick Durock) in a big rubber suit on the silver screen. What this obvious shortcoming meant to director Craven was that he’d have to stuff it ‘to the max’ with as much charm as humanly possible to cover the seams, and – though some might find the results mixed – I thought most of the cast were up to the task. The perfectly fetching Adrienne Barbeau made for an attractive lead, imbuing her role as government agent Alice Cable with enough spunk to keep eyes on her instead of some subpar production details. Ray Wise – albeit briefly – gave Dr. Alec Holland the kind of wide-eyed ‘gee shucks’ scientific optimism required to make viewers care about his survival, especially since Fate was about to throw the man a huge, huge, huge curveball. And Louis Jourdan definitely brought his A-game to the entire proceedings, elevating an otherwise lukewarm cabal of baddies with his turn as a suave, sophisticated, if not downright poetic villain this side of a James Bond film.
(Sadly, I’ve been unable to locate any box office receipts for the picture. I have read that it endured a staggered release schedule across the United States – a strategy that would’ve entirely killed any prospect of building strong word-of-mouth back in the day wherein lower budget fare needed that to survive. BoxOfficeMojo.com, in fact, shows absolutely zero statistics, a rarity in this day and age.)
As an origins picture, Swamp Thing is a fairly bare bones procedural.
Audiences are introduced to Holland and this world with the ultimate backwoods of science and Fantasy, but – as tended to happen in comic book films back then – there was little explanation for how it all worked. What we did come to know was that Holland and his sister Linda (Nannette Brown) were working on a formula that presumably might’ve solved the world’s food crisis. When a crack paramilitary assault team shows up to seize his work for their own nefarious ends (curiously never explained), Alec accidentally gets doused with his magical chemical, is set ablaze, and dives into the surrounding swamp waters to escape. When he emerges the next day, he’s now … Swamp Thing! The extent of his developing powers (super strength, a heightened sense of his surroundings, the ability to heal others, etc.) only show up when they’re needed. While I’ll concede that keeping the exposition light helped this sometimes campy fare’s pace from faltering, it still would’ve been nice had Craven incorporated a few throwaway lines to give Holland’s plight a bit more substance.
Such a dire predicament – a life of isolation while surrounded by our planet’s marshy manifestation of life itself – could’ve used a bit more narrative nuance from start-to-finish. It wouldn’t have hurt Craven’s campier tone, and it might’ve made for a more memorable theatrical launch to an otherwise overlooked comic book creation. It would get an inferior sequel almost a decade later – along with a pair of television shows also decades apart – so, thankfully, this wasn’t the last audiences would see of Swamp Thing. But methinks we’ve yet to see this seminal creature in peak form … and that’s the real shame to all of this.
Swamp Thing (1982) was produced by Swampfilms (as per IMDB.com), Benjamin Melniker, and Michael E. Uslan (as per the product packaging). DVD distribution (for this particular release) is being coordinated by the reliable folks at MVD Visual Entertainment Group. As for the technical specifications? Wow. Though I’m no trained video expert, this 4K restoration looks and sounds absolutely fabulous. Just absolutely fabulous. With a film this crazy, it oughta be a crime to look and sound this good.
Lastly, if you’re looking for special features? Other than supplying the unrated international cut (also remastered, thank you very much), I don’t think that there’s anything brand-spanking-new in here as these are all likely ported over from earlier releases. The disc boasts two commentary tracks – both are only viewable alongside the original theatrical cut – with one from writer/director Wes Craven and a second from Makeup Effects artist William Munns. There are also a handful of shorts – interviews and design work – along with photo galleries and the theatrical trailer. Purist should be extremely pleased. Also, the packaging includes a collectible mini-poster that’s definitely a nice touch.
I know, I know, and I know: sometimes, there’s no accounting for taste, which is why I admitted upfront to always having a fondness for Swamp Thing (1982). I’ve always thought that most of its imperfections stem from the fact that Craven and all involved were subconsciously apologizing to their audience for drawing upon something that came from the world of – gasp! – comic books. While embracing some of those sensibilities, I can’t help but think that they ignored (to a degree) that the creature is, perhaps, one of that industry’s most poetic manifestations. Though we see hints of that promise on the screen at times – especially in Wise’s turn as the scientist in his natural habitat and maybe once or twice in Durock’s slim speeches – the film truly needed a bit more hutzpah to rise above the camp and give this gentle green giant his time in the limelight.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at MVD Rewind Collection provided me with a complimentary 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray of Swamp Thing (1982) by request for the expressed purpose of completing this review. Their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.