Do you find monster movies that revolve around damsels, décolletage, and men in phony rubber suits pathetic or endearing? If the latter, you may well find room in your heart for Swamp Thing, an old-fashioned creature feature that already seemed anachronous when it hoisted itself up out of the mud of early-1980s genre cinema. As movies like Alien, Altered States, and Scanners put a grim, often grotesque spin on ideas about biological transformation, Wes Craven–surely one of the grimmest of horror directors in the 1970s–embarked on a PG-rated fairy tale about a gentle scientist whose own experimental chemicals turn him into a super-powered hulk made entirely of plant matter. As Craven’s contemporaries busied themselves with tales of human bodies rent asunder by sex, drugs, and the military-industrial complex, the director of Last House on the Left was making a story of tender love in the wilds of South Carolina, where a wound to the breast can be healed by a clump of swamp moss and a beast’s severed limb can regenerate through the judicious application of sunlight.
It’s not completely clear why it was Swamp Thing, out of all the potential second-tier comic-book characters, that made the transition to the big screen in 1982. The comic hadn’t been published in years. Producers Benjamin Melniker and Michael E. Uslan pulled the project together; Melniker was a veteran of MGM’s legal department looking to get into production, and Uslan was a younger lawyer with a thing for comic books–he paid his way through law school by selling off half his (presumably largely Golden Age) comic-book collection–who somehow managed to secure the rights to both Swamp Thing and Batman for his production partnership with Melniker. (The dynamic duo gets a flat $300,000, plus contingent bonus bucks, every time Warner Bros. puts out a Batman movie, according to court documents.) Uslan had never produced anything before, but he had good taste in comics–the original 1970s Swamp Thing, originally conceived by Len Wein, was vividly realized in Bernie Wrightson’s iconic, goth-inflected imagery.
Craven says he was drawn to the story by its beauty-and-the-beast element, and his Swamp Thing movie tears through its obligatory origin story with aplomb before shifting immediately into damsel-in-distress mode. Dr. Alec Holland (Ray Wise) is hounded by a posse of villains, led by a ruthless thug named Ferret (Last House on the Left‘s own David Hess), aiming to hijack his scientific experiments for the nefarious purposes of their evil boss, Arcane (Louis Jourdan). Once a badly-burned Holland is left for dead in the swamp, visiting government agent Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau) is the last loose end Ferret and friends need to tie up. But Holland, quickly reborn with superhuman strength as the Swamp Thing (played mainly by Dick Durock, though Wise apparently appears in make-up for select close-ups), is set on protecting her.
Swamp Thing works as well as it does because it’s seen mostly through Cable’s eyes, and Barbeau comes across as smart and tough. She’s unembarrassed by the perfunctory set-up for the love story, in which Holland comes on to her with a handful of swamp orchids and a monologue about the magnificence of the human body that climaxes with his description of the sex act as “magical, hot;” and she’s unbowed by Ferret’s subsequent molestation, which she answers with a hard knee to the groin. It’s a little annoying that the back two-thirds of the film is driven by a cycle in which Cable is captured, then escapes with Swamp Thing’s help, then is captured again, etc. Breaking up the ensuing tedium are the funny one-liners delivered by a kid with enormous glasses (Reggie Batts, a Carolina local racking up his one and only credit), as well as a quick semi-nude scene in which Barbeau sideboob is briefly visible as the camera pans over to a wistful Swamp Thing, ruminating on the humanity he has lost.
The film is undone mainly by its cheapness. By all accounts, Craven ran into money trouble early on, which first reduced the number of takes he could shoot and eventually required that entire scenes be scrapped. Certainly the outdoor action isn’t pulled off with any sort of aplomb, nor does it help that the picture’s special-effects work was an early casualty of the evaporating budget. Swamp Thing’s branches-and-roots get-up might look fine in the dark, but he spends a lot of time on screen in the daylight and, despite a general haziness to the cinematography, the camera is unforgiving. If you can suspend your disbelief when it comes to such matters, the final boss battle is pretty cool. Swampy takes on a sword-wielding were-creature with a shock of crazy red hair–also clearly a guy in a suit, but by then you’d better have made your peace with that. The fight choreography is not bad, and Barbeau is looking good in a newly-acquired sacrificial-maiden get-up, so Craven gets to coast here on the goodwill generated by decades of goony but lovable movies featuring monster rallies and jungle sacrifices.
I also like the moments of weirdness sprinkled throughout, such as the truly bizarre scene in which Arcane’s henchman Bruno (the late Nicholas Worth), a big man in a white turtleneck, is transformed into a little pig-faced guy who jumps up onto a dinner table, lays his hands upon the roast chicken, and stares sadly into space, or the one where a jailer in Arcane’s underground dungeon suddenly quotes Werner Herzog. And there is a low-key ferocity to the way Craven stages those scenes in which the stoic, contemplative Swamp Thing lashes out at his enemies. He appears, unexpectedly, from just outside frame, inspiring sudden terror and chaos among the villains. Come to think of it, Craven’s take on Swamp Thing is not much different in mood from Christopher Nolan’s approach to Batman. But where you get the sense that Nolan spends his days wrapped up in imagining bad-ass shenanigans for his characters, it feels like Craven is crafting a story to be told to children. That’s not a slam. This is a movie that takes place in a fundamentally moral universe, cheering the essential humanity of its putative monster while lamenting the snide selfishness of evil men and celebrating the overarching power of love. That it’s desperately slipshod somehow robs it of none of its considerable B-grade charm.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Scream Factory’s Swamp Thing Blu-ray is a welcome enough HiDef upgrade, although some viewers will find it lacking in definition. The 1.85:1 1080p transfer is soft overall, to a degree that varies from shot to shot, and is laden with grain. Scream Factory clearly tweaked the compression to account for this (watch as the bitrate spikes in wide exterior shots full of muddy grain, rather than during the fastest action), and while the image holds up reasonably well on a properly-calibrated screen, it starts to dissolve into blocky mush if the brightness is overcranked. Most eye-catching are the rich colours, especially in moody exteriors that hum with the thick greens of vegetation, sliced through with the grey-brown of tree bark. Flesh tones are perhaps pushed a tad into the red. Some dust and dirt artifacts are apparent in the image–mostly “minus density,” meaning contaminants on negative stock that show as white specks on positive prints–but the image is mostly very clean. It’s hard to say what source material parent company Shout! Factory was working with (whether it’s their own scan or something handed to them by MGM), but I do wonder if the colour saturation wasn’t driven a bit hard to compensate for a perceived drabness or noisiness in the image. Hard to deny it looks pretty nice. As far as fidelity to the original appearance of the film, well, 31 have passed years since I saw Swamp Thing in 35mm, so it’s not exactly fresh in mind–yet the opening credits of the BD did give me a nostalgia rush the DVD never offered up.
Audio is no-frills 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio (at 24-bit/48kHz) that my receiver decoded as mono in Pro-Logic mode, sending the early-1980s soundmix (including a welcome Wilhelm scream) straight to my centre channel. The audio has a very low noise floor overall, and I detected no distortion in the dialogue, music, or effects. I heard only one minor hiccup, which comes at an edit point where footage has been excised from this version of Swamp Thing (see below) and the audio seems to jump a little. In all, I strongly doubt the film has ever sounded better.
This transfer represents the U.S. theatrical release of Swamp Thing, which would not warrant comment had MGM not inadvertently shipped the international version to U.S. DVD retailers back in 2000. Said version, unrated by the MPAA, featured just a couple of extra minutes of footage, including a substantially longer and more revealing cut of Barbeau’s topless bathing scene. All was right with the world until 2002, when a Dallas woman screened it for her 9-year-old and made a fuss that ensured that disc, which still bore a PG rating, was recalled by MGM. The DVD was reissued three years later with the offending footage excised, and it’s this shorter cut that Scream Factory presents here. You might expect the footage to be in-demand as a deleted scene, but no dice: according to horror enthusiast Sean Clark, speaking on the commentary track he shares with Craven, Barbeau (or at least her lawyers) would not allow the extra footage to be released domestically.
In his yakker with Clark, Craven sounds embarrassed by the whole issue, explaining that the producers insisted on Barbeau doing the nude scene for the European market–the same logic that demanded Louis Jourdan be cast as the heavy. He remembers that it was “awkward” to ask Barbeau to do it, and suggests that he would refuse to shoot such a scene today, calling it “gratuitous breastness.” (He also mentions that the Weinsteins tried to get him to rewrite the opening scene of Scream to put Drew Barrymore in a shower.) I think he’s wrong about that. If you give Swamp Thing any credit at all for seriousness of intent, the scene is no more gratuitous than the nudity in, for instance, Walkabout, another story of a woman learning about and becoming comfortable in a profoundly alien environment.
The rest of Craven’s commentary is interesting mainly for how his mood deflates. He starts off describing the physical difficulty of the shoot, which was plagued by black caterpillars in the trees overhead that would drop into crew members’ clothes and sting them, in addition to the continuous presence of alligators underfoot. By the halfway mark, he’s openly criticizing his own work. “This is pretty bad, if I do say so myself,” he declares at one point, joking, “That’s probably why I didn’t get Die Hard.” When Little Bruno appears on the scene, both Clark and Craven are laughing sardonically at what’s on screen. (Clark’s question about that make-up effect is met with little more than a long sigh.) Honestly, it’s kind of uncomfortable. Near the end of the track, when Clark asks Craven to describe how he felt after finishing the film, the director volunteers this: “I felt like I’d had my chance and kinda blown it and would probably never work again.”
Given that the costumes and make-up effects come in for frequent criticism (“I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings on this,” Craven says, diplomatically), it’s nice of Scream Factory to give make-up artist Bill Munns an entire commentary to tell his side of the story. Unfortunately, there’s not a moment here that could be described as scene-specific–it plays like Munns isn’t actually watching the film, and maybe he’s not. Anyway, he alternates between defending his work (arguing, correctly, that movies like The Howling and An American Werewolf in London had suddenly raised the bar for the genre so high that even the best examples of old-school rubber-suit work were going to look dated) and bemoaning the forces arrayed against him (budgetary shortfalls, shrinking schedules, and his own failure to anticipate the acidity of the swamp water that would start disintegrating the suits from the first day of shooting). He compares his roughly $75,000 budget for the film to what he says was $2.5 million that Rob Bottin typically got to burn through. He has kind words for Craven, though, who he says performed better under intense pressure than other directors he’s known.
Barbeau herself goes farther, describing a “stressful, difficult” shoot full of 14-hour days, walkout threats by the crew, and widespread cocaine use. “I think, actually, we had a couple of crew members who, uh, you know, went to jail, if I remember correctly,” she says in “Tales from the Swamp with Adrienne Barbeau”, a 17-minute interview featurette that goes into more detail on the project’s budget woes. (All of the video-based supplements are in native or upres’d HD.) Craven, she says, was “gentle,” “erudite,” and “lovely.” Barbeau does address the question of her nudity directly but incompletely, first venturing, “I seem to think that my original contract did not allow for any nudity,” and then declaring, “It wasn’t a big deal for me–obviously, because I don’t remember too much about it.” The unseen interviewer (editing and production is credited to Shout! Factory go-to guy Michael Felsher) either lacked the stones to ask her on-camera if she, specifically, had blocked MGM’s use of the scenes in the U.S. after the DVD release or sussed out that, despite her cheerful demeanour, she harboured bad memories of the production that didn’t need to be stirred up. “I hated the way I looked, I hated the wardrobe, I hated the make-up, I hated my hair,” she says at one point. Then, a few minutes later: “It’s gonna be on my tombstone: ‘She was in Swamp Thing.’ I’m overjoyed for Wes, and I’m overjoyed for myself, but when I first saw it, whoa, I was not a happy camper.”
A 15-minute segment, “Hey, Jude! with Reggie Batts,” catches up with the kid with the enormous glasses, all grown up. It’s a melancholy bit of business, especially since Batts claims he was “a theatrical person” during his childhood, and Swamp Thing represents his first and only time in the spotlight. “As far as having an interest in acting, I got away from all of that for a while,” he says. “Life just kind of came at me.” And “That Swamp Thing: A Look Back with Len Wein” spends 13 minutes in the company of the freelance comic-book writer who created Swamp Thing with artist Bernie Wrightson back in 1971. He talks about developing a never-produced Swamp Thing reboot with Joel Silver a few years back and name-checks Guillermo del Toro before blaming the aborted projects on rights issues. But he still holds out hope that old Swampy might make it back to the theatres. “When you get to watch him act against Superman or Batman, especially,” he says, sending a bat-signal to Zack Snyder and anybody else at Warner Bros. who might be listening, “he’s a much more fun character because he affects that world in ways no other character can.”
What else is jammed on board this South Carolina airboat? A tongue-in-cheek theatrical trailer is in surprisingly good shape. A still-frame gallery runs slightly longer than eight minutes and reproduces images in wildly varying levels of quality. The photos appear to have been shuffled like a canasta deck and then assembled in completely random order–some flipped horizontally, others with badly-faded colour… While I love Shout! Factory’s work in general, sometimes their extras extol the value of quantity over quality. A few of the fuzzier production stills showing Swamp Thing more strongly suggest what passes for photographic evidence of Bigfoot.* Much better is a three-minute gallery of mostly fantastic “behind-the-scenes photos” taken by one Geoffrey Rayle (according to the IMDb, he was an uncredited special-effects assistant on the production).
And Munns contributes his own gallery of SFX-centric stills, including one full-body shot of a prototype Swamp Thing suit that gives us our only look at the man-root Munns affixed to it temporarily after Craven ventured that perhaps Swampy should be…anatomically correct. Craven was subsequently reminded that his contract required a PG rating, and the root was put to rest. As Munns phrases it in his commentary, “If there’s ever any Son of Swamp Thing, he’ll have to be adopted.”
*Fun fact: Bill Munns, who retired from Hollywood to become a specialist in animatronics, taxidermy, and museum quality wildlife sculptures, later threw himself into Bigfoot research, engaging in minute analysis of the famous “Patterson-Gimlin Film” allegedly depicting Sasquatch in the wild. His conclusion? It’s real. Well, who can begrudge a man his dreams?