Color, 1982, 92 mins. 51 secs.
Directed by Wes Craven
Starring Louis Jourdan, Adrienne Barbeau, Ray Wise, David Hess, Nanette Brown
88 Films (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL), Scream Factory (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), NSM (Blu-ray) (Germany RB HD), MGM (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Years before he tried and failed to court mainstream audiences with the "family"-oriented Music of the Heart, the late Wes Craven actually made a solid PG-rated film with Swamp Thing, an imperfect but endearing big screen vehicle for the D.C. Comics character. Of course, the film's reputation exploded among younger viewers thanks to the presence of Adrienne Barbeau (just after her string of collaborations with John Carpenter) who fulfilled more than a few fantasies by spending the whole film in a tight (often soggy) T-shirt or less. However, the film also paved the ground for quirky comic book-inspired films as an alternative to large-scale epics like Superman, led to a much campier sequel (The Return of Swamp Thing) and TV spin-offs, and pointed the way for other horror-centric heroes on the big screen like Blade and Spawn.
Brought to the edge of an uncharted swampland to work on a scientific research project, intrepid Alice Cable (Barbeau) is amazing by the accomplishments of Dr. Alec Holland (Twin Peaks' Wise). With the help of his sister, Linda (Brown), Holland has manipulated the cell structure of plants to make them more aggressive, with animal tendencies. Unfortunately his formula is the holy grail for the evil Dr. Arcane (Jourdan), who attacks Holland's lab with the help of his henchmen (including Last House on the Left's David Hess and Don't Answer the Phone's Nicholas Worth). In the ensuring scuffle, Holland winds up drenched in his own explosive creation and stumbles off, presumably dying, into the swamp waters. Cable escapes from the clutches of Arcane's men and tries to survive in the swamp, where she encounters a towering green man whose voice sounds a little bit familiar...
Definitely ambitious in its attempt to bring a notable graphic character to the screen not long after the flamboyant Flash Gordon, Swamp Thing doesn't quite pull off its attempts to replicate the appearance of a comic book without a huge budget. The rubber suits can be distracting, and the fancy wipes (a la Creepshow) come across as affected rather than creative. On the other hand, Barbeau is a joy to watch blasting bad guys, cracking one-liners, and even having a few tender interludes with our mutated hero. Jourdan also makes a wonderfully slimy bad guy (circa Octopussy), despite his silly appearance during the last reel. Friday the 13th composer Harry Manfredini even pops up for the score, which features his usual harsh violins and a pretty good love theme that complements the visual beauty of the swamplands (filmed in South Carolina).
One of the earliest titles released on videotape from Embassy, Swamp Thing became a cable TV and laserdisc staple for years despite its underwhelming theatrical performance. The fuzzy open matte transfer didn't do it any favors, though, and it was visibly improved in 2002 when it hit DVD from MGM, albeit in a non-anamorphic letterboxed transfer. The film's original U.S. theatrical run under a PG rating contained some of Barbeau's nude scene, but those prints were completely missing a later sequence in which Arcane's men are entertained by a group of strippers who display much more nudity and breast-fondling than the family friendly rating has ever allowed. The PG rating still stuck on the DVD box at first until MGM found out that it had accidentally issued the much racier European version, and that disc was quietly replaced with the PG-rated version which remains the only one that can be legally distributed in the U.S. due to contractual issues. That disc also includes an open matte transfer with comparable image quality, as well as the dull US theatrical trailer. The original pressing commanded very high sums of money online for years until the uncut version started trickling out again in Europe including Blu-ray and DVD editions in 2018 from German label NSM. In the interim an American Blu-ray turned up in 2013 from Scream Factory, who obviously had to use the PG version but stacked it with some notable extras including a typically articulate and intelligent audio commentary with Craven moderated by Horror's Hallowed Grounds' Sean Clark, a second commentary with makeup effects artist Bill Munn moderated by Michael Felsher focusing on bringing Swampy and cohorts to life on fairly limited means, and video interviews with Barbeau (16m56s), co-creator Len Wein (13m19s), and actor Reggie Batts (14m30s) who plays the scene-stealing Jude, plus the trailer and photo galleries.
In 2019, U.K. label 88 Films presented its own special edition of the film and the only one to date mounted around the uncut European version, a dual-format release first issued as a limited edition featuring a slipcase, a foldout poster, and a photobook with stills and lobby cards from the MGM vaults. Like the prior two releases it's culled from a scan supplied by MGM and looks quite pleasing (definitely fresher than it did in theaters), with the European release looking just a shade darker and slightly more saturated. (Frame grabs in the body of this review are from the 88 Films release.) Optional English SDH subtitles are also included for the usual DTS-HD MA English 2.0 track. In addition to the trailer, the disc includes two new featurettes: "Swamp Screen: Designing DC's Main Monster" (20m32s) with production designer Robb Wilson King and "From Krug to Comics: How the Mainstream Shaped a Radical Genre Voice" (17m34s) with critic Kim Newman. The former is obviously completely production focused as King chats about focusing on the fairy tale atmosphere and the research involved in capturing the right look established in the comic, while the latter analyzes the evolution of Craven's career from his early confrontational, extreme horror offerings into the more commercial genre fare that defined him in the 1980s, as well as Swamp Thing's place in the canon of monster heroes in mainstream comics.
Updated review on April 27, 2019.