Wes Craven’s 1982 Swamp Thing seems generally remembered as the inferior prequel to its superior, schlocky sequel, The Return of Swamp Thing. That doesn’t mean it’s terribly different under the hood. It’s a goofy, odd superhero story filled with exploding boats, wacky goons and not a little bit of awkwardly placed superhero sublimity. It was a diversion at the time for horror trailblazer Wes Craven, who used it to stretch different, pulpier muscles after establishing his career with The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes; anyone wondering if this film holds true to the soul-searing qualities of those films would be sorely disappointed.
Knowing what to expect going in helps the film tremendously: This is a comic-book Swampy, a dry-run of sorts by producers Benjamin Melniker and Michael E. Uslan, who would later go on to bring the same approach to the character to jumpstart the Batman film franchise. (The story of why Melniker and Uslan own the rights to Batman on film is its own fascinating story.)
Unlike its sequel, however, Swamp Thing takes the source material and titular character as seriously as the original run of comic-book tales from established legends Bernie Wrightson and Len Wein just 10 years before.
Alec Holland (Ray Wise) is a biologist working on a special bio-formula to encourage plant life in the Louisiana swamp. He’s totally obsessed with the beauty of the natural world. Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau), a government worker in this telling, heads to the swamps to investigate Holland’s lab and the strange happenings around their worksite. Someone seems to be sabotaging their work and attempting to steal their most recent formula, which could be weaponized, Sure enough, Anton Arcane (an incredible Louis Jourdan, whose performance takes “hammy” to its most literal endpoint) and his men make themselves known and burn the whole place down. Alice escapes, but Alec is immolated by the explosion while doused in his chemical. By the logic of comics, of course, explosion + chemicals = evolution, and thus the Swamp Thing is born.
As far as American popular culture is concerned, there are a few truly iconic monster characters; the Universal ones became so during their TV runs in the 1950s and ’60s, and a handful of fantastical slashers have, of course, become commonplace in the last 40 years. Swamp Thing has never reached those heights in the general populace, but he’s had quite a run among genre fans and readers of comics. Film-wise, this was the first of two 1980s films, as well as a long-running 1990s television show that has gone through periods of unavailability. Later, there was a more horror-themed series on DC Universe, the old DC-specific streaming app. Attempts at a movie have been made throughout the years, and supposedly James Mangold is primed to make a version for whatever Warner Brothers is doing with these heroes a few years from now.
Comics, of course, are another story: Just a year after this movie, Alan Moore took over as writer of Saga of the Swamp Thing, penning a legendary run that sent the character to new literary heights. It’s a perennial hit for the publisher and defined the practice of taking superhero characters into headier directions that give them broader cultural legitimacy. I recently read this run for the first time — my secret shame as a comic-book reader was never finishing it — and it’s pretty good. My difference in opinion from the broader consensus doesn’t matter; what matters is that the next 20 years of comics all reflected that run, before the New 52 rebooted the character into more of a superhero context.
I guess little of this has to do with the relative quality of the 1982 film except to point out that this happened prior to Moore’s revision on the character’s origin and emotional schema. This is very much a monster movie in which the monster also happens to be a hero. Craven, who wrote and directed, gets around the fact that his hero is the monster by making the villains stalking Cable through the swamp just a group of goofy goons who kinda want to maybe have their way with her. It doesn’t necessarily add up to real scares or tension, even though composer Harry Manfredini works overtime with bits from his Friday the 13th scores to heighten the tension.
The real joy of the film is the production design by Robb Wilson and his crew. Their swamp sets were hellish to film on but give the film a really memorable sense of place. Holland’s laboratory is built in an old church with a half-sunken graveyard. The crew filmed on location outside of Charleston, South Carolina, and the actual swampland gives the film a real grounded quality that makes up for some of the poorer elements — such as Swamp Thing himself, perhaps one of the most disappointing rubber costumes to ever grace the screen. There’s a reason why modern superheroes break their costumes into different segments and why later depictions of the creature add more moss, wood and angularity to his appearance.
MVD’s new 4K release makes the most of a film that looks much better on the whole than it had any right to. Beats watching a grainy VHS, that’s for sure. This new set includes both the theatrical cut and the unrated cut, the latter of which is exactly the same except for some sequences of female nudity. The first, featuring Barbeau, actually does feel additive. The audio commentary with Craven (and other interviews) point to his desire to make a film about much more than just silly horror gags and superheroics: he wanted to make it a love story about the monster and Cable that grows within their mutual love of nature and the swamps. Very common to all versions of Swamp Thing. I mean, is it kinda goofy seeing this rubber man looking at Barbeau bathing nude in the swamp water? Yeah. You can rationalize it, I guess. The other nudity is just for fun and adds a little bit more of a low-rent, exploitative air to the whole thing — which isn’t unwelcome during the slog of the second act.
This new release (the first in MVD Rewind’s new LaserVision collection) sets itself apart with the 4K remaster. The other special features are all ported over from the previous Scream Factory release. Fans of the film will probably want the 4K version, given the movie’s strongest points are in its natural imagery.