Release Date(s)1982 (August 8, 2023)
Studio(s)Embassy Pictures/MGM (MVD Rewind Collection)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A-
Given the ubiquitous presence of big budget comic book adaptations these days, it’s easy to forget that it took decades for the genre to gain that level of respectability. Richard Donnor’s Superman was a landmark in 1978, but most of the cheap imitators that came after it didn’t take their source material half as seriously. It wasn’t until Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989 that that a wave of prestige adaptations followed suit, but none of them achieved the same kind of box office success, so the momentum waned. The modern superhero era didn’t really begin until a decade later with Fox’s X-Men and especially Sony’s Spider-Man. In between each of those peaks, there were many less reputable adaptations that aren’t necessarily as well remembered today. Once such film is Wes Craven’s charmingly irreverent 1982 take on Len Wein’s iconic Swamp Thing.
Craven may have seemed like an odd choice for a PG-rated comic book story, especially since his most noteworthy films prior to that point were the astonishingly brutal The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes. He still got into the spirit of the proceedings, although he had to make do with limited resources thanks to a continually shrinking budget. His adaptation provides an origin story for Swamp Thing, with scientist Alec Holland (Ray Wise) working on a botanical bioengineering project at an installation deep in the bayou. After an encounter with some henchmen working for his archival Anton Arcane (Louis Jordan), his formula inadvertently transforms him into a man/plant hybrid (with Dick Durock replacing Wise inside the of costume). All of that is seen through the eyes of Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau), a government agent sent to serve as his assistant. She’s much more than that, however, and she ends up helping Swamp Thing in his conflict with Arcane, aided by a local lad named Jude (newcomer Reggie Batts). Swamp Thing also stars The Last House on the Left’s David Hess and the omnipresent Nicholas Worth as the two lead henchmen. (If Worth looks familiar, it’s because he appeared in damned near every single television series during the Seventies and Eighties.)
Craven wasn’t known for his comedic gifts, so it’s appropriate that the humor in Swamp Thing is of the purely deadpan variety. No matter how ridiculous that anything may seem, everyone treats it with complete sincerity. That’s especially true with Jude, whose first reaction to seeing Swamp Thing up close and personal wouldn’t be half as funny if not for the low-key way that Reggie Batts delivered his line. Yet it’s equally true of Swamp Thing himself, whose response to a question about whether or not his severed arm hurts is a straight-faced “Only when I laugh.” Even the henchmen get in on the act, and when one of them questions another’s loyalty, his answer is “I’m sorry, Bruno. It’s every man for himself, and God against all.” (Swamp Thing may well be the first and last film in the history of cinema to quote both Glenn Jordan and Werner Herzog.)
Aside from the humor, one of the most enjoyable aspects of Swamp Thing is the nature of Barbeau’s character Alice, who’s no shrinking violet being led around by the hand by the male characters. Instead, she’s a certified ass kicker, as both Hess and Worth keep discovering to their chagrin—her first takedown of Worth is truly epic. Barbeau had wonderful chemistry with Batts, Wise, and Durock, but Alice could hold her own without any of them; she’s essentially a more personable version of Maggie from Escape from New York. Of course, Craven’s script does eventually have her tied down to a chair while wearing a slinky dress, with Swamp Thing having to rescue her from Arcane (shades of Marian Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark). That minor misstep aside, nothing can take away from the fact that she’s a memorable heroine—and it’s not even her story in the first place. Swamp Thing isn’t exactly top tier in the annals of comic book adaptations, but offbeat touches like these will always give it an honored place in the hearts of loyal fans.
Of course, the convoluted saga of Swamp Thing doesn’t quite end there. While Craven was contractually obligated to deliver a PG rating, the producers wanted something spicier for foreign markets, so he shot a much less circumspect version of Adrienne Barbeau’s nude swim, as well as some additional nudity for a later scene. The differences between the two versions add up to less than two minutes of screen time, and they don’t have any effect on the narrative whatsoever. When MGM inadvertently issued the International cut of Swamp Thing on DVD in 2000, they ended up having to recall the disc for legal reasons. The Shout! Factory Blu-ray that followed in 2013 also had to include the PG-rated version only. While it’s certainly nice to have the International cut now preserved in glorious 4K (you know, for posterity), keep in mind that the shorter domestic version is actually Craven’s preferred cut.
Cinematographer Robbie Greenberg shot Swamp Thing on 35 mm film using Arriflex cameras with spherical lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for its theatrical release. This 4K restoration is based on a 16-bit scan of the original camera negative for both versions of the film, graded for High Dynamic Range in Dolby Vision and HDR10. The results aren’t necessarily dazzling, but that’s simply due to the nature of the original production and cinematography. In all other respects, it’s a nearly perfect rendition of how Swamp Thing should look. Greenberg favored diffusion filters that give much of the film a soft, hazy appearance, so it will never be the last word in fine detail, but every last pixel of picture information that could be derived from the negative is on display here. There’s also a fair amount of optical work in the film, most of it in the forms of comic-book style wipes. Since those transitions weren’t cut in the surrounding shots, the entire leading and trailing shots were affected. That means that a significant percentage of this transfer had to be derived from dupe elements, and those shots look noticeably softer than the surrounding material, with coarser grain. Some of those shots are quite lengthy, such as the one with Louis Jordan standing shirtless on a boat while giving orders to his goons, but there’s nothing that could be done to improve things short of generating new transitions digitally. Otherwise, there really aren’t any defects in this presentation aside from a few small specks that were baked into some of the opticals—and once again, those defects existed in the original elements.
The HDR grade retains the overall filmic appearance of Swamp Thing without exaggerating the color or contrast unnaturally. The filtered cinematography flattens the contrast range a bit, and the grade doesn’t deviate from that look. It does add a lovely warm glow to the sunlight filtering through the trees in the daytime exterior shots, and the black levels are as deep as they possibly can be. The colors aren’t particularly vivid for most of the film, but they weren’t intended to be, and they display perfect saturation levels here, with nicely rendered flesh tones. For the most part, the Wide Color Gamut just adds a bit more subtle color detail to the many, many variations of green on display in the bayou. It’s only when the lighting shifts to wildly exaggerated reds and greens in a few shots that the HDR grade calls attention to itself, but it does so in a way that’s still faithful to what Greenberg and Craven were trying to achieve.
If any of this sounds like it’s damning this transfer of Swamp Thing with faint praise, that couldn’t possibly be farther from the truth. This is paradigm for how to handle vintage low-budget filmmaking in 4K. Digital tools were used only when necessary, and always with a delicate touch. Any age-related flaws or damage have been completely removed, but nothing else has been done to “fix” any of the ones that were inherent to the original production. The grading respects the filmmaker’s intentions without trying to improve upon it. This is exactly how it should be done, people.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio and Spanish 2.0 Dolby Digital mono, with optional English subtitles. The overall fidelity is solid, and there isn’t much in the way of noise or other artifacts to mar the experience. The brash score by Friday the 13th vet Harry Manfredini is supported well. There is some ADR work that stands out like a sore thumb, so the dialogue doesn’t always integrate well into the soundstage, but that’s just how the film was originally recorded and mixed.
The MVD Entertainment Group Collector’s Edition 4K Ultra HD release of Swamp Thing is the first in their new 4K LaserVision Collection. (It’s still branded as being part of the MVD Rewind Collection, but with the addition of the LaserVision branding on the other side of the cover.) Unlike the Rewind Collection packaging mimicking the look of VHS rental tapes, this line is patterned after CED videodisc sleeves instead. It places the theatrical poster artwork within the distinctive circular disc shape that was common to many CED discs. There’s a slipcover featuring the same artwork, but with the addition of an imitation version of the distinctive CED plastic handle at the bottom. (It’s convincing enough that it fooled me for a moment, at least until I took off the shrink wrap.) There’s also a small fold-out poster tucked inside. It’s a two-disc set that includes a Blu-ray with a 1080p copy of the film, as well as the following extras (all of them in HD):
DISC ONE: UHD
- Audio Commentary by Wes Craven and Sean Clark
- Audio Commentary by William Munns and Michael Felsher
DISC TWO: BD
- Audio Commentary by Wes Craven and Sean Clark
- Audio Commentary by William Munns and Michael Felsher
- Tales from the Swamp (16:09)
- Hey Jude (14:43)
- That Swamp Thing (13:20)
- Swamp Screen: Designing DC’s Main Monster (20:34)
- From Krug to Comics: How the Mainstream Shaped a Radical Genre Voice (17:36)
- Theatrical Trailer (1:31)
- Posters and Lobby Cards (1:24, 16 in all)
- Photos from the Film (8:19, 99 in all)
- William Munns’ Behind the Scenes Photos (1:24, 15 in all)
- Behind the Scenes Photos by Geoffrey Rayle (3:23, 39 in all)
Both of the commentary tracks were originally recorded for the 2013 Shout! Factory Collector’s Edition Blu-ray for Swamp Thing. They were timed to the PG-rated version only, so they’re both disabled here if you select the International cut from the main menu. The first one features Wes Craven, and was moderated by Sean Clark of Horror’s Hallowed Grounds. Craven explains how became involved with the production, and talks about the challenges of shooting in the swamps. He’s pretty self-deprecating about the whole experience, admitting that he had never read the comic books before he took the job. Aside from catching up with a few of them when he wrote the script, he did little other research. He also talks about working with all of the actors, including his discomfort about having to shoot the gratuitous nude scenes with Adrienne Barbeau. They do commemorate David Hess, who had died two years prior to them recording this track. Just two years later, Craven himself would be also be taken from us, which gives the moment even greater poignancy.
The second commentary is with makeup artist William Munns, this time moderated by Micheal Felsher of Red Shirt Pictures. Munns gives his biography and explains how he became involved with the production, and he provides many practical details about his suits as well—including how he dealt with some of the delicate anatomical questions. Munns was forced to do his best on a tight timeline, and deal with some last-minute changes, but he still has nothing but praise for Wes Craven. (On the other hand, he admits that he can’t remember if he’s ever seen the film from start to finish.)
The next three interviews were also taped for the Shout! Factory Blu-ray. Tales from the Swamp features Adrienne Barbeau, who says that Swamp Thing is a real tribute to Wes Craven, since budget cuts meant that he had to scramble to create something other than what he had originally intended to film. She wasn’t familiar with Craven at the time, but her then-husband John Carpenter urged her to work with him. Despite the fact that it was a stressful shoot, she has good memories of the experience—although her memories of seeing the first screening were a bit less positive. Hey Jude is an interview with Reggie Batts, who describes his journey toward his one and only major film role, as well as his own experiences on the set. He says that it was a blessing to be given the opportunity. That Swamp Thing is a conversation with Len Wein, who relates how he first conceived of the character and discusses its evolution via other artists like Alan Moore. He also offers some mixed feelings about the film itself.
The last two featurettes were originally produced for the 2019 Region B Blu-ray release from 88 Films in the U.K. Swamp Screen is an interview with production designer Robb Wilson King. He provides an amiably rambling recounting of the production, relating details far and wide that don’t always have anything to do with his own work on the film. From Krug to Comics is a visual essay featuring author and critic Kim Newman, who traces Craven’s career from The Last House on the Left to Swamp Thing and beyond. He also gives some thoughts about the evolution of comic book adaptations up to that point in time.
The rest of the extras consist of four different photo galleries from the Shout! Factory Blu-ray. Pretty much everything has been included here from both the Shout! Factory and 88 Films releases, which means that this set features every extra for Swamp Thing that’s currently available. Add in both cuts of the film in outstanding 4K presentations, and MVD has knocked it out of the park with their first 4K LaserVision Collection title. Hands down, this is the definitive home video release of Swamp Thing, and it bodes well for future 4K releases from MVD. It’s highly, highly recommended.
- Stephen Bjork