Veering sharply away from the brand of visceral horror that put him on the map with The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, Wes Craven followed up those game-changing classics with the one-two punch of Deadly Blessing (a silly-surreal riff on Witness with Ernest Borgnine as a pitchfork-wielding patriarch) and the comparatively big-budget comic-book adaptation Swamp Thing. An enjoyable enough romp if taken as an amiably lunk-headed action flick, Swamp Thing starts off well with an effectively mounted first act that soon gives way to a lot of splashing around in the swamps, punctuated with some incongruously poetic (and oddly endearing) Beauty and the Beast-type moments, and liberally peppered with all the airboat crashes and cigar-chomping David Hess close-ups you could ever want. Add to that running tally Adrienne Barbeau doffing her wardrobe for some tastefully lensed skinny-dipping and an ultra-suave, Nietzsche-spouting turn from Louis Jourdan as villainous Dr. Anton Arcane, and it all adds up to a surefire cult film in the making.
Swamp Thing’s first act hews pretty closely to the character’s comic-book origins. The arrival of newbie assistant Abby Cable (Barbeau) at the remote bayou-based laboratory of Dr. Alec Holland (Ray Wise) sets the stage for a lot of technobabble about recombinant DNA (complete with an Erlenmeyer flask’s worth of glowing green goo a la Re-Animator) as well as a budding romance between the two. Complicating matters is the presence of Dr. Linda Holland (Nannette Brown), whom Abby assumes to be Alec’s wife. A particularly strange moment arrives out of leftfield when he deliberately fails to correct her on the matter. (What sort of psychosexual subtext should we read into that?) And then all that incipient melodrama is rendered moot by a raid on the compound spearheaded by Dr. Arcane that leaves Linda dead, Alec presumably deceased after a fiery run into the swamp waters, and Abby bayou-bound on the run.
Holland, of course, is reborn as Swamp Thing (Dick Durock in a suit whose progressively tattered condition isn’t served particularly well by the transfer’s high-definition treatment). Abby encounters a young black kid named Jude (Reggie Batts), a character who possesses no apparent function other than as a surrogate for the youth-audience demographic. No backstory’s necessary for Jude; he simply appears out of thin air. He does, however, get to deliver one of the film’s best lines. Upon regaining consciousness after being saved from the clutches of some of Arcane’s thugs by Swamp Thing, he murmurs incredulously, “Oh shit, there goes the neighborhood!” Arcane’s henchmen, led by Ferret (Hess) and Bruno (Nicholas Worth), thereupon give chase. This accounts more or less for the second act.
The decidedly anticlimactic battle between Swampy and whatever abomination Arcane has morphed into is badly staged and limply edited, and their water-logged warfare resembles nothing so much as the world’s least erotic bout of mud wrestling. Blame the third act’s overall fecklessness on time- and moneysaving cuts imposed by mercenary completion bondsmen—at least that’s how Craven tells it on the disc’s commentary track. It remains to be seen whether his proposed Big Finish, an underwater chase through a labyrinthine network of caves and tunnels, would’ve accomplished anything more than upping the film’s admittedly modest “Awesome!” quotient. What we’re left with is a strictly conventional resolution right down to the hero sloshing off alone across the swampy wastes toward the far horizon. That kind of blandly routine denouement always puts me in mind of the line from Barton Fink: “We’ll be hearing from that kid, and I don’t mean a postcard.”
Scream Factory’s 1080p/AVC-encoded Blu-ray transfer of Swamp Thing looks a bit soft overall, but that probably has as much to do with the film’s low-budget production values as anything else. Grain is often plentiful, especially in some of the process shots, while colors are vibrant and generously saturated, really popping in the verdant outdoor shots as well as in Wes Craven’s infrequent but expressionistic use of candy-colored lighting. Black levels are moderately well-adjusted, though a few nighttime shots get pretty murky. The lossless Master Audio two-channel mix presents the ambient sound effects and dialogue, as well as Harry Manfredini’s lushly romantic score, with excellent fidelity.
Scream Factory offers up two commentary tracks. The first features Craven in conversation with horror enthusiast Sean Clark. Craven is always an entertaining raconteur, recounting with more humor than malice the effects his frequent battles with completion bondsmen over the production schedule had on the overall shape and content of the film. Craven makes frequent deprecating reference to his learning curve as a director and generally espouses a live-and-learn philosophy of filmmaking. The disc’s second commentary track has makeup and effects man William Munn discussing his life’s work as well as his involvement with Swamp Thing. This track is prone to more frequent moments of dead air than Craven’s, but Munn does delve into lots of specific detail about his work on the project. Three short on-screen interviews allow for some low-key and affectionate reminiscences. Adrienne Barbeau discusses her association with horror movies despite her general disregard for them, details the tribulations involved with filming conditions, and declares her general aversion to watching herself on screen. Local boy Reggie Batts talks about the audition process, his interactions with cast and crew, and also touches on his subsequent life experiences. Swamp Thing creator Len Wein discusses his early aspirations to be an artist and how he ended up a comic book writer, talks about his visit to the film’s set, and espouses his philosophy of comic-book adaptations in general.
Swamp Thing lurches onto Blu-ray looking better than ever, complete with an impressive roster of supplementary materials, from Scream Factory.