Swamp Thing 4K UHD Review
Blu-ray Release: August 8, 2023
Video: 1.85:1/2160p (HDR10/Dolby Vision)/Color
Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono; Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
Subtitles: English SDH
Run Time: 91:12 (Theatrical Cut)/92:51 (International Cut)
Director: Wes Craven
Deep in Florida’s darkest everglades, a brilliant scientist, Dr. Alec Holland (Ray Wise), and a sexy government agent, Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau), have developed a secret formula that could end world hunger and change civilization forever. Little do they know that their arch nemesis, Arcane (Louis Jourdan), is plotting to steal the serum for his own selfish schemes. Looting the lab and kidnapping Cable, Arcane douses Holland with the chemicals and leaves him for dead in the swamp. Mutated by his own formula, Holland becomes “Swamp Thing” – a half human/half plant superhero who will stop at nothing to rescue the beautiful Cable and defeat the evil Arcane… even if it costs him his life. (From MVD’s official synopsis)
Sometimes, a film is ahead of its time, welcoming retrospective praise for innovations that weren’t recognized when it was released. Sometimes, a film is so far ahead that it sort of trips and falls on its way to a new era. Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing (1982) is the latter type of film. DC Comics’ Swamp Thing was created in 1971 by writer Len Wein and artist Bernie Wrightson, but is largely remembered in the context of then up-and-coming writer Alan Moore’s reimagining of the character and his world during the 1980s. Moore’s Saga of the Swamp Thing is genuinely one of the most important and influential comic runs in the medium’s history, redefining what American mainstream comics could achieve with their storytelling, ditching the outdated Comics Code Authority approval, and almost single-handedly spawning the ‘80s renaissance that led us to Moore’s own Watchmen (1986-87) and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986). But all of that happened about one year after Craven’s film.
Craven came out of the 1970s with two rough, raw, influential, and controversial horror hits under his belt, The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977). In the ‘80s and early ‘90s, he brought a degree of intellectualism to mainstream horror with the semi-surrealistic slasher A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), the similarly esoteric historical drama The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), and the class struggle parable The People Under the Stairs (1991). The things he did with those films fit with the abstract, socially conscious nature of Moore’s Swamp Thing. With a decent budget, a post-Nightmare on Elm Street, Craven-directed Swamp Thing had the potential to be a great adaptation of Moore’s comic. But A Nightmare on Elm Street was released two years after Swamp Thing and, at the time, producers didn’t want a surrealistic, socially conscious horror movie – they wanted a superhero action movie and they didn’t want to spend a lot of money making it.
Comparing Swamp Thing to modern superhero movies is silly, but there was another comic adaptation of sorts in 1982 from one of Craven’s New Hollywood horror comrades, George A. Romero. The difference is that Romero’s film, Creepshow, was a truly independent production designed by Romero and Stephen King, based on their mutual child/teenhood love of EC horror stories. Craven, on the other hand, was raised by a strict Christian family and didn’t read mainstream superhero comics, let alone Swamp Thing, when he was hired onto the project. Not to imply that only fans can make good adaptations, just that, in this case, there’s such a fundamental difference in the filmmakers’ connections to the subject matter. Sometimes, they come to the same conclusions, such as using super-saturated gels during heightened moments, building panel shapes into framing and wipes, or, apparently, hiring Adrienne Barbeau, but, more often, the difference between them boils down the difference is between a filmed comic book (Creepshow) and a B-movie based on comic characters (Swamp Thing).
Overall, Swamp Thing’s problems as an adaptation has less to do with how literal Craven takes the idea of a comic book put to film and more to do with the fact that it really should have been a horror movie. Even before the Alan Moore reboot, Swamp Thing was a horror comic with adventure trappings. The movie is the opposite, because that’s what the filmmakers thought audiences wanted. It’s not surprising, then, that the movie feels most alive when it is doing horror stuff. It’s strictly PG horror (except for David Hess’ death, which is pretty bloody), but the charmingly rubbery monster suits, stylistic flourishes, and light Southern Gothic motifs all stand out against an otherwise pretty listless adventure movie, barely punctuated with weak action interludes (something like 70% of the movie is Cable running away from the bad guys). Aside from Tony Cecere's spectacular full-body burn stunt that closes out the first act, of course.
As critical as I am of the final product, Craven did a lot of things right. Swamp Thing is a beautifully shot film and it does an admirable job keeping the drama earnest without taking itself too seriously. It also makes sense to combine Abby Arcane and Joseph Cable into one character. Len Wein rarely managed to make the love triangle between the heroes work and Moore all but completely ditched the idea, focusing instead on Abby and Swamp Thing/Alex Holland’s romance (to simplify matters further, Craven also changes Linda Holland from Alex’s wife to his sister). Jim Wynorski’s sequel, Return of the Swamp Thing (1989), explored Abby’s connection to the main villain, Anton Arcane (played by Louis Jourdan in both films), but was a spoofy comedy. That film was followed by both a live-action and animated TV series in 1990, then another series for DC’s failed streaming service (2019). That show promised to be more adult-themed and closer to the comics, but wound up a largely lifeless version of post-Moore comics. It was canceled by its second episode and condensed from 12 to 10 episodes. 40 years later, for better or worse, Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing is still the best live-action version of the comic available.
Swamp Thing wasn’t a hit, but it had a nice life on home video and has a strong cult following, due to overlap between Craven’s fans, comic fans, and fans of disastrous movies. In the US alone, it had two separate VHS and Laserdisc releases from Embassy, two barebones DVDs from MGM, and a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack from Shout Factory. MVD Rewind’s 4K UHD debut was made using a 4K 16-bit restoration of the original camera negative and is a substantial upgrade all-around. I cannot take 4K screen caps and don’t have access to the Shout Factory disc, so I’m going to point anyone looking for a direct, one-to-one comparison between the releases to this caps-a-holic page. For my part, I’ve included 1080p caps from the included Blu-ray copy, which, according to the box, is derived from the same 4K transfer. The Shout Factory disc isn’t bad, but has many of the studio’s typical issues, namely an older HD scan supplied by the studio and a slightly noisy encode. MVD clears up that noise, replacing it with fine, naturalistic grain and bumps up the overall texture and detail without over-crisping the soft edges of Robbie Greenberg’s photography. The colors are punched-up, which is obvious during the brightly gelled comic book moments, but is perhaps more impressive during the richly detailed shots of characters moving through the swamp. The HDR enhancement helps in this regard, naturally, and generally ensures everything looks really nice.
There are two similar cuts of the film available – an unrated international version, which includes nudity, and the censored, PG-rated American theatrical cut. Shout Factory’s BD/DVD only featured the PG cut, so, even if it hadn’t been a remaster, MVD’s 4K UHD/BD would be an upgrade for fans of the film.
Swamp Thing is presented in its original mono sound (I’m actually surprised that it wasn’t a stereo release) and uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio. It’s a lively mix for a single channel affair, especially scenes of swamp ambience and punctuated action sounds, like explosions, gunshots, airboats, and haymakers. Basically every limitation comes down to the struggles the filmmakers had shooting in the elements, which isn’t always conducive to clear dialogue. There aren’t any issues with distortion at high volumes (a little hiss here and there), beyond what’s expected from an early ‘80s mono mix, and the sound floor is natural. Friday the 13th composer Harry Manfredini’s score really goes above and beyond with nearly wall-to-wall music. Sometimes, it’s a bit too much, but it does help set the stage and keeps the track busy during down times.
Disc 1: 4K UHD
Commentary with Wes Craven (PG cut) – This track was recorded for the Shout Factory release and is moderated by Horror’s Hallowed Grounds’ Sean Clark. The always soft-spoken and honest Craven comes prepared with anecdotes, memories, and, with help from Clark, breaks down the production front-to-back with only a handful of lulls in the discussion.
Commentary with makeup effects artist William Munn (PG cut) – The second track was also recorded for the Shout Blu-ray and is moderated by Red Shirt Pictures’ Michael Felsher. It’s another informative and well-paced commentary that is also structured a bit like an interview and isn’t particularly scene-specific. My favorite bit was the detailed analysis of what Swamp Thing’s genitals would look like, given the contractually obligated PG-rating.
Disc 2: Blu-ray
Commentary with Wes Craven (PG cut)
Commentary with William Munn (PG cut)
Shout Factory extras:
Tales From the Swamp (16:56, HD) – Adrienne Barbeau chats about her accidental scream queen persona, Craven’s original script, budget cuts, shooting on location, Craven’s direction, the nude scenes, drug abuse on set, the (temporary) loss of a silver ring, and being disappointed with the final film.
Hey, Jude! (14:30, HD) – Actor Reggie Batts, who plays young Jude, recalls childhood acting, auditioning for Swamp Thing, familiarity with the character (and the Marvel equivalent, Man Thing), working with Craven, Barbeau, and the rest of the cast & crew.
That Swamp Thing (13:19, HD) – Swamp Thing co-creator (with Bernie Wrightson) Len Wein looks back on training as an artist, but being hired as a writer, dreaming up Swamp Thing, his writing process, Craven’s adaptation, and general memories of the film.
Galleries – Posters & lobby cards, film stills, William Munns’ behind-the-scenes photos, and Geoffrey Rayle’s behind-the-scenes photos.
88 Films extras:
Swamp Screen: Designing DC’s Main Monster (20:32, HD) – Production designer Robb Wilson King talks about locations, fabricating sets, other design challenges, and input from Craven and the cast.
From Krug to Comics: How the Mainstream Shaped a Radical Genre Voice (17:34, HD) – Critic and author of Nightmare Movies: Horror on the Screen Since the 1960s (Bloomsbury, 2011 [2nd Edition]), Kim Newman, digs into Craven’s larger career, Swamp Thing’s context within that career, changes to Craven’s work over the decades, the growth of comic book adaptations, and horror-themed superheroes.
The images on this page are taken from the included BD (not the 4K UHD) and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.