Not your typical sci-fi monster flick, 'Swamp Thing' transcends any notions of genre definitions and is really an atypical movie altogether. It involves monsters and some light science themes, to be sure, but it remains a weird concoction that also features gene-splicing, the best Miracle Grow on the planet, and corporate greed, making it rather difficult to pinpoint precisely why I enjoy the movie in the first place. While its best aspects build up the action, revving audiences towards the obligatory showdown — although admittedly, that final battle with the ManBearPig is hilariously unexpected — the film's shortcomings are surprisingly not its drawbacks, but rather the very reasons it is a guilty pleasure.
Based on the DC Comic by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson, 'Swamp Thing' comes with an unabashed playful side, not meant to be taken as a serious actioner. With tongue firmly resting against the cheek, the story about environmental scientist Alec Holland's (Ray Wise) transformation into a the hideously green, thickly-vined monster (Dick Durock) is told with a great deal of intentional camp. Some rather choice editing tricks make this quite apparent, as imaginative dissolves and wipes continuously remind viewers they are watching a movie sourced from a comic book. They often prompt memories of the similar graphics from the 'Batman' TV series, although here, they serve as scene transitions.
Then there's the acting, which is not bad as much as it is exaggerated and spirited with performances that feel like caricatures. The pair of bumbling mercenaries played by David Hess and Nicholas Worth pave the way with cartoonish henchmen-like silliness. Louis Jourdan as the criminal Dr. Anton Arcane is arguably the most memorable, delivering a wonderful stock evil genius all dressed in black and twirling his imaginary moustache every time he conceives his next wicked move. At the end of the day, however, this is Adrienne Barbeau's show as Agent Alice Cable, who is having the worst first day on the job ever. You gotta love her mix of damsel in distress and tough, quick-on-her-toes survivalist. The romance that blossoms between her and the Swamp Thing is not one where she needs a hero, but a mutual idealistic pursuit against Arcane.
Most surprising is the fact that this is a Wes Craven production — he not only directed but also wrote the screenplay. Even to this day, I sometimes forget he had anything to do with this because it is so far out of left field for him (the same could, of course, be said of 'Music of the Heart'), not that I expect him to only work in one genre forever. But in all honesty, who doesn't immediately think Freddy Krueger or 'Scream' when hearing the filmmaker's name. I know 'Swamp Thing' is the furthest from my mind, yet he does great delivering a cheese-tacular piece of camp entertainment. Out of his pre-'Nightmare on Elm Street' days, this comic adaptation is probably his best, most mature work, showing audiences that he can handle action movies as well as scare their pants off.
Interestingly, the final version of the movie we enjoy today is apparently not the story Craven had originally envisioned. Just prior to filming, the studio slashed the director's budget and production, forcing him to rethink much of the story he initially planned. In spite of this setback, Craven did the best he could with what he had and demonstrated plenty of style in a movie that continues to deliver. I still have fond memories of renting VHS tapes and watching on what, back then, we thought was a big screen Zenith TV. Such recollections make me a bit biased, I suppose, but taken on its own, 'Swamp Thing' still entertains with a good deal of tongue-in-cheek humor throughout.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Shout! Factory brings 'Swamp Thing' to Blu-ray as a two-disc combo pack under the distributor's Scream Factory line. The Region A locked, BD50 disc and DVD-9 copy on the opposing panel are housed inside a blue, eco-elite case. At startup, viewers are taken to a basic menu screen with memorable music and full-motion clips. And as a side note, this version of the movie is the 91-minute, PG-rated cut, not the unrated 93-minute version with extra footage of Adrienne Barbeau.
Despite being a significant improvement over its DVD counterpart, 'Swamp Thing' crawls out of the dark, murky, bug-infested waters with a mostly average-looking picture quality. Then again, the movie was never much of a looker to begin with, showing a good deal of softness throughout thanks to the use of diffusion lens, which gives the movie a dreamlike appearance.
The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (1.85:1) still comes with plenty of visible details in hair, clothing, surrounding foliage and the green rubber suit worn by Dick Durock, but it's not much to really impress, even during close-ups. We can't really make out the finer lines in many objects, and rarely does the video remind viewers they're watching in HD. Essentially, while the photography is intentional, and a case could be made this is a faithful presentation of it, it ultimately doesn't translate well into high-definition. Besides, there are several poorly-resolved sequences which are even less satisfying with a prominent grain structure that borders on noisy and distracting.
Contrast also is not particularly noteworthy with slightly hotter than normal highlights, which is a result of the original photography, yet it's stable and consistent. Black levels waver from scene, looking fairly murky in a number of scenes, but shadow details are pretty strong and visible. Colors, especially the primaries, benefit the most from the upgrade, looking bold and animated. In the end, however, the high-def presentation doesn't impress although long-time fans familiar with the movie on other home video formats will appreciate the upgrade and note the differences.
In the audio department, viewers will find more to admire in this DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack than in the video. Presented in its original mono design, dialogue is clear and precise in the center. Ambient effects, like the random noises of the surrounding wildlife, are discrete in the background, providing the soundstage with a good sense of presence that feels wide and welcoming. The music of Harry Manfredini further broadens the image while dynamic range is clear and well-balanced, exhibiting great clarity between the few action sequences. Low bass never reaches very deep. In fact, it seems rather anemic, except for one or two moments in the original score. Overall, it's a good lossless mix that gets the job done well.
Based on the DC Comic by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson, 'Swamp Thing' is an atypical sci-fi actioner that manages to entertain and turn whatever drawbacks that could be pointed out into a guilty pleasure. Directed by Wes Craven and starring Adrienne Barbeau, the film is thinly disguised piece of camp, self-aware of its comic book origins and uses it as part of its entertainment value. Although the movie has never been much a looker, the picture quality on this Blu-ray is an improvement over previous home video editions with a very good audio presentation. Supplements are bit light but enjoyable nonetheless, making the overall package worth a look for the curious but a good buy for the fans.