Lightyear Entertainment couldn’t possibly have known James Gunn would announce a new Swamp Thing movie in development when they scheduled the 4K rerelease of The Return of Swamp Thing, but they will surely be happy with the SEO. This is the movie’s third release on a disc, as it had a DVD release in 2008, and a Blu-ray release in 2018. In fact, the 2018 Blu-ray is included in the 4K release alongside the new UHD disc. Insert your obligatory “Movie X can’t even get ONE release, but The Return of Swamp Thing gets three! Arrrgh!” here.
The Return of Swamp Thing came out in 1989 shortly before Tim Burton’s Batman, and it was everything fans feared that one would be when they first heard Michael Keaton had been cast as the Dark Knight. In contrast to the dark, gothic horror stories by Alan Moore in the comics at that time, The Return of Swamp Thing is broadly campy, sex-obsessed, and for the time, cheap-looking. Heather Locklear is game but miscast as Abby Arcane, while Dick Durock’s Swamp Thing got overdubbed in post-production. Most of the other actors understood the assignment, especially a pair of broadly mugging kids, one of whom looks and sounds like a live-action Eric Cartman almost a decade before South Park.
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To comics fans at the time, who desperately wanted the mainstream to take comics seriously as art, it felt like an atrocity. In the present, comic-book movies are serious business indeed, and there’s room for all kinds of takes. Watched today, however, The Return of Swamp Thing is a B-movie blast. Sure, it’s ludicrous and plays itself as such, but with elaborate practical monster suits, along with real stuntmen and explosions, plus ultra-serious French actor Louis Jourdan as the mad scientist Arcane, it’s everything this level of trash ought to not just deliver but excel at. Jourdan, unsurprisingly, hated Wynorski and his dirty jokes. There’s no nudity, though – despite the obsession with plant sex, the producers wanted it ostensibly kid-friendly. Which the Moore comics were decidedly not.
Playing as a direct sequel to Wes Craven’s 1982 Swamp Thing, in which Arcane pretty definitively died, Jim Wynorski’s film pulls a “Somehow, Palpatine has returned!” to explain that he’s back and no longer a transformed monster. Yet traces of mutation remain in him, and he needs the blood of his stepdaughter, Abby, to generate a pure antidote. His other attempts to cure himself have merely created an army of mutant human-animal hybrids, who look great but mostly serve as background dressing, or fodder for Fangoria photoshoots to make the film seem cooler than it was. Only a leech-man and a brain-man actually see action against Swamp Thing himself, who hits them with poles. The action largely takes place in and around Arcane’s bayou estate, with Swamp Thing falling for Abby and attempting to rescue her, as well as take revenge on Arcane for unleashing monsters.
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From the Moore comics, it pulls a few new tricks. Swamp Thing’s ability to regenerate himself is the main one, along with the psychedelic way he and Abby have sex by eating psychedelic tubers from his body. It lets them hallucinate that he’s a fully functional human. Alan Moore handled that issue tenderly and with empathy; Jim Wynorski directs it about the way Beavis and Butt-Head might. Again, on a certain level, this is a sort of cool, but true Swamp Thing, it is not. If you can dispense with that thinking, and consider it the equivalent of Turkish Spider-Man or an Asylum rip-off, there’s plenty to enjoy. Whatever else it may be, it’s never dull.
The Blu-ray includes all previous extras, including Wynorski commentaries from 2008 and 2018. As they’re separated by ten years, he repeats himself a lot. He comes across as the sort of director more concerned with pulling off the technical hurdles of a small budget than having much interest in actual story and character. Wynorski seems like the guy who was hired to pull off movies cheaply and on time. His resume, which includes well over a hundred such films, bears that out. There are also some bonus environmental PSAs that feature Swamp Thing telling kids that throwing plastic cups into rivers isn’t cool.
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The new 4K disc includes two new extras. One is a Rifftrax music video that naturally plays up the movie’s dendrophilia obsession. The other is a new interview with producer Michael Uslan, who went on to work on Tim Burton’s Batman right after. Declaring himself a massive comics fan even after getting facts wrong (Alan Moore didn’t create Abby Arcane), Uslan sounds delusional when he declares that this movie, which made less than $200,000 domestically, was the reason Swamp Thing subsequently got a toy line, cartoon, and live-action cable series. As opposed to the fact that Swamp Thing was already the hottest comic book character besides Batman circa 1989.
As for the film itself, it was never shot on the highest quality stock, but the grain is preserved, and on the right size TV, it looks like a projected movie. The provided stills, above, do not do it justice. Considering most of us who saw it back then had to catch it on VHS after its brief, sparse theatrical run, this probably looks better than expected. Many superior movies deserve this much care, but at least everyone’s effort in making it is displayed as best it can possibly be. It’s a Svengoolie-type movie that absolutely knew it from the getgo, and it succeeds in being such, to the max.
The Return of Swamp Thing debuts on 4K on February 7.
Movie: 3 out of 5, for what it is.
Extras: 5 out of 5
Recommended Reading: Saga of the Swamp Thing Book 1
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