This is my final post for Swamp Thing, which is the traditional time for me to talk about how the movie earned the highest opening-weekend returns in history, and was the #1 box office draw for months and months. At least, that’s how it worked for Superman and Superman II. There’s a bit of a different situation with Swamp Thing.
In fact, I’m not certain how much Swamp Thing made. I typically use Box Office Mojo as my source, and Swamp Thing doesn’t appear on their 1982 domestic box office listing. Their data only goes back to 1977, and for the first six or seven years, they don’t have information on every movie. Part of the problem is that Swamp Thing wasn’t in wide release: it opened in different parts of the country any time between February and August. The other part of the problem is that nobody cares except me.
I found a site called Ultimate Movie Rankings that says Swamp Thing made $6.4 million domestic, and where they got that number I haven’t a notion. But let’s go with that.
$6.4 million would put the film around #90 for the year, just below Cat People (“A young woman’s sexual awakening brings horror when she discovers her urges transform her into a monstrous black leopard”, $7 million) and The Last Unicorn (“A beautiful unicorn sets out to learn if she truly is the last of her kind in this sparkling animated musical”, $6.5 million). But Swamp Thing did better than Evil Under the Sun, a fairly well-received Hercule Poirot adaptation that made $6.1 million, so that’s something.
To put it all in perspective, the top earner for the year was E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which made $359 milion domestic, and didn’t let you forget it for an instant.
I found an interview in a Paterson, New Jersey newspaper with producer Michael Uslan, a local boy who lived in Cedar Grove. This was in late July, just before the film opened in the New York/New Jersey area — pretty much the final major metropolitan center that hadn’t been disappointed by it yet. But Uslan was still upbeat, as producers usually are. He says:
“I feel pretty confident about the film’s opening, since it has already been successfully shown in other parts of the country. We were even a bit surprised when we received nine national rave reviews in a row. It was almost like the pope had given his blessing to the project.”
I’m not sure what he’s referring to, with the nine rave reviews. There was a strong show of support from Siskel and Ebert on their television show, but other than that, it got a good review from the Atlanta Constitution and a pretty good one in the Los Angeles Times, and the rest of them were pretty lousy.
But Uslan is reframing the movie by retroactively claiming that it’s camp, the last refuge of the scoundrel. That means that when the Boston Globe said “How refreshing to find a bad movie that knows it’s bad, and wears its badness proudly,” Uslan can still claim it as a win.
“There was an element of risk involved, because Swamp Thing doesn’t fit into the mold of a contemporary intense horror film. Instead, we took a gamble, turning back the pages of time to the 1940s/50s-type classics complete with rubber suit. Luckily, the audience took to it.”
While the movie was originally aimed at the 10-to-18-year old set, college students tend to consider the movie “very campy”, according to Uslan, as reflected in attendance figures in collegiate communities.
So I guess it’s possible to release a film as a romantic action-adventure superhero movie, and then halfway through the run start telling everyone that it’s supposed to be terrible; a similar strategy worked with Morbius just a few months ago. But that certainly wasn’t the producers’ intention at the time. I don’t know how Uslan can face himself in the mirror every morning; he must shave from memory.
Happily, Hollywood trade magazine Variety had a weekly column where theater owners around the country reported on their box office returns, and that gives us some idea of how the film actually performed. The people writing these reports liked to use little puns based on the movie, if they could swing it, so they can be pretty colorful.
February: In Miami, the first week was an “okay $20,548,” but the second week got a “tired $12,373”.
March: In Los Angeles, the first week was an “okay $305,000” followed by “a murky $3,000 at UACC4 and little better $7,000 in HollyPac”.
April: A flop in San Jose: “Swamp Thing, only new pic here last week, vanished in $11,400 quicksand in seven situations.”
May: I’m not sure how well it did in Boston. They said “Swamp Thing swamping $10,000″ on the first week, and “swamping $7,500” for the second. I’d interpret that as a positive, but I could see it either way.
June: In Buffalo, the film got a “soggy $15,000” and then a “tired $2,500”, which is quite a drop on the second week.
July: In New York, “Adrienne Barbeau and her green pal wade into town for a slow $330,000 or near in preem at 56 bayous.” I told you about the puns. The next week got a “wimpy” return.
August: An overseas report from Paris: “Notable newcomers that failed to reach the top 10 included UA’s Swamp Thing, which sucked a soggy $57,350 from a 24-screen showcase opening.”
So it didn’t do that well, I guess is what I’m saying. Uslan and co-producer Ben Melniker talked a bit about doing a sequel that would include the Patchwork Man and Abby Arcane from the early days of the 1970s series, and they also pitched a Saturday morning cartoon to Hanna-Barbera, but they had no takers.
Swamp Thing could have sunk into the mire, just another forgotten low-budget monster movie, but there were two things working in its favor.
First, the movie did well on cable and in TV syndication. Theater audiences were turned off by the shoddy special effects and monster costumes, but those flaws weren’t quite so visible on the small screen. That still left a lot of other flaws right out there in the open, but TV audiences had low standards in the 1980s, when there weren’t that many channels and kids watched basically anything they were shown. That built up some goodwill, which Uslan and Melniker were able to leverage.
And then there was Alan Moore, as I discussed back in the first post, taking over the revived Saga of the Swamp Thing comic in 1984, and turning it into something magical and strange, and entirely new. I don’t know the extent to which Moore’s acclaimed run on the book actually mattered to movie execs, who aren’t usually alive to what people are saying about comic books, but it certainly influenced the people making the sequel.
So we’re going to come back to the bayou in a little while, for the 1989 sequel The Return of Swamp Thing, which is even crazier and sillier than this one. But we won’t get to that until movie #8, and right now, we need to check back in with the Salkinds for Superman III. I wonder what they’ve been up to?
Part 3 of my Inhumans podcast adventures!
Inhumans 70b.3: Are We the Baddies?
Hi everyone, thanks for sticking with me through this crazy Swamp Thing coverage! I had a lot of fun with this movie, and I hope you did too.
Next, I’m going to take a few weeks’ break before I get into Superman III. I’ve got some traveling to do, and I still need to do some prep work for S3 — that novelization isn’t going to read itself.
You’ll still get some fun Superheroes Every Day content over the next couple weeks, with the third and fourth installment of our Inhumans podcast. If you haven’t checked out the Marvel madness podcasts that I’ve been doing with Ryan Steans at the Signal Watch, give them a try: they’re really fun and lively, a couple hours of amusing wisecracks and brilliant insights to brighten up your commute.
I’ll be back at the beginning of October to kick off Superman III — so sign up for the email notifications or keep an eye on the Twitter and Facebook feeds, and you won’t miss my exciting coverage of another goddamn Superman movie. I love you, and I’ll see you then!
Part 3 of my Inhumans podcast adventures!
Inhumans 70b.3: Are We the Baddies?
— Danny Horn