We are, relatively speaking, about as far away from Halloween as you can get. Last year’s October memories are little more than blurry snapshots, and only the hardest of hardcore cosplayers have even started thinking about this year’s frightful festivities. This is why I squirrel away horror media for the lean season—in-between the big summer blockbusters and autumn’s annual scares—like some sort of… terror camel?
Thankfully, while major theatrical releases have been a bit scant, Q1 2020 has seen a number of notable additions to horror home media. For me, at least, the two not to be missed are DC Universe’s gone-too-soon jewel Swamp Thing: The Complete Series (which is, sadly, just season one) and the Mill Creek Blu-ray release of 1979’s seminal When a Stranger Calls.
It Came From the Swamp
Post-New 52, Swamp Thing sort of became my go-to DC comics character, and 2019’s live-action streaming series does its best to smooth out the rough edges of the guardian of the Green’s various and disparate origin stories. Both former resident Dr. Abby Arcane and disgraced biologist Alec Holland find themselves in Marais, Louisiana studying a virulent swamp-borne illness that threatens the rural town’s small but colorful population.
Just as romantic sparks begin to fly between the two, Holland is ambushed and killed in the remote bayou before he can reveal the illegal dumping that is at least partly to blame for the disease. He is reborn as the titular Swamp Thing, defender of the swamp and the greater, mystical force of all plant life, the Green, against the encroaching darkness (AKA the Rot).
As he and Abby explore the greater mystery of his transformation, they are aided by local reporter Liz Tremayne and supernatural superhero the Blue Devil while regularly foiled by Abby’s crooked adoptive father Avery Sunderland, the overly ambitious Dr. Jason Woodrue, and agents of the powerful, shadowy organization known only as the Conclave.
While it certainly ain’t high drama, the show nicely tempers Will Patton’s scenery-chewing as Avery Sunderland and Jeryl Prescott’s sadly one-note blind psychic, Madame Xanadu, with solid performances by Jennifer Beals (as Sheriff Lucilia Cable) and Henderson Wade (her son, Matt Cable). Oh, and genre favorite Virginia Madsen’s Maria Sunderland carries way more scenes than she should have to, given her character’s unfortunate payoff.
While the show dives almost immediately headlong into the action and adventure that comes with the territory of elemental avatars and cursed swamps, it often does so at the expense of clear exposition. We get very little insight into the Green and the opposing force of the Rot, a central lynchpin of the plot, and even Jason Woodrue’s transformation into the sinister Floronic Man only occurs as a stinger after the end-credits of the season’s (and thus the series’) 10th and final episode.
And that likely means very little to those outside of comicdom who don’t already know who/what the Floronic Man even is. The same goes for Macon Blair’s Phantom Stranger, a pivotal figure whose true identity and purpose pretty much flies over the heads of all but the most dedicated of comics nerds.
Even when compared to other DC Universe properties like Titans and Doom Patrol, Swamp Thing was perhaps a little too inside baseball for its own good, which may explain why it was canceled almost immediately after it premiered.
Still, this 10-episode Blu-ray collection stands as a testament to what might have been—a good but not always great showcase for DC’s seedier, sweatier, more sinister side that, unfortunately, never got a chance to tell the whole story. At under $30 (it’s around $23 on Amazon as I write this), it’s easy to recommend for Swamp Thing fans and those intrigued by its weird blend of ageless hoodoo and bayou soap opera… even if the only real bonus material is Digital Copy.
More casual fans, though, might not be so intrigued by its loosey-goosey plot structure and often-nameless central players. But, if nothing else, everyone will enjoy the surprise guest appearance by Adrienne Barbeau as Dr. Palomar, the snarky assistant director of Atlanta’s CDC.
The Calls Are Coming From Inside the House
For horror aficionados, When a Stranger Calls is something of a classic. Its opening sequence is often regarded as one of the most unsettling in film history, and it went on to inspire Drew Barrymore’s creepy phone call that kicks off Wes Craven’s now-iconic Scream.
For the modern palate, it’s a bit quaint overall, but its obvious nods to the classic urban legend of the babysitter and the man upstairs do still make for some entertaining viewing—even 40+ years after its initial release. This is due in no small part to a baby-faced Carol Kane (in her mid-20s at the time) as traumatized babysitter Jill Johnson.
After Jill’s fateful phone call and the predictable deaths of her young charges, the Mandrakis kids, the film unceremoniously transitions from tight, atmospheric horror to more of a meandering police procedural with some added cat-and-mouse for good measure. Detective Clifford, the investigating officer of the original case, is hired seven years later by Dr. Mandrakis to recapture the killer, Curt Duncan, after he escapes from the asylum.
In short order, Clifford decides to kill Duncan rather than recapture him, recruits his former police partner Charles Garber to help, and uses an aging barfly as bait in his trap to catch the murderer. This plan fails, but Curt Duncan is ultimately killed after he tracks down a now-adult Jill, threatening her own brood and pulling off a particularly inspired bit of misdirection before eventually being gunned down by the detective.
While this isn’t its first appearance on Blu-ray—Mill Creek originally released this transfer alongside Happy Birthday to Me—this solo version with its throwback VHS-style outer sleeve is an easy way to grab the film for around nine bucks. It’s certainly a no-frills affair and there is some obvious low-light noise in its opening moments, but you really can’t beat the price.
Even with all its well-worn tropes on display, When a Stranger Calls is still worth a watch. It’s frightening without being flagrant and gruesome without ever being overly explicit. This makes it perfect for anytime viewing.