Image B- Sound B Extras C
"The Emerald Heart," "Falco," "Treasure," "From Beyond the Grave," "Blood Wind," "Grotesquery," "New Acqaintance," "Natural Enemy," "Spirit of the Swamp," "Legend of the Swamp Maiden," "The Death of Dr. Arcane," "The Living Image," "The Shipment," "Birthmarks," "The Dark Side of the Mirror," "Silent Screams," "Walk a Mile in My Shoots," "The Watchers," "The Hunt," "Touch of Death," "Tremors of the Heart," "The Prometheus Parabola"
by Ian Pugh In many ways the anti-Darkman, Wes Craven's Swamp Thing also saw a comic-book scientist irrevocably transformed into a monster at the hands of hoodlum saboteurs. Alas, unlike Sam Raimi with his masterpiece, Craven is unable to strike a balance between seriousness and silliness, falling too far in the latter direction before the picture finally collapses under its own snarky weight. It is, however, the film that enlightened me as to why B-movie anti-appreciation is such a worthless endeavour, since Swamp Thing never bothers to pretend that it's anything more than a couple of dudes in rubber suits wailing on each other. When you're making a movie in the "MST3K" mindset, as Craven appears to be, you don't really have a movie in mind, per se--you're just positioning actors as they recite lines from a script.
The USA Network's "Swamp Thing" spin-off series, on the other hand, quickly establishes itself as the proverbial real deal. The very first shot of the pilot features a dwarf, tied upside-down to a pole in the middle of a swamp; meanwhile, the titular Green Man (stuntman Dick Durock, who played the character in both Swamp Thing films) takes the opportunity to transform a hired goon into some kind of immobile, sentient tree-man. Already the question arises: What the hell is going on? The dialogue here is so stiff and improbable as to nearly recall Troll 2, and you have a feeling that someone was a little too excited to blow a miniscule budget on sub-Henson Workshop monstrosities. Yet there's a surprising earnestness to the whole affair, a steady, self-assured hand that successfully prevents you from condescending to it. Troll 2 is incompetent; Craven's Swamp Thing is fabricated incompetence; the "Swamp Thing" TV show is genuinely wacky enough to take seriously.
The series soon settles into a proper formula as Swamp Thing befriends meddling kid Jim (Jesse Ziegler) and doggedly defends the bayou from his arch-nemesis Anton Arcane (Mark Lindsay Chapman), a conniving yuppie scientist who spends his spare time mucking in God's domain and sending the resultant mutations to do...well, something. It's not a premise that exactly lends itself to a great deal of excitement--there can't be much tension involved when your protagonist is gifted with the ability to bring people back from the dead. But "Swamp Thing" overcomes its inherent shortcomings by embracing comic-book absurdities and treating them as mundane occurrences. In a live-action setting, this can result in either seriocomic verisimilitude (as in Richard Donner's Superman) or something so completely divorced from reality that it registers as a form of insanity. More often than not, "Swamp Thing" fits the second bill, but the degree to which it relishes that identity entitles it to a few take the fucking elephant! moments.
Case in point: "Beyond the Grave" (1.4), in which Jim and his mother Tressa (Carrell Myers) are prompted by sepia visions of their dead granny to go searching for her will in the middle of the swamp, only to run afoul of a public notary wielding a bow and arrow. Arcane greets his lackey's subsequent inevitable failure with a shirtless tantrum highlighted by a recitation of "Henry IV, Part 1" that comes straight out of left field by most standards, no doubt, though somehow it never feels like a betrayal of the material. Still, it's difficult to dance about "Swamp Thing"'s architecture and the loving zaniness that runs throughout its first thirteen episodes. You kind of have to be there when Tressa inhales a chemical that sends everyone around her into a homicidal rage (1.5, "Blood Wind"); when a modern-day Circe of the swamp turns her lustful quarries into bloated gillmen (1.10, "Legend of the Swamp Maiden"); or when--what else?--circus freaks engage in a thoroughly indescribable standoff (1.6, "Grotesquery"). Even when the time comes to retool the show for a second season and replace Jim with his half-brother Will (Johnny Depp-lite Scott Garrison), the creators do so by initiating a crazed self-destruct sequence: Jim is the major fulcrum for Swamp Thing's very limited, swamp-centric heroics, but in "The Shipment" (1.13), Arcane kidnaps him, sends him to South America in a cage, and fakes a car accident with one of his failed experiments acting the part of the body. Everyone thinks Jim's dead, and he's never spoken of again. It's the ultimate confirmation that "Swamp Thing" wasn't fucking around.
Taken as a whole, the debut season of "Swamp Thing" is a work of such dedicated madness that it approaches beauty. With "Knight Rider" executive producer Tom Greene now behind the wheel, "Swamp Thing" entered its second season with a slightly larger budget and proceeded to up the ante on Arcane's villainy: no longer a mere gene-splicer, he's taken under the wing of a Blofeld-like benefactor and charged with testing out newfangled military equipment in the swamp. The series maintains its unique sense of outrageousness mostly by attempting to reconcile hi-tech hijinks with the rural backdrop. Test-tube baby Abigail (Kari Wuhrer) is added to the mix to no discernable end, while scripts recast the Terminator (2.5, "The Watchers") and "X-Men"'s Rogue (2.7, "Touch of Death") as hillbillies. At this point, "Swamp Thing" invests pretty heavily in Arcane's technological MacGuffins in a bid to wow you, but it does so without sacrificing the Arcane/Swamp Thing rivalry that has served as the anchor from the beginning. Although a science-fiction approach curiously results in something more down-to-earth, season two exemplifies the same strong faith in its characters that originally made "Swamp Thing" so compulsively watchable.
Branded simply "Swamp Thing: The Series", Shout! Factory's four-DVD set actually contains only the first twenty-two episodes of the series' seventy-two episode run. (A second volume is scheduled for release in July.) The show was shot on characteristically grainy late'-'80s/early-'90s film stock and has been reasonably well-preserved, with the most significant problem being a bluish/greenish cast that takes over pitch-black night scenes in the back nine. An attendant stereo soundtrack adequately evokes the bayou ambience. Bonus Materials on Disc Four are localized in "The Men Behind the Muck" (20 mins.), interviews with Durock and Swamp Thing co-creator Len Wein, who alternately discuss the individual career paths that led them to this point. Sadly, not enough is said about how goddamned crazy the show could be. Locate hidden Swamp Thing icons throughout the episode menus for a few more tidbits: Discs One and Two find Wein describing the challenges of writing for a superhero team and a hypothetical Swamp Thing movie remake, respectively, while Disc Three has Durock briefing us on the particulars of his voluminous makeup. Forced trailers for Blackballed: The Bobby Dukes Story and the "MST3K" pseudo-spin-off "The Film Crew" cue up on the first platter's startup. Originally published: January 8, 2008.
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