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Sunday, January 20, 2008

"SWAMP THING: THE SERIES" -- DVD review by porfle




"I know the evil men do. Do not bring your evil here. Do not incur the wrath of...SWAMP THING!"
 
Thus warns Dr. Alec Holland, aka Swamp Thing, who, as those familiar with the original DC comic and 1982 Wes Craven film will know, was once a scientist doing genetic research in the swamps of Lousiana. After a run-in with the evil Dr. Anton Arcane, Holland was bathed in deadly chemicals and set afire. Plunging himself into the swamp, he transformed into the hulking plant-animal hybrid known as Swamp Thing and began a one-monster crusade against evil.

The movie, as I recall, was fun but not really that great. Being more of a fan of Marvel's "Man-Thing" myself, I don't think I ever read a "Swamp Thing" comic, and I never caught the 1990 TV series when it was on. So sitting down to watch the first two seasons of the show on this 4-disc set from our old friends at Shout! Factory was intriguing. Would I be blissfully swept away on a wave of pure entertainment? Or would it suck swamp water? There was only one way to find out.

The first thing I noticed was the fact that it was developed for television by Joseph Stefano, whose credits include the original "Outer Limits" and the screenplay for Hitchcock's PSYCHO. Not bad--and he wrote the script for the episode that kicks off the set, "The Emerald Heart", along with several subsequent ones. Definitely a good sign.

In this episode, we meet Jim Kipp, a troubled, introverted lad who is spending the summer at his grandmother's house at the edge of a swamp. (Later, Jim and his mom will move into the house after the grandmother dies.) Jim's divorced mom, Tressa (Carrell Myers), hopes that a little time away from it all in her childhood home will help Jim to not be so emotionally screwed-up. This turns out to be a good plan when Jim meets the Swamp Thing, who becomes his best friend and guardian--which will come in handy when the evil Dr. Arcane (Louis Jordan in the movie, now played by dapper Mark Lindsay Chapman) starts putting the moves on Tressa and trying to wrest the house and property away from the Kipps.


In a way, the initial premise of "Swamp Thing" is surprisingly similar to numerous TV shows like "Flipper" or "Fury", in which a kid lives in a natural environment with a single parent and has a special friend to go on adventures with. Swampy comes off for the most part as a benevolent, almost warm and cuddly presence. Until someone commits an evil deed in his swamp, that is. Then, he's liable to pin the poor slob against a tree and encase his body in bark or something.


But just when the family-drama aspect of the show is playing itself out, something horrible happens to remind us that "Swamp Thing" has all the bases covered. That's usually where Dr. Arcane comes in. He's a twisted scientific genius with a hidden cave laboratory filled with hideous genetic mutations, and it's in this setting that the series comes closest to Irwin Allen territory. Like H.G. Wells' Dr. Moreau, Dr. Arcane's hobby is taking swamp animals and turning them into humans, with grotesque results. Then, more often than not, these creatures manage to escape and run around the swamp, making everyday childhood a bit more interesting for our Jim.


Swampy is played once again by Dick Durock, who wore the costume in the '82 film and its sequel. Although he doesn't really do that much, Durock acts well with his eyes and is a convincing presence in the role. The Berni Wrightson-inspired costume itself seems to have been improved upon by creature-creators Carl Fullerton and Neal Martz.


Ten-year-old Jesse Zeigler is fairly talented and manages to not be very obnoxious as Jim, which to me is a good recommendation for a child actor. Carrell Myers is appealing as All-American single mom Tressa, and is more than capable of handling the dramatic scenes. Mark Lindsay Chapman seems to relish playing such a dastardly character, which is a plus. His Dr. Arcane is a handsome young chap who can be quite charming, yet is the epitome of evil. This is an obvious contrast to the frightening-yet-benign Swamp Thing, demonstrating that you can't always judge a monster by its cover.


The rich, autumnal cinematography takes advantage of some good Florida locations, and Christopher L. Stone's evocative music augments the visuals nicely. (His "Swamp Thing" theme is hummable, too.) It's interesting to note that some of these episodes were directed by none other than "Wally Cleaver" himself, Tony Dow, while Andrew Stevens helmed a few others. The guest cast occasionally features notable names such as Stevens, Roscoe Lee Browne, Sandahl Bergman, Peter Mark Richman, and Wolfman Jack.


The DVD's picture and sound are of the same quality you can usually expect from Shout! Factory, with the standard full-screen TV image. The packaging (two double-disc slimline cases) and menus are nicely designed, though lacking an episode list with summaries, guest stars, and other info. As a bonus to the 22 half-hour episodes (presented here in the original order in which they were intended), a nineteen-minute featurette entitled "The Men Behind the Muck" contains interviews with Dick Durock and co-creator (with Berni Wrightson) Len Wein. Wein's enthusiasm for comics and writing in general is infectious, while Durock offers up an interesting history of his participation in the Swamp Thing's different screen incarnations.

At times, the Stefano influence gives "Swamp Thing" the feel of an old "Outer Limits" episode--indeed, Swampy would've been a perfect character for that classic show. Stefano also made sure that, while there would be no shortage of monsters and other weird stuff, the quality of the writing remained relatively high. In the episode "Falco", Swamp Thing has a rather philosophical exchange with a man (Richman) who used to be a peregrin falcon until Dr. Arcane got done with him, leaving him with a human body and a large falcon's wing in place of his right arm. The two kindred souls discuss what it's like to be freaks of nature and whether or not revenge is the right path to take. A chance occurrence gives Falco a more inspirational outlook on life and leaves us with an uplifting ending.

Another episode, "The Legend of the Swamp Maiden", has some surprisingly erotic overtones. Jim and his older-but-not-wiser friend Obo (Anthony Galde) sneak out into the swamp one night to witness the appearance of the fabled title character. She emerges naked from the swamp, and seduces Obo into a kiss that turns him into a monster. Appearing later in a revealing plant outfit she gets into a kinky wrestling match with Swamp Thing. Finally, the naked-again swamp maiden disappears back into the depths. I don't know about you, but my kid shows didn't have half-naked babes in them.

Then comes episode fourteen, and suddenly things have changed drastically. Joe Stefano's name no longer appears in the credits. Jim Kipp, last seen kidnapped by Dr. Arcane and being transported in a cage by truck to parts unknown, is history. Man, this has got to be the most unceremonious departure of a continuing child character I've ever seen. To paraphrase Tom Hagen: "It's like he never even existed." Meanwhile, Jim's older half-brother Will (Scott Garrison) has come home to stay, and Kari Wuhrer joins the cast as Abigail, a discarded result of Dr. Arcane's experiments in creating human life without human DNA. She moves in to cook for Tress, who's busy with a new swamp-tour business, and also to serve as a romantic interest for Will. So, with a hunky guy and a hot babe suddenly running around the swamp, the show takes on a rather different dynamic. As for Dr. Arcane, he's even more sinister than ever, now turning innocent humans into genetic mutations for sale as slave labor, among other atrocities. What a great guy.

The blending of family-oriented drama with monsters and sci-fi elements is pretty smoothly done and makes "Swamp Thing" a show that can be appreciated on both the kid and adult level. In this way it kinda reminds me of "The Incredible Hulk", in which the grown-ups could enjoy the serious adventures of Bill Bixby while the kids waited for him to Hulk out. It also brings to mind, of all things, SHANE. In that classic Alan Ladd western, a family of settlers is terrorized by bad guys trying to run them off their land until a mysterious stranger with special abilities rides to the rescue and becomes the little boy's hero. I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that this describes much of "Swamp Thing" pretty well, except you don't need a six-gun to fight the bad guys when you can sic the environment on them.

You can buy Swamp Thing: The Seriesat Amazon.com and help support HK AND CULT FLIX DVD

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