Tuesday, January 26, 2016

IF YOU SEE SWAMP THING, SAY SWAMP THING: THE EMERALD HEART

With superhero television programs blowing up in the last few years, recaps of superhero television shows have become all the internet rage. Other sites, however, are hobbled by the need to cover shows which have been "recently broadcast" or which are "any good at all." But who covers the uncoverable? That's why Gone&Forgotten chooses to cover the 1991-1993 USA Network live-action Swamp Thing television series in a feature I like to call...

If You See Swamp Thing, Say Swamp Thing
The saga of a giant turnip and his heroic attempts to establish an evil-free zone around his beloved cesspool.
Season One / Episode One : The Emerald Heart


At a shaved-down twenty-two minute running time, you'll have to come to grips with the fact that Swamp Thing is a television show which doesn't have a lot of room for "establishing the episode's premise" or, at the other side of the spectrum, "providing a satisfying conclusion." The fact is that sometimes you're going to get an episode that opens on nothing more elaborate than a slow, silent zoom on a dwarf strung up by his feet from a candy-striped pole in the middle of the swamp, and that will have to hold you over until dinner's ready.

Something terrible has happened at Santa's workshop.

Swamp Thing arguably spins off from the pair of big-screen motion pictures which preceded it, Wes Craven's Swamp Thing and not-Wes Craven's Return of Swamp Thing, a sequel so under-budgeted that it couldn't afford a definitive article. The primary connection is Dick Durock, stuntman and actor who donned the suit of dried yams every time DC's muck monster made it to live-action, which sounds like the product of a witch's curse.

Durock does an admirable job with the surprisingly thin gruel given to the show's title character. Primarily, though, the highlight of the performance is that he's finally nailed down the Swamp Thing voice. In the first movie, his direction seemed to be "bashful." In the second, it was apparently "surfer dude (thumbs up!)." In the TV show, he finally speaks like the comics suggested the character might -- as though he were a man with a poor diet trying to hold a conversation through a bathroom door after three straight nights of cold lasagna for dinner.

Swamp Thing is clearly on cocaine.

Soap star Mark Lindsay Chapman is the successor to Louis Jordan's big-screen depiction of Doctor Anton Arcane, and looks like David Byrne's skeleton still wearing David Byrne's suit from Stop Making Sense. If you had difficulty finding shoulder pads between the years of 1991 and 1993, then I expect the culprit was the costume designer for Swamp Thing. 

Making up the rest of the cast is Tressa Kipp (Carrell Myers), a single mom who's moved in with her mother Savannah Langford (Patricia Helwick) after some "problems" her son, Jim Kipp (Jesse Ziegler, a sort-of pink, leftover Gremlin) experienced when the pair lived in Philadelphia. My guess is that Jim was just chilling out, maxin', relaxin' all cool and playing some b-ball down at the school, and furthermore that it was actually a couple of guys who were up to no good who started making trouble in the neighborhood. Still, Jim got in one little fight and his mom got scared and said "Let's go live on the Universal Studios backlot with your grandmother. PS, don't get emotionally attached to the old bird."

But, with everyone introduced, it's on to the episode recap!

Following the title sequence, it's Jim who discovers the strung-up dwarf (Humphrey, a former assistant/test subject of Arcane's, played by John Edward Allen) while punting the swamps and ineptly filming the tops of trees and closeups of his shoes. Humphrey is on the run from Arcane, whose immoral experiments produce unconvincing rubber man-monsters to serve his evil desires.

The one evil desire which quasi-scientific monstrosities can't provide Arcane is a woman's sensuous touch, which is why he patrols the shopping district in his sweet ride, harassing Savannah Langford into pimping out her daughter. It sounds like a sleazy and uncomfortable plotline, and it sure is. Arcane is pretty consistently played as some sort of gruesome date rapist, and the bird's nest of weaponized mousse he wears as a hairstyle doesn't help matters.

Literally driving around, just hoping to pass a ZZ Top video shoot.

Meanwhile, Humphrey's got the trubs. One of Arcane's men has discovered him and leaves the weird little fella beaten to literal death by the shoreline. Jim's of no particular help, on account of he's being menaced elsewhere in the swamp by one of Arcane's creations - a short-fingered, toothless chimp nicknamed Toad Boy (Bobby Porter). Fortunately, this gives Swamp Thing his one chance in this episode to perform his equivalent of hulking out, demonstrating all of his greatest superpowers: He intimidates Toad Boy and sends him skittering into the glades, returns Humphrey to the world of the living with his bio-restorative touch, turns the bad guy into a tree as punishment for committing an act of evil in Swamp Thing's swamp and -- most importantly -- is a good listener.

Jim promptly adopts Swamp Thing as a surrogate father, like one does with a two-legged bag of compost who lives in your backyard. He also goes to great pains to explain his and his mom's Philadelphia diaspora to a barely-interested Swamp Thing. "I'm used to strange things," explains Jim as he and Swamp Thing go for a walk, "I'm from Philadelphia." Nuff said.

"I got this thing where I love to wander around different neighborhoods late at night. I sneak out after my mother goes to bed. You'd be surprised at the things I see." This is a nine year-old boy, talking like the Son of Sam. Calling his mom "my mother" is particularly Ed Gein-y of him. If he doesn't have a shoebox full of cat skulls under his bed, I'll eat my hat. Or I'll eat MY shoebox full of cat skulls, whichever's closest.

"How would you like it if somebody picked YOUR apples!"

Speaking of Tressa, the groundwork is laid for Swamp Thing having the hots for Jim's mom, which certainly goes a long way towards explaining why the big muck monster tolerates listening to Jim's unmedicated rambling. As Tressa idly and purposelessly wanders the gross swamp in her backyard, Swamp Thing tries to lure her attention with a roughly heart-shaped pendant necklace inside of which he's bolted an LED. Swamp Thing is surprisingly crafty! Also, Tressa doesn't fall for it, wandering away and leaving the necklace behind. My guess is that she's pretty used to swamp monsters trying to stick her with cheap jewelry. Fool me once, shame on you, as they say ...

Arcane manages to get his hands on Humphrey while hauling a dime piece back to his secret cavern/laboratory. There, his unconvincing man-misfits hang around languorously chained to walls giving the place a certain insouciance. Currently occupying the three convenient hollow cave slots are Arcane's most horrifying recent experiments, (a) some sort of bat-monster (b) a pig-man and (c) a woman. To be fair, her hair is a mess. Terrifying!

Atmosphere is everything in the cave/lab, since it's serving a double purpose: not only does Arcane terrorize an exhausted and restrained Humphrey in the grim spot, he also has to use it to manhandle (booo!) his date and coerce her into performing the least erotic bump-and-grind in wetlands history. 

"And now let's welcome to the stage Candy, Candy on the center stage, and two dollars off all shots!"


Say what you will, Chapman and Allen at least seem to be having fun, even when Arcane idly shoots Humphrey through the top of the head. Well, you have to laugh.

Tressa ends the episode by getting on a boat piloted by the shirtless local simpleton, Obo (Anthony Galde), leaving Jim to stay with his much-suffering grandmother while Tressa beats cheeks back for Philadelphia. Given how fucked up and evil this supposedly evil-free swamp is, "leaving in a hurry" is the correct answer. Even if you keep in mind that the creepiest thing she saw in the swamp was novelty jewelry. If she'd seen even half of what the audience had, she'd shit herself sideways to the next county. 

"Can someone get me a magazine, please?"

Elated, Jim runs into the swamp screaming "I'm staying! Did you hear, I'm staying," Swamp Thing's muted response to this is to solemnly and wordlessly observe the tyke's idiot antics from behind a fern and grimace. I feel the same way.

With Tressa going back to Philly, that's the end of the pilot episode of Swamp Thing, which surprisingly has a full minute of closing credits. No scene in this entire episode lasted a minute ... heck, I don't think any subplot lasted a full minute. I guess you don't cross the Unions.

You can pick up, in two weeks, where this Swamp Thing saga goes after the pilot, with a reshuffling of the cast and new, unfortunately non-lethal menaces to face Jim. Please keep your evil in a safe place and do not dangle your evil out of the windows, thank you.

6 comments:

Sina said...

Holy shit...*what*? :P

Sir Alvin said...

Florida never became "Vancouver South", no matter how hard SUPERBOY and SWAMP THING tried.

John said...

I completely missed this show. And clearly a lot of "80s" trends extended well into the 90s. Too bad they didn't wait a few years - they could have had a Grunge Swamp Thing with faux-Nirvana theme song and everything.

Christopher Potter said...

Do we a full series review? Chris Sims styles? Please, pretty please

Calamity Jon said...

I don't know about Chris Sims-style but, yes, it'll be the whole series.

Gregory Whittaker said...

If you watch the whole series, you would know that The unlikeable Jim Kipp does not stick around for long. I love how they get rid of that character.

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