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Horror and science fiction have always been a part of the television canvas, and constant attempts have been made over the years to produce classic entertainment. Some have fallen by the wayside, while others became mainstream phenomena. With “TV Terrors,” we take a look back at the many genre efforts from the 80’s, 90’s, and 00’s, exploring some shows that became cult classics, and others that sank in to obscurity.
This week we take a look back at… Swamp Thing.
- Aired from 1990-1993
- Aired on USA Network
“The swamp is my world. It is who I am. It is what I am. I was once a man. I know the evil men do. Do not bring your evil here, I warn you. Beware the wrath of… Swamp Thing!”
We’re reaching a new era in streaming television where it’s becoming so much easier to bring our favorite comic book heroes to the small screen. With the fascination with horror reaching an all time high, DC and Vertigo’s Swamp Thing is one of the many characters tapped to make a return in the coming years. With the anticipation for the modern revival, it’s easy to forget that the eighties was a decade where Swamp Thing was able to thrive, for better and for worse.
Alan Moore made his debut in comics by reviving Swamp Thing for a new generation of readers for the Vertigo label. In 1982, Wes Craven brought the character to the big screen in a horror and action hybrid that is considered a cult classic. In 1989, Jim Wynorski brought us a campier and sillier follow up co-starring a young Heather Locklear. In 1990, we were treated to the titular Swamp guardian getting his very own basic cable series.
For all the live action portrayals, both small and big screen, stunt man and actor Dick Durok took up the mantle of the character, playing the monster to whatever the order of the day was. Thankfully Durok’s charming personality and frank delivery of the character allowed Swamp Thing to become a sympathetic and enigmatic hero every single time. Whether played for laughs or creeps, Swamp Thing was always the protector of the swamp. Originally airing on the USA Network, my own introduction to the series began with the Scifi Channel in America back in 1994.
Much like the first two films, the series itself is a huge missed opportunity that can never be sure how to approach the character. To its credit, the series lasted almost a hundred episodes, however during its run it was retooled drastically fourteen episodes into the first season. From there the series progressed from a supernatural drama to more of an anthology based series with Swamp Thing confronting various villains and nemeses.
What made “Swamp Thing” so utterly abysmal is that the titular monster is shockingly just a side character in his own series. While we do get bits and pieces about the origin of the character, including flashbacks to his days as a human and his rivalry with the evil Dr. Arcane, Swamp Thing is mainly reduced to a supporting player. “Swamp Thing” watches a lot like the typical eighties dramas where he’s handed a kid sidekick, something happens near the swamp, and the character is forced to step in at the last minute. And everything has to happen near or in the swamp, lest the character be rendered useless in his own show.
Swamp Thing, for all his amazing powers, barely does much of anything until the very last second. The rest of the time he’s basically standing in the distance, watching people, and muttering to himself on what to do next. Most people know by now that the shooting schedules for television series rely on rapid fire filming, and cutting corners whenever possible. This provides problems for “Swamp Thing” since the series relies on the make up heavy character that (according to interviews) took forty five minutes to apply. Not to mention there’s the revelation of other mutants bred from Dr. Arcane. If anything the series at least brings mutants back, all of whom are products of the evil Dr. Arcane, as played by the slimy but charming Mark Lindsay Chapman.
I dare you not to stare at his massive hair band mane. His purpose relies on trying to get the formula for immortality that Swamp Thing’s human form perfected, and he comes up with various schemes for obtaining it. This would allow for a great hook, but again, Swamp Thing is reduced to being nothing more than a bit player and often just a sentient observer. Even the character’s portrayal is confused and muddled at times, where he at one moment manages to befriend a local boy named Jim who lives with his single mother near the swamp; the next he’s stopping a thug in his territory by using his powers to encase the man in a tree in cold blood. The times Swamp Thing is able to come forward and stomp heads with other mutants, it’s pretty anti-climactic.
The series has all the right pieces but never quite knows how to put them together to form a coherent narrative and arc. Plot lines are unresolved, characters disappear during seasons with little explanation, and Swamp Thing’s powers are inconsistent at best. We’re also given little clarity in the realm of how he bonded with the swamp, why he clings to the swamp, why he has to protect it and his struggle with his own humanity. Sans commercials, every episode clocked in at twenty minutes, and a lot of the story and character drama felt like tacked on fat to a fairly paper thin series of episodes. If anything I love that the producers were hell bent on keeping the tone of the series dramatic with a heavy leaning on the supernatural, and Dick Durok is my favorite portrayal of Swamp Thing yet.
It’s just a shame none of this matters since only about ten episodes contain meaty forward progression in Swamp Thing’s arc. With the retooling fourteen episodes in, young Jim is literally hauled off to be a child slave, while we’re introduced to a young buxom Kari Wuhrer who plays Abbey Crane. She’s another of Arcane’s experiments who works with Swamp Thing to stop the mad scientist. This change allowed for more adult and mature tones, but still never quite fixed the lack of focus, and glacial pacing of every episode.
Despite the quality of the series, “Swamp Thing” still garners a respectable cult following and thrived for years on cable, jumping from USA to the Scifi Channel, where it played for years, and so on. In 1991, there was even a short lived animated series that played Saturday Mornings which tried hard to make the character a kid friendly hero. The character of Swamp Thing can be great in the right hands and with enough respect to the mythos; in spite of the spooky opening credits, the serious never quite got supernatural enough. With the James Wan-fueled, live action adaptation coming up the pipeline, perhaps we’ll get something more in line with Alan Moore’s legendary revival. The door is wide open for a weird, creepy, and intense series.
Is It On DVD/Blu-Ray? The entire series is still in print on DVD, and you can also grab the series in two separate volumes. You can also stream episodes on various websites including Amazon. The precursor “The Return of Swamp Thing” was recently re-released on a deluxe edition blu-ray from the “MVD Rewind Collection.