This Swamp Thing review contains spoilers.
The swamp is an ancient place, teeming with life, most of which would not turn down a chance to eat you – a chance they might get should you be on the water late at night, when everything is abuzz. And those who live near, and off of, the swamp are a curious folk, both proud and private, and prone to Southern Gothic eccentricities.
Add in an element of the swamp itself literally coming alive, and giving birth to a new kind of humanoid lifeform, and you have Swamp Thing, the new sci-fi/horror series on DC Universe’s streaming service. Produced by James Wan, the show is based on the elemental superhero/monster comic book character created by Len Wein, and Bernie Wrightson (and influenced by the arc written by Alan Moore).
The pilot cold opens with a trio of dodgy locals making some kind of nighttime drop in the swamps of Marais, Louisiana. They are obviously marked for death, but it’s no less interesting when the boat they’re in is attacked by a swarm of vines springing to life, and growing rapidly. The scene is an effective first-reel monster movie slaying, shrouded in mystery – and culminating in an entire tree growing through the boat, impaling one of the unlucky henchmen in a gory fashion.
The scene sets the tone nicely for the show, coupled with the even more effective Contagion-like scene of a little girl coughing up some phlegmy leaf gunk, and toppling over in her classroom. So the stage is set for an infection in Marais that’s connected with the swamp itself coming to life.
Enter Abby Arcane (Crystal Reed, most recently Sofia Falcone in Gotham), a CDC doctor from Marais sent back to her hometown to investigate the unknown pathogen. Typically, she left home years prior after a tragedy, never to return before now. Meanwhile Alec Holland (Andy Bean) is the big city scientist in designer flip-flops, and a disgraced scientist trying to redeem himself by working for the prominent Sunderland family. As they join forces — and develop a shared bond of running from their pasts – they learn the mystery of the swamp’s accelerated growth, and the resulting infection, may have human origins.
The series opener sets the table for the arrival of Swamp Thing, the hulking humanoid guardian of the Green, which will be portrayed by Derek Mears in a practical suit. The episode goes through the motions introducing the various colorful characters from Marais. And they are colorful, and tease interesting potential with the likes of Madame Xanadu, adapted from comics, and appearing here as a wizened, blind psychic (although I’m concerned about the show falling for the “Magical Negro” trope with her).
Plus, there are occasional highlights of dialogue, such as between Reed and Virginia Madsen, who plays Maria Sunderland, the grieving mother of Abby’s childhood friend. And Reed does a nice job shouldering show lead duties as our window into Marais, and portrays Abby as an empathetic woman of science.
But where the show truly shines is its use of practical effects and horror elements. An outbreak scene in a cabin plays out with a nice tension, until it reveals a plant-based monstrosity that the camera appropriately lingers on (and which I could look at all day to absorb all its details). One of the boaters from the cold open escaped, but not quite.
It turns out he is the father of the sick girl, and his final moments were apparently spent spewing plant vomit over the basin as he braced himself. Yet the nasty green stuff took root, and grew out of him, transforming his body into a man-thing of vegetation (not to be confused with the Man-Thing of vegetation from the Marvel universe).
That paves the way for the episode highlight reminiscent of John Carpenter’s The Thing, where his infected corpse comes to life, possessed by the seemingly sentient vines. As it launches an attack in the morgue, the creature sloughs off human components. A chunk of the dead man’s jaw wetly plops to the floor, and plant life violent breaks through, and grows, and grows. It’s really gross, and incredibly fun.
The effective horror moments of the episode reminds the viewer that James Wan launched the Aquaman movie franchise, but first he was a master of horror behind Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring. But Swamp Thing also draws from the weird comic book origins of the character who is typically a good guy. And while the series seems more interested in the mad science of the comics, it teases a bit of the magical components of the comics as well.