Swamp Thing‘s Gory Horror Nails its Lush Debut

TV Reviews Swamp Thing
Swamp Thing‘s Gory Horror Nails its Lush Debut

After initially hating Titans and enjoying Doom Patrol (though both got better over time), Swamp Thing is the first of DC Universe’s streaming offerings to nail it right out of the gate. It’s also first DC streaming show to have a genre outside of its superherodom. Swamp Thing loves creepy, R-rated botanical horror like Doom Patrol loves the ethereal quality of “weirdness”—and as you watch, it definitely grows on you.

Swamp Thing adapts dual sides of its comic character’s mythos. Some of the darker, stranger, more horrific elements of Alan Moore’s take on the character meet the supporting cast that preceded the writer’s tackling of the tragic mossy monster. The result is a fully-established community flecked with lurking evil, more akin to the supernatural “gravitational pull” (as one local puts it) of Castle Rock than most superhero TV, steeped in frightening, otherworldly tension.

Dr. Abby Arcane (Crystal Reed), our lead, is concerned first with more worldly threats. She’s a scientist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Epidemic Intelligence Service (or what their website calls a “disease detective”), coming back home to small town Louisiana to go full Columbo on a pathogen emanating from the nearby swamplands. She links up with out-of-town biologist Alec Holland (Andy Bean), who’s working for the local money—Avery Sunderland (Will Patton)—to look into the same problem (and some weird, accelerated plant growth), beginning the increasingly strange investigation in earnest.

The first two episodes are rife with sweaty swamp town politics, a stark class divide, and some seriously grotesque effectwork. With a lot of practical vine monsters and committed acting, exciting scenes (like one of Abby and Alec escaping a morgue) are delightfully gross and tangible. Almost as tangible is the bad blood and old relationships between Abby and the rest of town. Virginia Madsen’s first monologue as Maria Sunderland is as Southern Gothic as Robert Smith eating peach cobbler. Just as delicious, too. Abby’s position in the town is almost as important as the mysterious swamp illness plaguing it, which means her relationships (even her single day spent with Alec before he becomes Swamp Thing) are all given ample screen time.

The two developing a quick bond is essential to the greater plot, and thankfully the show makes a case for connection that not only feels natural, but furthers both characters with their desires. Reed and Bean have great energy both together and apart; they do all the things drama TV often requires (flirting, speaking in jargon, running from danger) that fulfill the obligation and do something extra. Between them and the sharp script, Swamp Thing has no problem building its good guys—especially the Thing himself (Derek Mears), whose transformation is completed by the end of the pilot and looks like if that soggy, dark piece of lettuce at the bottom of your salad was a powerlifter. By which I mean totally perfect.

As far as bad guys go, director Len Wiseman and writers Mark Verheiden and Gary Dauberman immediately put those that would harm the swamp in nasty, sweaty danger. Jittery, powerful strands of ivy, like the creeping fingers of mangrove roots, threaten like the best Anaconda films and with even more unworldly power. Their gruesome payoff fits right into a B-movie aesthetic that’s equal parts Jumanji, The Ruins, and The Fly.

Techniques and homages populate the series like mosquitoes in the wetlands, as Evil Dead’s schlocky camera kineticism and The Thing’s gruesome creature design seem to be touchstones. A man puking his guts out becomes enshrined in grimy topiary, while Swamp Thing ripping himself apart becomes a terrifying demonstration of hivemind. The setting – both in its midnight, floodlight-lit swamps, and its dilapidated waterfront structures – feels sticky, old, and full of stories. This is a show that revels in upsetting visuals. With all the comic-based media out there, you’d think some more of it would explore its potential in this area, but Swamp Thing’s horrible sights have a rare vitality.

That doesn’t mean everything works. Sometimes the plot can’t find its balance between silly schlock and seriousness. Sometimes the pacing of the horror doesn’t allow suspense to fully set in or allow the rush to fully break into its desperate speed, which can even out a horror sequence to milquetoast sameness. A surprising amount of queer side characters are sadly very clearly on the side while, no matter Madame Xanadu’s comic history, a blind black mystic introduced helping a rich white lady not feel so sad is a bummer. But even these tropey elements can’t bring down dialogue that knows when to alternate between breezy and sweltering or stop punchy jump scares from peppering its scenes with periodic spikes in blood pressure.

And that cast of weirdos is begging for very weird, very Annihilation-style deaths. Ian Ziering’s cocky actor, Jennifer Beals’ snarky sheriff, Henderson Wade’s earnest cop, and Kevin Durand’s eccentric soon-to-be Floronic Man all steal scenes like horror movie victims can, making their marks early … in case they don’t stay late. Because the kills we do get to see in the first two episodes will make gorehounds proud, it’s worth watching alone for the promise of bigger, better, and more tendril-filled deaths. Although Swamp Thing’s strangely truncated production may bode ill for its progression, its start isn’t just the strongest of the DC Universe shows—it’s one of the best beginnings in superhero TV.

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