DC’s Swamp Thing Pilot Takes a Horrifying Trip to the Bayou

The DC Universe streaming service launched last September as a multi-tiered platform that includes a rotating collection of DC series and films, the complete digital library of more than 20,000 comics, and an ever-expanding lineup of live-action series. Starting with Titans last November and continuing with Doom Patrol this spring, the streaming service has now launched Swamp Thing, the third show in a row that has done well with both critics and audiences alike. At a time when the much-sunnier Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) seems to be dominating at the box office, DC Universe’s small screen Warner Bros. Television is scoring with harder edged, darker shows for a comic fan that is in desperate want of more variety in tone. Swamp Thing is most definitely an outright horror series. Executive produced by James Wan (The Conjuring), co-written and developed by Gary Dauberman (It: Chapters 1 and 2) and directed by Len Wiseman (Underworld) the series’ pilot utilizes the talents of the genre craftsman behind the camera to create a terrifying episode.

Dr. Abby Arcane (Crystal Reed) and what was once Alec Hollan (Derek Mears) embrace in a promo for DCUniverse's Swamp Thing.

Swamp Thing kicks things off with an opening sequence that is drenched in terror and soaked in gothic horror. It’s a horror fan’s dream come true. The score by Brian Tyler, which propels so much of the mood throughout, is all shrieking violins. It’s a foreboding warning to the audience about the nature of the scene propelling faster and faster toward a grisly conclusion. In a nod to Wes Craven’s campy big screen adaptation Swamp Thing (1982), the pilot opens on some town yokels riding through the swamp dropping boxes off at specific GPS locations in the water mapped on a laptop given to them by their unidentified employer. Of course they don’t now why they’re doing this or who they’re working for. In many later references to the classic TV show Columbo by biologist Alec Holland, Swamp Thing never wants the audience to forget that it’s a horror show with an existential mystery at its heart.

The music cues turn out to be correct. The swamp actually comes to life, sensing that the men are there to harm it perhaps, and decides to defend itself. The tentacles sprout in Lovecraftian-inspired splendor and attack the boat men in the moonlight. It is designed to shock and awe. One of the yokels tries to fight the enclosing tentacles with dynamite. It’s a bad idea. The sticks explode and take out some of the tentacles but not enough. It only pisses the swamp off and in a monument to terror not seen since NBC’s Hannibal series, the dynamite thrower is impaled by vines up through the water from the bottom of the boat. The boat is elevated by the vast growing vegetation and the dead yokel hangs in the moonlight above, suspended in the air. Eddie Coyle (John Bishop), the leader of the doomed vessel, manages to escape the water only to be attacked by the swamp’s tentacles on the shore.

The basic conceit of man versus nature and man’s punishment for tampering with nature run rampant through the Swamp Thing pilot. It may be a little blunt and the science wonky, but a lot of people will (hopefully) watch this series. Having a healthy symbiotic relationship with the planet is something that affects everyone. There’s no argument that someone can’t come away from Swamp Thing without the idea implanted from the writing itself that man can and often does go too far in manipulating and polluting nature. This leads to unchecked harm done to us and our planet in an intertwined fashion. As the planet gets more sick, so do we as a species. Expect Swamp Thing to revisit this throughout the entire series. The opening of the pilot is an actual showdown between men trying to put something in the swamp that nature itself did not want, so it kept it out by any means necessary—including horrific violence.

Dr. Abby Arcane (Crystal Reed) should probably turn around; her autopsy subject seems to having some difficulties.

Little Susie Coyle (Elle Graham), Eddie’s 7-year-old daughter, is in class 48 hours later. The Coyle family just cannot catch a break on Swamp Thing. She coughs up phlegm before her vision blurs and she passes out on the floor having to be rushed to the hospital with an unidentified life-threatening illness. There’s a story the teacher is telling the class while Susie gets sick and passes out about a “castle king” who takes care of the people until eventually they take too much from him, causing him to grow angry and punish them. It’s a sentiment that the local small town’s folk on the bayou ruled by superstition share.

During a Marais, Louisiana town hall meeting that introduces the town’s patriarch Avery Sunderland (Will Patton) and his wife Maria (Virginia Madsen), another Marais local shouts down the mayor, screaming about the swamp paying the town back for selling out to “big timber” before being silenced by a soft-spoken yet menacing Avery. Avery Sunderland comes off like a charming politician on the surface but there’s something hinting at Daniel Plainview and Victor Frankenstein simmering underneath the surface. Just what is he doing in that lab? Could it possibly be related to what’s going on in the swamp?

Susie Coyle is the catalyst that brings Swamp Thing’s main protagonist back into the small town of Marais, Louisiana. Dr. Abby Arcane (Crystal Reed) works for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) Epidemic Intelligence Department. Before the audience even has a chance to chuckle, Reed’s Abby proclaims in a standard “listen up, I’m in charge” speech that it’s indeed a real thing. (I looked it up. There actually is an Epidemic Intelligence Service department of the CDC. Who knew?) Swamp Thing first sees Abby in the Democratic Republic of Congo, saving children’s lives from fatal diseases in extremely dangerous environments.

After seeing Abby’s gift in relation to connecting with children, which will surely come into play throughout Swamp Thing, Abby’s assistant Harlan (Leonardo Nam) tells her the CDC needs them to pack up and immediately return to America. To Abby’s surprise, the investigation is in her hometown of Marais where she has been ostracized and not back for some time due to being blacklisted by the Sunderlands. Duty calls, however, and Swamp Thing must go on, so Abby and Harlan leave the jungle and head to the swamp.

Virginia Madsen brings some gravitas to her vampy performance as Marais matriarch Maria Sunderland.

Marais, Louisiana is the very definition of a town that time forgot. Driving Abby to the local hospital, Harlan quips that Marais seems to be trapped “in 1962.” It looks more lost in the Great Depression. Marais evokes Season 1 of True Detective, only strengthening the Southern Gothic vibe of the Swamp Thing pilot. Dilapidated buildings seem to be turning back into nature themselves. The faded and chipped paint gives Marais the haunted appearance of a place that is already dead. It feels like the town is haunted with sad, dark stories the way all small forgotten towns feel full of ghosts.

Marais is definitely full of ghosts for Abby. She accidentally killed her best friend. Unfortunately for her, that was Shawna Sunderland—the one girl you don’t want to accidentally kill if you live in Marais, Louisiana. Virginia Madsen (Candyman) shines in telling Abby off, but hopefully there’s more of her in Swamp Thing than there is in the pilot. When you get Virginia Madsen, you use Virginia Madsen as much as possible. She’s amazing. In the one scene she actually gets to act in, she out-does everyone else’s performance in the entire episode. That’s not a knock on the cast. That’s a testament to Virginia Madsen’s talent.

After that initial horrific set piece, Swamp Thing quickly turns into a slow burn for the rest of the episode. There is a tension and uneasiness that builds throughout. Something bad is about to happen in Marais. Or is something bad already happening? It’s a lot of the smaller moments in Swamp Thing that stick with you long after it’s over. Abby checks in on Susie, asleep at the hospital. Beside her bed she finds a yellow-green colored pile of vomit with a twig and vines in it. Susie expelled this from her body. This is where Swamp Thing gets into David Cronenberg (The Fly) territory. The idea of losing control over what happens to one’s own body is terrifying. Cinema is rife with classic dark tales of body horror. Television has rarely seen such Cronenbergian influences than seen in Swamp Thing.

Eddie Doyle had a bad run in with the swamps surrounding Marais.

The scariest sequence in Swamp Thing‘s pilot is the “Doyle residence” sequence. Dr. Abby Arcane is joined by local sheriff deputy Matt Cable (Henderson Wade), an old friend of Abby’s from Marais. In the original Wes Craven film, interestingly enough, Cable was played by Adrienne Barbeau (Escape From New York). The trio search the bayou dwelling together. The inside of the Doyle house is filthy. Eddie Doyle definitely has a hoarding problem (and probably a few others too). He’s nowhere to be found and neither he nor his body have shown up since the opening night at the hospital, which is odd because his daughter Susie is in there. There is a noise upstairs and the score takes over again, turning the tension up and turning the scenario into an edge-of-your-seat horrorshow in broad daylight.

In another horror reference to Swamp Thing executive producer himself James Wan (Insidious), the noise upstairs is revealed to be from the back what appears to be a man sawing off his own leg. It’s a direct homage to James Wan’s debut film Saw (2004). The gag works too. From the front it turns out to be none other than ill-fated biologist Alec Holland (Andy Bean). The scene turns worse too as he shows Matt and Abby that their attention should be focused on what used to be Eddie Doyle. Boy! Is that not a terrifying delight!?

Original and savage in its artistry, the terror in the scene builds on Susie’s plant-laced vomit by showing a fully plant-engulfed Eddie Doyle. He is dead but the plants are still using his corpse for life. It looks like he made it to his bottle of pain pills at the counter where his corpse still stands, with vomit that has turned to wood growing tendrils on the medicine cabinet mirror. It is a moment of sheer unsettling beauty and another surprise at how far Swamp Thing pushes the envelope in the realm of visceral body horror.

(from left): Andy Bean (Alec Hollan), Swamp Thing pilot and episode 2 director Len Wiseman (Underworld), and Crystal Reed (Abby Arcane) filming a scene for Swamp Thing's pilot.

The Swamp Thing pilot largely focuses on establishing a budding relationship between Alec and Abby as they solve the mystery of what’s actually going on in the swamp and how it relates to Susie and two others in Marais getting sick. With a possible outbreak on their hands and a town patriarch in Avery Sunderland who is unwilling to listen to Alec in the episode (who he fired for unknown reasons two weeks prior to the events of the episode) the tension reaches a horrific boiling point. The final quarter of Swamp Thing‘s pilot episode switches gears from slow burn mystery to full out horror. It doesn’t feel rushed or choppy either. Everything begins to go really bad in the hospital.

After Alec tells Abby some scientific gobbledygook about a new mutagen found in the waters of the swamp that shouldn’t naturally be there, they rush back to the hospital. Abbie performs an autopsy while Alec runs the blood tests. In the best horror nod of the pilot, Eddie’s corpse cracks open in the chest, spewing forth tentacles that start to attack Abby and Alec. It’s a direct homage to a very similar scene in the classic John Carpenter film The Thing (1982). Just as this happens upstairs, Susie supernaturally wakes up and is drawn down to the morgue where she witnesses her dead father’s corpse with tentacles sprouting out from every orifice and appendage. She passes out and Alec destroys the beast with some rubbing alcohol and a convenient Zippo.

Abby and Alec go back out in the swamp and find Eddie Doyle’s boat mangled off the ground with a large plant growing through its center like it has been there for decades. Alec retrieves the mystery box that Doyle and his dearly departed crew were slinging into the water at GPS points at the beginning of Swamp Thing. Back at Alec’s lab, he tests it to discover it’s the same mutagen he has already found in the swamp water, only it’s the mutagen on steroids. Someone is dropping these in the water on purpose. But who? And why? Add those to the questions that will be answered in the remaining nine episodes to come on Swamp Thing.

Derek Mears in the flesh and out of his Swamp Thing makeup.

The pilot closes out where it should, on the transformation. Swamp Thing ends with the birth of the creature itself. Alec leaves Abby at his lab to go out and look for the rest of the boxes using the laptop he found in Eddie Doyle’s boat. He reaches the first one within viewing distance of his lab, but a hooded figure approaches on another small boat and shoots him with a double-barrelled shotgun twice in the chest. Alec, fatally injured, desperately tries to get the boat moving to safety.  The hooded figure brings out a crossbow firing a stick of dynamite into the boat. Doing the only thing he can, Alec dives into the swamp. This is the moment where Alec Holland, biologist, dies and something else entirely is born in Swamp Thing.

Gary Dauberman took a lot of inspiration when writing Swamp Thing from the series redefining arc Saga of the Swamp Thing by Alan Moore (Watchmen). Alan Moore’s work has always been known for consistently challenging the comic audience within and subverting expectations. What he did with Swamp Thing, aside from make it horrific, was turn it into something metaphysical and existential. In his iteration, the creature is a plant who thinks he is Alec Holland, not a man who has his DNA combined with a plant. The premise sets up some very interesting roads and ideas that Moore uses to explore. Dauberman took the main inspiration for the tone from Alan Moore, but don’t expect a straight adaptation either.

The first episode of Swamp Thing pulls together a who’s who of heavy hitters in the genre industry. Len Wiseman’s slick directing is very cinematic for a streaming service. James Wan’s name alone adds weight and validity to Swamp Thing, but his guidance as an executive producer should prove to be invaluable on the series. His name is the name used to sell Swamp Thing, so he is definitely going to be steering the ship from a distance as Gary Dauberman and Mark Verheiden act as  showrunners on Swamp Thing. Dauberman’s writing is as sharp as his It script, and Verheiden has worked on horror fare like Ash V. Evil Dead for years.

It’s not surprising then that Swamp Thing‘s pilot fires on every level, especially the scares. The body horror truly is horrific, and the human element is very much front and center with heavy hitters like Virginia Madsen mingling with newcomers like Anna Reed. The episode ends with Abby running away from the Creature, as he is revealed for the first time. Swamp Thing leaves Marais in utter chaos until next week. Until then, be sure to water the plants and be good to the earth or it might not be so good to you.

A new series comes with a new look: Swamp Thing is poised to be DCUniverse's horror hit of 2019.



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Written by steve wandling

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