Although Titans and Doom Patrol flirted with horror, with its third live-action series, Swamp Thing, DC Universe gives the genre a slimy embrace that will leave viewers leery of not only every marsh and forest, but of a seemingly harmless cough. The pilot episode, which premieres May 31, leans into our fears of the unknown, and the unseen, to create a tense, compelling supernatural drama with real stakes.
Of course, that's to be expected, given the source material (the early-1970s DC comics monster created by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson), and the production's impressive pedigree: It's executive produced by James Wan (The Conjuring, Saw), Mark Verheiden (Ash vs. Evil Dead), Gary Dauberman (It, Annabelle), Michael Clear (Lights Out, Annabelle: Creation) and Len Wiseman (Underworld), who also directs the pilot.
The series premiere focuses not on Alec Holland, the biologist who becomes the Swamp Thing, but rather on Dr. Abby Arcane (Crystal Reed), a scientist with the Centers for Disease Control who returns home to Marais, Louisiana, to try to stop a swamp-borne virus that's rapidly spreading through the town. But Abby must not only identify the source of the illness, she must confront her own past: She's blamed by the powerful Sunderland family for the death of their daughter, and her own best friend, years earlier.
Abby is aided in her search by her CDC team, and some old friends, but it's the outsider Holland (Andy Bean), an unorthodox biologist working for Avery Sunderland, who helps her to find answers, and pays the price for it. (Come on, that's not a spoiler: Everyone knows Alec Holland becomes Swamp Thing.)
Naturally, the pilot introduces the key players -- one comic character is seen only in passing -- and lays out the central mystery for the 10-episode first season. But it also swiftly establishes Marais as a fully realized setting. A working-class town whose fortunes rise and fall with the swamp, and with the Sunderland family, it possesses a history beyond Abby's memories, and a personality.
Perhaps most importantly, however, the episode demonstrates that Swamp Thing can pull off its brand of supernatural horror on a television budget. Or, rather, on the budget of a relatively minor streaming service. Titans and Doom Patrol largely succeeded within those constraints, although the seams occasionally showed. That may yet occur on Swamp Thing, but there are no discernible cracks in the pilot. That may owe much to the backgrounds of the producers in low-budget horror; Wan's 2004 hit Saw, for example, was made for $1.2 million.
Skeptics need look no further than the opening scene, glimpsed in the teaser trailer, in which three men unwisely maneuver a boat through the swamp at night. Employing well-established horror filmmaking techniques, Wiseman takes advantage of the uncertainty that darkness provides, and uses the camera as a predator, both on land and -- in an homage to Jaws -- beneath the water. The CG effects are restrained, but when they come into play, they're incredibly effective.
Even in daylight, a blue haze envelopes each scene, maintaining the air of mystery. The simple opening of the refrigerator in the home of an infected fisherman carries with it some doubt, aided by the sudden creaking from the floor above. But while much of Swamp Thing's pilot adheres to the rule "Don't Show the Monster," when it does show one of them in the (mostly) light of day, it's disturbing and convincing. Just as the opening scene pays tribute to Steven Spielberg's Jaws, a later sequence honors John Carpenter's The Thing, in the most satisfying way.
And make no mistake, Swamp Thing is satisfying. It doesn't require any knowledge of the comic books, whether the earliest stories by Wein and Wrightson or the 1980s resurgence by Alan Moore, Rick Veitch and company. Sure, fans of the source material will undoubtedly be rewarded with some of the characters and references, even as they bristle at the changes. But DC Universe's Swamp Thing is able to stand on its own as thoroughly enjoyable supernatural horror.
Viewers will be drawn in by the performances of Reed and Bean, somehow charmed by the lived-in town of Marais, and unnerved by the mystery, that surrounds them all. Just watch Swamp Thing with the lights on, preferably far away from any murky waters.
Premiering Friday, May 31, on DC Universe Swamp Thing stars Crystal Reed, Andy Bean, Derek Mears, Jennifer Beals, Henderson Wade, Will Patton, Virginia Madsen, Jeryl Prescott, Henderson Wade and Kevin Durand. The series is executive produced by James Wan, Mark Verheiden, Gary Dauberman, Michael Clear and Len Wiseman.