Look, you should know what you’re getting into if you sit down to watch something called Swamp Thing. I certainly thought I did; I was never one to seek out the comics (though I do have a memory of tearing through iconoclastic comics writer Alan Moore’s run on it a long time ago), and my only direct experience with the creature on screen was my older brother renting the VHS tape of Wes Craven’s film adaptation when I was very young, though it was immediately too scary for me to last beyond the first few minutes. But I had read Warner Bros.’ publicity materials, brushed up on my vague knowledge of the mythos, and had prepped myself for some good old-fashioned televised horror (a genre I know a little something about) when I cued up the first episode.
I was not ready.
Let me be clear: This isn’t a complaint. I am thrilled to report that the latest addition to DC Universe’s stable of live-action adaptations is one of the most sickeningly gruesome body-horror tales I have ever seen committed to the small screen. The best compliment I can think of to make is that it’s like a fusion of the effects of The Thing and The Fly, upgraded and uncomfortable in its CGI-aided depiction of the titular transformations. I have no idea how much of what I’m seeing is practical effects, which is a compliment to the smooth and unsettling digital rendering (and rending) of flesh as it’s punctured, stripped, flayed, pierced, suppurated, and riven through with distressingly organic matter. It’s not flawless, as there are obvious moments of green-screen effects (usually when the branchlike bayou material needs to move fast), but I would argue these sequences simply leaven the proceedings by returning your attention to the action and story, rather than being transfixed by imagery as the more intimate scenes of horror can achieve. It works, is the general bullet point.
The first episode (directed by Len Wiseman, he of the trashy genre fare like the early Underworld movies and Live Free Or Die Hard, more recently finding new inspiration as a TV producer and director) works overtime to make sure you’re going to be able to handle what comes, mostly by throwing everything it can at you in that initial hour. An adaption of Moore’s stint on the comic, the story stars Crystal Reed as CDC doctor Abby Arcane (maintaining the corny names of the original comic is symbolic of the show’s willingness to acknowledge some of its campier elements), brought back to her long-departed hometown of Marais, Louisiana to investigate a strange outbreak. People are getting sick, and no one knows why—no one, that is, except for biologist Alec Holland (Andy Bean), who believes it’s connected to a bizarre new mutagen he’s discovered in the swamp. Cue the wildly implausible science, total ignoring of basic medical and scientific precautions by supposedly competent professionals, and characters who have a predilection for explaining their inner thoughts via tortured monologues.
But frankly, none of that drags down the series nearly as much as it might on another show. Part of this has to do with the aforementioned camp: There’s an undeniably goofy element to all this Bayou-based madness, though it’s unclear if the show is fully aware of just how campy it sometimes veers. The sense of reality being left behind, however, goes a long way in making the clunkier aspects of the scripts seem more like odd affectations than sub-par storytelling. Additionally, it moves at a good clip: Like a satisfying B-movie, there’s not enough to really begin picking apart the holes before you’re on to the next scare or set piece.
But what’s going to keep me coming back is the show’s commitment to hardcore grotesquerie, an admirable devotion to seeing just how creative and repulsive it can get with its imagery. There’s a scene in a morgue halfway through the first episode that rivals Cronenberg for sheer nastiness; I find myself saying, “Oh, dear god,” out loud to myself more than once. It’s the kind of thing probably better appreciated in a group, to cheer on the “Can you top this?” gore as it spews from the narrative. So maybe I’ll set aside the Bachelorette viewing party for now—who’s up for drinking beers and watching some human bodies receive absolutely disgusting punishment?