Swamp Thing 3.10: Let the Great Experiment Begin!

You know, they say this project is hush-hush, but you ask Alec Holland one question and you get a five-minute lecture about plant nuclei and world hunger. I guess nobody ever asked, or maybe there just wasn’t room for them to stand, on this crappy laboratory set.

There’s a lot of imaginary movie science going on at the top of the film, but the most unrealistic moment in this sequence is when they pretend that seven people could squeeze onto this set at the same time. It’s no wonder Alec’s concerned about overpopulation.

The problem was that they hired local contractors in South Carolina to build this crucial set, and then I guess they walked away and forgot about it until the contractors said it was done.

“A lot of the people on the construction crew — many have worked on houses, barns, sheds, whatever — have, in the course of making the movie, developed tremendously,” Wes Craven told Cinefantastique. “But when they started building the interior of Holland’s lab, they built us a set that couldn’t be moved by an atom bomb — there were no wild walls. It was all two-by-fours and all real construction. So we had to come in and saw it apart with chainsaws in order to get on the set.”

As always with these ridiculous Swamp Thing production anecdotes, it gets dumber the more that you think about it. If I’m being extremely charitable, I can imagine that production was so hectic that nobody ever went to the warehouse where they were building the set until it was finished. But I have to ask: didn’t they get plans from the set designer? Isn’t that how it works, or have I been drastically misinformed?

Well, I looked up the set designer and the construction coordinator, and it turns out Swamp Thing was the first film they ever worked on. The same is true for the costume designer and wardrobe designer, so that explains a lot as well.

So that’s why, when they try to have more than two actors in a shot on this set, they all have to stand in a line, like a stage play. There’s a reason for everything if you look hard enough, and for Swamp Thing, the answer is always the same: low budget, inexperienced people, not enough time and also they just weren’t very good at making a movie.

Here’s a couple more examples, if you want them. Nanette Brown, who plays Linda, was one of those “local actors” from the Charleston area, and you can tell, because she’s not very good.

Also, she’s currently demonstrating that the new magic potion explodes when a drop hits a flat surface, and she does that by sticking her fingers into the fluid and then waggling them towards the floor. I’m pretty sure you shouldn’t handle your hazardous material that way, but I’m not an expert in bio-restorative demolition concoctions, so what I do know? I guess PPE is something that happens to other people, as far as the Hollands are concerned. I wonder what kind of vegetable will start growing out of Linda’s right hand, if it doesn’t explode first.

Still, you have to respect the glowy green fluid, which looks fantastic and is actually original to this movie. It’s made of the stuff that they put in glowsticks, and I like to believe that when they were filming these scenes, they had friendly locals just offstage, snapping glowsticks open when they needed to refresh the potion.

I looked up what the chemicals in glow sticks are called on Wikipedia, just to sound super smart like I knew it the whole time, which is my usual practice. But it turns out it’s a lot easier just to say that it’s the stuff they put in glowsticks.

Lots of people think that Re-Animator was the first film to use this effect, because it’s such an important element of that film, and not that many people saw Swamp Thing. But Re-Animator came out three years later, in 1985, so it turns out Wes Craven came up with the idea. I hope they didn’t stick their fingers in it a lot; it just seems unwise.

Okay, moving on to the next mystery: Why does the formula explode?

As Alec explains to Cable, their experiments are trying to fuse plant cells and animal cells, in order to, I don’t know, make plants stronger or something? When they feed it to the orchid, it grows all over the lab table and starts demanding human blood, but it doesn’t blow up. Why would it? I have similar questions about what happens toward the end of the film, when people gulp down eight ounces of the potion without incinerating themselves.

The actual answer to that question is that they needed something to explode so that Alec could get doused with formula and set on fire. In the comic book, the bad guys plant a time bomb in the lab in order to destroy the formula — it’s an “if we can’t have it, nobody will!” strategy.

But in the movie, they wanted to establish Arcane and allow him to steal stuff from the lab, and that means the formula itself has to be explosive, so here we are.

As the characters head off into an even more ridiculously crowded and badly-lit part of the set, we might as well engage a little bit with Alec’s silly science blather.

I have so many favorite parts of this scene that I’m not sure what to mention first. I guess I’ll start with the fact that Alec has to put on his white lab coat just as he’s starting to use science words like “chromosome” and “bacilli”.

I also enjoy the fact that the screen he’s pointing at is a Radio Shack TRS-80 Color Computer, a family computer which sold for $399 in 1980 and ran on BASIC. You could use it to play checkers, or keep track of the family’s finances if you weren’t very detail-oriented. It could also function as a TV set, which is why it looks like the DNA chromosomes from the common lab bacilli have an afternoon show on channel 3.

But let’s get into the science words, for a moment.

“Now, do you see those little guys?” Alec begins, indicating the green lumps on the Radio Shack screen. “DNA chromosomes from the common lab bacilli E. coli.” This is already slightly sketchy, because nobody ever says “DNA chromosomes”.

“Now, you see that one?” He zooms in on one of the lumps. “Another simple bacilli, plant matrix called D complex.” This is where they lose me. Bacillus is a class of bacteria, which isn’t a plant. Also I don’t know what a plant matrix is.

“Now, each of these organisms have existed in the lab for years,” he continues, “but always separately.” No idea. “Which isn’t too surprising, since one is animal, the other’s vegetable. But now, this is what we’ve developed over the last couple of months.” He points at another green lump. “You see that little guy? Never existed on the face of the Earth before, that’s my baby. A simple vegetable cell, with an unmistakeable animal nucleus.”

Then Cable says, “Recombinant DNA?” so that Alec can be pleasantly surprised that she knows some science words. It could be seen as patronizing, but I think it’s a nice little step in his growing realization that Cable is smart and cool, so I’ll allow it.

“I am very close to developing a plant with an animal’s aggressive power for survival,” he continues. “A plant for the twenty-first century!” And that’s very silly as well, because obviously plants have survival skills; that’s why we still have some.

Oh, and just look at this shot composition. At some point, somebody told Wes Craven about the rule of thirds, and he wasn’t paying close enough attention.

Anyway, it’s replicating like mad, whatever it is, so the Hollands decide to go put the magic potion in something and see what happens. This time, they actually use a pipette to transfer the clearly radioactive substance rather than their fingers, which is nice.

Just when the drop hits the water, Cable leans away from it in case it explodes, because Adrienne Barbeau is the only person in the scene who remembers the sequence they shot yesterday.

And now it begins, this alchemical transmutation of science into fiction. Despite everything, Alec Holland has created a magic elixir out of everyday materials you find around the home, recombining elements from comic books and half-remembered science classes, which he will now unleash upon the world. Come back on Monday; this should be a blast.

Monday:
The very last moment of romcom
3.11: Interruptus


Footnotes:

If you’re wondering, Nanette Brown has two items on her IMDb page — Swamp Thing, and a bit part as “Reporter Brenda” in the 1993 zombie comedy My Boyfriend’s Back. According to the Headhunter’s Horror House Wiki, she now owns a gift shop in Beaufort, South Carolina.

Minor visual continuity error: Cable looks at the picture of a starving child, then looks up at Alec. In the next shot, Cable is standing in a different position.

And finally, the prop orchid that grows roots around the corner of the table is taken directly from the comics, as seen below.

Monday:
The very last moment of romcom
3.11: Interruptus

Chapters

— Danny Horn

20 thoughts on “Swamp Thing 3.10: Let the Great Experiment Begin!

  1. Ah, Herbert West. Now *there* was a movie scientist!

    If this movie had skewed more toward superheroes and less toward swamp horror, then Linda probably would have gained the power to hurl explosive blasts with her fingers after exposure to the glowstick chemical. Imagine her fighting the Arcane pig-weasel at the end while throwing these blasts at it, all the while Cable was sneaking up behind it with a sword in order to skewer it.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. “there just wasn’t room for them to stand”
    The hot new thing in software engineering is the Daily Stand-Up Meeting. If you like feeling dismayed by techbro management babble, look up the term. Clearly these swamp science people, sophisticated enough to use laser sonic sensors, were WAY ahead of their time.

    “in order to get on the set”
    Wes was halfway through the book on how to set up shots, so nobody else realized that you’d need a place to put the camera and lights.

    “sticking her fingers into the fluid and then waggling them towards the floor”
    In this swamp, things are a lot more exciting than “hold my beer.”

    “I don’t know, make plants stronger or something?”
    To make them show up better on sector sensors, of course!

    “Also I don’t know what a plant matrix is.”
    See, that’s why they didn’t invite you to help them discover new single-cell hosts.

    “this should be a blast.”
    Big enough to put a hole in the floor of the Swamp Science Centre before we’re all done, I bet.

    “Linda probably would have gained the power to hurl explosive blasts with her fingers after exposure to the glowstick chemical.”
    Ladies and gentlemen, I smell a great sequel!

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  3. I have a vague recollection from high school chemistry about the teacher telling us about how we could use the same chemicals we had in front of us to make a substance that was stable unless put under pressure … such as throwing it to the floor which would then cause small explosions …eh, but I now no longer fully trust anything in my memory because we rewrite our memories every time we call them up to review them. Still, the teacher had a lot of stories about things that exploded because he had a school friend from college who like to blow things up and later became a demolitions expert in the military. So maybe my memory is correct.

    The good ol’ TRS80. I had a student job in a college biochem lab and that was the office computer. It was a single unit, PC and monitor, but not color. The admin assistant used it to write research grants and we students used it too. I learned enough of the then industry-standard word processing software, WordStar, to write my resume because that way I could easily print off multiple copies. This was before graphical software programs existed and you did all your formatting by knowing specific keyboard commands to do your formatting. (Things like the CNTRL + B command to bold an entry remnants of that age.) I had a computer, a Commodore Vic-20 but it had no printer so I’d type papers on my daisy wheel Olivetti correcting typewriter which was good enough for things that needed only a single copy.

    It’s interesting … the hopes scientists had at that time are the same hopes they currently have. It’s just taken decades to develop the technology to act on the knowledge. It’s not surprising some newbie moviemakers couldn’t realistically pull off the fiction of barely envisioned technology. I know we tend to think most everyone in this country is scientifically illiterate, but the general population has a much more scientifically informed view of the world than it did in the 1980’s. To better explain about how much more scientifically literate we all are now, I remember that in one of my undergraduate biology classes, the instructor was explaining the potential to use DNA evidence to solve crimes but said we couldn’t be sure the courts would ever allow such evidence and if they did the public might not ever believe or understand it. *shrug* Fortunately DNA evidence soon became a standard tool and most people had no trouble understanding the basics … except perhaps for the people on the OJ jury.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. 10 IF THE GLOVE FITS YOU MUST LPRINT
      20 GOTO 10

      I had friends with: Apple ][, TRS-80, TRS Color Computer, C64, Amiga.
      My Dad had PC’s from work. First a CP/M machine on which I learned Wordstar, then an IBM with Turbo Pascal, Sidekick, Wordperfect, eventually Windows 1.0. Dad liked Norton Commander, dBase, some kind of spreadsheet. I only got into those later.

      I had a cool memory typewriter of my own. Had a great summer job working in an insurance office that used Macs. Loved using Hypercard and Pagemaker. Liked the Mac lab in the college library.

      I couldn’t afford my own computer until after I was out of college – a “portable” with a great screen, but at 16 pounds, not about to tuck it under my arm!

      I hope your college biochem lab was well stocked with laser sonic sensors and explosive glowing goop.

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    2. “…which would then cause small explosions…”

      A neighbor’s father who was a chemist brought those same ingredients home to his sons to make the compound. So if it’s any consolation, you’re remembering correctly.

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  4. Once I had to take my computer (not a TRaSh80) to a shop to remove a nasty virus. In the waiting area they had a TV playing Armageddon. In the few minutes I could bear to watch, I picked out a constant stream of Doofus Science Moments.

    The moral is, going to the movies for science is like going to The Cheesecake Factory for dental hygiene. I appreciate your attention to detail, Danny, but I think your undeniable talents would be better served by focusing on other things. Not a complaint, if this is how you have to work, it’s okay by me. I have my own quirks.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I can’t resist! The screenshot third from the bottom may be the best representation of mansplaining I’ve ever seen. The tilt of his head, the pointing finger, the supercilious smile. And look at Adrienne Barbeau’s expression: “Are you effing kidding me? I have to work with this twit?”

    The next screenshot is even better. He’s astonished that she knows big words like “recombinant”. This is the guy who turns into a plant, right? Ugh, the sooner, the better.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Things that glow bright neon green are always good, right?

    So, question for the scientists: why on earth is it necessary to have your lab of explosive cooper’s diggers out in the middle of the damn swamp? Clearly the locale is not compatible to anything that doesn’t slither or drain blood from things. It it really so hard to take samples and fly them back to a location where you can go to restaurants and have proximity alarms that work?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. …but for liquids in a test tube, beaker, or flask, blue liquid is often preferred. Had a professor who had us put a copper solution (it’s blue, not green) in an automated rotary evaporation flask. It was just to show something colorful swirling around when the people who gave out the grants came to see what their money bought.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. “why on earth is it necessary to have your lab of explosive cooper’s diggers out in the middle of the damn swamp?”
      Because they have to be kept immersed in swamp goo, which goes bad if you take it away from the swamp. Except when you take them out to admire their single-cell organism hosts, which only thrive amid the humidity and cypress trees.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. “I am very close to developing a plant with an animal’s aggressive power for survival.”
    The plant already existed in the South. It’s called kudzu.
    Linda thrusts her fingers repeatedly into the solution and nothing happens to her. Not even long fingernails. Odd.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah and I’m finding some scary-looking wisteria variety rearing up like thorny snakes from under most of my yard plants. For some reason, I find them more disturbing to see than the rattlesnakes I’d see in New Mexico.

      Like

  8. Wow, I never realized they were using glowstick fluid for glowing green slime before now! I thought the stuff had been invented in the 1990’s or early 2000’s. I do remember an ep of 1000 Ways To Die in which a raver thought it would be cool to inject glowstick fluid into himself. Needless to say, it did not turn out well.

    My first computer exposure was with a TRSH-80. I remember having the hardest time making that damned tape cassette recorder work right.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I said the other day that Adrienne Barbeau looks like Slim Goodbody in this, but I take it back – she looks like Weird Al (which is a step up, obviously)

    Man, that TRS80 rules. What a lovely piece of old garbage, I love it so much!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Funny! Last night I was watching Cheers and thought ‘Carla has Adrienne Barbeau’s Swamp Thing hair…’

        I think they both got that style from the librarian in my high school library. She was wearing it in the early to mid-70’s.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. I lived in Charleston, S.C. for twenty-eight years, starting five years after this movie was made. In my early years there, the city boasted one (1) member of Actors’ Equity. It may have picked up two or three more since, but the four most prominent local theater companies– as opposed to the world-famous companies and people that come in for the Spoleto Festival every June– feature almost entirely actors with day jobs. This does not stop them from being good or terrific; I’ve seen several productions I liked better than the Broadway versions. I guess what I’m saying is, local Charleston actors were and are indeed nonprofessional, mostly, but that doesn’t necessarily mean non-good. I can’t speak for Miss Nanette until I re-see the movie.

    I want my money back! I had a black&white TRS-80, that couldn’t show TV, though I processed many millions of words on it between 1984 and 1998, and it cost me $800! With printer, though. I still have it, presumably in working order, though I haven’t tested that in this millennium. Just keeping it for the bragging rights.

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