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.
The very last moment of romcom
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.
The very last moment of romcom
— Danny Horn