You know, they tell you on day one at movie school that every character is supposed to have a clear motivation. In a given scene, the audience should understand what the character wants, and what they’re trying to accomplish.
Well, Arcane’s been in this movie for what is it, thirteen minutes now, and it turns out that it’s not enough, just knowing what a character wants. You also need a grasp on why they want it, what they plan to do with it once they’ve got it, who they think they are, and what the fuck they’re talking about in general.
So here we are again, face to face with Swamp Thing, trying to intuit what it could possibly be driving at. I’ve been looking at Arcane, and according to the shot pictured above, Arcane has also been looking at me, and I’m not sure we’ll ever really come to terms with one another.
At this stage of his career, Wes Craven must have been one of those psychic directors, who think that story information should filter directly into the audience’s mind on its own, without the use of dialogue, pictures, music or sound effects. He’s created a villain composed entirely of mannerisms and dramatic pauses, and given him a full hand of idiot henchpeople who all seem to be gesturing in different directions. I can’t figure him out.
I mean, to start with, I’m having a tough time just trying to parse the set. Arcane has set up a little decision desk for himself, complete with coffeepot and sneering chair, directly at the foot of a flight of stairs.
So that means he’s in the lobby, right? Bad guys don’t set up their lurking library right at the base of a major transportation hub. One desires privacy, and freedom from distraction. This looks like the information desk at a restored mansion that’s open to the public for guided tours, which I suspect is exactly what it is. It’s possible that the people who work here have just stepped out for a minute, and they don’t realize that a film crew has slipped into the building to shoot a scene.
Arcane is talking to a pretty young woman who’s called Girl in the script and Arcane’s Secretary in the credits, but the novelization informs us that she is the daughter of a United States Senator, and her name is Caramel Kane. It’s hard to say whether the spin-off book is supposed to be canon or not, but if you think I’m going to let a name like Caramel Kane pass out of my life, then you’re crazy.
Caramel has one of those all-consuming hero-worship crushes on Arcane that you typically see in the witness box, trying to explain things to the prosecuting attorney. She’s the kind of person who was destined from birth to have a chyron under her face that says BREAKING NEWS.
In my opinion, the peak Caramel Kane moment is when Arcane says, “It was all so near — right there, in the palm of my hand,” and Caramel takes a moment to examine the hand. And they say there are no good parts for women in Hollywood.
But listen, we didn’t come all the way here just to gossip about Caramel Kane; we need to figure out what this guy Arcane is up to.
What we know from the film’s first Arcane sequence is that he’s an extremely successful practical joker who managed to fool everyone into thinking that he was project field supervisor Harry Ritter, the guy in charge of Alec Holland’s secret swamp-science summer camp. As Ritter, Arcane presumably had 24/7 access to everything that Holland was doing, although once he took the Ritter mask off he apparently forgot everything that “Ritter” knew about the project, and now he has to learn it all over again. So there’s that.
We also know that he has a squadron of knuckleknob mercenaries who are trained to kill at his command, and that everyone including the federal government thinks that he’s dead, which are two facts that I find difficult to reconcile. He appears to be some version of wealthy, if you accept the idea that rich people set up salons in the foyer of their own mansion, and the government tends to not lose track of billionaires. A person might be able to fake their own death and hide out in a cabin in the woods somewhere, but if you just go inside your very nice house and continue to pay your shaggy and heavily-armed staff in cocaine and krugerrands, then it’s difficult to continue the charade indefinitely.
But more importantly, the question that I have about Arcane is: what line of work is he in, exactly?
In Starburst magazine, Craven explained, “There’s an Arcane character in the original story that was a magician, but here he’s just an international villain,” which pretty much says it all. I don’t think that there is such a thing as an “international villain” here in the waking world, where people tend to have specific jobs that someone pays them to do. Even criminals have to specialize in some kind of expertise; you can’t just be international and get by on charm alone.
But Arcane appears to just be generally villainous, in whatever way helps him to get through any given line of dialogue. Having a gang of mercenaries in a movie usually means that the villain is some kind of a drug lord, but there’s no hint of that here. He’s able to infiltrate the federal intelligence services, and as we’ll see later on, communications with the CIA get redirected to his car phone somehow. The vibe with Caramel is clearly intended to invoke “cult leader”, which is a different kind of person. And the weird thing is that most of the time, he talks like he’s a scientist, if a scientist is somebody who gets dropped on their head shortly after birth and never really recovers.
“Holland had great talent,” he muses to Caramel, “but talent does only what it can. Genius does what it must.” This is fine except Holland is the one who actually invented something.
“It is master of man,” he continues. “Power, absolute.”
Caramel gets excited. “And in your hands, sir… how magnificent! How beautiful!”
“Yes,” he smiles.
“The world will bow,” she says, “or starve!” She seems to be hoping for the latter.
He says “yes” again, and chucks her under the chin, and then he says “yes” for a third time, and if he didn’t get distracted at this point, then he might have gone on saying “yes” at intervals for the rest of the afternoon.
So my question is: how are you planning to get to the “bow or starve” phase of this scheme? The plan as far as I can tell is: gather all of Holland’s notebooks, brew up some of his special potion, turn yourself into probably a plant monster, and then… what, exactly? How does your army of mullet mercs and dazed secretaries sweep this international villain into a position of absolute power?
“Arcane is a very intelligent man, a very dedicated man,” Louis Jourdan told Cinefantastique. “He is dedicated to evil, therefore this is a villain, but we attempt to make villainy as attractive as possible. I try to make the audience not like the character, but understand him.” Well, I don’t like him or understand him. Is there a third option?
We go all the way back to Swamp Thing’s roots
3.21: The Other It
I’m informed that they filmed the interior for Arcane’s house in Charleston at a place called Hibernian Hall, although the pictures that I find online don’t really look anything like it. They may have redecorated since then.
The young woman playing Caramel Kane is Mimi Meyer, and she was a flight attendant that Wes Craven met on his way from LA to South Carolina. He offered her the part, and she accepted, and they started dating. They married in 1984, and their marriage lasted for three years. In an interview, he said, “I discovered, to put it discreetly, that my marriage was no longer anything but a sham,” so that’ll teach you to not pick up impressionable flight attendants. She continued acting as Mimi Craven, and she had parts on various TV shows, including Beauty and the Beast, Seinfeld, LA Law, Silk Stalkings, Star Trek: Voyager and E.R.
The assistant who shows up at the end of this scene, credited as Arcane’s Messenger, was played by Karen Price, Adrienne Barbeau’s stunt double for the film.
Also, the picture at the bottom of this post is Arcane, as seen in the 1992 NES Swamp Thing video game. Things don’t seem to have gotten much better for him.
We go all the way back to Swamp Thing’s roots
3.21: The Other It
— Danny Horn