Here’s how I figure it: there’s the love theme, obviously, and there’s a fight theme, a chase theme, and a general unease theme. There’s a discovery motif and a commando motif, and absolute silence for Arcane. There’s probably other stuff as well.
Writing about the soundtrack was a lot easier in the Superman posts, because there’s a whole industry full of people who would like to explain John Williams scores to you. I’m flying solo this time.
The soundtrack for Swamp Thing was written by Harry Manfredini, who’s best known, if he’s known at all, for scoring all of the Friday the 13th movies except the eighth one. By the time he worked on Swamp Thing, he’d already done Friday the 13th and Friday the 13th Part 2, and possibly even Friday the 13th Part III. Once you get started scoring Friday the 13th movies, it’s hard to kick the habit, and nobody knows that better than Harry Manfredini.
Besides that, he also worked on Slaughter High, Zombie Island Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes Part II, as well as House, House II: The Second Story, House III: The Horror Show, House IV: The Repossession, and Wolves of Wall Street (not the famous one).
By the 2010s, he was mostly scoring direct-to-DVD films called Snow White: A Deadly Summer and Hansel & Gretel: Warriors of Witchcraft, so that’s where we’re heading, Manfredini-wise.
Now, consulting my sources — i.e., doing a Google search — my one insight into Manfredini’s work on this movie is from a 2013 interview in which he asserted, “In Swamp Thing, I had a two-note whole tone phrase that denoted the magic formula. It is a quick way to evoke to the audience an element of the film.”
I don’t have the slightest idea what that means. I looked up “whole tone phrase” and I think I vaguely understand what that is, but it involves multiple notes, so I don’t know why he’d say “two-note” in front of it. Looking up “two-note whole tone phrase” only returns the 2013 interview and three other websites that copied the same quote, and I suspect that those websites didn’t understand it either. Once I’ve published this post, then I guess I’ll appear on that list as well, assuming I pass the audition and get indexed by Google.
Also, I don’t think there actually is a phrase that indicates “the magic formula”, whole tone or otherwise. I assume that he’s referring to Alec’s bio-restorative potion, which appears in the film about four times, and as far as I can tell, it’s not accompanied by any type of music in particular. The first couple times that we see it, there’s no music at all.
So apparently I’m on my own, as far as insights into the soundtrack are concerned. I just hope that someday I’ll appear on the top ten list of people who’ve written “I had a two-note whole tone phrase that denoted the magic formula” on the internet.
Now, the reason that I’m bringing it up at this juncture is that we’ve just watched the love scene, such as it is, and it features the “Cable and Alec” love theme, which is the only memorable tune in the movie. It’s very nice, assuming you like squeaky clarinets, which I can take or leave.
The theme is introduced when Alec and Cable go on their boat ride out to sector 3 to check on the misbehaving sensor, and there’s a little echo of it when Alec kisses Cable in the lab. Soon after that, things get less romantic in a hurry, so we don’t hear it again for another twenty-five minutes. It gets reprised in a reflective moment when Cable is in Jude’s skiff, thinking about Alec, and again in the burned-out lab, when Swamp Thing takes a moment to smell the orchids, which is a nice touch.
Other than that, there’s a lot of running and fighting music, as you would expect in this running-and-fighting-heavy movie.
“Cable’s Capture – Fiery Escape” introduces what I’m going to call the fight motif, which kicks off with a nice brass jump-scare. This motif is characterized by urgent timpani bongs in one ear and concerned cello noises in the other, interrupted by a couple of hysterical violins running in circles around each other.
The “fiery escape” part of this tune is technically in the movie, although there’s a lot of burning and shouting and setting off smoke bombs at that point, and you can’t hear it very well.
The “Ferret Meets the Swamp Thing” cue is heavy on the timpani/cello fight motif, but it also introduces what I think is the most effective motif in the soundtrack — the use of a crisp snare drum to underscore all of the “commando” shots, when the henchmen are running around with guns. It helps those shots tremendously, because it makes the guys seem like an actual trained fighting force, instead of a pack of idiots running around in camo and accidentally shooting each other, which is what they are.
The track ultimately devolves into generalized anxiety trills, which you can get over the counter at any local soundtrack shop.
“Swamp Thing to the Rescue” begins with the unease motif, which is basically the background-radiation hum of a worried cello who’s wondering how everything got so spooky all of a sudden. Then, with another brass-inflected jump-scare, we dive back into the fight motif as heard in the previous two tracks, and possibly every track from now on, if these people don’t get their shit together and find some common ground.
This track introduces the chase motif, which is going to become another popular stop on the tour. It uses a driving snare drum and a rising heartbeat thump-thump on the strings, with intrusive horns and more anxious brass action.
Now, you might be wondering, what about the villain’s theme, as heard in Star Wars and Superman and other popular silver-screen epics? Well, there isn’t one. Occasionally when Arcane’s in view the orchestra is busy with something or other, but it doesn’t take any particular notice of him. There’s a cute little snare drum riff every time Bruno lumbers through with his mouth open and holding a machine gun that he doesn’t know how to fire, but the official antagonist doesn’t even rate a two-note whole tone phrase. His scenes are performed a cappella.
Granted, he doesn’t actually do very much for most of the film except brag to his secretary and give instructions to his stupid henchpeople, but you’d think they could throw him a little fanfare or something. It’s possible they were worried that if they gave Louis Jourdan a backing track, he might lose his head and start singing Gigi.
Anyway, the rest of the action tracks are basically a remix of previous themes. “Airboats, Guns and Grenades” opens with a return of the unease track, but once things get going, it’s a bunch of variations on the chase theme, as everyone teleports around the lake and throws things at each other. There’s a lull in the action where things kind of taper off, and then a final surprise return of the fight motif.
Similarly, “Cable Escapes” is a hell of a lot like “Swamp Thing to the Rescue”, and then we get the love scene, and that brings us up to date.
The weakest track in the film is the one you’d think would be the easiest to write: “Arcane’s Transformation“, which even a child could tell you was the moment to write something sweeping and iconic. A brilliant man, felled by his own greed and toxic genius, poisoning himself at the moment of his greatest triumph, with so far to fall. It calls for something mythical.
But the track just can’t get started. It keeps trying out phrases and then dropping them, and doing something else. Listen to it, and you can hear Manfredini just thrashing around, throwing one idea after another at the problem, unable to make up his mind and commit to a tune. There’s shock horns and aggressive violin stings, and then it goes quiet and lyrical for a second, and then it builds to a crescendo that it’s unable to sustain. It spends a moment being uncanny and mysterious, and then tries to work itself up into a rage. Nothing sticks. And then there’s “The Final Battle“, which doesn’t amount to much, either.
My theory is that somewhere around track 10, Manfredini looked at the remainder of the film and just couldn’t get his head around it. I feel for the guy; I’m facing the same stretch of road myself. Still, when somebody hires you to write a soundtrack for their film, I think it’s reasonable for them to expect that you’re going to write enough music to fill the time.
So it’s no wonder that when people ask him about Swamp Thing, he starts gassing about two-note whole tone phrases and other tidbits of cryptomusicology. You fake it till you make it, and then you just keep on faking it, until they run out of Friday the 13th movies.
Cable tries to get clean
3.36: The Anatomy Lesson
— Danny Horn