After a tough day of being chased and caught and kidnapped and assaulted and chased again, around and around in a trackless swamp with no exit signs or toilet facilities, it makes sense that Agent Alice Cable would want to take a moment to relax, and refresh herself.
Still, I don’t get why she’s choosing to relax in the gross tannic-acid parasite-ridden swamp water. This is the same water that she just swam in; it doesn’t get cleaner because you’re standing still. This is the thing you’re trying to wash off.
But the topic we need to discuss today is the use of Adrianne Barbeau’s breasts for entertainment purposes. This sequence doesn’t advance the plot in any kind of meaningful way or lead to important character development; it’s decorative, rather than functional.
Now, I am the very last person to say that the deployment of attractive actors to pretty up a picture is in and of itself a problem. The only two important questions about a superhero movie are how much money did it make and how hot are the people, because if you go out of your way to give somebody money so you can look at their film for two hours, then it’s only fair that they give you something nice to look at. As a tradition in superhero movies, this goes all the way back to the promotion for Superman, when interviewers were eagerly counting Chris Reeve’s calories and detailing his workout routine. These days, you can have Chris Hemsworth do an almost-entirely nude scene in Thor: Love and Thunder, and apparently nobody feels self-conscious about discussing how great his ass looks.
But, of course, it’s different for women, because in a patriarchal society like for example the one that we live in, women are traditionally seen as objects, and get exposed 24/7 to thoughtful critiques put forward by any given man who feels like offering an assessment. Fit dudes are dumb enough to put themselves on public display by choice, but that’s the default for women, who are generally unable to opt out.
So that’s why, smack in the middle of the film, we’ve got this cheesecake scene where Cable, defying all reason, decides to take a buck naked dip in the nasty-ass water of a swamp that she should actually be trying to get out of. For one thing, her big green friend brutally murdered a man right in front of her a few minutes ago and probably not very far away, which means that this is a crime scene.
Now, it turns out there are actually two different versions of this sequence — the regular American theatrical cut, and an extended European cut — and that’s what we’re going to talk about today.
In the American cut, this sequence is about a minute and ten seconds long, and it includes three shots of Cable’s bath routine, as represented in the three screenshots above. First, there’s a slow pan down through the trees to discover the bathing nymph mostly submerged in the dank water. Then there’s an 11-second shot from the bank, in which Cable rises from the water and stretches, and you get a pretty clear look at the side of her left breast. After showing us Swamp Thing for a few seconds, they cut to the above shot, where it looks like she might emerge from the water and show her breasts, but then she doesn’t.
The European cut has the same three shots that I just described, plus an extra naughty thirty-second shot in the middle. Here’s what happens in that shot, minus the actual breasts.
Cable gets up out of the water and runs her hands through her hair, giving the audience a generous look at her right breast.
Then she catches sight of a flower that she likes the look of.
She turns full frontal to the camera, picks up the flower, and smells it. Then she looks around casually, at nothing in particular.
She dips down into the water again, and it looks like it’s all over…
But then she stands up straighter, for an encore presentation that lasts longer than you might expect. Finally, it cuts to the shot of Cable as seen from the bank, and we’re back in the American cut.
So it was the producers, is what happened. Here’s what director Wes Craven says in the DVD commentary:
“It was kind of a sign of those times that producers were always trying to cover their bases however they could. For instance, Louis Jourdan was a typical — you have to have a star for Europe in your movie, to satisfy the European audience. He fulfilled that.
“And then they all – and I had this all the way up to, like, Scream, where the studio wanted a nude scene at the beginning. They wanted Drew Barrymore to be in the shower. It was always, like, the solution to everything was to have a nude scene. So Adrienne did agree to do that, with my vow that it would only be used in Europe.”
I know, obviously, that’s what a director would say if they were trying to avoid being blamed for something embarrassing, but he sounds sincere. The producers were not very experienced, and they were desperate to get the movie financed, and Craven didn’t have enough clout at the time to refuse.
Oh, and then they did it again, literally three minutes of screen time later. After Cable’s bathtime, there’s the sequence where Swamp Thing and Cable get captured by Arcane, and then Arcane throws a party in his terrible mansion. The party sequence — which apparently takes place in a sticky sex club frathouse — has a baffling invite list that includes half filthy degenerate would be-mercenaries, and half scrubbed yuppies in suits and ties, like it’s a board meeting at Oath Keepers LLC.
In the American cut, they go directly to the dinner party scene, with Arcane giving a speech and then doping Bruno’s Long Island ice tea, but those sophisticated Europeans get an extra sixty seconds of sleazy non-plot-related funtime which includes two cheerfully topless ladies. Craven’s not proud of this one, either, but apparently he was utterly helpless on his own film set and had no choice but to shoot, edit and record ADR for this seamy scene. Some people just have bad luck, I guess; that’s all there is to it.
There are two terrible things happening simultaneously in this scene. First, there’s the stripping belly dancer who kind of aimlessly wanders up and down this little strip of cursed carpeting, and then there’s the unappealing bearded gentleman with live scorpions in his brain who effortlessly seduces a blond cater waitress, and engages her in a high-speed game of guess who’s getting to second base.
What ensues is a kind of DIY split-screen Girls Gone Wild video which I imagine might make somebody in the world happy, but if so then it isn’t me.
The bearded guy is incredibly successful at what he’s trying to do, persuading the waitress very quickly to strip off her top and let him come to grips with things.
Pretty soon, the cinematographer decides that nobody’s really interested in looking at these people’s faces anyway, and pans down to get a nice clear shot of the foreplay. It is grim.
After a while, the camera gets bored with the couple and checks in on the dancing girl, who’s demonstrating what happens when you don’t have a thriving local theater arts community.
The weirdest thing about the scene is the shot of fully-dressed party participants, watching the catering staff get assaulted while they’re still waiting for their appetizers. I don’t know what these people ordered, but they don’t seem that invested in getting those wineglasses refilled.
It goes on for a while. In many ways, it’s still happening, forty years later, and there’s nothing we can do about it.
The happy couple wanders off-screen, probably heading for some sorely-needed pre-emptive couples counseling, so the dancer takes off her top and we get some more breasts footage. This is a comic book movie.
Now, these scenes were supposed to be off-limits to everyone on this side of the Atlantic, but in 2000, MGM/UA Home Video released the first Swamp Thing DVD, and accidentally didn’t notice that the film was the European cut.
Two years later, a mother in Dallas recklessly rented this PG-rated DVD at Blockbuster Video to pacify her screen-addicted 9-year-old son, and wouldn’t you know it but she walked into the den just as this scene was unspooling in front of his innocent eyes. The film also included a scene where the hero crushes a guy’s skull with one hand, but the mother was only concerned about the breasts, because that’s Texas for you. She complained to Blockbuster, and Blockbuster complained to MGM, so MGM promised that they would recall all the DVDs, and have them humanely destroyed. They re-released the film with the American cut in 2005, and that solved the problem.
Except that in 2021, as I was preparing for this blog, I ordered a Swamp Thing DVD from Amazon, and I received the European version. It wasn’t something that I intentionally looked for; I didn’t know that these scenes existed. So apparently that MGM recall was so effective that major online retailers still have the discs in stock, twenty years later.
So that’s what happens when you trust film producers, a lesson that I’m sure Adrienne Barbeau learned but did not profit from. In Hollywood, you can try to wash the sleaze off, but it’s all swamp water, and your T-shirt gets just as wet.
The comic book gets another dark genesis
3.47: Because You Demanded It
— Danny Horn