The well-known and presumed-dead international criminal Arcane is throwing a dinner party for both his well-heeled investors and his smelly contagious henchmen, although everyone seems to be getting along fine, as long as they don’t ask too many questions about the contents of their cocktails. Swamp Thing and Cable have been captured, and now the monster’s being held downstairs in the castle dungeon, with the federal agent trussed up and on display at the party. The only way out is through, Alec said, and this is a particularly unsettling through.
But this is exactly the right point in the movie to land the lead characters in a terrible jam, according to the classic three-act movie structure. Say what you like about Wes Craven’s script — and I have, and will continue to — the man knew his Syd Field.
I’ll do a quick review, if you’re not familiar. According to Field’s 1979 book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, which I have decided to use on this blog like it’s the Ten Commandments, a movie should have three distinct acts.
Act 1 should take up the first 25% of the screenplay, introducing the premise and the main character, and it should end with the first plot point — an inciting incident that changes the character’s situation, and drives the film. For Swamp Thing, the first plot point is obviously the flaming Alec Holland jumping into the mire, and it shows up at minute 25, which is only about a minute late.
Act 2 takes up the middle two quarters of the movie, and features the rising action, as the main character deals with the fallout from the first plot point, usually by making boats explode. The second act often ends with the main character at their lowest point, with the second plot point putting them in a situation where they need to experience character growth.
For Swamp Thing, that second plot point was Arcane capturing Swamp Thing and Cable, and getting his hands on the notebook, which makes this party the beginning of Act 3 — and it’s happening 24 minutes before the end of the film, exactly on time.
I mean, the rest of the movie frankly sucks; from here on, there’s practically nothing in the film that is of any value to the audience. But at least the structure of the movie is sound; it’s got that going for it.
Unfortunately, there won’t be any more character growth for Agent Alice Cable, who spends the rest of the film being entirely decorative. She’s had an amazing run so far, and for a while it looked like she was actually the main character of the movie, with Swamp Thing basically following her around and beating up people who are mean to her.
The film has tracked Cable’s journey from a buttoned-up agent who hates the swamp to someone who appreciates the swamp’s beauty, and forges an intense emotional bond with the local muck-monster. On his side, Alec’s emotional journey has been a bit lower in the mix, especially because every once in a while he has to jump out at people and go AARGH.
But as soon as Cable realizes that the trash heap is actually her boyfriend, she goes all girly, and loses her grip on the plot. She immediately takes off her top and shows off her breasts, and then she gets kidnapped and delivered to this demonic dinner party, where she has no further impact on plot development.
On the DVD commentary, it sounds like Wes Craven learned something from the experience.
“After this movie,” Craven says, “I vowed never to have another woman tied up like that. It just looks so corny.”
Then there’s a two-second pause.
“But…” Craven continues, “if it’s got to be somebody tied up, Adrienne Barbeau’s a good choice.”
“Yeah,” says the host, “I was going to say, she looks pretty good, tied up there. So: not complaining.”
So that’s where we are, cultural evolution wise, because nobody ever learns anything.
The question of Cable’s competence and narrative agency has been a tricky one to figure out. The movie has been giving her strong moments, but then pulls back from letting her make important choices.
When she arrives at the compound at the beginning of the movie, she’s clearly well-qualified and self-assured, and they do the bit where she recognizes the laser-induced subsonic field generator that gives double readings in the 3200 band to confirm that she’s actually as smart and competent as she thinks she is. Everyone instantly loves and respects her, and Alec points out how funny she is every time she makes a joke.
When the fight starts, she smashes Ferret over the head with a propane tank, beats Bruno to the ground, grabs a rifle, shoots a dude, and generally takes charge during a difficult situation; the baddies manage to get the drop on her, but only because she’s vastly outnumbered. She manages to grab the important notebook and keep it hidden, and she gets all the way through Act 1 without lighting herself on fire and jumping into the swamp, which is more than you can say for Alec.
But then she keeps needing to get rescued — when Ferret tries to drown her, when she runs away from the goons but falls down twice, and when the bad guys spot her before the big boat fight.
The clearest example of this pattern is when she’s on Arcane’s boat and Ferret kisses her. She knees him in the groin, pushes him overboard and makes her escape, which is a fantastic moment for her character, but once she gets to shore, she still needs Swamp Thing to kill Ferret, and then she faints. It’s one of those cliched “Strong Female Character” moments, where the woman takes the sexist assholes by surprise at a non-essential moment in the movie, but returns to the feminine role for the remainder of the picture.
And as you can see here, this situation is not going to improve. This is the costume that Cable’s going to wear for the rest of the movie, and after a while, it’s going to get wet. She only gets one more thing to do, and it’s to tell the lead character to believe in himself.
Astonishingly, Cable will not take a single unassisted step in the last twenty-four minutes of the movie. Once Swamp Thing breaks her chains to release her from the dungeon, he ushers her through the open gate and down the stairs, and then takes her hand as he leads her into the underwater exit.
Once they get topside, he picks her up and carries her over to a tree, where she remains while he fights the Arcane monster by himself. She gets stabbed, Swamp Thing heals her, and then he picks her up and carries her again, over to a different spot, where she stands for the rest of the movie, helplessly watching him walk away.
I suppose this is technically character development, but it’s going in the wrong direction; in the third act, we watch an effective, self-actualized character go completely to pieces. It’s the kind of thing that makes you want to go and make a sequel, just to restore Cable’s dignity and give her a more active part to play. But who would ever make a sequel to Swamp Thing?
An alchemical transmutation
3.29: Who Henches the Henchman?
— Danny Horn