Swamp Thing 3.38: Party at Arcane’s Place

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?

Tomorrow:
An alchemical transmutation
3.29: Who Henches the Henchman?

Chapters

— Danny Horn

14 thoughts on “Swamp Thing 3.38: Party at Arcane’s Place

  1. This entry prompted me to wonder how well Cable had been adapted elsewhere, if at all. A quick look at Wikipedia and then a return to your “Swamp Thing 3.5: Premium Cable” post, and it just dawned on me that the raven we all just saw in The Sandman was once the character that Barbeau’s Cable is loosely based on. The bathing scene would have gone different with Patton Oswalt, I can tell you that.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. As Danny has shown/will continue showing, there are a lot of reasons this movie isn’t considered a success, but I think this is one thing keeping it from ranking a little higher. Granted that both Alien and Terminator are better movies overall, but if Cable had been able to be a badass to the end, like Ripley and Sarah Conner, it might be better remembered in the pop culture canon. Before I rewatched Swamp Thing to follow these posts, my memory of it was of Adrienne Barbeau’s character being a damsel in distress showing her cleavage. So the first half of the movie was a pleasant surprise to see how competent Cable is. But her final role in the film as Danny details here totally undercuts that and leaves the wrong lasting impression. Plus the movie’s marketing doesn’t help, since the main image I remember is the one of Swamp Thing carrying her in this negligee or whatever it is.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. You know they’ve run out of stuff to do with the lead female character when they put her in a maybe lingerie/maybe dinner dress capture outfit. It fulfills the main duties of restricting movement and showing off her breasts, but it honestly can’t make up its mind which it is. Which, to be fair, makes it the perfect outfit to wear to this weird-ass party for richies and goons, I guess.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. I just went to see the Rifftrax Live! version of Return of Swamp Thing, and it makes this film look like Citizen Kane. The filmmakers were waaaaaay too in love with “it’s a comic book come to life!” and had every single actor shrieking their lines like chipmunks on bad E through the entire thing. (An exception for Louis Jordan, who couldn’t be more “this check better not bounce” if he had it written on his placid, uncaring face.)

    As for Alice, I am not the least bit surprised that the film basically dropped her off at the pool for the last quarter: this is where Swamp Thing is supposed to beat the bad guys, avenge his wrongs, and rescue the girl, especially since he’s been pretty scarce in the film bearing his name so far. So naturally the actually competent, likeable character has to be tied up and/or left under a tree because if she assists in any way it undercuts his Hero Arc.

    It’s not quite as egregious as when Jane is literally knocked out and left unconscious during the entire climactic battle in that one Thor movie, but it’s up there. Movie makers are okay with strong women as long as they are made weak by any means necessary.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Of course he has to carry her! It looks like she’s wearing stockings and high heeled sandals! No need to tie her up. She wouldn’t get far in the swamp in those shoes.

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  5. When I start a story, my first question is, “Is there any reason the protagonist can’t be a woman?” In most cases the answer is no. And then I write about a toxically masculine ex-SEAL with PTSD.

    Just kidding, unless there has to be a specific male-type person, my stories have female protagonists. They tend to be more complicated and thus more interesting.

    Too bad this movie couldn’t decide who the protagonist really was. It would have been just as easy for Alice to save Alec, especially if there was something like kryptonite to debilitate him.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. When you started this blog, I was thinking in terms of Dark Shadows Every Day- I assumed you’d cover about 22 minutes of screen time per post. When I saw that you were going to go at a rate more like your podcasting one, but do it in text and by yourself, I thought, wow, if anyone can do it, Danny can. But I can’t imagine even you finding more than one post’s worth of things worth saying about the last 24 minutes of this movie.

    I wouldn’t say that Swamp Thing takes over as the leading character in the movie when Cable is captured. It’s like saying that the person singing over the closing credits takes over as the leading character after you can’t see the actors any more. The various fight scenes and so on that fill that time are as obligatory as are the closing credits and as little rooted in anything that made us care about the events of the first two acts. They might as well be part of some other, even worse movie.

    Liked by 4 people

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