May 1, 2012

Frogs: Long Sticky Tongues

George McCowan
Robert Hutchinson, Robert Blees
Ray Milland, Sam Elliot,
Joan Van Ark, Adam Rourke,
Judy Pace, Lynn Borden,
Mae Mercer, David Gilliam,
Nicholas Courtland, George Skaff,
Lance Taylor Sr., Hollis Irving

"Today the pond. Tomorow the world!"

An early entry into the sub genre of eco-horror, 1972's Frogs gives us Sam Elliot at the beginning of his career and Ray Milland as his was winding down. Directed by George McCowan, who primarily worked in television, this can be looked at as a message film disguised as exploitation or the other way around. AIP founder Samuel Arkoff discovered early on that hip, socially conscious themes appealed to the youth market as did nasty carnage. So no reason not to have both. Whatever sold tickets. The story is credited to Robert Hutchison, whose only other film writing credit seems to be for his work on something called Outside In which came out the same year. This is about a draft dodger returning to the U.S from Canada to attend his father's funeral. It certainly sounds sounds like a socially conscious type film. So keep in mind that, as dumb and schlocky as Frogs ends up being, it's possible that it was conceived with sincerity and good intentions.

Sam Elliot plays Picket Smith, a freelance photographer with background in ecology documenting the effects of pollution in the swamplands of Florida. His canoe is accidentally sideswiped by a speedboat occupied by irresponsible lout Clint and his sister Karen (Joan Van Arc). By way of apology, they invite Pickett up to their grandfather's estate to dry off. The property belongs to Jason Crockett (Milland), the wealthy patriarch of a clan of conniving sycophants and spoiled hangers on. Milland is full on crotchety old sourpuss as Jason, a man who's decided that it's far more important to be deferred to than loved. Picket arrives on the eve of Jason's traditional 4th of July birthday celebration, which Jason will let nothing, and I do mean nothing, interfere with.

"I could kick your ass. Even from this chair. I. Could. Still. Kick. Your. Ass.
You know that right?"

Trouble is, his property has been overrun by an unusually large number of unusually large bullfrogs, whose constant croaking has become a nuisance. He'd sent out a hired hand with a truckload of pesticides to take care of the problem but it seems the man's gone missing. Pickett agrees to look into the situation.

There is a large cast of characters here and the movie takes it's time exploring family dynamics. We learn that alcoholic Clint has an abnormal obsession with his glory days in high school athletics and is having marital problems with his bitchy wife Jenny. He's basically waiting for the old man to die for his share of the inheritance but Jenny is starting to doubt putting up with his crap is worth it. Jason's son-in-law, Stuart probably married dotty old Iris for the money and has spent a miserable life trying and failing to please Jason. Stuart is in turn ashamed of his weak son Michael and embarrassed by his other son Kenneth who delights in shaking things up, like by bring his black girlfriend to the family event. All this steamy family drama is fairly well handled by both the script and the actors, coming off like a competent prime time soap opera attempting to channel Tennessee Williams; a surprising amount of attention given to characters who are all essentially swamp fodder.

See, the poster art is lying to you. This is not about giant killer frogs, that would just be silly. What's really going on gets a whole lot sillier. The entire swamp is out to get the Crocketts, for being wealthy jerks who pollute the environment. The film will later imply that all of nature is striking back at mankind as a whole, in anger or self defense or both. But the Crockett family represents the sort of environmentalist bogeyman that would invite nature's wrath. At one point Karen chides Jason for saying something dickish noting that it makes them sound "like the worst of the ugly rich." Jason  declares, "We ARE the ugly rich". Then Iris chimes in complaining about how new pollution control legislation is going to cost them millions.

Snakes, spiders, birds, and lizards all take part in nature's revenge. At first glance this is potentially less silly than giant killer frogs, or just hordes of slightly bigger than normal sized frogs. There's no way a film made in 1972 could pull off convincing giant frogs and nothing less than a frog the size of a coke machine is going to look threatening. No matter how many you manage to pack into a shot before they hop off in disinterest. Frogs are also notoriously difficult convincing to perform. But the movies called Frogs, where the hell do the frogs come in? OK, remember the movie The Day Of The Animals? The thinning of ozone layer causes all the animals living at a certain altitude to go crazy and start killing people? Well that made sense, hell it sounds positively scientific. This film could have pulled off something similar with the pollution and pesticides making animals go into a killing frenzy. Instead, the frogs are thinking and they're thinking hard. They are the calm masterminds behind the systematic assassination of each member of the Crockett clan. Skipping ahead a bit, this planning is most evident during the scene in which they take out Kenneth, telepathically commanding some lizards to lock him in a green house and poison him. I have less trouble buying animal telepathy than I do their knowledge of basic chemistry for some reason.

There is a simple pattern here. We get a shot of the frogs, then some more lethal animal doing the dirty work, then back to the frogs. I think the reason that the film went with frogs as the face of nature's revenge is that they look really, really smug. It turns their lazy indifference into a strength. Within the film's context the closeups of the frogs make them seem like well fed military masterminds who already know they've won the war.  Just like Winston Churchill plotting against the French.

"Soon all my intricate plans will...oh look, a fly."


The body count gets rolling as Pickett stumbles across the corpse of the missing man whose been killed by snakes. Yeah, it looks like he's still breathing but I assure you he's quite dead. Pickett informs Jason who decides not to tell the others so as not to ruin his birthday plans. When they pull Kenneth's corpse out of the greenhouse Jason still doesn't see any reason to let that put a damper on his celebration. When Iris, Stuart, and Michael all go missing and a horde of frogs start throwing themselves at the glass doors out back, the old man just wants to know when dinner will be ready. Milland's character leaps into a realm of absurd assholery by the end of the film. Not only does he disregard the obvious danger with all the stubborn mendacity of a republican senator denying climate change, his callous disregard for the lives of his family reaches comic levels. After all that's happened his sarcastic and petulant "Happy birthday, to me." comes like a punchline.

Well, so the plot is really dumb and Milland's character is stubborn beyond credibility. Big deal, what did you expect? It's called Frogs you should probably feel ashamed for watching it. True. But what really sinks the movie is the terribly paced, poorly conceived and unconvincing animal attacks. This is a shame because Frogs actually manages to achieve a mildly creepy atmosphere, making good use of it's location and southern Gothic flavour. The nature shots are cool. It's when the film tries to show or trick us into believing that the animals are interacting with the characters in a particular scene that it kills the mood with it's ineptness.The one exception to the ineffective and shoddily done animal attacks is the bit with the tarantulas. Not because it's well executed (it isn't) but because it has fucking tarantulas in it. That's a freebee though. You could have a behind the scenes clip showing the animal handlers just working with the tarantulas and it would be just as freaky. BECAUSE THEY ARE TARANTULAS, which are horrifying wherever they show up and for whatever reason.

It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

It all ends in tears for Jason after the few living members of his family make a mad dash for civilization with Picket. They make an honest effort to convince the old goat to tag along, but Jason opts to sulk in his mansion as nature plots against him outside. The film then manages a minor miracle. Focusing on the old man, alone at night in his big empty house, helpless in his wheelchair with the croaking getting louder outside, the frogs briefly seem truly threatening. Then the most insane thing in the entire movie happens. The phone rings and Jason answers only to hear silence on the other end of the line. Who could be calling? Obviously, it has to be the frogs. Who else could it be? They're torturing the old man psychologically before licking him to death with their long sticky tongues. They only question is, where did they get a phone?

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