Sunday, July 12, 2015

Show and Tell: Frogs Is Ridiculous And Kinda Terrible. So Why Did I Love It?


Last week I was looking for a horror movie to watch before bed, and in my obligatory 30-45 minute search on Netflix, I landed on Frogs, a movie that has been on my radar ever since I stumbled on the last five minutes of it on TV a few years ago.  While I'd been circling it for a while, I was hesitant because, well...it's called Frogs.  I wasn't sure I wanted to risk starting a movie where the novelty would wear off within five minutes and I'd be bored off my ass for the next hour and a half.

Made in 1972, Frogs stars Sam "I really wish this man was my uncle" Elliot as Pickett Smith, a photographer/ecologist who is almost accidentally run over by a motorboat driven by a member of the extremely wealthy Crockett family.  They offer him a chance to spend time with them on their island by way of apology, but soon his time on the island takes a turn for the deadly as members of the family are killed one-by-one.  All the while, family patriarch Jason Crockett chooses to ignore the deaths in favor of continuing the family's birthday celebration, even as Pickett deduces that the killings are being committed by the animals on the island in response to the continued mistreatment of natural resources in the area.

If the above synopsis makes the movie seem a bit goofy, that's because it's pretty damn goofy.  What's odd is that the reason for the attacks are never clearly explained.  I'd expected some kind of mutation that would make the frogs over-sized, mutated...perhaps ill-tempered.  We get none of that.  Apparently these frogs are just pissed off because of pollution.  What's more, if you can believe it, Frogs is a bit of a misnomer for this movie as they are directly responsible for exactly one death in this movie.  But I suppose Frogs rolls off the tongue easier than Frogs, Spiders, Leeches, Alligators, Snakes, Snapping Turtles, and Moss (Yes, Moss).

As goofy as the premise and script are, I still found myself enjoying the hell out of this movie.  The
first reason is obvious:  anything starring Sam Elliot is worth watching.  In this case, it was particularly interesting for me to see Elliot without his trademark mustache and grey hair because I wanted to see how much his look contributed to his on-screen gravitas.  Happily, as Picket, Elliot still has all of his folksy charm even in a situation as asinine as this one.  Surprisingly, the other actors in the movie provide adequate support, especially given the script they had to work with.

I also really enjoyed the use of the setting.  The film was shot entirely on location at a mansion on the Emerald Coast in Florida, and the film is effective in heightening the menace of the swamps and wetlands in the area.  In particular, there are a few shots that utilize what I believe is supposed to be something from the point of view of the frogs of the frogs, where the edges lose their focus, and the light shining through trees in the swamp has an eerie fogginess to it.  The kills are also pretty effective for a PG movie, as people are poisoned, bitten, and mauled by all variety of Florida-native animals.  I'm certainly going to think twice about jumping into a lake down south after seeing this flick.


While factors such as acting, setting, and creative kills make the movie more entertaining, I was surprised to find that the movie takes a stab at social commentary.  I suppose this shouldn't be as surprising when one considers that the movie was produced by American International Pictures, a production company with a history of addressing issues of the era.  But still, when you click play on a movie called Frogs, you're really not expecting a chance for discussion afterward.

Frogs, however, delves into not one, but TWO issues of the day.  The first, and most obvious, is the relationship between man and the environment.  The movie heavily implies that the impetus for the animals' wrath is the damage being done to the ecosystem, with the Crockett family business being a significant contributor to pollution.  What's interesting is that the movie never shows an explicit cause and effect between the pollution and the animal attacks.  There's no pool of toxic waste giving the animals superpowers, for example.  My first reaction to keeping this connection vague was that it was just lazy writing. However, keeping the catalyst vague keeps the issue broad in its scope.  The Crockett family (especially Jason) are rich, white, entitled assholes, but they're not evil monsters twirling mustaches and plotting world domination.  By keeping the characters relatively grounded, the movie implies that it's not a few devils causing such damage.  It's our culture as a whole.

The other theme considered by Frogs is race relations.  American International is no stranger to issues of race, as it has produced a number of well-known blaxploitation films of the era, including Blacula, Coffy, and Sugar Hill.  These are movies known for depicting strong leading black characters in an era virtually devoid of them.  In Frogs, we meet another such character in Bella, a fiance of one of the Crockett family.  She's confident, she doesn't conform to the hierarchy imposed by Jason and his family, and she's not afraid to confront Jason when he's being unreasonable.  While such a character may seem tame today, this kind of thing was not the norm in 1972.  I hesitate to delve much deeper into the topic considering it's already been terrifically covered by the Graveyard Shift Sisters.  If you want to read deeper into the topic, definitely check out their article here.

Now, don't let any of the above analysis fool you.  Frogs is silliness on celluloid and it's the type of movie you watch after midnight or when you have a group of friends to get drunk with while you watch it.  But while you're getting drunk, take a minute to acknowledge that it's got some flashes of greatness, and it tries to extend its reach slightly beyond its B-movie status.  And it also manages to be a damn entertaining watch.

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