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New on Video: ‘Frogs’ a squirm-inducing entry in the natural horror film cycle of the 1970s

New on Video: ‘Frogs’ a squirm-inducing entry in the natural horror film cycle of the 1970s

Frogs (1)

Written by Robert Hutchison and Robert Blees
Directed by George McCowan
USA, 1972

Sold with fantastic taglines like “Today—the pond. Tomorrow—the world,” “Cold green skin against soft warm flesh…a croak…a scream,” and “A tidal wave of slithering, slimy horror devouring, destroying all in its path!,” the horror/sci-fi film Frogs, from 1972, is among the best of the “when-nature-attacks” movies released from that decade or any other. And it’s out now with another of the sub-genre, The Food of the Gods (1976), part of a Blu-ray double feature from Shout Factory.

When Frogs starts, the hero of the film, Pickett Smith (Sam Elliott, in his first leading role), is floating on a Florida river in his canoe, serenely taking pictures under the opening credits. He’s in the area to do a pollution layout for an ecology publication, and with each shutter click, the image freezes on assorted animals like mug shots of future offenders. He also photographs trash by the riverbank and some sort of foamy brown contamination pouring into the water. Put the two together, and we understand why these creatures look so pissed.

Frogs (5)Our introduction to Clint Crockett (Adam Roarke), out on a motor boat with his sister, Karen (Joan Van Ark), is a less tranquil debut. He is recklessly speeding along as he downs a can of beer. Apparently wanting just to mess with Pickett, he cruises the boat too close to the photographer, tipping over his canoe and sending him into the drink. It’s an aggressive meeting, and certainly Pickett isn’t happy, but Clint and, more earnestly, Karen, do apologize and bring Pickett back to their family’s large estate for dry clothes and food.

There we meet Jason Crockett (Ray Milland), the classically southern patriarch of the family, overseeing all and barking orders from his wheelchair. If he seems exasperated, we soon see why. Gathered as they do every year for a joint birthday party and Fourth of July celebration is a house full of family, friends, and servants, and most of them are a little maddening, especially to the aged and annoyed grandfather. In general, though, despite some relatively trivial family squabbles, everyone here is friendly enough, with no major antagonist. Clint might be a drunken idiot, his wife, Jenny (Lynn Borden), is a bit of a drama queen, and Jason is an angry, crotchety old man, but even among “the ugly rich,” as Jason dubs the group, everyone is essentially hospitable.

Frogs (2)Instantly at the start, frogs already seem to be everywhere—it sure sounds like they are anyway (their incessant croaking is keeping Jenny up at night, as she frequently complains). And quite quickly, more than mere ribbits are infringing on the residence. To the credit of writers Robert Hutchison and Robert Blees, and director George McCowan, we efficiently get a thorough lay of the land and all major characters are introduced by about 15 minutes in. Keeping the film moving along at an exceptional tempo, things turn deadly by the 22-minute mark and the creatures have taken on the house at 30. Jason is quick to dismiss the implications of the animal-related incidents, but Pickett sees everything for just what it is: nature is getting back at us. Only in passing is it revealed that the Crockett family’s paper mill has been spewing forth pollution and is thus at least partly responsible for the vengeful destruction to come. Pickett even suggests that Jason and his family have contributed to the calamity more directly, overdoing it with pesticides and poison on their property.

There’s an undeniably high quantity of animals around the house, especially the frogs, but Jason states—in a prophetic horror film declaration if ever there was one — “it’s not the end of the world.” Nevertheless, it doesn’t take long before all elements are in place for an accelerated, well paced, and entertaining third act. As hysterics spread amongst the guests, the pandemonium only adds to the terror. While others are keen to make a break for it and get out while the getting is good, Jason is stubbornly set in his ways and refuses to have this carnage ruin his annual festivities, however pathetic they may be (before the full devastation, everyone is basically just sitting around or milling aimlessly about, with Jason stoically positioned by a record player as it pumps out patriotic tunes).

Frogs (3)

Interestingly, compared to the leeches, scorpions, spiders, and rattlesnakes, the frogs themselves, while plentiful, appear rather docile, though some shots do imply it is they who are in charge, as if they’re the ones leading the crusade, surveying the attack approvingly. Of course, McCowan et al are playing on the inherent creepiness of the slimy, slithering, stalking creatures. But at the same time, in many of the shots, these creatures aren’t really doing anything. More often than not, McCowan simply shoots close-ups of the various species as they sit still or go about their business (though every now and then, we do get what is presumably a distorted point of view shot taken from the vantage of one of the these animals). It’s almost like an exercise in Soviet montage theory, whereby the impact of a given shot is only achieved within the context formulated by the spectator. The terror, in other words, is often only perceived as such when it’s based on adjacent images and the suggestions of the narrative. Isolated from this context, these critters are mostly just hanging around.

Frogs (6)The animals, it seems, are also apt to make not so subtle statements. There’s the snake entwined on the chandelier, clearly suggesting the class-consciousness of the creatures and their desire to violate upper crust society. Then there’s the frog that plops down on the American flag cake, trampling over the stars and stripes and obviously demonstrating their anti-American political agenda. Yes, I’m sure the filmmakers intended all of this, and no, of course, I’m not being serious. The animals are creative and resourceful, too. One lizard snuffs out a character by knocking over jars of poison (apparently smiling as it does so?), gradually asphyxiating the man. And they’re not without a sense of irony either: a gator kills an uncle in the very oil the character had previously dumped.

Though Frogs was produced on a miniscule budget, the cinematography by Mario Tosi is lush, textured, and layered, taking full advantage of the natural environment of Florida’s Eden Gardens State Park. Similarly, McCowan has certain compositions frequently framed (perhaps unavoidably so) by enveloping foliage, a persistent reminder that nature, now suddenly hazardous, spawning a steady barrage of hostile animals, is a pervasive and surrounding force.

Frogs is pretty ridiculous—there’s no doubt about that. But for 91 minutes, it’s a cheesy, amusing, sometimes squirm-inducing, and generally enjoyable entry in the natural horror film cycle of the 1970s.