Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Pond Scum

Year: 1972
Director: George McCowan
Cast: Ray Milland, Sam Elliott, Joan Van Ark
Run Time: 1 hour 31 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

Every holiday I try to watch a horror movie with some thematic connection to the celebration. This is plenty easy when Christmas rolls around, but although horror films do cover a wide array of occasions (from New Year's Evil to Bloody Birthday to Prom Night), there is a pronounced lack of coverage for Independence Day. Sure, there's the late 90's Lustig film Uncle Sam, but I've already seen that. So my pick for this year's Fourth of July was a more tangential film - American Gothic

Little did I know I could have picked Frogs. Sergio would not have been happy with my decision (whatever, he sleeps through all my movies anyway), but it does fit the holiday. Taking place on a Floridian island during the Fourth of July, the 1972 nature-run-amok film Frogs promises loads of amphibian fun. 

It does not deliver.

There is more going on in this still than in the movie itself.

First off, there is a shockingly pronounced lack of frogs in this film. Oh sure, there's plenty of random stock footage shots of frogs hanging out that jam themselves into the film every 20 seconds or so like that one friend at a sleepover who won't shut up when it's 5 AM and you're all trying to sleep. But the primary malevolent force in the film is a grab bag of indigenous (and an assortment of geographically dubious) insects and reptiles.

But I have plenty of grievances to air about that, we can hear those later. First, the plot. Rich patriarch Jason Crockett (Ray Milland) is having his annual birthday party/Fourth of July/family reunion event at his island mansion. The entire family has gathered to celebrate the occasion. They are soon joined by Pickett Smith (Sam Elliott, who could probably have called this a skeleton in his closet were it not for The Golden Compass), an ecological reporter who is investigating the pollution around the area.

As is wont to happen in these types of films, the family is soon beset by a siege of wild animals, presumably exacting revenge for tainting their ecosystem. It's really a great set-up: A large family providing a massive pool of victims, a chintzy premise that promises B-movie fun, and a lead actor that has since risen to stardom.

From a canoe to a corral. 'Tis the circle of life.

If only the film weren't so unearthly dull. Content to be a crappy soap opera for the bulk of its run time, Frogs spends what feels like the course of several hours establishing its characters' relationships and interpersonal dramas. This would normally be a great achievement, but with characters so wanly interchangeable (a good vision test - attempt to differentiate between the three nearly identical balding WASPy brothers) and scenes so static (characters are arranged in dreary tableaux rather than "blocked" in any way), it's enough to make you want to pull out your own eyelashes in a desperate attempt to wish the film away.

And just when the animals start ramping up to wreak their havoc, Frogs undoes itself even more. Of course the kill scenes were never going to be good works of cinema, but they are too sedate to really earn the attentions of any but the most avid B-film watchers. If it's not fun to watch even in an ironic way, your killer frog movie missed out on a major step of the process.

There's a great scene where lizards use their knowledge of chemistry to manufacture a poison gas, but beyond that glint of kookiness, there's not much bite. People mostly just stumble through the forest and shoot themselves in the foot (in one case, quite literally). Let me ask you a question. If you saw a rattlesnake in a clearing, would your first move be to fall directly toward it?

If your answer was no, you are not a character in this film. Congratulations. You have a brain stem.

There are plenty of scenes that, on paper, sound like dynamite viewing. There's a photo shoot with a Foxy Brown-style girlfriend. Frogs somehow take out the phone line then fix it and make a menacing call to the house. Sam Elliott rips his shirt off at the drop of a hat. A man in a wheelchair throws himself into a pile of frogs and dies just cuz it seemed like the thing to do at the time. But there's a supreme lack of effort involved that imbues every scene with a slack lethargy and prevents the more fun plot points from being truly accessible as such.

Although if I could access this outfit I would.

It is of interest as a time capsule of the singular decade of the 70's and one of the first known ecological horror films (a supremely underpopulated genre, the most recent of which is Barry Levinson's found footage gem The Bay), but the shoddy production values sink it into the muck.

Many of the achingly overpresent stock footage shots of various reptiles are blurry with water on the lens, or have the feel of some hapless tourist being jostled while trying to get a shot of the local fauna. The music sounds like the dying wheezes of a kazoo, and more scenes are spent talking about schedules and dividends than screaming in terror.

Also the frogs do absolutely nothing until the last two minutes of the movie and that is unforgivable. Sure, commit whatever reptilian shenanigans you must, but don't sell me a title and not see it through. I'm pretty sure that's one of the Seven Deadly sins.

At least Frogs has the kind of important theme that one can expect from a sharp B-movie, proving that it's at least a little smarter than the average bear, but this is the grizzly sort of bear, not the koala. I'd rather run screaming into the woods than wrap my arms around it.

TL;DR: Frogs is tedious, but it has a good environmental theme and a couple decent B-movie frills.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1027

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