Frogs (1972) -***
The 1970’s, as you may recall, were a big decade for environmentalism. Those years gave us unleaded gasoline, catalytic converters for our cars, all manner of clean air and water legislation, Earth Day, The Population Bomb, a major cultural reevaluation of the nuclear power industry, and God alone knows what else. They also gave us a renaissance of the contaminated monster genre, and seemingly hundreds of Mother Nature’s Revenge movies. As examples of the former, think Spawn of the Slithis/Slithis and Prophecy. As for the latter, consider Orca, Day of the Animals, all those damn stupid movies about killer bees, possibly even Jaws. And Frogs, of course. We can’t forget about Frogs.
There’s never any guesswork involved with Frogs. From the moment we first see freelance photographer Pickett Smith (Sam Eliot, from The Legacy) paddling his little red canoe around a Florida swamp, taking pictures of wildlife and pollution, we know pretty well the nature of what we’re about to see. And the same is true, on a smaller scale, when we get our first look at Clint Crockett (Adam Roarke, from Women of the Lost Planet and Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off) and his sister, Karen (The Last Dinosaur’s Joan Van Ark). These two are in the cockpit of their expensive fiberglass motorboat (such a profound statement here, the contrast between this noisy, gas-guzzling, non-biodegradable vessel and Smith’s silent, environmentally friendly canoe, with its echoes of the Indians and their technologically modest ways...), tearing ass around the lake into which Pickett’s path through the marsh will soon lead him. Even if director George McCowan weren’t setting the confrontation up with all the subtlety of a flying 30-foot penis, all but the very dimmest of viewers would be able to discern immediately that Clint (boating with a Budweiser in his hand) is about to come within a hair’s breadth of running Pickett down. And sure enough, a broadside collision is just narrowly averted, and Smith ends up getting dumped out of his canoe by the speedboat’s wake. When Karen and Clint pull over to help him out of the water and apologize, the young woman suggests that they make it up to Pickett by inviting him to the Crockett clan’s annual Fourth of July celebration, which is even then in its opening phases on the island in the center of the lake.
And now it’s time for some of the hardest-core character introduction I’ve ever borne witness to. No less than eight Crocketts and in-laws are paraded before us, along with a girlfriend and a pair of domestics. Brace yourself, ‘cause here it comes: Wheelchair-bound Jason Crockett (Ray Milland, from X! and Panic in the Year Zero!) is the patriarch of the family, a wealthy industrialist who seems to own just about the whole damn swamp. Not only is July 4th the birthday of the Republic, it’s Jason’s as well. His daughter, Iris (Holly Irving), is an eccentric, middle-aged lepidopterist— note that her hobby involves killing small, defenseless creatures!— while her husband, Stuart Martindale (George Skaff, from Man Beast and The Incredible Petrified World), is Meat so Expendable that nobody even bothered to write him a personality. Iris and Stuart have two sons, Michael (David Gilliam) and Kenneth (Nicholas Cortland), who don’t serve much purpose either. Kenneth’s girlfriend, Bella Garrington (Judy Pace, of 13 Frightened Girls and Cotton Comes to Harlem), on the other hand, is here for two very specific reasons. The vaguely rebellious Kenneth has brought her along to this hallowed, family-only event expressly to piss off his grandfather, while the filmmakers themselves have brought her along because, by the early 1970’s, it had at last come to Hollywood’s attention that black people did, in fact, go to the movies. Next we have Clint’s obnoxious wife, Jenny (Lynn Borden, from Black Mama, White Mama and Hellhole), and their two school-age kids, Tina and Jay. Jenny’s job is to make the rest of these losers look sympathetic. And finally, we are introduced to the Crocketts’ household help, Charles (Lance Taylor Sr. of Blacula) and Maybelle (Mae Mercer, from The Swinging Cheerleaders).
Almost immediately after Pickett Smith is introduced to the Crockett family, the conversation turns to frogs. Apparently, Jason’s island has been positively infested with the things of late, and his spoiled, superficial brood find their incessant croaking nearly insufferable. (Funny, that. I was just thinking about how insufferable the Crocketts’ incessant croaking is!) In order to shut them all up (Jenny most of all) so that he can sit back and enjoy his birthday, Jason turns out to have sent an employee of his named Grover to spray frog-killing pesticide all over the island. Jason himself doesn’t much care about the frogs one way or the other, but he’ll do just about anything to silence his offspring— hell, you would too. The thing is that Grover should have been back hours ago, and yet there’s been no sign of him.
Pickett, sensing perhaps that his presence isn’t entirely wanted at the house, volunteers to go looking for Grover out in the bog. He finds the man by following a hilariously straight trail of hilariously diverse animal carcasses, but Smith is in for a nasty surprise— the last carcass in line belongs to Grover himself! Smith takes Grover’s jeep and heads back to the mansion, where he tells no one but Jason what he found out in the swamp. The old man is shockingly unconcerned about Grover’s death. All he cares about is his damn birthday/Fourth of July party, and there’s no way in hell he’s going to let some piddling little thing like an unexplained death ruin it all. But then the members of Jason’s family start to disappear, and the holiday is progressively ruined whether Jason wants to admit it or not.
“Okay, El Santo,” I hear you asking, “Just how in the hell are frogs supposed to kill people? I mean, are they great big frogs? Genetically enhanced, venomous, sabre-toothed frogs, maybe?” Nope. Just regular old bullfrogs. Ordinarily, this would be a problem, seeing as bullfrogs have absolutely no weaponry at their disposal beyond their long, sticky tongues, but as is so often the case, nature has found a way. Just as we humans (who, let’s face it, also got the short end of the stick as far as built-in armament goes) compensate for our physical disadvantages through planning and invention, our vengeful amphibians get the job done by marshalling the efforts of their fellow swamp denizens, many of whom are far better equipped to do the dirty work. Iris is killed by a rattlesnake; her husband falls victim to a pair of alligators; Charles, Maybelle, and Bella are pecked to death by seagulls in a scene that shamelessly apes The Birds; Clint is sent to meet his maker by the bite of a water moccasin; and in what must surely be a first in movie history, Jenny is done in by a snapping turtle, and her corpse picked to pieces by Chesapeake Bay blue crabs (don’t even ask me what they’re doing hanging out in a Floridian marsh...). But the most imaginative fates are those that befall Michael and Kenneth. Kenneth is ambushed in the greenhouse by dozens of geckos and anoles, which knock jars of noxious herbicide from the beams above his head until he is overcome by the fumes. Meanwhile, his brother is actually brought down by a Spanish moss of unprecedented vigor and ferocity, cocooned in its grasping tendrils, and then finished off by the bites of hundreds of tarantulas. The frogs, for their part, watch from the sidelines, directing the whole campaign, until at last, they find a way into the Crockett mansion, and swarm all over their ailing, nearly immobile nemesis until he succumbs to a convenient heart attack. And even those characters who make it to the closing credits alive may not be safe in the long run, as it is strongly hinted that the wrathful frogs have spread beyond the environs of the Crockett mansion, and indeed may be setting the stage for a worldwide putsch.
What makes Frogs such a riot is the preposterously unrealistic behavior of just about every single character in the face of their outlandish situation. For one thing, I find it next to impossible to believe that anybody, no matter how rich or spoiled, could be so self-absorbed that they would soak a marsh in pesticide because the mating calls of a bunch of frogs were getting on their nerves. And though Jason Crockett is initially portrayed in a fairly credible light, his stubborn insistence on sticking to the plan for his party, even after half of his family have fallen victim to mysterious “accidents” involving the local wildlife, is too much for even my disbelief-suspenders, which I like to believe have become substantially brawnier than most people’s on account of all the absurd cinematic bullshit I’ve subjected them to over the years. I mean, come on— your daughter, your son-in-law, and two of your four grandkids are killed by snakes and lizards, and your biggest concern is the menu for your annual Fourth of July dinner?!?! Oh, please!!!!
But the really funny thing is that the passage of time has proven Frogs to be strangely prophetic on at least one point. Though this was not widely known in the early 70’s, modern ecologists consider frogs to be “barometer” species, organisms whose health serves as a particularly good indicator of that of their ecosystems. When an environment becomes seriously polluted, the frogs are among the first species to register the effects. You may remember, for example, a widely reported news story from the late 1990’s, in which scientists around the country were scratching their heads over a startling rise in the incidence of developmental defects in frogs— frogs with five, six, and seven legs, frogs with not enough or too many eyes, frogs with entire extra sets of hindquarters— and searching frantically for traces of toxins or unusual pathogens in the water where the mutant frogs had been found. In light of what we now know, it seems perversely appropriate that frogs should be the ringleaders in an anti-Homo sapiens revenge plot. Hell, it’s almost enough to make you wonder if somebody at A.I.P. had a subscription to one of the scientific journals, and one day stumbled upon an early, tentative article on the subject of frogs and their peculiarly close relationships with their environment!