Thursday, January 19, 2017

Lady Frankenstein


Lady Frankenstein (1971)
Dir. Mel Welles
Story by Dick Randall, Written by Edward Di Lorenzo (wikipedia lists about a dozen other writers, but those are the only two on-screen credits)
Starring Joseph Cotten, Rosalba Neri (as Sara Bay), Paul Muller, Peter Whiteman



“Sure, Rosalba Neri (aka "Sara Bay") is no Peter Cushing, but there's no doubt which one of them I'd rather see naked.” -- IMDB commentator “Lazarillo” (or is it “Iazarillo with an “i”?” hard to tell.) 11/30/04

So, what LADY FRANKENSTEIN offers is a radical reimagining of the Frankenstein story, where Frankenstein is a lady. Or, to be more specific, where Frankenstein is a man but then he dies at the end of the first act and he has a daughter who is a lady. A Lady Frankenstein, if you will. The movie at least has enough class to assume that you understand that “Frankenstein” refers to the scientist, not the monster. The monster is not a lady, he is a regular Frankenstein’s monster. That is the most class the movie will be able to muster, so enjoy it while you can.

The weird thing about LADY FRANKENSTEIN is for a while, it’s pretty much just REGULAR FRANKENSTEIN. Joseph Cotten --who starred in CITIZEN KANE, SHADOW OF A DOUBT, and THE THIRD MAN before he must have done something to really piss off his agent-- appears as Baron Dr. Victor Frankenstein, MD, who has a dream to resurrect the dead by transplanting the brain of a freshly deceased convict into a monstrous body he’s whipped up from scratch. When his sidekick Dr. Marshall (Paul Muller, NIGHTMARE CASTLE) points out that the brain they’re planning on swapping has been damaged, Frankenstein irritatedly tells him that sometimes science is more art than science and goes ahead anyway. Or, as he puts it: “Instinct changes the world, not thought! And my instinct tells me to transplant that brain right now!” To the surprise of no one except this brilliant scientist, instinct does not turn out to be the best means of determining when to transplant brains, and pretty soon the monster has killed him and is running amok.



Fortunately, Frankenstein has a daughter named Tania (Rosalba Neri --going by “Sara Bay” here-- probably most known for this movie, but with perhaps the best track record for films with great titles that I have ever seen on IMBD*) who is just home from college. She wants to get involved in the family business, but Frankenstein is having none of it, until his untimely demise. Fortunately, Dr. Marshall really, really wants to bone her (understandable) and reluctantly gets on board with her plan to take her father’s place. Weirdly, considering the whole point here is to resurrect the dead, there is very little if any discussion of reviving daddy Frankenstein; instead, the new plan is to A) deny responsibility for the monster who is running around the countryside encountering various Italians having sex in the middle of the road in broad daylight and murdering them, and B) transfer Dr. Marshall’s brain out of the unfuckable body of a nebbish scientist and into the comparably more fuckable body currently occupied by “mildly retarded servant” Thomas (Marino Masé, who has worked with both Goddard and Coppola. No, seriously!).

Not much happens to further either of these goals for a long time, and the movie contents itself with some unbearable filler about a detective and the Frankenstein family’s merry band of grave-robbers, which is distinguished only by the startlingly over-the-top anti-semitic Jewish caricature of a grave-robber (Herbert Fux, “Austrian actor and politician”** JESUS FRANCO’S JACK THE RIPPER), which is about as over-the-line as I’ve seen in a modern film (note the gigantic menorah in his house). But blatant anti-semitism can only entertain us for short periods, so we also have to occasionally flash back to the monster, still running around and killing naked Italians. This tends to be what Frankenstein movies think we’re paying for, but it’s usually a pretty dull affair, without much notable gore or memorable gimmickry. And besides, we didn’t pay for a Frankenstein movie. We paid for a Lady Frankenstein movie. So the more interesting storyline has to do with the plan to get Dr. Marshall a younger, hotter bod. The murder part turns out to be pretty easy; Madam Frankenstein lures the young man into the house with the promise of sex, and them has Marshall smother him while they’re right in the middle of things. I say “the middle,” because, heroically, she doesn’t let her partner’s demise spoil her fun. They should put a frame from this scene on one of those motivational posters above the word “persistence.” Unfortunately the brain transferring part goes a little less smoothly, as they are interrupted by the return of the prodigal monster, with a very pissed off mob of ignorant villagers hot on his tail.



None of this really adds up to much, but I do have to give the movie credit for doing something a little different. It’s an odd mix of Hammer-style gothic horror (a looming castle, period costumes, an impressive mad science lab) with imaginative sleaze that could only come from Italy (necrophiliac coitus, random open-air daytime sex), but directed by an American actor (Mel Welles, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS 1960) right as the scales were beginning to tip away from Gothic Horror towards the giallo and eventually the slasher. So it’s kinda a hybrid, stitched together from different traditions into an unwieldy whole. A Frankenstein’s monster, if you will. And draped over that odd structure is a bizarre and confused story of female empowerment and sexual liberation which the movie is both repulsed and fascinated by. Lady Frankenstein is a villain, and not much of a character even at that, but it’s worth noting that she’s very much the protagonist, a vastly more active and complex character than virtually any Hammer female role that comes to mind. The movie is cheap and incompetent (the opening credits have a fucking typo, for god’s sake), but as an especially offbeat iteration of the Frankenstein story, and especially as an artifact from a very particular cross-section in both horror cinema and the sexual revolution, it’s worth a peek. Also the monster has a popped-out eye dangling there, which wins it another half-star all by itself.

*Lo strano ricatto di una ragazza per bene (The Strange Blackmail of A Good Girl), THE SEXBURY TALES, AND THEY SMELLED THE STRANGE, EXCITING, DANGEROUS SCENT OF DOLLARS, IN THE WEST THERE WAS A MAN NAMED INVINCIBLE, THE FRENCH SEX MURDERS, WATCH OUT GRINGO! SABATA WILL RETURN, PASSWORD: KILL AGENT GORDON, HERCULES AGAINST THE SONS OF THE SUN, SECRET CONFESSIONS OF A CLOISTERED CONVENT

**If the thought of an Austrian actor playing a greedy, amoral Jewish desecrator of Christian graves fills you with some degree of concern, at least be comforted to know as a politician he “was among the founders of a citizens' initiative against commercialization and uglification of Salzburg's historic townscape and became an elected member of the city council. In 1982 he and others established the Austrian United Greens party (Vereinte Grüne Österreichs, VGÖ), which in 1986 merged into the Green Alternative (Grüne Alternative). Fux was elected MP of the Austrian National Council in the 1986 legislative election, he retained his seat until December 1988 and again entered into parliament in November 1989. In November 1990 he retired and later served as culture committee chairman in his hometown Salzburg.” according to wikipedia. So seems like a pretty good guy.***

***Also, Fux must be the only actor to work with both Ingmar Bergman and Jesus Franco in the same year (he has what must be an extremely minor role in THE SERPENT’S EGG, and co-stars as “Satan” in Franco’s LOVE LETTERS FROM A PORTUGUESE NUN). That’s some fuckin’ range as an actor. He followed it up the next year with another strange pairing, appearing in movies by Meneham Golan (THE URANIUM CONSPIRACY) and Werner Herzog (WOYZECK)

Because sometimes quotation marks and commas are the same thing.

CHAINSAWNUKAH 2016 CHECKLIST!
Good Kill Hunting

TAGLINE
Only The Monster She Made Could Satisfy Her Strange Desires! Which is actually more accurate to the plot than you’d usually expect from these things, and A Mad Surgeon's Mind in a Woman's Body which, while technically true, is both sexist and misleading, because it suggests the mind didn’t start out there.
TITLE ACCURACY
100%
LITERARY ADAPTATION?
Very, very, very loose adaptation of Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley
SEQUEL?
None
REMAKE?
No
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN
Italy
HORROR SUB-GENRE
Science (mad), Monster, Frankenstein
SLUMMING A-LISTER?
Joseph Cotten
BELOVED HORROR ICON?
None.
NUDITY?
Yes, the area seems to be mainly populated by nude women and topless men engaged in the throes of passion.
SEXUAL ASSAULT?
Yes, in the sense that multiple people are assaulted while having sex
WHEN ANIMALS ATTACK!
No
GHOST/ ZOMBIE / HAUNTED BUILDING?
Zombie / reanimated corpse
POSSESSION?
No
CREEPY DOLLS?
None
EVIL CULT?
No
MADNESS?
Arguably
TRANSMOGRIFICATION?
Eventually some brains get swapped, etc
VOYEURISM?
Yes, Lady F and Timmy or whatever go at it while Charles watches.
MORAL OF THE STORY
Women can be just as good at science as men, but they’d just use that knowledge to put the brains of smart men into the bodies of handsome men.

And not a very strong C- at that. But at least weird enough to escape a two-thumb rating.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Regression

Why The World Is Wrong About "Regression" (the movie, not the psychological technique)

Regression (2015/2016)
Dir and written by Alejandro Amenábar
Starring Ethan Hawke, Emma Watson, David Thewlis



I’d like to take a moment to tell you why everyone in the world is wrong about REGRESSION. The world did not take to REGRESSION. This was a movie which was received so badly that it didn’t even generate some quote-worthy vitriol, didn’t inspire hate or condemnation. Just the kind of mild, sustained annoyance that comes from having someone dull waste your time for 106 minutes. And I can completely understand that reaction, first of all. Our buddy Dan P pretty much had that exact reaction, an escalating exasperation for a film so completely empty of anything good it feels marginally insulting, like the filmmakers must really think you, personally, are an idiot if they thought this was going to be good enough to get the job done.

I understand that reaction, as I said. But I don’t agree. I think I sort of loved it. Which raises the very legitimate question of whether or not I’ve finally just become some sort of Armond White internet movie troll, who has to instinctively size up the collective reaction something is going to get and then puckishly assert, with a certain anarchic brashness, the exact opposite. I do wonder about that sometimes. I loved LOST RIVER, for crissakes, and nobody loves LOST RIVER. I doubt even its creators would be willing to put forward as full-throated a defense as I would. But I swear to you, if this is indeed what has happened to me, it’s not intentional, nor is it conscious. Honest, I really prefer to agree with everyone. I argue because I must. If I have become a troll, it was not by choice.

No, I think the problem is that I just watch too many movies. I’d guess that I average more and a movie a day, and in October significantly more. Watching that many movies is not normal or healthy, which are issues to mull over in themselves. But aside from being socially and emotionally crippling, it also has the effect of gradually reshaping the very act of watching movies in itself. You can’t watch that many movies and expect most of them will be good. The majority of movies you watch are terrible, and gradually you see so many of those that even when a decent version of the same crap comes along, it’s so utterly rote and predictable that it can be hard to get too jazzed about. Eventually, you notice that the things you enjoy have drifted alarmingly far from anything that anyone you know enjoys, or even understands. You gather friends to watch your new blu-ray of HOLY MOUNTAIN and are genuinely surprised that they find it completely alien and unpleasant. And one day, you finally realize that the problem is not them, it’s you.* You’ve finally seen so many movies that the traditional metrics we use to define successful cinematic “art” have almost no real impact for you anymore. You don’t really care if something is “good” or “bad” anymore, because you’ve seen it all so many times you barely notice it. The only thing that gets a response from you are movies which have even some small little detail which is different. And they may well be terrible in nearly every other way, but you gradually find yourself preferring that to normal movies which are technically competent but depressingly generic.



I say all this, because inherent in that method of examining cinema is something fundamentally meta, if not out-and-out postmodernist. To identify works which have something unique and interesting about them implies a deep awareness of what our expectations are as viewers, and a deep awareness of the way cinema, as a narrative medium, is typically constructed. It’s the reason obnoxious people like me sit in a movie theater and immediately tell their viewing companions what the twist is going to be in every movie they see a trailer for, with near-certainty. And it’s the reason that I was able to perform the feat of deeply enjoying REGRESSION. You see, this is a movie with twist. (Maybe). But my entire enjoyment of the film stems from correctly identifying that twist not just from the trailer, not just from the first few minutes, but from the fucking box art. If you too see exactly what the movie is up to, I think you might enjoy it, for reasons I will explain. If you somehow fail to see the twist coming, I can only surmise that you will feel insulted and furious. The question is, then, just exactly how obvious is all this really supposed to be? Does writer-director Alejandro Amenábar (ABRE LOS OJOS, THE OTHERS) know that we know, and is playing along for a very clever thematic reason, or does it think it’s smarter than us and totally pulling the wool over our eyes?

This question of intent is pretty important in trying to evaluate REGRESSION, but there’s no way for me to speak to this issue without talking about the so-called “twist.” So consider yourself warned, I guess, but then again, there’s probably no way to enjoy this without knowing the twist, which frankly you’re about to figure out anyway from the brief plot description I’m about to give, and because you’re an adult human being who has seen a movie before. Here is the plot of the movie, without the spoiler:

This story is inspired by true events. The year is 1990.

Ethan Hawke (SINISTER, BOYHOOD) plays Minnesota Detective John “Reg” Ression, one of those movie cop detectives who can be counted on to go too deep into a case until they’re exhausted and dreaming about the case and have to make one of those big complex charts on a bulletin board with string linking together all the suspects and clues. In this case to change it up they have him do that in notebooks and chalkboards instead of on a bulletin board, which is about as close to shaking up the usual formula as the movie ever dares to get. The particular case he’s about to get Too Deep into revolves around Angela Gray (Emma Watson, a 26-year-old British child star, making about as convincing a 14-year old Minnesotan hayseed as she’d make an MMA champion), who claims she’s been raped by her pathetic, fundamentalist dad John (David Dencik, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY). Dad seems a little unhinged, but he swears his daughter is telling the truth… except that he doesn’t remember anything. Suspecting a repressed memory, the detective enlists the help of psychology professor Ken Raines (David Thewlis, THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU) to try and unlock the memory through a new method called hypnotic regression. Under hypnosis, John does remember the incident… only, he also remembers there was someone else there. Someone wearing a black robe. Uh oh. Soon, other people under hypnosis also start to remember black-robed figures, including some prominent townspeople. Before you know it, our heroes find themselves enmeshed in a sinister Satanic conspiracy which just might go all the way up to Hillary Clinton (they don’t mention her specifically, but it stands to reason).



Except that (spoilers start here) they don’t, obviously. I feel weird using the word “spoiler” for knowledge which it would be insulting to suggest you didn’t infer from that plot setup, and especially weird for using the word “spoiler” for knowledge which can only improve the film, but that’s the odd position I find myself in. See, it’s obvious from frame one of REGRESSION that this is going to be a twist movie, and equally obvious there can be only one twist to come out of this premise: Angela is full of shit, she made up the whole thing and then it spiraled out of control because regression hypnosis is a bogus pseudo-science. Which you would probably have to assume anyway (even if you knew nothing about movies) because you are (hopefully) already familiar with the “real events” the movie is referencing: the Satanic Panic, which gripped the US in the late 80’s and early 90’s, ruining many lives and making heavy metal seem way cooler than it actually is before ending with a whimper when people suddenly realized it was total horseshit. While this year’s #pizzagate debacle taught me that there are, in fact, many people who did not learn a lesson from that national disgrace, I have to believe, for my own sanity, that most Americans do not need to watch a Hollywood thriller to learn that Satanic conspiracies are not real. But even if they did, having a total 180 twist ending would still be a frustrating narrative device.

There’s a million movies that end with this kind of infuriating movie-negating twist, going most directly back to PRIMAL FEAR (which seems to have lit the fuse on the modern mindfuck thriller, which was then thoroughly and irreversibly exploded by THE SIXTH SENSE) but originating at least as far back as THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI in 1920. In fact, it seems like every fucking thriller these days feels the need for some kind of mindfuck twist, regardless of how nonsensical or pointless it makes the entire movie which came before it. But as twists go, this one is particularly insipid, because of course it completely repudiates almost the entire movie which came before it. All those scary moments where we think we glimpse hooded figures, all those nightmares about satanic baby sacrifice… none of that happened. We just watched a film in which nothing happened, in which the main characters got really scared about nothing, and no forward progress whatsoever was made. I think you can begin, now, to see why this was such a frustrating and irritating viewing experience to most people. And nothing about the way it approaches this material seems to indicate any hint of awareness of how obnoxious it is to shoot a completely conventional horror-thriller and then rescind the entire thing in the last ten minutes. Particularly when the actual horror-thriller part is very much in the standard paranoid hint-don’t-show mold, and consequently almost completely lacking in money shots or genre payoffs. If you’ve already figured out that there’s nothing real going on here, there is desperately little in the movie that hasn’t been repeated so often in this genre that it barely even has any meaning anymore.



But ah, therein lies the possible brilliance of the film. Everything about its premise and execution is so completely conventional that it seems almost archetypal. You have your over-the-line cop, you have your shadowy conspiracy, you have your tough-but-caring sergeant, you have your uncaring system which doesn’t believe our heroic detective’s intuition, you have your damsel in distress. And everything plays out exactly the way you’d expect it to… except that you already know that this is going exactly the opposite way the characters think it is. Regardless of whether it was intended or not, this has the clever effect of completely undermining all the expected conventions of this sort of film. You’ve seen a million films where the over-the-line detective shakes down an uncooperative suspect in custody and gets too aggressive with him and the other officers have to step in and drag him away. But we accept that it’s just because he cares too much, that he’s frustrated because he knows he’s right, but the evildoers are trying to slip their way out of justice. We know that, because we understand the conventions of this genre. They use our expectations about cinema to assure us that it’s OK, he’s the good guy. Here, though, we can’t hide behind that comfortable assurance -- this particular suspect in police custody is almost certainly completely innocent, and we’re watching the “hero” of the movie violently abuse someone who can’t possibly give him the information he wants.

This ingeniously turns the entire framework of the movie on its head, forcing us to re-experience every expected beat of this familiar cinematic contrivance, except with the knowledge that our heroes are wrong and they’re actively making the world worse the harder they try to get to the bottom of this non-existent mystery. It’s a meta horror movie superimposed on a conventional horror movie, and that creates a particularly unsettling dissonance which I’ve never quite experienced before. Poor Detective Ethan Hawke knows he’s in a horror movie; he just doesn’t realize that it’s not the one he thinks he’s in. He thinks he’s the hero, and everything about the way his story is presented backs that up, makes us understand exactly why he would think that. He has absolutely no idea that he’s actually the villain, which is what makes him so much more dangerous and tragic. He’s crossing the line in his desperate effort to do the right thing, and we can only watch in horror as every step he takes ruins more lives and brings him further away from the truth (Hawke’s near-mega intensity just makes his folly all the more believable).**  



It’s a terrifying cautionary tale of how easy it is to get stuck on the wrong track and still convince yourself that you’re right. And, crucially, it makes sense to us, because it’s entirely presented in a context with which we’re already powerfully familiar. In a normal version of this movie, the detective would be completely right, and that’s how he experiences these events. We’re watching the movie he thinks he’s living through, except with the knowledge that it’s all wrong. We can understand why he does what he does, because he does exactly what you’d expect him to in a movie like this. It’s just that this time, he’s eventually going to have the legs completely cut out from under him. That’s the genius here: it’s a subversion of a modern mythic narrative which forces us to suffer through the entire story, watching as each new convention backfires more spectacularly -- but without the relief of allowing us to condemn the characters, since by the very act of acknowledging the mythic nature of the story arc, we acknowledge that we fully expect and condone the characters going through exactly this arc. We’re just as complicit as they are in being misled by our expectations.

Sadistically, the movie constantly teases our characters’ ruinous lack of awareness, giving them ample opportunity to figure out that they’re on the wrong track, but then dragging them right back into it. And it plays pretty fair with them, considering how mercilessly it sets them up to fail. They’re not idiots, and they’re not bad people. They really think they’re being logical and practical about all this, but they’re starting from  false premise, so every subsequent assumption they make is wrong. The movie is fraught with moments where one of them notices something off, and almost figures it out. But the psychologist doesn’t know much about detective work, and the detective doesn’t know much about psychology, so no one can see the big picture. They reassure each other whenever one of them is having doubts, and the whole thing becomes a downward cycle of confirmation bias. And of course, it’s personal, too -- when confronted with the idea that maybe, just maybe, regression hypnosis doesn’t reveal hidden memories, but instead a highly suggestible unconscious state, the scientist in Raines suddenly sees the truth -- but then the ego kicks in as he realizes that would undermine his whole career. And he forces himself to unsee it.

By the way, that guy over Hermione's shoulder is Lothaire Bluteau, fuckin' JESUS OF MONTREAL himself! Nice to see him still getting some work. Actually this movie is full of interesting character actors in small roles (Bluteau, Dale Dickey, David Dencik, Peter MacNeill, Julian Richings) who make their standard-issue roles a lot better than they deserve to be.

I guess I have to admit that maybe this got to me a little more than it otherwise might have because of the unique way it juxtaposes narratives with objective reality. I’m obviously looking at the world right now with some mix of horror and despair, as I watch my beloved country (America) start down what could be a very, very scary path. I’m looking at these Trump voters, and it just completely boggles my mind what they could possibly be thinking that would make this seem like a good idea. This is pretty extreme stuff we’re playing with here. This isn’t stuff which I think it’s possible to have a simple political disagreement about -- either I’m right about how dangerous this approach is, or I’m completely crazy and everything I think I understand about government and reality is wrong. And I can’t discount that possibility. We all have an idea about what kind of movie we’re living in, and I think we probably all imagine ourselves as the hero on some level. But it’s easy to imagine someone watching that movie and slapping their foreheads over how frustratingly shortsighted we’re being, how we can’t see the obvious no matter how many times it throws itself at us. Hell, I can look back at my own life and see times where I can hardly believe how caught up I got in a narrative which turned out to be totally bogus. It didn’t just feel right at the time, it felt inevitable. I’ve seen this movie, you think, I know what happens. But of course, the whole reason we need narratives is to try and make sense out of the chaos of reality. They’re a comfort, not a truth. REGRESSION, whether it means to be or not (and, truthfully, I think the case for “not” is probably the stronger one)*** is a sobering reminder of that fact, and its potential to turn well-meaning people into an instrument of great harm. As a straight horror movie, it’s completely played-out, predictable, and dull, with a flourish of intelligence-insulting in its finale. But as a parable about the danger of believing your own story, it’s genuinely horrifying.

*Although in that particular example it’s actually them, because fuck you all, HOLY MOUNTAIN is a delightful movie that should be

**Man, is that guy great or what? This is a total nothing of a character, but you wouldn’t know that from how hard Hawke works to make him come to life.

***It is, however, obviously designed as a movie which will read very differently once you know the twist. So whether you think we’re supposed to know the first time around, or it’s just designed to be re-watched with that knowledge, the intention is certainly there.  

Also, this is in the movie. I'll let you decide if that was a good or bad choice.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Frogs


Frogs (1972)
Dir. George McCowan
Written by Robert Hutchinson, Robert Blees
Starring Ray Milland, Sam Elliott, Joan Van Ark, Judy Pace, Adam Roarke,




FROGS opens with minutes on end of a hunky gentleman in a canoe (Sam Elliott, who you will not recognize without his trademark mustache for a good half-hour or so) floating around a Southern waterway and doing some leisurely nature photography. This is an entirely appropriate beginning, because it’s also more or less the movie’s plan for the next 90 minutes of your life. FROGS, you see, is comprised of two things, in an approximately 50-50 split: footage of a bunch of annoying people sitting around a Florida panhandle manor house, and footage of frogs just kind of sitting there, looking pretty happy to finally graduate from extra to featured player. Why someone thought this would make for a good horror movie --or a horror movie at all-- is never even remotely clear. But if you like footage of frogs, this is the movie you’ve been waiting for your whole life.


Sam Elliott (THE LEGACY, THANK YOU FOR SMOKING) plays Detective John Frogs, a freelance photographer doing some hard-nosed digging into the seedy underbelly of amphibian life in sleepy Southern waterways. It must be pretty important work because the first thing he does when he gets back to civilization is run to call his editor, presumably to tell him to hold the presses. Unfortunately, this journalistic juggernaut is thwarted when a speedboat driven by Clint (Adam Roarke, DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY) swamps the canoe. Clint is a drunken rich-kid fuckup, but his sister Karen (Joan Van Ark, The Young and the Restless) --also on board-- is pretty nice and decides pretty quickly she’d like to bone the rugged young photojournalist, so she insists they fish him out of the water and bring him back to their family’s palatial manor house to dry off and then for some reason to stay for a few days.


Once there, Elliott quickly meets the family patriarch, wheelchair-bound Jason Crockett (Academy-Award-Winner Ray Milland, THE PYJAMA GIRL GASE, THE LOST WEEKEND), a grouchy old tyrant who is very fucking insistent that nothing ruin his birthday party tomorrow, not even a bunch of Frogs. For the next forty or so minutes Elliott just walks around the grounds of the house meeting every single relative and individually re-explaining why he’s there, while sometimes the camera cuts to footage of frogs. Pretty gripping stuff.




At about 45 minutes, we’ve had a lot of talking and a lot of footage of frogs, plus a good bit of footage of snakes, a sprinkling of geckos, a couple monitor lizards, and a little bit of alligator. But no actual scary parts. Elliott does find the deceased body of one of Crockett’s workers out in the woods, but he died off-screen before the events of the movie and nobody seems too surprised since, yeah, there’s snakes and stuff out there. Fair to say, then, that there’s not a lot of drama and absolutely no horror during the film’s first half, although in fairness the movie’s title promised FROGS, and frogs it delivers, dammit, and none too stingily. Finally, at 45 minutes, one of the hundreds of indistinguishable obnoxious people squatting at the house wanders out into the woods, where you know he’s gonna get what’s coming to him (and all humans). But even so, he as to accidentally shoot himself in the leg before nature can finish the job. Eventually, some other people die in some prolonged but fairly uneventful death sequences mixed with nature footage. But because FROGS doesn’t have a lot of animatronics or anything, the victims really have to do most of the legwork themselves. Another guy is standing in a greenhouse when lizards knock poisonous chemicals off the shelves and he asphyxiates instead of walking the four steps to the greenhouse door. Man, nature must really be kicking itself for not trying this sooner, who knew these guys went down so easy?  




One thing you’ll notice, though, is that even once people start dying, the cutaways to frogs continue. Which is odd, because while people are killed by monitor lizards, snakes, alligators, snapping turtles, and mostly their own stupidity, I note that the frogs never actually do anything. I don’t know if they’re the masterminds behind all of this, or if they’re just nature’s cowards and they’re not gonna take action til they can see which side is winning, or what. But it strikes me as strange that in a movie called FROGS, which features almost wall-to-wall footage of frogs, and boasts a poster with a human hand dangling from a frog’s mouth, the frogs just kind of sit there. Although Mr. Majestyk offers an interesting interpretation:




Anyway, regardless of whether anyone does or not get devoured by frogs (they don’t), FROGS may accidentally be the perfect movie for our times. For one thing, it’s terrible, just like our times. But for another, I think it may be  --maybe even intentionally!-- a metaphor for the inexorable changing cultural landscape and the bitter resistance some people put up against that change. The frogs never actually DO anything, but they’re the harbingers of what’s to come: they’re getting louder and louder, more numerous and brazen, harder to ignore, until the smart people finally decide to do acknowledge that a course correction is necessary. Those who refuse to take heed of their inability to control the world are gonna wind up in trouble. Seen in that light, there’s a lot of interesting subtext going on here with the various stock characters.




I mean, think about it -- you got Milland as the cranky, bullying family patriarch holed up in the gargantuan home he insists his family has lived in for generations. The only thing he cares about is ensuring things never change, that whatever happens, his birthday party does not deviate from the same routine he’s demanded his entire life. Oh, and when is that birthday? Why, on the Fourth of July! And lest you forget it, they have footage of frogs defiling his large American-Flag birthday cake, while he broods in his wheelchair, listening to patriotic music on a turntable. His single-minded insistence that they not budge a single inch from the routine that they’ve undertaken every year, without fail, is really the only conflict in the movie, which seems completely laughable unless you start to consider its potential for allegory.


I mean, is it too much to wonder if he represents the Old South (which was a little less old in 1972)? He’s a dithering, hectoring old bully, crippled and bitter, fixated on ensuring that everyone respects his unquestioned authority and dutifully goes through the same comfortingly familiar motions they’ve always gone through. But times are changing. One of his grandkids has a glamorous black girlfriend (Judy Pace, BRIAN’S SONG), and the awkwardness of her being a guest at this aristocratic Southern plantation hangs so heavy in the air that it doesn’t even have to be spoken. In fact, everyone fastidiously avoids speaking it; listing the reasons she’d be objectionable to grandpa, her fiance carefully avoids mentioning race at all, instead landing (lamely) on her being a “fashion model.” You can almost see him consider stating the obvious and then chickening out. She chickens out herself, albeit in a somewhat sweeter way, in a surprisingly nuanced scene between her and Crockett’s older, black maid (blues singer Mae Mercer, DIRTY HARRY, THE BEGUILED). Neither one of them needs to state the strangeness of their shared racial past and their radically different present, but the maid notices they have the same name -- Maybelle -- though her younger namesake goes by “Bella.” They share an odd moment of fractured, awkward kinship which feels unusually honest for a film (ostensibly) about killer frogs.



Are their different versions of the same name a sign that Bella is fooling herself in thinking she’ll ever be accepted in this world which almost certainly consigned Maybelle and her ancestors to humiliating servitude? Or is it a hopeful symbol that Bella could rebrand herself and sit as an equal with these backwards old crackers, who are surely deeply put off by her very presence, but are too scared to say something to a social equal (or better)? I don’t know, exactly, but it’s nice that the movie finds time for that ambiguity in-between shots of frogs. Towards the end, when Crockett’s black maid and butler (Lance Taylor, Sr, BLACULA) meekly ask if they can leave before they get killed by frogs or what have you, Bella finally makes the racial tension explicit: “Maybe you haven’t heard about it stuck out here in vacation land,” she snaps --and it’s hard to say if she’s addressing Crockett or his employees -- “but five score and seven years ago, they just started letting people make up their own minds.” When they do go, Crockett isn’t just angry, he seems genuinely hurt, even though they’re almost absurdly accommodating of the old bastard, and even seem touchingly concerned about his welfare. But concern isn’t what Crockett wants. Loyalty, he says, is -- but to him that just means unquestioned obedience.





He demand that obedience from both his hired staff and from his family. “He knows he’s not popular. With the public or his family. And he revels in it,” says one of his grandkids. But they play along, bored and annoyed, because they’re afraid that if they rock the boat they’ll lose their share of his wealth. If Crockett is indeed a metaphor for the Strom Thurmonds of the world, it’s an interesting perspective to cast his “kids” (the younger generation) as uninterested in his antics and priorities, but dutifully following them for their own selfish reasons. And of course, money is a big part of this; even though he’s just a single, crippled old man, Crockett can make everyone dance to his tune because he controls the money. It may not be earned, but that doesn’t mean his descendants fancy the idea of losing any of it. “You make us sound like the worst of the ugly rich,” one of his kids admonishes. “We ARE the ugly rich!” He says, to which she explains, “We’re entitled to be ugly... God knows we pay enough in taxes.” Man, some things never change, huh? Which is particularly galling because FROGS is very much a movie which believes things have changed; which sees the grouchy old Crocketts of the world as the thing holding us back. Unfortunately it’s now 2017, and we just have new Crocketts to replace the old ones, and a lot of them are probably the same kids who just mechanically went through the motions to appease their bossy old grandpa, but who now cling to the same old bullshit as if they made it up. I guess with the benefit of hindsight it’s not so simple. But still, I appreciate the optimism of FROGS’s view that the Old Ways will get swept away whether they’re willing to acknowledge it or not, that the changing world is inevitable, overwhelming, a force of nature.




Of course, it’s also literally a force of nature here, which makes for a somewhat confused metaphor. On the surface, FROGS is very much a quintessential “Nature strikes back” movie, right down to the required scene where a character comes right out and speculates aloud about nature taking revenge. Hell, it opens with a potential motive for nature: Elliott photographs a bunch of garbage along with a bunch of frogs during the credits (in a perfect summation of what the filmmakers intend to do). But I think this is tied to the filmmakers' point, too; nature is one of those things -- like shifting racial, social and sexual mores-- which isn’t just going to politely sit there waiting for Ray Milland to come around. It’s gonna change, and you can either change with it or get trampled by it. You can try to ignore the growing chorus of frogs making a racket in the background, you can even try to kill them off. But in the end, who’s lying dead on the floor next to his overturned wheelchair, and who’s smugly hopping around on his corpse? I won’t say because I don’t want to spoil anything but after you watch the movie I think you will understand what I mean.


All this is kinda getting away from the fact that this is a ridiculous and terrible movie, which is pretty hard to deny. The acting isn’t a disaster, though; Elliott has a confident, reserved cool which makes his non-character seem compelling, and Milland is making at least a small amount of effort, or anyway more than one would expect from one of these late-career roles from former A-listers where they play a character in a wheelchair so they don’t have to stand up while shooting. But aside from some pretty nature photography (rendered in glorious blu-ray in the most recent Scream Factory! release) there’s not really much entertainment value to be had here. It’s not even really outrageous enough to be enjoyably campy, it’s just pretty dull (unless you suffer from a particular phobia of the fauna of Northern Florida wetlands, in which case this is probably far too horrifying for you to enjoy anyway).




Still, its little allegorical touches are interesting enough that it’s not a total wash, especially given the film’s ambiguous apocalyptic implication -- is this happening everywhere? “I still believe man is master of this world” Milland says. “Does that mean he can’t live in harmony with the rest of it?” Elliott returns. A pretty bold subtext for a schlocky killer frog lizard movie. Maybe someday, someone will make a good one. Until then, the best I can offer is the suggestion that you stick to the end of the credits to finally see an (inexplicably animated) frog actually eat someone. It’s not easy being green.



CHAINSAWNUKAH 2016 CHECKLIST!
Good Kill Hunting


ALIAS
Released mostly just as “FROGS” in various languages, though the West German title helpfully explains, “Frogs - Killer aus dem Sumpf” ie, “FROGS: KILLERS FROM THE SWAMP.” You know, in case you didn’t know where frogs come from.
TAGLINE
Today The Pond… Tomorrow The World! Which is inaccurate in two ways, first of all since the movie implies that they are probably taking over the world today, and also because it makes the movie seem much more funny and self-aware than it actually is.
TITLE ACCURACY
One of the most accurate titles in history.
LITERARY ADAPTATION?
No
SEQUEL?
No
REMAKE?
None, alas
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN
USA
HORROR SUB-GENRE
When Animals Attack!
SLUMMING A-LISTER?
Ray Milland; Elliott was not yet famous (and only 28 at the time) but in retrospect he definitely counts. Incidentally, his shirtless scenes here earned him his subsequent role in LIFEGUARD, so at least you got that waiting for you.
BELOVED HORROR ICON?
Milland probably did enough horror films to count, although I’m sure he’d prefer to be remembered for his actual good films.
NUDITY?
Just the frogs, though Elliott does have a couple beefcake topless scenes
SEXUAL ASSAULT?
None
WHEN ANIMALS ATTACK!
Oh mercy yes
GHOST/ ZOMBIE / HAUNTED BUILDING?
No
POSSESSION?
No
CREEPY DOLLS?
None
EVIL CULT?
No
MADNESS?
No
TRANSMOGRIFICATION?
None
VOYEURISM?
I think all that frog footage is definitely supposed to make us think the frogs are always watching us.
MORAL OF THE STORY
That swamp that Kermit was in at the beginning of THE MUPPET MOVIE was way more hardcore than "The Rainbow Connection" lets on.