Eco-horror in cinema has had a rather large diversity of entries over the years, with many minions of Mother Nature getting their shot in the spotlight, from spiders, bees, ants and the like, but in 1972 a rather dubious offering hit theatres that consisted of elements most often found in the gruesome pages of an EC Comic book and consisted not of simply one of natures animals going amok but a variety of species that all seem to want us dead. It should also be noted that at no point in this film will a frog actually kill anyone, I just wanted to set the record straight on that point before going any further.
“Today the pond! Tomorrow the world!”
If anything can be said about George McCowan’s film Frogs it won’t be about it not having a very clever marketing campaign because from that awesome poster to the various taglines the team behind this film clearly knew their target audience, people wanting to see a bunch of idiots being killed off one by one by various animals, and that is exactly what this movie provided. The supposed hero of this tale is freelance wildlife photographer Pickett Smith (Sam Elliott) who while canoeing around the surrounding island estate, owned by the wealthy and influential Crockett family, takes numerous pictures of the polluted swamp land, but his photo-journaling is interrupted when he gets swamped by a very drunk Clint Crockett (Adam Roarke) who had been doing his best to impress his sister Karen (Joan Van Ark) with his motorboat piloting skills. A damp Pickett is invited back to the family estate where he soon finds himself embroiled in their annual Fourth of July birthday celebrations, despite the oncoming threat of Nature Striking Back.
It’s here that Pickett meets the family’s grouchy, wheelchair-using patriarch Jason Crocket (Ray Milland), who will let nothing upset his Fourth of July schedule, not even the army of frogs that has started to lay siege to the mansion, or when people start going off into the woods to never return. This type of film requires the right type of menu, for the “And then there were none” aspect of the Nature Attacks genre and Frogs does not stint in that area; we have Clint’s much put-upon wife Jenny (Lynn Borden) and her two rugrats, there is butterfly enthusiast Iris Martindale (Hollis Irving) and her meek son Michael Martindale (David Gilliam) and his lackadaisical brother Ken (Nicholas Cortland) who has brought along his African American girlfriend Bella Garrington (Judy Pace) to presumably shake things up, though grandfather Jason seems more like just your regular rich asshole rather than a racist one.
As the movie unfolds various members of the family will wander off to be killed by various members of the eco-system with Pickett Smith becoming more and more concerned that this animal uprising may be occurring all over the world, despite him having no evidence of this, and therein lies the biggest flaw as the screenplay keeps Smith in the dark for most of the film’s running time so his jumping to the conclusion that nature is fighting back makes no sense. Sam Elliott does his best to pull off a rather thankless role, one that looks to be a leading man part but is mostly a stock character designed to simply point out plot elements to the confused audience, even if such elements have no basis in fact. There is some romantic tension between him and Joan Van Ark’s character but the film has no time to really get any kind of romantic subplot going so it doesn’t go anywhere, and then there are his confrontations with the bullheaded patriarch whose insistence that his party continues despite the rising body count makes you wonder if he is suffering from some form of dementia. When Pickett eventually goes into “hero mode” he doesn’t get much in the cool action moments, a little water snake gives him some grief but it’s barely a heroic moment, and as the film’s real antagonist is the crotchety Jason there is no big payoff for Elliott’s character and he doesn’t even get any cool one-liners.
• The title of this movie may be called “Frogs” but all we see on screen are cane toads so right off the hop this film is all about false advertising.
• This is early in Sam Elliott’s career and it’s almost distracting to see this fresh-faced hero without his trademark moustache.
• The family is shocked to find a snake dangling off the dining room chandelier, I’m equally shocked as snakes aren’t known for the flight so how they got on the chandelier is quite the mystery.
• After one body is found, some aggressive frog behaviour and a surprise visit by a snake, Pickett is quick to suggest that “Maybe nature is fighting back” and the only way I can see how he came to this conclusion is if he read ahead in the script.
• Michael is taken out by some tarantulas, but this is only made possible by him accidentally shooting himself in the leg and then being immobilized by strange white moss. So now we have plant life taking a page out of The Day of the Triffids?
• Ken is dispatched while at the greenhouse by some geckos who knock over numerous jars of poisonous chemicals, with the resulting toxic gas asphyxiating him, but what I’d like to know is if they’d accidentally knocked over those jars or were they somehow able to read the “Poison” label on the jars.
After watching this film all I can say is that someone should have told director George McCowan that all the “creepy” close-ups in the world were not going to make “frogs” seem scary or threatening, not even with composer Lex Baxter’s ominous score going all in to help sell the idea, but the film does have a talented cast, led by the always entertaining Sam Elliott, and while the premise of animals teaming up to attack mankind would later be used in the classic “Man vs Nature” entry The Day of the Animals this one does have some charm, not to mention, Ray Milland ranting about his birthday party will never stop being funny.
Overall, George McCowan’s Frogs is an interesting entry in the eco-horror subgenre but it is really hampered by a lack of scope or scares of any kind. I should be clear in stating that this is far from the worst eco-horror movie out there but the cast on hand for this outing was too good to be wasted on such a weak offering, and it’s hard to be disappointed with Sam Elliot and Ray Milland. Worse is the fact that the film set up the idea of the “rich asshats polluting the world” angle and them getting their comeuppance but this angle is pretty much forgotten from the outset as it quickly devolved into a movie about frogs marshalling their animal brethren like some kind of amphibian Patton, which may have worked if they had decided to make this an environmentally charged satire.
Sam Elliott gives a nice performance as the outsider, facing off against the stubbornness of Ray Milland’s rich asshole, but the kills are lacklustre and the character motivations on display are anemic at best and mostly laughable, making the whole affair rather dull at times. If George McCowan’s Frogs is guilty of anything is in his failure to deliver on what the premise implied, sure, a bunch of idiots die but not in any imaginative way and the hinting of a possible worldwide animal apocalypse only has viewers wishing that the filmmakers would actually put some of that on screen. Overall, this is a disappointing entry in the genre and will now be mostly remembered for that really awesome poster
Movie Rank - 4.5/10
George McCowan’s Frogs tried to deliver a “Man vs. Nature” flick but all he managed to cobble together was a soggy mess with a bunch of people dying in some of the most implausible ways imaginable.