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Posts Tagged ‘George McCowan’

George McCowan’s 1972 film Frogs doesn’t exactly have a fridge title, as our amphibious friends are certainly heavily featured throughout it – but at the same time it really feels somewhat misnamed. Certainly for a horror movie, which is what this theoretically is – it doesn’t achieve quite the immortal bathos, title-wise, of The Killer Shrews, but it’s getting there, especially when you consider the poster is theoretically attempting to communicate that this film is supposed to be a scary one, jokey slogan notwithstanding.

Now I don’t think much of the poster for Frogs, and yet it does seem to have embedded itself in the minds of people who’ve seen it, even if they haven’t seen the whole movie. I mentioned I’d seen Frogs to a couple of friends of mine, quite independently, and they both mentioned the poster and – in one case – they were able to describe it in some detail. It is certainly eye-catching but I would suggest that it doesn’t quite capture the tone of the movie, which is admittedly rather odd.

The movie itself starts off looking more like a wildlife documentary, as various swamp creatures are given their close-up; within the film itself, their snaps are being taken by photojournalist and ecology expert Pickett Smith (Sam Elliott), who is canoeing around the swamp in question. Snakes, lizards, frogs, all of them get their picture snapped. But gradually the images change to ones of pollution in the swamp: garbage, pollution, and chemical waste. Yup, we are in one of those nature-bites-back eco-horror films.

Now, let’s be fair, while this is a cinematic tradition going back quite a long way, it is also one which it can tricky to pin down. One very accessible list of eco-horror films includes things like the original Godzilla and Creature from the Black Lagoon, both of which are  – I would say – rather different animals (sorry). I’m thinking of things without your actual monsters, just normal creatures which have become extremely irascible, and with some sort of obvious message about the environment incorporated into the story, although this is possibly optional – most people would credit Hitchcock’s The Birds as having a significant influence on this sub-genre, although part of that film’s eerie atmosphere comes from its refusal to explain just exactly what is really going on.

Frogs is a bit more on-the-nose in this department, as well as many others. Pickett Smith gets dumped into the swamp by a speedboat driven by a couple of the ugly rich, but they are duly apologetic and take him back their family’s palatial plantation house, where the whole clan is gathering for the birthday of the patriarch, a fierce old man played by Ray Milland (whose presence in a film of this calibre is somewhat mystifying).

It turns out there are various elements of toxic family politics in play, to say nothing of the fact that the family business has been dumping pollution into the swamp on, for want of a better expression, on an industrial scale. It’s a miracle that the croaking of the frogs surrounding the house is as deafening as it is…

This is the kind of movie which has a slow build-up, or would have if it ever felt like it was actually building up to anything – the pacing remains stolid and stately throughout. Various scenes of family members engaging in soap-opera bickering are intercut with Smith wandering about doing odd jobs for Milland’s character, and of course numerous close-ups of frogs: these appear at the top of many scenes, with the camera pulling back to reveal the human beings going about their business and blithely ignoring the ubiquitous amphibians. But Smith discovers that one of Milland’s gofers has met with a mysterious death in the swamp…

To be honest, the movie is just marking time until it is able to get busy with the set-piece deaths of various unsympathetic rich people, and finally this moment arrives. One young man is out in the forest when he accidentally shoots himself in the leg; strange animate moss appears to engulf him, and if that wasn’t bad enough, it’s tarantula-infested moss. Another of the family is working in a greenhouse when a lizard deviously knocks over several containers of poison, creating a toxic miasma which bumps him off. A butterfly-loving matron unwisely chases a rare breed and ends up falling into leech-infested waters, from which she emerges only to be bitten by a rattlesnake. Her husband, when he goes in search of her, falls in the swamp and is attacked by an alligator. And so it goes on.

The astute reader may well be reading this and thinking ‘moss, tarantulas, lizards, leeches, snakes, alligators… there’s something missing from this picture.’ And this is absolutely the case: for a horror movie called Frogs, which features an apparently man-eating frog on the poster, all the heavy lifting when it comes to actually killing off the cast is done by other herptiles and species resident in the swamp. In other words, the characters may be croaking, but they’re not being croaked by the frogs. I can only assume that the frogs had a much better agent than the rest of the wildlife in the film.

The one positive thing about this anomaly is that it does make Frogs marginally more interesting than would otherwise be the case. This is a movie without many (or perhaps even any) layers of subtlety to it. The subtext and a general sense of how it’s going to go are obvious to the switched-on viewer very early on, and it’s not even as if the story is especially well-executed: there’s a lot of lousy acting, especially during the death scenes, and while Elliott has presence, it’s not as if he does a great deal (he may just be trying to keep a low profile so people don’t mention his presence in this film in a disparaging context should he get all tetchy and start grumbling about Jane Campion movies many years later). Milland’s okay, but clearly knows he’s slumming it. Bits from near the end of it jump out at you – someone gets killed by a turtle, for God’s sake, Elliott hands a pump-action shotgun to a small child during their low-octane escape from the frogs, and the film’s three non-white characters all apparently die together off-screen –  but this is a film with only one real idea to it, and one which it doesn’t communicate with much in the way of grace or deftness.

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