Frogs - or - Package for You, Sir
In any competition for the least terrifying concept ever for a nature-runs-amok movie, there are two clear stand-outs: Night of the Lepus and Frogs. Both hit the theaters in 1972, with the obvious intention of cashing in on the movie-going public's growing environmental awareness.
The carnivorous killer bunnies featured in Night of the Lepus are a pretty ridiculous premise, even if they are the size of Shetland ponies. To their credit, the producers of Frogs didn't try to conceal the identity of their chief antagonists behind Linnaean nomenclature. But, in a severe disappointment to anyone expecting to be ribbeted -- er, riveted to their seat by the amphibian world's most fearsome predator in all its elegantly lethal glory, the "frogs" which appear in this film are actually toads.
Don't believe me? Take a look at this still:
That, sir, is a toad! They're not even extra-big toads. Frogs, toads, whatever. It's hard to work up much anxiety over creatures whose offensive capabilities are limited to either smothering you under a whole mess of 'em, or somehow tonguing you to death. (Though I'm kind of hazy on the precise mechanics of this, I'm certain you sickos can come up with some semi-plausible scenario.)
But this little bait-and-switch presents the conscientious reviewer with a dilemma: if I refer to the toads who'll appear in innumerable, interminable close-ups as "frogs" I'd be helping the filmmakers put over a deliberate deception. Scare-quoting "frogs" every time would likely give me a nasty case of carpal tunnel. Calling them “pseudo-frogs” or "froads" would just confuse everyone, and sound really silly. To hell with it: I'm going to call a toad a toad! I'm just that kind of guy.
As we'll see, though, it's other swamp critters who end up doing the dirty work. So either the toads are commanding them, or they're a kind of Greek chorus whose comments on the action (I use the word loosely) consist solely of monotonous croaking, as a subtle counterpoint to Ray Milland's monotonous whining.
Frogs opens with Sam Elliott as our protagonist "Pickett Smith" -- whose name sounds like a line of Western-themed casual wear, made in Thailand and sold at J. C. Penney -- paddles his canoe through the swamp. At least, we're encouraged to believe it's a swamp by stock jungle noises familiar to every kid who's watched a Tarzan flick. He's taking photos of creatures culled from the wide selection available in the reptile aisle at Pet World -- and toads. He snaps some more shots, of garbage in the water and a discharge pipe.
He's clad in jeans and a denim shirt -- of course, Pickett wears only natural fabrics. He also wears a Number One (concerned). In keeping with his character's uncomplicated, eco-friendly lifestyle, during the course of this movie Elliott will employ only three expressions:
3. The wry smirk
Pickett paddles out onto a lake. Karen Crockett (Joan van Ark) and her brother Clint (Adam Roarke) are screwing around in a fancy ski boat. In a desperate last-minute bid to get out of his contract, Roarke tries to run over Elliott. (I kid: he's too busy chugging a Bud to watch where he's going -- which is a very authentic touch, when it comes to recreational boating.) He swerves at the last moment, but their wake dumps Pickett's canoe.
Clint pulls his boat up next to Pickett and offers a hand up. As he clambers aboard, Pickett yanks Clint over the side. Gotcha, sucker! Clint's a good sport, though: he promises to replace all the equipment Pickett just lost. Clint and Karen invite him to lunch; Karen flirts with Pickett while they tow his canoe to their mansion.
Wheelchair-bound Jason Crockett (Ray Milland) watches them through binoculars. As the ski boat pulls up to his dock, he orders his weaselly son-in-law, Stuart Martindale, to find out what's happening, then resumes biting the heads off whippets.
[There are so many cutaways to close-ups of toads and other supposed swamp critters throughout the course of this movie that I'd originally intended not to mention them at all. But the intricate, Schoenberg-esque rhythm of this film's construction is key to appreciating its mind-numbing tedium. So as you read this, just keep it in mind that "lingering close-up of" should precede every mention made in this review of a toad or any other lower form of life -- except for Uncle Stuart.]
Speaking of close-ups, there's another important character in the drama: Sam's package. His jeans are very tight, you know. You can see everything. Nothing left to the imagination.
Clint's impressed by Pickett's package. He wants to know: "How are you at badminton?" He'd like to play a set or two of tennis, or ping-pong, or something. "We want you for our fun and games!" says Clint, as he drapes his arm possessively around Pickett's shoulders. As we'll see, in addition to his alcoholism, Clint's a randy little bugger, much given to innuendo by sports metaphor.
It seems Pickett has inadvertently crashed patriarch Jason Crockett's big birthday shindig. Jason owns the entire island. Every year, he terrorizes his kin for a couple of weeks around the Fourth.
Uncle Stuart meets the trio as they walk across the lawn, through mist-shrouded live oaks and trailing Spanish moss. He warns them Grandpa's in a bad mood today -- which is a revelation on the order of "water is wet" and "Michael Bay makes loud, stupid movies".
Pickett meets Jason and his grandson Michael Martindale, who sticks so close to Grandpa it looks as if he's exploring a career in commensalism, like that Kwokian monkey-lizard who picks space-lice off Jabba the Hutt.
Jason demands to know why Pickett's been taking photos all around his island. (He drinks his Metamucil from the skull of the last trespasser.) Pickett explains he's a freelance photographer, working on a pollution layout for an ecology magazine. He's previously won a Pulitzer for his pictorial essay "The Landfills of Madison County".
Jason claims photographing his private island is illegal. Pickett reminds him Ronald Reagan isn't president yet. Mike asks Pickett: "Did you take any pictures of frogs this morning? I saw the biggest bullfrog."
Mike then complains about the racket the frogs have been making. Jason says he sent Grover out to take care of that. There's probably not much a furry, pot-bellied, purple Muppet who earns money on the side dubbing Yoda can do, but Jason told him to spray the bay on the north side of the island, anyway. Jason asks Pickett if he saw Grover while he was paddling around. Nope. Where's Grover?
Inside the mansion, another disturbing development: the phone is dead. (The toads are nothing if not old school.) Clint's wife, Jenny (Lynn Borden) shows Karen and Pickett an adorable drawing by her kids -- of frogs!
Clint goes upstairs to shower -- a cold one, hopefully -- while Karen introduces Pickett to Aunt Iris. Iris Martindale is Jason's daughter, a flaky matron straight out of Southern Gothic 101, with just a dab of Geraldine Page in Summer and Smoke. She's putting a monarch butterfly in a bell jar for Daddy's birthday. Pickett also meets Karen's cousin, Ken Martindale -- the artistic one -- and his beard, stunning African-American fashion model Bella (Judy Pace). She too is awed by Pickett's packet. The air just fizzles with sexual tension, here at Casa Crockett.
Pickett and Karen leave. Iris shows her bell jar to Ken and Bella. Ken feels it's a much more successful effort than last year's dead vole in a guano-caked bird's nest.
Cut to: bare-chested Pickett, in Clint's bedroom. Wearing a silk bathrobe, Clint emerges from the bathroom after taking his shower. The homoerotic vibe is thick enough to cut with a knife.
Pickett's inspecting a framed football jersey, perhaps drawn to it by Clint's powerful man-musk. Clint tells him that Jenny was the one who framed it: "She's still impressed with me, after I was Midwest Valley Central's highest scorer!" Ah ... another double entendre. My guess is Clint's alma mater was the Midwest Valley Central Institution for the Perpetually Priapic.
Clint has a shrine, made up of trophies from his glory days at MVCIPP. Oh, crap: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof just wandered into the script! Although this dialog does sound as if it could have been written by Williams ... Tuscaloosa Williams, that is. (He's the one nobody in Tennessee's family would talk about.)
Metaphor alert: the trophy display also includes pictures of Jenny, back when she was a cheerleader. While he fondles one of his football trophies, Clint coyly mentions he's the same weight as when he was playing. Just when this might be getting interesting -- toads.
Cut to the garden, where Ken's taking pictures of Bella. Charles, the butler, appears: "Mr. Kenneth, I have a message from your grandfather."
Ken: "With or without the profanity, Charles?"
Charles wisely chooses the latter: "'Get your [bleep]ing ass to the mother-[bleep]ing party, you [bleep]ing little [bleep] or I'll rip your [bleep] off and stuff it up your rancid [bleeeeeeeeeeeep]! [Bleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep]!'" (Or words to that effect.)
On their way to the party, Ken and Bella pass a reflecting pool; the camera lingers on a concrete statue of a frog. Cut to close-up of a toad.
The Crockett clan's gathered on the lawn. Grandpa gripes about the kids being late for the party, then lectures Jenny about proper child-rearing techniques. Why, the daily beatings -- along with frequent testicular electroshocks -- made him the man he is today! The children, Jason and Tina, run up with a toad they want to show to Grandpa. Mike snatches the toad out of little Jason's hand and pitches it away. Jenny claims all the noise from the frogs is making everyone crazy.
Jason changes his tune: he's decided Pickett must be an "ecology expert" and now wants him to do a frog survey on the island. Anything to shut these whiny titty-babies up. Pickett goes along with the gag.
Later, Jason meets with Pickett in private, in the study/gun room. He too is strangely attracted to Pickett's package. I mean, damn, it's right at his eye-level, so what's he supposed to do?
Even veteran actor Ray Milland is mesmerized by the power of Pickett's package!