Stream This? is a feature devoted to exploring and reviewing some of the lesser known and often-times weirder films that can be found on various streaming services. Today, Matt Morrison examines the 1988 post-apocalyptic film Hell Comes To Frogtown.
Usually when a movie has a long or otherwise unusual title, it turns out to be a disappointment. It seems like whatever creativity or craft failed to go into the film gets put into the marketing and trying to sell the turkey to hapless schlubs as they scroll down a list of titles on Netflix. Thankfully, Hell Comes To Frogtown is not one of those movies. Whatever else you can say about this film, it is just as gloriously weird and weirdly glorious as its name suggests.
Frogtown was the brainchild of Donald G. Jackson, who may be the only filmaker in history to have worked with Roger Corman and James Cameron. Jackson’s story is pure Hollywood, having come to California after making his first independent movie, The Demon Lover, which was partly funded through the settlement his friend and co-director Jerry Younkins earned after losing several fingers in an accident at the factory they worked at. Hell Comes To Frogtown is one of Jackson’s first efforts at making a movie with the guidance and funding of a studio. It is also probably his strongest work, though he worked with a co-director (R.J. Kizer) and co-plotted the story with Randall Frakes, who also wrote the shooting screenplay.
Hell Comes To Frogtown is set after a nuclear apocalypse has devastated the Earth and humanity has been largely sterilized by the background radiation. Some poor unfortunates were mutated and are confined to special reservations by the government, who also seek out those rare men and women who somehow proved resistant to the fallout ravaging the land. They are highly prized, for it is with them that the hope of humanity and a new generation of stronger, healthier children might be bred. The problem is that some of the mutants have become species unto themselves and also seek out the fertile to propagate their own races.
Enter Sam Hell; a hyper-virile mercenary, who has left a string of bastards in his wake as he made his way across the wasteland. Captured by the government, Sam (Rowdy Roddy Piper) is fitted with an electrified jockstrap and placed in the care of one of the teams of warrior nurses tasked with roaming the wasteland, finding the fertile and getting them to be fruitful and multiply. Hell is less thrilled about this than one might think, particularly when it is decided that they have enough of his genetic material that he can be put to work on rescuing a harem full of young women from Commander Toty; a mutant who rules over an army of similar-mutated frogmen. With the nurse Spangle (Sandahl Bergman) acting as his handler and later posing as his slave, Hell is dispatched to infiltrate the reservation called Frogtown, kill Commander Toty and rescue the women.
Piper and Bergman are part of the reason Hell Comes To Frogtown works as well as it does. While few would compare Rowdy Roddy Piper to Laurence Olivier, the man did know how to work a crowd and had a good sense of comedic timing as a professional wrestler. Those skills translate well into the role of Sam Hell, with Piper selling the ludicrousness of this reality and the emotional torment of his character (such as it is) quite well. Sam values his freedom above all else and he enjoys himself a bit too much when he gets to turn the tables on Spangle and start treating her like a piece of meat to sell their cover story.
Bergman also delivers a strong performance, bringing the most out of a character who might have been little more than a cliche “naughty librarian” with a lesser actress. It must also be said that Bergman is a fantastic dancer and she manages the difficult trick of dancing in a manner that is technically proficient but totally lacking in passion. This comes at one of the film’s comedic high-points, where Spangle attempts to “set the mood” for Sam Hell and one of the fertile women they’ve rescued when Sam complains about being expected to perform on command in the middle of hostile territory.
The other reason Hell Comes To Frogtown is so fondly remembered is the make-up. As low-budget as this sort of movie was, you can tell they did not spare any expense when it came to the practical effects used to bring the frog mutants to life. Reportedly the make-up took three hours per day for each actor and over half an hour to take off. It shows and I dare say that most of the movies’ funding probably went into paying for the prosthetics but it was money well spent.
Reading about the making of Hell Comes To Frogtown, it’s a wonder that the movie turned out half as good as it did. Apparently Jackson warred with New World Pictures on several key casting decisions, wanting to use less famous actors he had worked with before. Astonishingly, New World Pictures had wanted Daniel Stern (most famous today as Marv from The Wet Bandits in Home Alone) in the role of Sam Hell, but ultimately cast Piper as a compromise when Stern had too many demands for script rewrites. Bergman was also reportedly a compromise casting, despite her insisting on a no-nudity clause and the film’s climax originally having Spangle dancing completely nude for Commander Toty.
It’s possible these arguments with the studio and the actors inspired Jackson in his later films, where he went on to pioneer a school of cinema called Zen Filmmaking, which was seemingly based equally around the teachings of the Buddha and Ed Wood. That is to say that there are no accidents and that films should be made without boundaries. One suspects practitioners of Zen Filmmaking also believe in making movies without permits, contracts and (ideally) without paying anyone in anything but experience and publicity.
I’ll probably tackle some of Jackson’s other films (such as his other post-apocalyptic franchise Roller Blade) at some point if they ever become available for streaming. Be warned though that most of them are less “so bad they’re good” and more “so bad they are unholy abominations to cinema.” Hell Comes To Frogtown, on the other hand, is an honestly good science-fiction movie with a unique setting, good performances and some solid satirical elements, in spite of itself.
Hell Comes To Frogtown is currently streamable on Tubi TV.