Don’t write off all revenge-of-nature cycle of horror films from the ’70s as pure camp. While films like The Giant Spider Invasion and Empire Of The Ants might encourage such a definition, a detailed exploration of this subgenre will reveal a small but potent core of films that remain effective creepfests. Sometimes they even offer a little food for thought amidst the carnage of mankind’s downfall. One of the earliest and best films in this vein is Frogs, a clever little film that goes after you at the primal level.
Frogs begins with protagonist Pickett (Sam Elliott) getting his canoe bumped over by an errant speedboat while getting photographs of pollution for a nature magazine. Said boat belongs to playboy Clint (Adam Roarke) and his sister Karen (Joan Van Ark). They take him to dry land, where it is revealed they are attending a birthday gathering for patriarch/industrialist Jason Crockett (Ray Milland). Unfortunately, the animals in the surrounding swamp have a different idea for the party guests and start picking off their ranks as Pickett tries to figure a way out of nature’s revenge plot.
Despite the title and misleading ad campaign, Frogs doesn’t feature any monster-sized amphibians nor does it go for campy horror. The script by Robert Hutchison and Robert Blees is much more subtle, letting the horror gently build as we meet the well-to-do characters through Pickett’s eyes. A subtle kind of allegory is set up with the wealthy family standing in for the rest of mankind as they are revealed to either be indifferent to the suffering they inflict on nature or too preoccupied with their own problems to notice what is going on. To the script’s credit, none are portrayed as evil despite their flaws and this makes the horror to come all the more potent.
Once nature starts to make its lethal intention felts, Frogs shows a canny understanding of horror film mechanics. Its power lies in presenting nature as a pitiless force that simply allows the powerful to overtake the weak – and seeing these flawed but decent characters brutally toyed with is unnerving. A sequence where the most hapless, comic-relief member of the family is attacked during a butterfly hunt is particularly memorable, playing on the audience’s worst fears of getting on the wrong side of a swamp’s creepy-crawly denizens (frogs are just the vanguard – snakes and several kinds of lizards also play a big role in the attacks). It never lets up – even the coda goes for the viewer’s throat.
Director George McCowan directs the film in a similarly pitiless way, slowly ratcheting up tension to quietly unnerve the audience and letting nature’s revenge tactics play out without overt comment or judgment. The use of a creepy avant-synth score from Les Baxter plays up the film’s chilly vibe, as does excellent, atmospheric cinematography from Mario Tosi that captures the creepy, cruel side of the great outdoors. The cast is also quite good: Elliott shows early prowess as a leading man, Van Ark is a charming love interest and Roarke is amusingly smarmy as a hard-drinking, overgrown rich kid. Best of all, Milland steals all his scenes as the patriarch, using his ability to convey disdain to make a convincing symbol of man’s indifference to nature.
Blu-Ray Notes: This title is now available in hi-def form from Scream Factory on a double-feature disc with Food Of The Gods. The transfer looks fantastic, full of beautiful details in the frequent outdoor photography and vivid colors. The PCM track makes the vintage mono track utilized here sound good.
A few extras are also included. The biggest is a 10 minute interview with Van Ark, who is charming as she fondly remembers her first film. She has fun tales, including how she made her dad proud by starring in a movie with Milland as well as some swooning over Elliott. Elsewhere, a punchy little trailer makes the most of the film’s shocks, there is an appropriately creepy radio ad and an animated image gallery offers up an impressive variety of posters. All in all, this is worth of it for fans, especially considering they get Food Of The Gods as well.