Friday, March 6, 2015

3. Amphibian Horror Cinema

Among the various animals featured in horror films, frogs and toads have produced few memorable characters.  They are most likely to appear as extras in roiling mob scenes.  With the exception of one or two syllables now and then, they are given few lines.  There is no amphibian equivalent to Queenie, Ben or Socrates, the rodent characters in Willard (1971, and again in 2003).  Nor has a frog or toad risen—leaped?—to the prominence of a Cujo, (dog), a Ramón (alligator) or a Q (winged serpent).  

It may be that their difficulties with stage directions and their near uniform physical appearance doom frogs and toads to the anonymity of large crowd scenes.  Nevertheless there have been a few films that allowed batrachians to display their full dramatic range, which probably “…runs the gamut of emotions from A to B”, as Dorothy Parker once said in another context.

There is little need to spend much time discussing Hell Comes to Frog Town (1987) and its two sequels, Return to Frog Town (1993) and Toad Warrior (1996).  These depict post-apocalyptic struggles between what is left of the human race and a society of mutant amphibians.  The last film in the series employed a technique called Zen filmmaking which involves constant improvisation in the absence of any script or forethought—or money perhaps.  But it sounds like fun.  Sadly, no actual amphibians were employed in these movies, only human actors dressed as frogs.

In Frog-g-g! (2004) an evil capitalist dumps chemical waste into the water supply of a small town, leading to the appearance of a monstrous mutated frog.  Once mature, the giant amphibian naturally seeks human females to mate with.  A special agent with the United States Environmental Protection Agency investigates, but no one in town will believe the scientist’s theory.  This one was intended as a spoof of “guy-in-a-suit” monster movies from the 1950s and 1960s.

The classic film in the subgenre of amphibian horror cinema is of course Frogs (1975)—“A tidal wave of slithering, slimy horror devouring, destroying all in its path!” Though the amphibians are frequently upstaged by snakes, birds, spiders, lizards, alligators, leeches and even a snapping turtle, it is strongly implied that the oversized frogs are leading the local flora and fauna in a revolt against mankind.  

Jason Crockett, a wealthy landowner and family patriarch, insists on celebrating his birthday, even as friends and family are being picked off one by one by various aggrieved critters.  Crockett’s island plantation is the source of toxic pesticides that are threatening the local aquatic ecology.  When Crockett sends an employee to poison the water and kill all the amphibians in advance of his birthday, nature mounts a gruesome counter attack.

One of my favorite scenes is when Crockett’s son Michael investigates a downed telephone line and is attacked by birds.  When he tries to fend them off he shoots himself in the leg, lands under a tree, becomes festooned with aggressively mobile Spanish moss, and then is eaten by descending tarantulas.  It was all a trap set by an evil intelligence, one able to coordinate an ambush by various organisms.  Somehow the many frogs on the island represent or manifest this intelligence.

In the climax of the film, old Crockett is alone in his mansion, surrounded by frogs.  The scene is very reminiscent of the second of ten biblical plagues described in the book of Exodus:  “They will come up into your palace and your bedroom and onto your bed, into the houses of your officials and on your people, and into your ovens and kneading troughs.” (8:3) One even hops across his birthday cake, ruining it—although by now there is no one left to eat it. 

Frogs was one of several eco-horror films of the 1970s and 1980s in which an aggrieved Nature took vengeance on humanity for its abuse of the land and water.  Which abuse of course still continues.
Frogs, toads and their relatives have thrived on earth for nearly 350 million years, but amphibian populations are now dropping rapidly across the United States and in the world.  One estimate is that just under 4% of the amphibian population disappears every year, at which rate most species will be gone in just two decades.  No single factor accounts for the dramatic loss, though destruction of habitat, water pollution, disease and over collection are likely culprits. 

What is scary is that amphibians are declining even in protected areas, suggesting that the environmental problem is more global and far reaching.  Scary, too, because we breathe the same air and drink the same water that they do.  It would be a shame if our only memory of these interesting creatures was of the unfortunate frog we dissected in a high school biology class.

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