Margaret Atwood published her most famous work, The Handmaid’s Tale, in 1985, a novel told from the perspective of a concubine bound to a military officer of the Republic of Gilead, charged with providing him with the child his wife cannot provide. A deeply feminist work set in a dystopian world where women are a commodity to be traded and cast out when they cannot fulfil their sole societal function, it was filmed in 1990, but three years before, a very similar tale was told from a man’s point of view, about when Sam Hell came to Frogtown.
“In the latter days of the 20th century, there was a difference of opinion,” we are told in an intonation which implies a weighty work is about to unfold, and moments later the flash of a nuclear explosion lights up the screen. “In ten days, 10,000 years of human progress was blown to dust.” In the aftermath of the war in which most of the survivors are sterile, the male population has been reduced by 68% and the Mutant Isolation Act has herded up the most extreme results of the radioactive ash, fertility is a valuable commodity.
Enter Sam Hell, one of the few remaining men who is “carrying a loaded weapon,” charged with rescuing a group of similarly fertile women from the titular Frogtown, stronghold of the mutated amphibians who have captured them. Crossing the hostile desert, Hell is none too keen on the expectations and restrictions placed on him by warrior nurse Spangle and guardswoman Centrella, but with a habit for walking straight into trouble, he soon finds he needs them by his side as much as the future population needs his valuable attributes.
Undeniably an oddity even for the eighties home video boom which opened the floodgate of small production houses and their low ambitions/high hopes fodder, Hell Comes to Frogtown was the sixth film from writer and director Donald G Jackson.
Originally envisioned as a much smaller project, when the studio chose to increase the budget their concerns over Jackson’s ability were manifested in their decision to install a second director, R J Kizer, at that time best known as a film editor on such films as Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars and now with extensive experience in sound and dialogue, with Jackson largely moved to second unit. Now revisited by Arrow Films in a restored Blu-ray edition, the film is a mutated creature of its time, and its time was most definitely 1987.
The film quality and the locations recall the dubious spectacle of eighties action television, the structure and style evoking memories of Glen A Larson’s greatest hits, Buck Rogers and Knight Rider filming on desert highways, an appearance by the infamous Vasquez Rocks in the final scenes clinching the deal, though the opening title montage, tinted photos of the principal cast in action poses, are more reminiscent of TV movie pilot episode from the seventies, especially when accompanied by Dan Shapiro’s funky score.
Aping Planet of the Apes in the opening shot of the Statue of Liberty amongst the rubble, it is actually a trick shot of figurine, encapsulating an admission that whatever lofty ideas the production may have hoped for, even with bolstered finance the film was created on a string that couldn’t even boast the attachment of a shoe.
Fortunately, the desert lends itself to a post-apocalypse vibe; out there, it’s easy to believe the end of the world has already come and that nobody was left to turn out the scorching light. Taking advantage of what is to hand with regard to locations, filming appears to have been conducted in abandoned industrial sites, establishing the tone of the film without additional cost, though the arrival at Frogtown also offers the one great expense the film could afford with the animatronic prosthetic which adorns the head of Commander Toty.
Crafted by Steve Wang, whose credits include creature effects on Predator and Gremlins 2: The New Batch and art department work on Underworld and Blade: Trinity, Commander Toty is one of the finest examples of the level of character creation which can be achieved by a physical appliance in the hands of skilled craftsmen and performers where more sophisticated digital creations too often are lifeless with no connection to their environment or the actors around them.
Hell Comes to Frogtown is also an example of a film where it is the supporting cast who carry the film despite the undisputable failings of the lead. In his first feature film role, Roddy Piper was ill equipped in the battle against post-apocalyptic amphibians, but in the new interview which accompanies the film, he displays good humour about the experience. “I had not taken any acting lessons. I don’t know if that needs pointing out.”
Despite speaking warmly of his co-stars Sandahl Bergman (“A very nice lady”) and Cec Verrell (“What a knockout!”), Piper is open about onset struggles both practical (“It was a tough movie to make…[the desert was] hot, horrible, cold in the night time.”) and personal, stating quite specifically “The director hated me,” but despite his acknowledged lack of skill, Piper stayed the course. “I took the work seriously. I’m a pro.”
That it is unashamedly shallow and gleefully sexist is what has dated the film most severely, and played as a farce it might have aged more gracefully, but Piper does not have the skill for that. Instead, realising that to pretend otherwise is a mistake, Sam Hell is portrayed as an unpleasant buffoon, impossible to like, and Piper doesn’t attempt anything other than bumbling through scenes with Spangle (Bergman) and Centinella (Verrell) doing the thinking for him.
Both women give superior performances than Piper, who often just shouts his lines; where he goes for the obvious, immediate reading, they often play something different than the line they are delivering. In particular Bergman, best known for when she played Valeria opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian, is better than the material she is given, though fortunately she is also given the chance to display her dancing skills and, when demonstrating that she’s “been trained in seduction technique,” quite knowingly mocks how easy men are to arouse.
Special mention is also deserved by the woefully underused Eyde Byrde as Doctor Patton, a brilliant character actor and a force to be reckoned with, and Rory Calhoun as Looney Tunes, an actor with over 1,000 credits to his name, effortlessly charming as he twinkles through his supporting role, both now sadly deceased.
Suffering under the prosthetics, Kristi Somers as Arabella, the dancing frog who attempts to seduce Hell, no worse than he does to the women he is intended to impregnate, and Brian Frank as Commander Toty, overcome their physical confinement to give energetic life to their characters.
Also interviewed, Frank recalls the difficulty of the costume, with a cooling vest under his costume to balance the sweltering heat, but considers the effects work as ahead of its time. “It could have been really tacky, I thought it was kind of classy,” and that the animatronic head designed by Steve Wang became part of the performance. “I got to make it really believable. As believable as a 6’4” toad could be.”
The final interview is with Wang himself, who confirms that having already been persuaded by original director Jackson to undertake the work for little more than cost he was further squeezed by his replacement Kizer, saying he was only kept on because no other effects house could match his bid, others working on the project were not so fortunate, yet the set was a happy one. “No one took anything seriously on set, they were all trying to have a good time.”
Over twenty five years later, his enthusiasm is undiminished. “It didn’t matter to me if I was involved. I knew somewhere in Hollywood, someone was making a movie, and to me that was exciting.”
Despite Wang’s trepidation about working with “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, whom he only knew from his wrestling person (“This guy’s a loud, obnoxious jerk!”) he quickly found the man behind the name quite different, saying he was actually “the sweetest, humblest guy I’ve met.”
Piper holds up his end of the bargain in that manner, confessing of both Hell Comes to Frogtown, “I was ashamed of myself because I didn’t think the best job had been done,” before sadly reflecting on his career, including his most famous role in John Carpenter’s They Live, “There is no film I’ve ever done that I’ve liked.”
What is most interesting is that while the film was by no means a vast financial success, it easily recouped its costs and became a cult hit, yet none of those interviewed were aware of that until much later. Like the promises made to the women to be offered to Sam Hell that “mothers are national heroes, you’ll be treated like a queen,” it seems many promises only lasts while the cameras are rolling.
Hell Comes to Frogtown is released as a strictly limited 1,000 unit DVD/Blu-ray combo on 3rd February