Frogs appears to be a movie about killer frogs, and yet — and I cannot overstate this — at no point in the movie are any frogs responsible for the death of any person. There are a lot of frogs in the movie, and many people do die, but those facts are unrelated. The movie could just as logically have been called Trees, since there are also a lot of trees in the movie and those trees also don’t kill anyone. For someone eager to see a movie about killer frogs, this one is a profound disappointment.
For someone eager to see a movie in which lazy, rich, drunken Southerners bicker with one another and are systematically bumped off by swamp fauna, however, Frogs is extremely satisfying. And for someone eager to see all of that, and to be bored in the process, Frogs is a masterpiece!
It’s supposed to be what they call an “ecological horror film,” in which man’s mistreatment of Mother Nature causes Mother Nature to take revenge, like the proverbial Farrah Fawcett setting fire to her husband’s proverbial bed. This idea is established in the patience-trying four-minute opening sequence, featuring no music and very little sound, in which a man clad entirely in denim canoes through a lake and takes pictures of garbage in the water. Our bedenimed hero is apparently a freelance trash photographer. This is what people did in the ’70s, I guess.
His name is Pickett Smith, but everyone calls him Smith, and he’s played by Sam Elliott, who is now old and grizzled and cowboy-ish but who in 1972 was young and rugged and could really make an all-denim ensemble work for him. The peace of his trash-documenting excursion is interrupted when a motorboat swamps his canoe. The boat is occupied by Clint Crockett (Adam Roarke) and his sister Karen (Joan Van Ark), whose wealthy grandfather owns a nearby island. (This lake has an island in it.) They’re vacationing there and are very sorry to have knocked Smith and his camera into the water. To make amends, they invite him back to the island to join the whole Crockett family for lunch. Oddly, the man who just fell into a lake and lost his camera isn’t interested in having lunch with a huge group of strangers, but Clint and Karen won’t take no for an answer. We nearly killed you! Please let us make the rest of your day awkward! It’s the least we can do!
The island, located in a humid Southern state, is home to what looks like a former plantation, including a stately mansion that clearly wants to have Confederate flags strung from its columns. The owner, Grandpa, is named Jason Crockett (Ray Milland), and he’s a grumpy old industrialist in a wheelchair, the kind who always has a blanket on his lap even when it’s not cold. Secretly loathed by everyone, he forces his progeny to gather around him each Fourth of July, which is also his birthday. (He and America were born on the same day, and possibly in the same year.) Grandpa Jason is very strict about the festivities, demanding that his two young great-grandchildren get out of the swimming pool and dress for lunch promptly at the appointed hour, berating them when they are late. He orders his grandchildren around like servants. He orders his servants around like slaves. If he had slaves — and he would definitely enjoy that — he would order them around like, I don’t know, under-slaves.
Smith is alarmed to find the mansion’s phone out of service, but Karen says not to worry — “It’s probably just the holiday.” As you know, the phones usually take the Fourth of July off. And you can forget about calling someone on Christmas! We are led to understand, however, that the lack of telephone service is due not to ordinary holiday-related disruptions, but to sinister forces, i.e., frogs. The movie shows us many, many shots of frogs, and in these shots the frogs always look as menacing as a frog can look, which is to say not the least bit menacing. They’re just sittin’ there, hoppin’ around, being frogs. But the movie seems to think that if it calls itself “Frogs,” and if it regularly shows us images of frogs, and if it accompanies those images with spooky music, that we will be tricked into thinking that we have been scared by frogs. I, for one, am not deceived.
The Crocketts complain a lot about the frogs. Clint’s wife, Jenny (Lynn Borden), is the most vocal. It seems the frogs’ croaking keeps her awake at night. Can’t anything be done??! The Crocketts ask Smith if he’s noticed an unusual increase in the frog population around the island, and he says sure, that happens sometimes when there’s an abundance of food sources or when a snowstorm forces all the frogs to stay inside for a few days and they get frisky. Nothing to worry about. No matter how many frogs there are, they’re not going to hurt you, and if you don’t like the sound of frogs maybe you shouldn’t live on an island in the swamp, you morons.
A few cursory references are made to Grandpa Jason’s company, whatever it is, polluting the Earth and not caring about it. A few other details suggest that everyone in the family enjoys hunting animals for sport. The movie figures this is enough to establish that now the Earth needs to fight back and kill all the Crocketts. Not that I disagree with the notion of killing a family of whining, entitled alcoholics, but the reasoning could use some work.
At any rate, once the movie is half-over, people finally start getting killed by animals. Not by frogs, though. That would be silly. The frogs are here strictly in a supervisory capacity. So how do the Crocketts get killed? One at a time, and slowly, and in stupid ways, that’s how. First Michael, who is Clint and Karen’s brother, I think, goes hunting in the woods, shoots a bird, then accidentally shoots himself in the leg, then lies there screaming while a few tarantulas cover him in foliage. Then another relative, Kenneth, dies in the greenhouse when a lizard knocks over a series of bottles whose chemical contents produce a deadly mixture of fumes. Aunt Iris, a loopy old broad who collects butterflies, wanders into the woods, is harassed by snakes and lizards, falls into a mud puddle full of leeches, and finally gets bitten by a rattlesnake. All of this is clearly Darwinism at work. A person who allows a lizard to asphyxiate him was living on borrowed time anyway. This is Mother Nature taking “revenge” the same way it’s a sandwich taking “revenge” when you stuff the whole thing in your mouth and choke on it.
One guy gets killed by an alligator, which is actually pretty awesome, but the movie’s budget was too cheap to show it. LAME.
Meanwhile, back at the house, everyone who isn’t busy getting killed is drinking bourbon and arguing. Occasionally they pause to complain about the large number of frogs hopping around, whereupon they resume their drinking and bickering. Seriously, it’s like Roger Corman adapted a Tennessee Williams play. Smith suggests that everyone leave the island, not because the animals are running amok — they are in fact doing the normal things animals do — but because the Crocketts are too stupid to survive in their midst. The Crocketts need to be locked in a baby-proofed house and sealed off from nature.
But Grandpa Jason will have none of Smith’s sensible suggestions. He sees no reason to let the death of a few family members spoil the day’s rigidly scheduled enforced merriment. Now pour him another drink and tell those kids to quit screaming! I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what fate befalls Grandpa Jason after Smith and everyone else hightails it out of there: Yep, an awful lot of frogs ribbit their way into the house and frighten him into having a heart attack. I do not credit this death to the frogs, though. It’s not like they did it on purpose. Besides, if the mere presence of frogs can literally scare you to death, you had little chance of surviving in this world anyway.
Final note: It is apparent from the very beginning that Frogs will not be scary, because the credits use the same font as Bewitched. Twenty-one years later, the makers of The Good Son would repeat this mistake. Why do people keep using the Bewitched font for thrillers? Have they ever seen Bewitched? You guys, whoever told you Bewitched was scary was playing a joke on you. Sorry.