There is, to my knowledge, only one film specifically and pointedly themed to U.S. Independence Day, and I have already reviewed it. That leaves us with the many, many creature films that take place over the holiday, and I have chosen today's subject both because it is among the earliest, and because it also has buried within it an extremely weird attempt at political commentary that does not work at all. And what, I ask, is more all-American than holding inane political beliefs?
Jaws came out in 1975, it fundamentally altered the DNA of the killer animal flick so much that nearly 40 years after its premiere, virtually every single variation on that theme hews to the same basic formula set out in that groundbreaking blockbuster; but Jaws did not invent the killer animal flick. It simply represented the dawn of a bold new era of a genre that had been robust and vital since at least the 1930s, and had, prior to '75, been spending much of its time in a new subgenre inspired by the birth of the environmentalist movement; these eco-horror movies were generally morality plays about how nature, sick and tired of putting up with man's industrial bullshit, decides to fight back with red tooth and claw. Of course, Jaws did not extinguish movies that told a very obvious ecological tale with their killer animals; indeed, many of the shark movie's rip-offs can only be considered eco-horror variations on the extremely specific narrative spine it normalised, and there are still examples of things like The Swarm in 1978, an eco-horror tale that owes more to its director, Irwin Allen's history with disaster pictures than to Spielbergian tales of craven mayors/park rangers/museum owners failing to close the beach/picnic grounds/ancient spirit warrior exhibit right before the 4th of July/the 4th of July/the 4th of July.
But we're here to discuss a film that came out three years before Jaws, prefiguring that trendsetter in many small specifics while also not really acting very much like a Jaws-style creature feature. I refer to AIP's infamous Frogs, which is likely rather much like the film you've already started concocting in your head based just on its title and my opening paragraph, assuming you didn't know already: this is a movie about how frogs arrange an army of swamp wildlife, from the reptilian snakes and lizards and turtles to spiders and insects, to the fucking sentient Spanish moss, to strike back against the local homo sapiens population that has been so recently threatening their way of life. It is among the very earliest of the eco-horror creature pictures; perhaps the most famous of them all; and while I haven't seen nearly as many of these as I have their Jaws-influenced younger siblings, I expect it is among the very worst (though this is also the genre that produced, later that same year, the awesomely bad Night of the Lepus, a titan against which all other iterations of incompetence are mere shadows).
The film tips its hand very nearly the instant it starts: a nature photographer, Pickett Smith (Sam Elliott, who looks so young!), is canoeing around a swamp - I missed it if the exact location was identified, but the film was shot in Florida, and that seems reasonable enough, particularly since the fauna of the place sets it firmly in a fantastic Neverwhere of species that have never all lived in the same ecosystem - taking pictures of plants and animals and FROGS;the title appears with a musical sting that removes our last vestige of doubt that this is a nominally scary movie. He's also taking pictures of litter, and as he does so he looks hellbent on out-crying every fake Native American chieftain from here to Walla Walla.
Then, over in this corner, we have a drunk in a speed boat, tearing ass and being awful - his name is Clint Crockett (Adam Roarke), and he's such a huge prick that even his sister in the boat with him, Karen (Joan Van Ark) can't stand him and doesn't pretend to. Clint is all ready to run right over Pickett Smith and his humble, ecologically sound canoe, but makes do with capsizing him instead; as a way of apologising, the Crocketts offer to take the photographer back home to their island, where they can offer a shower, a fresh set of clothes, and a nice lunch. Despite having, to this point, only evidence that these people are sociopaths, Pickett Smith accepts.
And boy, is Crockett Island ever a magical place, a gathering of the most unlikable, semi-anonymous expendable meat that you would ever expect to find in those days before body count movies were a thing. Besides Karen and Clint, the island is presently home to Clint's wife Jenny (Lynn Borden), and their two children, Tina (Dale Willingham) and Jay (Hal Hodges); Clint's aunt, Iris Martindale (Holly Irving), and her husband Stuart (George Skaff); their adult sons Michael (David Gilliam) and Kenneth (Nicholas Cortland); Kenneth's African-American girlfriend Bella (Judy Pace), who has transparently been invited along so the boy can rub it in his family's face that he's dating across racial lines; and the two African-American servants, Maybelle (Mae Mercer), and Charles (Lance Taylor, Sr.). Between them, these twelve, count 'em, twelve potential victims have about two distinct personality traits, and both of those go away if we take Bella out of the mix. Ruling over all of it with his domineering, patriarchal fist is Grandpa Jason Crockett (Ray Milland), a fierce traditionalist who lost the use of his legs 15 years ago and compensates for it by being even more nasty-minded and controlling than he ever was before.
How controlling? I shall pretend you asked, rather than skimming along while putting off some data entry for a few more minutes. This controlling: tomorrow, 4 July is not only America's Independence Day, an important moment for a good old boy like Crockett, it's also his own birthday, and the whole reason for this family gathering is because every July, the Crocketts throw a big celebration for patriotism and for their own avarice - Jason Crockett is one of only four members of the family celebrating a July birthday, and we get the impression very strongly that the draw is not so much honoring America as it is wallowing in the grandeur of the Crockett clan itself. Anyway, the island has recently been overrun by mating frogs, and Crockett, finding their constant croaking to be an irritant on par with Satan's own flatulence, has decided to blanket the entire surrounding swamp in frog poison. That controlling.
Such draconian measures are apparently par for the course for Crockett and his children, based on their conversations, but this year, the frogs are ready: and over the course of the day and night of 3 and 4 July, the frogs will orchestrate a series of violent murders in which they and their swamp bretheren will wipe Jason Crockett's bloodline off the face of the earth.
There's absolutely no way to not read the film that way: director George McCowan includes way too many shots of frogs (or rather toads, for the most part) looking sideways out of their squat, slanty eyes, with unusually smug and self-satisfied expressions for amphibians. The swamp, it appears, is less of a natural anarchy driven only to destroy humans, than it is a mafia-like organisation; the frogs and toads themselves do very little violence until the time comes to finally wreak their vengeance on Jason Crockett himself, last of all (that was a spoiler to anyone who has never seen a movie before, and if that's you, then I think this would have been a bad on to start with, anyway), instead assigning various other creatures the task of assassinating their human victims: lizards turn a greenhouse into a poisonous gas trap, rattlesnakes and copperheads pin someone into a corner, advancing from both sides, that kind of thing. But the frogs are always there. Watching.
This is a movie that is drunk on insert shots of frogs and other animals; I gather the point is to stress that they are all around and they are angry, but since the inserted shots very infrequently match the location they're meant to be "watching', it feels more like an abstract experiment in colliding two entirely unrelated images. Also, there many fewer distinct shots in the editor's pocket than there are places to use them, which means that very nearly all of these inserts are used at least twice, and they're all extremely recognisable. It's this kind of flatfooted incompetence that can turn a sane person into a dedicated bad movie watcher for the rest of their days.
But this is only the most overt way in which Frogs just plain sucks as cinema, in the most giddy, entertaining way possible. For one thing, it's just completely special how heavily the filmmakers (Robert Hutchison and Robert Blees were the writers, in case there's any value to me dragging their names out in public like that) stack the deck against the Crocketts; oh, it's not enough that they're selfish, they have to be borderline insane, with Jason's first approach to any small problem consisting of "throw poison at it", with the back-up plan, "throw more poison at it". Or the fantastic way that, even as some members of his family end up dead and others go missing, he refuses to consider Pickett Smith's taciturn advice that they should leave, because God damn it all to hell, he wants his birthday dinner. Of course, this is all meant to be a morality play and all; and I am inclined to be 100% in favor of "don't fuck up the environment" arguments in real-world scenarios, there's not even the smallest notion of a debate here; it's a harangue, with only the sensible, mopey Elliott allowed to play a sympathetic, reasonable character in a house of ghouls (Karen is nice, sure, but horribly underwritten and under-acted).
It's magnificent, and magnificently sad, to watch a man of Ray Milland's stature playing this kind of role in this kind of movie; you can tell every step of the way that he knew it was a mortifying piece of shit, and probably nobody would give him a bad time if he just went straight for camp; but there's some last vestige of his career as an Oscar-winning actor that kicks in and keeps him always reverting to playing it deadly straight, which of course makes it even campier. He is the grand pinnacle of a movie that simply doesn't know how to be good: the first dead man, drawing nice, slow, steady breaths on camera; the tortured racial politics in the third act when Bella uses the Emancipation Proclamation as proof that she and the two African-American servants should leave the white people behind, only to end up killed off-screen (by wonderfully bad projections of killer seagulls); the hallucination where Jason Crockett's mounted animal trophies all start screaming at him, including a bass that squeaks like a dolphin.
We could try to write all this off as the normal American International "don't give a fuck, get it done cheap" approach to horror, except Frogs is plainly desperate to have Meaning: I cannot tell if anybody was actually aware of it, but the whole thing is an extended metaphor for the abuse of American power in the early 1970s. Crockett, born on the Fourth of July, is an out-of-touch petty tyrant who would rather destroy worlds than be personally inconvenienced in the least; he uses chemical agents to decimate the population of a densely forested region mostly because he delights in shows of force; he cannot comprehend anybody who doesn't love him for being such an autocrat and bully. He is, in short, a perfect embodiment of everything the Left despised about American privilege during Vietnam, except that it's impossible to imagine even the most starry-eyed idealist thinking that you could put over that kind of political message in a movie as ludicrous in concept and amateurish in execution as Frogs. Hell, Frogs can't even manage to be a compelling pro-environment movie when every inch of its being is overtly dedicated to advancing that message; that it would even dare to try and put something forward on a more metaphorical, ideological level is the most alarming kind of hubris. Perhaps it's just a sign of what kind of social concerns were simply in the air in '72 that they show up in such a tormented form in Frogs, but certainly, nobody could argue with a straight face that the causes of environmentalism or liberalism are entirely well-served by their appropriation for such a comically awfully thriller as this.
I leave you with this thought, dear reader: how do you take even a little seriously a movie that wants to convince us that this cute little guy is a merciless killer?
Body Count, Animals: Tough to keep track of every last one, but I'm content to say that it's not fewer than 14.
Body Count, Humans: 8, one of them already dead when we see him first; plus three offscreen deaths of people we know, and one offscreen death of someone whose existence is only implied. And then the nihilistic implication of the penultimate scene, which makes good on the film's warped tagline: "TODAY - the Pond! TOMORROW - the World."