You’d be hard-pressed to find a less intimidating title for a horror movie than Frogs, but those who’ve witnessed Kermit’s coke-fueled tirades first-hand know how scary these creatures can be. Frogs is set in an unnamed, Louisiana-esque swampy locale. Ray Milland, coupled with his role in The Thing with Two Heads, corners the market on cranky, racist old dudes by playing Jason Crockett, patriarch of a large, traditional family that has gathered for a birthday celebration at his island mansion.
Nature photographer Pickett Smith (a young and slightly less crotchety Sam Elliott) crashes the party as a voice of reason who notices that Crockett’s industrial dumping and penchant for pesticides seem to be pissing off the local wildlife. Lucky for us, the family doesn’t heed his warning until it’s too late: When Non-Threatening Amphibians Attack!
Coming in the early ’70s, Frogs was somewhat ahead of its time in featuring three prominent black characters, one of whom, Bella (Judy Pace), is involved in an interracial relationship with Crockett’s grandson. The other two, Charles (Lance Taylor, Jr.) and Maybelle (Mae Mercer), are servants in Crockett’s plantation-like home. Veiled racial references pop up throughout the film, although race is never mentioned outright. The upper-crust family dislikes Bella for unspecified reasons (Snotty Jenny asks her, “That’s an unusual dress, Bella. Did you make it?” “No,” Bella snaps, “I didn’t make it; I designed it.”), and sensing her struggles fitting in with the white family, Maybelle tells Bella, “There’s always fresh coffee and a friendly conversation in the kitchen if you ever need it.” Later, when Crockett questions Charles and Maybelle’s loyalty when they support Pickett’s idea of leaving the island, Bella compares their situation to slavery: “Maybe you haven’t heard about it stuck out here in vacation land, but five score and seven years ago they just started letting people make up their own minds!”
The racial innuendo, however, is tame — much like the gore. Sadly, the frog on the movie poster isn’t indicative of the frogs in the film. They aren’t big enough to fit a human hand in their mouths, nor are they ambitious enough to try. They just stare at you in numbers so large that you eventually have a heart attack and die. The filmmakers seem to realize the limitations of “frog horror,” so they throw in a host of other, more intimidating animals, like snakes, alligators, spiders and some gecko-like thingees. High insurance rates will kill you! (I have to question, though, the ecological accuracy of tarantulas and scorpions living in a Louisiana swamp.)
Although Frogs remains watchable, none of the deaths is particularly gruesome — I had high hopes for the snapping turtle — and in the case of the black trio, who conveniently end up separated from the pack, theirs occur completely off-screen. They’re chased by Hitchcockian birds, and later, when only their belongings are found, we’re to assume all three are dead. Maybe the director thought this was a more dignified death scene, but not showing their fate — not even their henpecked corpses — makes their demise pretty useless, horror-wise. Meanwhile, Crockett, like the Old South, ignores the times that are a-changin’ and chooses to remain cooped up in his old mansion playing Frogger. Game over, old man, game over.