Sunday, July 12, 2020

Hell Comes to Frogtown (1987)

... aka: Apocalisse a Frogtown - La città delle rane (Apocalypse in Frogtown: The City of Frogs)
... aka: Ein erbarmungsloser Jäger (The Relentless Hunter)
... aka: Hunter, The
... aka: Sam Hell
... aka: Sam Hell ist: Der Jäger (Sam Hell Is: The Hunter)
... aka: Transmutations

Directed by:
Donald G. Jackson
R.J. Kizer

Ruddy-skinned, kilt-wearing former professional wrestler "Rowdy" Roddy Piper previously showcased charisma, likability and surprisingly competent acting chops in the 1986 wrestling comedy Body Slam, which opened the door for leading roles in both this and John Carpenter's higher profile wide release They Live (1988). He would be gainfully employed in a steady stream of direct-to-video action flicks and TV guest spots in between his wrestling and wrestler commentary stints from here on out. Piper is teamed up here with former professional dancer turned actress Sandahl Bergman, who'd made a name for herself starring alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger as the courageous Valeria in the R-rated sword-and-sorcery hit Conan the Barbarian (1982). That led to starring roles in two other big budget fantasy-adventures; She (1983) and Red Sonja (1985), which hoped to turn the physically fit Bergman into a female action star. However, both films were critical failures and commercial disappointments, which then landed her in lower-budgeted films such as this one. Still, she and Piper are an agreeable duo and play off each other quite well here. Their back-and-forth bickering as a means to release sexual tension (which eventually develops into a romance, of course!) is one of the main reasons this ends up being fairly enjoyable.

Sam Hell (Piper) is a scavenger, thief, smart ass and wanted fugitive on post-apocalyptic Earth ten years after nuclear war has reduced the planet to dust and debris, turned some of the populace into frog-faced mutants and rendered much of the non-mutant population infertile. Sam has been falsely accused of sexual assault by a disgruntled former lover and is just about to get his groin carved up with a broken bottle by sadistic border patrol agent Devlin (William Smith) when he's bailed out by Med Tech representatives Patton (Eyde Byrde) and the uptight Spangle (Bergman), whose job it is to help repopulate the planet. As it turns out, Sam's carrying a much-needed "loaded weapon" and has left behind a string of pregnant women everywhere he's gone. He's just the type of guy Med Tech needs to help locate and impregnate any remaining fertile women living in the desert wastelands. Since he's already familiar with that territory, his private parts are put into a locked, government issued chastity belt (!) and he's forced to sign a contract with Med Tech. Otherwise it's back to being interrogated by Devlin and his bottle.

Sam, who is kept in check by an "electronic stinger" found on his codpiece, along with Spangle and tough corporal escort Centinella (the very sexy Cec Verrell), are then sent on a trip through the desert. Their mission? Rescue a bunch of non-mutant fertile women who've been kidnapped and are being held hostage by some of the frog-people, led by one Commander Toty (Brian Frank). The titular location is somewhat like a Native American reservation. Except, you know, with mutants. Thanks to the provisional government passed "Mutant Isolation Act," all frog-people are forced to live separately from, and are forbidden from breeding with, non-mutants.

Strangely enough, some of the best moments this film has to offer take place before the mutants even factor in. The travelers first stumble across a runaway girl (Suzanne Solari), who's dirty and in a state of shock. She's given an injection of an aphrodisiac drug called "ovidal" to make her horny and then Spangle dryly orders Sam to "facilitate procreation." Our usually macho hero then talks about needing the right atmosphere and complains he's "not a machine you can just turn on and off when you want to!" Further explaining, "Well maybe you outta try making love to a complete stranger in the middle of a hostile mutant territory!"

With Sam posing as a slave dealer and Spangle posing as his slave, the duo venture into Frogtown where they meet a variety of frog-people on their way to freeing the (pacifist) female slaves. There's Arabella (Kristi Somers), a frog spy posing as a stripper who hopes to get Sam in the sack... a scenario having Sam reaching for his own sack to put over her head. Eye patch-wearing frog slaver / torture master Bull (Nicholas Worth) tries to do "exploratory surgery" with a chainsaw, while human uranium prospector Lonnie O'Toole aka Looney Tunes (Rory Calhoun) offers to lend our heroes a helping hand. And, of course, there's the evil Commander Toty, who is reduced to having Bergman do the seductive "Dance of the Three Snakes" to try to get a rise out of his three penises (!) so he can procreate with her.

While some of the above moments offer mild amusement (I mean, how could latex frog mutant people offer anything but?), the action scenes in the second half fail to generate much in the way of excitement and, once the premise is established, it slogs along toward a predictable conclusion. Using a large, ruined steel mill as Frogtown was a good, cost-saving idea but they should have tried to hire a few more extras to fill the "town" out because, as is, it appears that fewer than a dozen frog-people actually live there. On the plus side, the costumes are OK and Steve Wang and his crew did a good job making the frog masks and animatronics. The film is at its best, however, during its less showy, dialogue-driven moments between the two stars, which is often amusingly and charmingly scripted by writer Randall Frakes. And, trust me, that's slightly off-putting in a film where the mutant frog people should obviously be the highlight!

Why Jackson decided to forego competent B movies like this for his later brand of "Zen Filmmaking" (shooting things on video, not using scripts and having the actors improvise their way through things) probably all boils down to lack of demand for decent budgeted films of this type moving into the 90s and thus lack of opportunity on his part. Jackson apparently had no interest in evolving with the times, cashing in on popular trends or trying to invent some of his own and seemed content making no budget videos that very few people wanted to watch. While this early effort is certainly not an 'A' film, it does prove that Jackson at least tried at one point in his career. Either that or co-director Kizer, an NYU Film School graduate who started out editing for Roger Corman and now works as a respected / award-winning sound editor in Hollywood, actually had more control over the production than he did.

Originally this was planned as a direct-to-video release to be shot on 16mm on a 150K budget. However, it ended up being shot on 35mm on a budget of 1.5 million dollars with hopes of showing it in theaters (Kizer was brought on by New World because they didn't trust Jackson with such a high budget). While this likely didn't play on many big screens, it was widely distributed on home video and became a late night cable favorite. It was also enough of a success to prompt the sequel Frogtown II in 1992. The later Toad Warrior (1996), starring and co-directed by frequent Jackson collaborator Scott Shaw, isn't an official sequel. The later releases Max Hell Frog Warrior (2002), Max Hell in Frogtown (2008) and Max Hell Frog Warrior: A Zen Rough Cut (2015) are simply re-edits of Toad Warrior.

Ernest D. Farino did the typically cool opening credits and Fred Olen Ray is thanked at the end. Frogtown was given VHS releases through New World and Starmaker, made its U.S. DVD debut in 2001 on the Anchor Bay label, was paired with Def-Con 4 (1985) for the 2011 Image release and finally made its U.S. Blu-ray debut through Vinegar Syndrome in 2019. There were earlier BR releases from Arrow Video in the UK and Wicked-Vision Media in Germany.


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