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.


Opera (1987)

... aka: Dario Argento's Opera
... aka: Terror at the Opera

Directed by:
Dario Argento

There are a lot of differing opinions about this film and just what it meant for Argento's career. Many believe this is his last really good film and that it's all downhill from here. Others believe the film itself is substandard and was the beginning of the director's downward spiral. And then there are those super-fans who both love this film (I've even seen “masterpiece” volleyed around a bit) and continue to love many of Argento's later offerings. In my humble opinion, nothing Argento has made after this point would be quite as good, though that doesn't mean this is quite on par with some of his better earlier offerings either. Still, who wouldn't take something creative, well-made / produced, delightfully bonkers and boasting some of the most inventive camerawork of the entire decade over the vast majority of comparably unimaginative slasher flicks and endless sequels that dominated this decade? I know I sure would. Despite having a fair amount of issues with the narrative, this is still a good notch or two above the norm any way you slice it.

Things center around an operatic theater version of Giuseppe Verdi's Macbeth that's being staged by famous blood n' guts horror film director Mark (Ian Charleson). Bitchy star diva Mara Czekova is accidentally (maybe) struck down by a car while storming out of the opera house due to the director's insistence on using real ravens and other such annoyances with the avant-garde production. Wide-eyed understudy Betty (cute Spanish model Cristina Marsillach), whose mother was also a famous singer, is then drafted to take her place. Knowing that the opera is rumored to be cursed and to bring back luck, Betty is apprehensive about taking on the lead Lady Macbeth role but relents due to optimistic pressure from her agent, Mira (Daria Nicolodi), and the show's producer (Antonino Iuorio). Successfully overcoming her jitters, Betty's debut performance ends up being a smashing success. Unfortunately, a stage hand is murdered upstairs while the performance is underway and Betty appears to have somehow already managed to pique the interest of an obsessive fan / stalker. This man also may be somehow tied into her past.

The horrors continue for poor Betty whenever the psycho starts terrorizing her over the phone, sneaks into the theater to slash up her costume and a few of the ravens (who apparently have really good memories and a taste for vengeance!) and then forces her to take part in his vicious slayings. He accomplishes the latter by ambushing her, tying her up, gagging her and then taping a line of needles beneath her eyes so if she tries to close them she'll rip her eyelids apart; thus forcing her to witness each of his bloody crimes. After he dispatches Betty's would-be stage manager lover Stefano (William McNamara), she calls the police to report the murder but, curiously enough, hangs up the phone whenever they ask for her name. She does however confide in Mark (who also doesn't bother involving he cops) and confesses that it all seems to tie in with a recurring nightmare she's had since childhood, which centers around a man wearing a black hood, a distinctive-looking dagger, a dilapidated building, kinky sex, pulsating brain matter and murder-voyeurism. An investigation led by Inspector Alan Santini (Urbano Barberini) is soon underway.

During an excellent sequence, Betty again finds herself tied up and forced to watch as brassy wardrobe mistress Giulia (Coralina Cataldi Tassoni) is strangled, stabbed and then has her throat cut open to retrieve a piece of evidence she accidentally swallowed. This time Betty is confronted by Inspector Santini on the way back to her apartment and spills the beans. He tells her to lock her door and wait for his assistant, Daniele Soave (second unit director Michele Soavi in an uncredited cameo), to show up. Agent Mira stops by long enough for another great scene where she's shot through a peephole, with the bullet shown traveling through the hole, shattering glass, flying through Mira's head and then destroying the telephone behind her in slow motion.

Mark and animal trainer Maurizio (Maurizio Garrone) then devise a "genius" (i.e. utterly absurd!) plan to weed out the killer, with all of the red herrings and the actual killer all in attendance at another Macbeth performance. That results in a raven pecking out an eyeball, followed by a blazing fire that burns down part of the opera house. Then, in a very polarizing second climax, the film retreats to the Swiss Alps for a handful of admittedly amusing PHENOMENA (1985) in-jokes and another appearance by the psycho. How he managed to pull the wool over the investigator's eyes, fake his own death and escape the opera house is, for lack of a better word, dumb. But, hey, at least the scenery is great.

Aside from a handful of showstopper murder set pieces, smooth scene transitions (especially a shot disappearing into the darkness of an air vent and then emerging in an orchestra pit) and some fantastic camerawork (like a raven POV circling way above the audience and then swooping down upon them), this also boasts a soundtrack that has no qualms going from opera to ambient (Brian Eno and Roger Eno) to bursts of metal from obscure acts like the Italian band Gow (who use the alias "Steel Grave" in the credits) and the Swedish group Norden Light ("No Escape") during the more horrific moments. There are also contributions from Bill Wyman and Goblin's Claudio Simonetti. Viewers will either love this eclectic mix or be completely turned off by it but that's par for the course with Argento.

Despite doing some truly head-scratchingly-stupid things at times, the main character provides a somewhat interesting focal point. Betty is an aloof, tentative young woman sabotaged on both a personal and professional level by insecurities brought on by her traumatic past. She's a self-proclaimed "disaster in bed," recoils from touch, seems incapable of having a real romantic relationship and almost spoils her own chances at success by trying to back out of a star-making role. So, in a way, the core of this film is really about her character overcoming her past to reclaim her life. One of the final images at the finale is of her freeing a trapped lizard. The last line is "Go free."

Though Marsillach is serviceable in the lead here, Argento apparently hated working with her and originally wanted Phenomena star Jennifer Connelly to play this part instead. Vanessa Redgrave was also originally cast as the bitchy opera star but backed out at the last minute so her role was reduced to POV shots and a voice-over done by another actress. Antonella Vitale (THE CHURCH), who has a small role as Mark's model lover, was Argento's real-life girlfriend at the time. He also gave her the lead in his short-lived series Turno di notte before the two split up. Also appearing in small roles are Barbara Cupisti (STAGE FRIGHT) as the producer's assistant, Carola Stagnaro (TENEBRAE) as Betty's tarty neighbor, Peter Pitsch and Karl Zinny (both from DEMONS, along with Barberini) and real-life conductor / Hungarian opera director György Gyõriványi.

The director of photography was Ronnie Taylor, a Brit who'd won an Oscar just a few years earlier for shooting Gandhi (1982), which also featured the late Charleson (an acclaimed theater actor, though you'd never guess that here). Taylor went on to shoot Argento's rather crappy Phantom of the Opera re-do in 1998 and the giallo Sleepless in 2001.

With an 8 million dollar budget, Opera was Argento's most expensive film to date. Though it was fairly successful in Italy, release in other countries was delayed, sometimes by years. It wouldn't show up on VHS here in America until 1991 when Southgate released two separate videos: an R-rated cut and an unrated / uncut version. The former had 11 minutes removed. Naturally the subsequent DVD and Blu-ray releases from companies like Anchor Bay, Scorpion Releasing and Blue Underground have all been the uncut 107 minute version.

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