Hell Comes to Frogtown(Arrow Video)

Director - Donald G. Jackson, R.J. Kizer

Cast - Roddy Piper, Sandahl Bergman

Country of Origin - U.S.

Discs - 1

Distributor - Arrow Films

Reviewer - Bobby Morgan

Date - 06/26/14

The Film: 4/5

 

In the final years of the 20th century a stock footage nuclear war decimated the planet, leaving 68% of the male population Cajun-style corpses and everyone else involuntarily sterile. This leaves Sam Hell (Roddy Piper), a drifter who wanders the post-apocalyptic U.S. impregnating any fine young filly, as the last hope of the human race. Rescued from brutal treatment at the hands of a William Smith cameo by a provisional government agency operated by nurses, Hell is offered his freedom in exchange for helping to repopulate the species, but as a precaution he is outfitted with an explosive chastity belt (but how does he...."there's a flap"). When a group of fertile women earmarked for insemination are captured by a race of amphibious mutants Hell and the gorgeous and gutsy Spangle (Sandahl Bergman) are given the mission to infiltrate the wasteland stronghold of Frogtown and rescue them so they can receive Sam's special seed and ensure the continued existence of mankind.

 

Can't argue with a cult film that buries its straightforward plot up to the neck in oddball humor and ridiculous situations and won't allow itself to be taken seriously for a solitary millisecond. The post-Road Warrior 1980's were deluged with apocalyptic action flicks, usually pretty low budget and emerging from either Roger Corman's cinematic sausage factory or the exploitation-hungry nation of Italy. Hell Comes to Frogtown isn't the best of the lot but it's probably the funniest. Working with a lower budget that would be normally required to properly realize a story of this scale and absurdity, director Donald G. Jackson (The Demon Lover), a future pioneer of "Zen filmmaking" (loosely translated: movies made by people too lazy to have scripts commissioned), makes the most of his limited resources by playing up the goofy humor in the screenplay by Randall Frakes and building upon the charisma of his leads Roddy Piper and Sandahl Bergman. Frakes, who had previously written Jackson's 1985 camp oddity Roller Blade as well as James Cameron's short film Xenogenesis, goes for broke with the lunatic humor in the script he wrote based on a story he conceived with Jackson and seems to making fun of the entire enterprise when lesser storytellers would insist upon deadly seriousness for fear of undermining the story's credibility. But Jackson and Frakes know this whole thing is a giant goof and they are resigned to having as much as fun as possible with the material. I'm surprised that Jackson didn't try to work rollerblading into the story as it would become a recurring visual motif in his later films.

 

Roddy Piper made his debut as a big screen leading man in Frogtown a full year before he joined forces with John Carpenter for what would become his best-known film, They Live. That part required the wrestling legend to embrace his character's dramatic depth and draw on his own life experiences to enhance the backstory. As the lunk-headed hero Sam Hell Piper gets to cut loose and have some real fun by going all in with a performance that stops short of cartoonish territory but is full of priceless physical humor and inspired lines of cheesy dialogue that Bruce Campbell would have a ball reciting. Sandahl Bergman's (Conan the Barbarian) character Spangle is supposed to be the film's resourceful heroine, and she is, but most of the time she plays the living embodiment of a Playboy pictorial crossed with a Van Halen music video. She completely sells the simmering sexuality beneath Spangle's repressed exterior while occasionally stripping down to give the perverts in the audience an eye-full, and she and Piper have a teasing interplay that works well. Silver screen western icon Rory Calhoun (Motel Hell) puts in a brief appearance as a cantankerous old prospector buddy of Sam's hanging around Frogtown, and William Smith (Rumble Fish) also acquits himself decently with an extended cameo as Hell's human adversary.

 

The practical effects work shows its seams at times but it's great to see actors wearing some slimy frog mutant make-up in the days before motion-capture technology made it all a thing of the past. Steve Wang (The Monster Squad) and Grant Arndt (Pumpkinhead) were among the stars of the FX crew and all involved perform above their pay grade. David Shapiro's minimalist music score uses a hummed version of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again" as its theme and it weirdly makes sense. Hell Comes to Frogtown was released while studio New World Pictures was on its death bed and it was only able to find an audience on home video, but its success on the rental charts helped to spawn (no pun intended) several frog-related adventures Jackson would make with fellow Zen filmmaking acolyte Scott Shaw. 1993's Return to Frogtown couldn't afford a return appearance from Rowdy Roddy so he was replaced by Robert Z'Dar (Maniac Cop) in the role of Sam Hell, with Lou Ferrigno, Brion James, and Charles Napier offering full-blooded support. The less said about Toad Warrior (1996) the better. Needless to say, the first trip to Frogtown remains the best and hasn't aged too badly over the past 26 years.

 

Audio/Video: 4/5

 

Lakeshore Entertainment, Frogtown’s current owner, oversaw the 1080p high-definition remastering of the film. The transfer was compressed to a widescreen aspect ratio of 1.78:1 from its original 1.85:1 theatrical exhibition ratio at which Anchor Bay Entertainment’s 2001 Region 1 DVD transfer was correctly framed. The compression doesn’t appear to have created a loss in visual information or caused any visible distortion in the quality of the presentation. There are also no signs of lasting damage to the print. The picture has been cleaned up nicely though digital noise reduction wasn’t excessively deployed. Colors and detail are at their strongest here. The uncompressed English 2.0 stereo audio track reproduces the film’s original mono sound mix with excellent results. Manual volume adjustment is never needed. Everything sounds beautiful and clear. No subtitles have been provided.

 

Extras: 3/5

 

Arrow, for some reason, failed to port over the highly informative audio commentary with co-director Jackson and screenwriter Frakes from the Anchor Bay DVD. In its place are three new interviews with Piper (22 minutes), creature effects artist Steve Wang (15 minutes), and actor Brian “Commander Toty” Frank (14 minutes). Piper’s talk is the best as he gets downright frank about the production, the animosity between him and Jackson, and his thoughts on feature film acting and how it affected his career. Wang goes into great detail about the creation of the mutant frogs, while Frank chimes in to discuss playing one. An extended cut of Sam Hell’s introduction (2 minutes) looks sourced from a VHS copy of the workprint and gives us a little more time with Piper and William Smith’s characters. The original, slightly spoilerish theatrical trailer (2 minutes) is presented in HD and closes out the disc-based extras. Arrow’s Blu-ray also comes with their customary reversible cover art and a collector’s booklet featuring a new, well-researched essay about the film written by Calum Waddell which is illustrated with stills. A standard definition DVD copy it also included.

 

Overall: 4/5

 

There are few films as deserving of a Blu-ray release as Hell Comes to Frogtown, and I make that statement with total earnestness and absolutely no cynicism. Well okay, maybe a little cynicism. Nevertheless, this crazy and slimy flick that could have only been made in the 1980’s is here in glossy HD and has a few decent bonus features to back up the upgraded picture and sound quality. Recommended with a side of pizza, a few six-packs of Pabst, and a complete depletion in good taste.