Director Donald G. Jackson‘s first film, The Demon Lover (1977) was partially financed by the $8,000 insurance settlement he received when his friend and co-director on the film, Jerry Younkins, lost a couple of fingers in an accident at the factory where they both worked.
That right there is what low-budget film making is all about.
Then, while working as a camera assistant on Galaxy of Terror (1981) he met James Cameron, the 2nd unit director. Cameron brought him on to do additional shooting on The Terminator in 1984, before Jackson directed his independent documentary about professional wrestling, I Like to Hurt People in 1985 and his 1986 breakthrough film, Roller Blade; where roller skated rebels battle against a post-apocalyptic fascist state, aided by a group of roller-skating nuns.
As far as low-budget films go (it was shot for $5,000 dollars and paid for with Jackson’s credit cards), Roller Blade was a huge success, making over a million dollars. That success inspired production company New World Pictures to finance his next effort, Hell Comes to Frogtown (1988). Originally planned as a very low budget independent “art” film cast with stars of Roller Blade, New World stepped in and cast name talent but also provided funding to shoot on 35mm rather than the much cheaper 16mm film.
According to Jackson, New World didn’t like his desire for control on the project and brought in R.J. Kizer (whose only previous credit was directing the American footage added to Godzilla 1985) as co-director before eventually removing Jackson altogether and banning him from the set. New World was then responsible for the final cut of the film. This was the last time Jackson worked with a big production company.
The first of the “name” talent brought on-board was famous wrestler Roddy Piper, who began his first year of starring in films with Hell Comes to Frogtown in January, and wrapped the year with They Live in November.
Not bad for a first year, if you ask me.
Both films highlighted his casual natural charisma. Frogtown‘s performance as Sam Hell is more over-the-top, but then, so is the film. As such, Piper plays the reluctant savior of humanity with humor and a touch of nobility — despite his character opening the film as a prisoner with a long rap sheet that includes some fairly despicable things, including sex crimes.
Although the sex crimes on that rap sheet makes him kind of irresistible to the ladies in a world where two thirds of the men were killed in a nuclear apocalypse. It’s an uncomfortable place from which to start, tying this film to the Eighties tradition of giving us anti-heroes who are able to win over other characters, and the audience, through sheer charisma (Snake Pliskin, I’m looking at you!).
Sandahl Bergman had worked as a professional dancer and had appeared as the principal dancer in Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979) and as a Muse in Xanadu (1980), but she remains best-known in geek circles for playing Conan’s love interest and warrior/thief partner, Valeria in Conan the Barbarian (1982) as well as Queen Gedren in Red Sonja (1985). New World cast her in the lead female role of Spangle, a soldier/scientist for Med Tech — the company that runs the new post-apocalyptic America.
Hell’s semen has such a high sperm count that he is recruited/drafted by Med Tech to impregnate as many fertile women as possible to help increase the population and defend America from its enemies foreign and domestic. It’s a premise that is played for laughs (with a humorous callback to 1981’s Escape from New York, with an explosive cod-piece designed to keep Hell motivated and in-line), and as such, the film plays with a slippery morality that is more indebted to teenage hormones than to anything serious. This lends itself to playing with sexuality in a clichéd and juvenile way that is typically right in line with this sort of genre film; but the way Piper plays Hell as a reluctant sex-object serves to undercut the more sexist elements of the story, veering it away from the open misogyny of similar films, such as A Boy and His Dog (1975).
Although the forced impregnation of drugged women is still problematic.
Playing up Hell’s James Bondian cocksmanship doesn’t really alleviate that, but at least it’s an attempt to make the whole concept less icky.
One actor that Jackson did cast was William Smith (whose praises I’ve sung before) who would return to work with Jackson on The Roller Blade Seven (1991) and Return of the Roller Blade Seven (1992) as Captain Devlin, who, in the opening moments of the film is ready to torture and kill Hell for raping his daughter. The film suddenly shifts, however, shoving Devlin into the bad guy role when it is discovered that his daughter recanted the rape charge after finding out she was pregnant — in a world where Mothers are treated like Queens because most of humanity is sterile.
As punishment for his aggressive mistreatment of prisoners, Devlin is reassigned as a border guard for the irradiated desert reservations where humanity has forced the mutant frog people to live.
Oh wait. Did I not mention the mutant frog people?
The movie’s called Hell Comes to Frogtown after all.
Our plot really takes off once it is revealed that a group of fertile women have been captured by Commander Toty (Brian Frank), the leader of the mutant frog people, and placed in his harem. Med Tech, under the guidance of Spangle (as well as the gorgeous Cec Verrell as Centinella, a no-nonsense soldier who chomps on cigarillos and machine-guns baddies with enthusiasm), sends Hell to rescue them.
And then impregnate them.
The film is a lot of fun, moving along quickly, and providing some good laughs (who doesn’t love a good electro-shock to the balls joke?) and a surprising moment or two of heart. As you might expect, a romance blooms between Hell and Spangle, but it’s played fairly serious, with an emotional undercurrent that actually makes both characters more interesting and enjoyable. What could have been just a silly sexploitation romp actually has a little more dramatic and psychological substance. Whenever Spangle is forced to play up her sexuality, she plays it as clearly uncomfortable, which forces the viewer into an uncomfortable role as well.
Not that there aren’t sexist jokes in here, too. But when capable, the performances and direction do what they can to add layers to the narrative.
There’s also a socio-political subtext here, playing around with resentments by the frog people for being shunted off to reservations and the accepted racism of the humans towards them. Not to mention, the hostility that Captain Devlin evidences towards women — who know run America — that manifests in a desire to wipe the slate clean by selling guns to the frog people (in the guise of masked outlaw Count Sodom!!) in exchange for mined uranium, which he plans to use to destroy the world entirely rather than live under female domination.
But don’t worry. None of that overwhelms what essentially boils down to Sandahl Bergman doing a sexy dance before joining Rowdy Roddy Piper in beating up and shooting a bunch of frog men. So there’s your political subtext tossed out the window before we get to the hot and heavy film-reference pastiche climax of the film, where we get loaded references to Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and the final battle takes place at Vasquez Rocks, where Kirk fought Gorn in the classic Star Trek episode “Arena.”
None of these references are excessive or distracting (although the final fight was kind of amazing), and instead serve to demonstrate just how much Jackson respects and appreciates the classic action adventure films that came before. None of the references are ironic; there are no winks to the audience; this is just fun filmmaking by a cast and crew who love what they do.
One thing I almost forgot to mention was the surprise guest-appearance by classic Western star Rory Calhoun (although he was more well-known during this period for starring as Farmer Vincent in Motel Hell) as Hell’s mentor Looney Tunes. He fulfills the classic requirement of sacrificing himself for the greater good of the others and inspiring everyone to do what they can to make the world a better place.
Which in this case, means getting down and dirty with Roddy Piper and making babies.
Lots of babies.
As far as availability on home video goes, this one’s a bit limited. There’s an out-of-print UK Blu-ray release that serves as the best release going, but good luck getting your hands on that. Instead we have to make due with a cheapie dual-DVD release or streaming video. But at least for that price you simply cannot be disappointed by the film.