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A review of "Hell Comes to Frogtown" (1988)

The short bit for people who don't like to read reviews:

If you're into cult movies, chances are good that you've already heard of Hell Comes to Frogtown. You don't really need my recommendation - the title should be enough to sell you.  If you're not the type that goes looking for dumb titles, but you're looking for some ironic fun?  I guess I could try some wacky!  little blurb like, "It's got Rowdy Roddy Piper in it!  'Nuff said!  L0LZ!"  For everyone else, I'll just say that this is a fun bit of fluff with the most confused gender politics I've seen in a movie since... well, ever, I guess.  That alone is worth the price of admission.

My Rating:  3.5 / 5

The longer bits for people who like film discussion:

The Bit Wherein I Introduce Things

It's 1988.  Roddy Piper is firmly established as a success in the world of professional wrestling.  A horror director approaches him with the opportunity to be the lead in a B-movie sci-fi flick / subversive satire on American culture.  Thinking it would be a good way to break into the world of film, Piper agrees and signs on for a fun, campy romp.  Then principal photography wraps and Piper goes on to film They Live a couple months later.

It's easy to make a comparison between They Live - undoubtedly Piper's best performance (and, in the minds of many people, seemingly his only performance) - and Hell Comes to Frogtown.  The fact that both were made in the same year invites the connection, but the similarities run far deeper.  In terms of tone, they both hit the same mark of "campy tongue-in-cheek dumb movie made by smart people."  In terms of cultural impact, they are both considered cult films.  In terms of special effects, they both make use of foam/rubber suits with liberal use of K-Y jelly.

Yet They Live has gone on to enjoy a much broader success as one of the most-watched and best-respected "obscure" movies out there - to this day it attracts an audience of young men who probably feel that they're discovering it amid the dreck of latter-day '80s action movies.  Meanwhile, Hell Comes to Frogtown seems to be more of a punchline.

I won't go so far as to say that the two movies are of equal quality; it's pretty obvious that They Live wins that fight.  And I don't mean to come across as though I'm bashing They Live - I love that movie to pieces.  It's just that Frogtown has so many elements that should give it more staying power.  But at only 2,300 ratings on IMDb, it clocks in under Ghoulies II, Vibes, Moving, and Tapeheads in terms of public awareness.  Seriously?  More people saw Vibes than Frogtown?  (Although when you're looking at movies of this type, you're kind of getting into a dick-measuring contest where you're bragging about 3.4" over 3.3", so let's not get too carried away.)

Hmm... while I'm on this tangent, stay tuned on Moving.

Anyway, this is a movie that lends itself to cult fandom, and if you're up for a night of ironic "OMG did you hear that?" moments with your friends, then Frogtown would make for a good drinking movie.  There's loads of nonsense and quirk waiting for you.  But what I find more intriguing is the subtext, which I'll get to a bit later.  First, the plot.

The Bit Wherein I Describe the Movie's Plot

The world is an apocalyptic wasteland.  Tiny settlements dot a deserted landscape as society tries to rebuild.  Unfortunately, they face a terrible challenge: a pathetic birthrate.  You see, the world has left the majority of men and women sterile.

Sam Hell (Roddy Piper) is one of the few men alive who is blessed (cursed?) with the power of Active Sperm.  As a fertile man, he is a great asset for Medtech, a militarized health service staffed primarily by women who seek to repopulate the planet.

When the movie opens, Hell is in prison following an accusation of rape by the daughter of Captain Devlin, a gruff southern sheriff type dude.  Devlin is planning on inflicting some devastating revenge when Medtech intervenes; according to their intel, Devlin's daughter has withdrawn her accusation once she realized she was pregnant.  In addition, Medtech wants to do further research on Hell.

Research soon turns into coercion and Hell is basically forced into "service" with Medtech.  Translation: he's going to impregnate as many fertile women as they can find for him in order to keep the population going.  In order to keep him docile and cooperative, they fit him with an electrified codpiece that is rigged to explode if he gets too far away from Medtech staff.

Hell is then given his first assignment as a member of their group.  He will accompany Spangle (Sandahl Bergman), a Medtech nurse/soldier, on a mission to "Frogtown" out in the desert.  Frogtown is populated by a bunch of mutant frog/human hybrids who trade in sex slavery; their boss, Toty, has recently kidnapped a group of young, fertile women and Medtech has vowed to rescue them.

Then, presumably, they will line the women up in a row so Hell can knock 'em all up one after the other.  That part happens off camera.

It's the perfect set up for a soft-core Cinemax "thriller," yet Frogtown doesn't actually have very much sex or nudity.  (Contrast this with an actual soft-core thriller like Malibu Express, where they find a way to shoehorn Cody's dick into pretty much everything, no matter how contrived, and you realize the subtle brilliance of restraint.)

There's plenty of quips and banter and jokey moments, so there's a lot of good fun all around despite the pervasive rapey aftertaste.  It's the kind of movie that you'll probably find yourself quoting for no good reason - especially the "Dance of the Three Snakes" scene, which I'm probably contractually obligated to mention at least once in this review.  Use your imagination to fill in the blanks as to what that scene's about.

Think about it.  Did you get it yet?  Dance of the "Three Snakes?"  Huh?

(They're penises.)

Overall it's a pretty fun movie, although I'm not actually sure if they meant for it to be a parody of Reagan-era sex politics or if that was just a happy accident.

The Bit Wherein I Discuss Political Relevance

Sometimes people can do really smart things unintentionally, and I'm not sure if that's the case with Frogtown.  But let me break it down so you can judge whether Donald Jackson, writer of such esteemed social tracts as Ghost Taxi and Lingerie Kickboxer, included the satire on purpose.

This is a world where women are thrilled by the idea of getting pregnant.  No, not just thrilled - consumed by an orgiastic frenzy of sensual delight and orgasmic passion.  The mere thought of getting pregnant turns women on in this movie to the point where they don't even think of anything else about Sam Hell - they just know that he can make a baby, so they want him in them.

I'm not exaggerating.  Every woman in the movie - including the frog-women of Frogtown - who knows of Hell hears only that "he's fertile" and decides that they've got to get into bed with him.  But you'll note that not once in the movie does anybody actually say that he's good at sex.

This is a universe where nobody in civilized society cares about sex for pleasure.  The righteous people of Medtech don't just go out and fuck - they procreate.  Potency is the ultimate aphrodisiac.  Competency is a total non-issue.  (Consider also that Piper plays Hell as something of a bumbling fool and you realize that there's even less evidence to suggest he's any good at sex outside of the simple act of depositing sperm.)

On the other hand, you have the uncivilized people of the world - the nomads, the heathens, the frog-beasts of Frogtown.  These are abhorrent, uncouth people who have sex even though they can't get pregnant.  Gasp!  The nerve!  How could they?

The movie has pretty clearly set up a case where Medtech represents the land of the far-right, conservative Christians of America: a tight-knit group of white people who believe only in procreative sex and aren't afraid to back it up through extreme military measures.  Meanwhile, Frogtown represents the mysterious "other" world - take your pick from "gay culture" to "Muslims" to whatever else you want.  Frogtown is "the enemy" group of weird people with crazy cultural morays such as having sex for fun.

But it's not enough for the people of Frogtown to be physically deformed mutants who are slimy and gross and icky - no, they have to be out-and-out human traffickers.  Because, you see, anybody who would have sex knowing they couldn't get pregnant might as well be raping you and selling you into slavery.

Frogtown's most clever - and most disturbing - scene comes about maybe 30 minutes in.  They poke fun at at these conservative values during what is, under no ambiguous circumstances, a rape scene.

Y'see, they come across a wandering single woman in the desert.  (Dismissively called "a fertile" - note that she's not "a nomad" or "a survivor," but simply "a womb capable of bearing life.")  Spangle hooks up a medical doohickey to the woman and gets a reading on her that says, "Yup, she's fertile."  Then they bind the woman's arms and feet so she can't run.

Spangle pumps the woman full of a sedative to make her more submissive and demands that Hell have sex with her.  Hell is reluctant - but not because he finds it morally repugnant; he is more disgusted by the fact that "she hasn't brushed her teeth."  Believing that he needs some inspiration in order to get to work, Spangle puts on a robotic striptease - "scientifically designed to elicit arousal" - but it fails to do much of anything.  Eventually, Hell decides to just take one for the team and rape this comatose woman.

The next morning, the woman is chipper and eager to be pregnant.  Spangle puts an ID badge on her bracelet and gives her directions to the Medtech headquarters, where "moms are treated like heroes."  The victim smiles and gives Hell a big hug, then wanders off toward motherhood.


Let's be clear here.  If this movie isn't satire - and again, I have to admit that there's a possibility the writer of Rollergator and Mimes: Silent But Deadly might not be the genius I'm hoping he is - then this would be one of the most awful things I've ever seen.  But everything about it is played for laughs, so I have to assume that the movie is telling us that conservative sexual politics are equivalent to saying that if you meet a liberated woman, you can only truly civilize her by giving her a rape-baby.

Giving Frogtown the benefit of the doubt, I have to say that this is one of the better satires I've seen in a long time.  Most movies paint their commentary with such broad strokes that you might as well not even be making a joke - you could just grab a megaphone and scream into it and you'd be more subtle.  And although I wouldn't say that Frogtown is "subtle," necessarily, it's at least a little more laid-back and confident than the desperate Didyagetit?ness of something like, say, South Park.

In that sense, this one is far wiser and more intelligent than you'd ever give it credit for at face value.  I think.

Unfortunately, that's probably the same thing that got it into trouble.

The Bit Wherein I Conclude Things

Let's face it: we're a country that doesn't like sex.

Sure, we like to pretend that we enjoy sex, and supposedly we like to see it in our movies.  (If Game of Thrones is any indication, we're incapable of understanding an intricate plot without a couple of naked tits every twenty minutes to keep us grounded.)  But when it comes to actual sex, we miss the mark most of the time.  We don't want to give people sexual freedom, we don't want to acknowledge our sexuality, and we don't want anybody to educate themselves on the topic, either.

So when a movie like Frogtown comes along and shows us a world where our completely up-fucked values system is taken to an extreme, the people who we should be rooting for come off as skeevy and off-putting.  I have to assume that this is really the reason the movie was doomed to cult status all along: too many people who saw it didn't know whether they were supposed to laugh or be horrified.

I feel it's entirely possible to do both.  This is not a movie that makes light of rape, but rather a movie that makes light of the rapists.  It's like a movie about a serial killer who just wants to make friends, but he always ends up with severed head at the end of the day.  He's just so sad that he can't make this friendship thing work; the most obvious lesson - "don't kill your friends" - is the one he can't seem to learn.

Am I good at metaphors yet, guys?  I can't even tell anymore.