Hell Comes to Frogtown (1988) Retrospective

SUMMARY
This film is set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland where few fertile men and women exist due to atomic fallout. As a result, the government places a high priority on those that can still breed. Shortly before the movie opens, a group of mutant amphibians (who have been exiled to the desert by humans) capture a group of fertile women and are using them as sex slaves.

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Sam Hell (Piper) is a nomadic traveler who wanders the countryside. He is eventually captured by an organization of warrior-nurses, the closest thing to a government in his region of the world, who reveal that they located him by tracking the trail of pregnant women left in his wake. Their original plan was to use him as breeding stock with their collection of fertile women, but this was the group captured by the mutants. With their own attempts to capture the women failing, the group presses Hell into service as a mercenary; he is to infiltrate the mutant city (derogatorily referred to as “Frogtown”) and rescue the women. To make sure that the rebellious Hell follows his orders, he is forced to wear an electronic protective codpiece that will explode if he disobeys or tries to abort his mission. Having already taken numerous samples of reproductive material from him, he is now deemed far more expendable than the women themselves. To aid him in his mission (and make sure he follows the plan), he is paired with one of the nurses, Spangle (Bergman), and an aggressive guard named Centinella (Verrell).

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During their journey to Frogtown, Hell tries numerous times to escape but quickly learns that a device Spangle carries will shock his genitals if used or if he gets too far away from it. Despite their rocky start and Spangle’s initial cold demeanor, the pair grow closer during the journey and eventually fall in love. When they reach Frogtown, everyone involved is captured. The frogs’ second-in-command, Bull (Nicholas Worth), tortures Hell and attempts to remove the codpiece for its technology. Meanwhile, a slightly drugged Spangle is forced to work as a slave and dance for the frogs’ Commander Toty (Brian Frank) in the notable “Dance of the Three Snakes” sequence. Proving more successful than she had wished, the nurse soon finds herself at the mercy of the aroused commander. However, with the codpiece now removed (Bull finally removed it with a chainsaw, but it blew up and killed him), the escaped Hell rescues her along with the group of fertile women (Ellen Crocker, Kim Hewson, Ilana Ishaki, Annie McKinon and Janie Thorson) held captive.

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DEVELOPMENT/PRODUCTION
Donald G. Jackson had directed a $70,000 16mm direct-to-video feature for New World’s video division: ROLLERBLADE, a tale of “futuristic rebel nuns on skates with knives, “according to Jackson. On the strength of that project’s overseas sales, New World asked him to pitch ideas for another low-budget, direct-to-video feature. Jackson pitched HELL COMES TO FROGTOWN, a tongue in-cheek post-apocalypse action-adventure story, which he described as “ROAD WARRIOR meets PLANET OF THE APES, except they’re frogs.”

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New World loved the script by Randall Frakes, who was supposed to co-produce the film with Jackson, and agreed to finance the project, which was to be shot 16mm, non-union, for $150,000. It was then that the project began to balloon. New World wanted a name in the cast and suggested Sybil Danning for a role intended for Suzanne Solari, who had appeared in ROLLERBLADE. As a bone, Solari was given the small part of a nomad girl in the film. Jackson did not think Danning was right for the part, so New World offered it to Sandahl Bergman, who was finishing up a two-picture contract with them. Unfortunately, the casting of Bergman meant that the whole film had to be cast SAG, which immediately raised the budget to $500,000. New World’s video division could not afford that price tag, so the film was moved over to the feature division where executives questioned whether the script’s extensive action and stunt requirements could be achieved for half a million dollars. They rebudgeted the film somewhere between $750,000 to $1,000,000.

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“Then I got the phone call,” said Jackson. “They basically said, ‘We’re not going to trust you with a million dollars, but here’s what we’d like to do, because we like the project: we’ll give you a million, but we want you and R. J. Kizer to co-direct.” Kizer was the editor New World brought in to direct scenes of Raymond Burr for GODZILLA: 1985. Jackson was not pleased to lose control, but ultimately he decided it was a better career move to go for a bigger-budget theatrical release than another low budget video. New World brought on line producer Bill Edwards, who did not think the script could be shot for $1,000,000. He and executive in charge of production Neal Nordlinger raised the budget to $1.5 million. While at Alan Lansburg Productions, Nordinger had co-produced JAWS 3-D.

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Said Jackson, “We had five accountants, two directors, three producers, one executive in charge of production and two executives in charge of the executive in charge of production-so everybody had his finger in the pie, getting their friends jobs instead of spending money on the film. They wouldn’t hire the lighting guy I wanted, so I had to pay additional money out of my pocket to get the right guy.”

The first and only time I ever saw the movie with an audience—prior to a couple of months ago—was on the old MGM lot in Culver City. The Cary Grant screening room. The audience was made up of the crew and some of the cast, and the movie dropped like a 10-ton stone into mud. I hated the movie. Hated it. Looking at it was like staring at a wrecked career. My friend William Wisher—who I mentioned earlier, and who was amazed my dopey script even got made—came up to me afterward and said, “I’m sorry they screwed up your movie, Randy.” That was the nail in the coffin. But I must also say that a few months ago, when the Cinefamily Theater here in L.A. did a one-night Rowdy Roddy Piper memorial screening of They Live and Hell Comes to Frogtown, the audience seemed to get all the jokes as intended. They were extremely appreciative and enthusiastic in their response. So, despite all the ruinous stuff that happened to compromise Frogtown, it evidently still hits the mark well enough for some people who like weird and funny stuff to enjoy. For that, I am grateful. And producing that movie was a huge learning experience, an on-the-job training that has helped me navigate this silly business and the people who presume to run it. – Randall Frakes (Producer/Writer)

The film went into production with former wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper in the lead role of Sam Hellmond and frog masks by 21 year-old Steve Wang. Unfortunately, despite the rising budget, Wang’s budget was never increased, limiting what he could accomplish, so most of the mutant frog people are rather inexpressive. However, the radio-controlled mask for Commander Toty, the chief villain, features an impressive range of expressions, including bulging eyes, flaring nostrils, and flickering eyelids.

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The production soon ran into trouble. Despite early agreements on a cinematic style inspired by samurai films and Italian westerns, Kizer and Jackson were just too different in their approach. “I knew it wouldn’t work I’m sure he didn’t like being in that position any more than I,” said Jackson. “R. J. in my opinion never liked the project. He wanted the money and the directing credit.”

Another major source of friction arose regarding the film’s photographic look. Jackson, who according to his usual practice was photographing as well as directing the film, clashed with the movie’s art director. “The executive in charge of production had a friend of a friend who had never been an art director – he was an architectural draftsman. I never liked the way he dressed the sets, and I kept changing them around to make them look good for the camera which really upset him and the executive in charge. All my sets looked better after being redressed. He was building them like for a stage play, not for a movie. He didn’t age it-everything was too new. I kept taking cans of flat black paint and aging everything down.

“After doing this for ten days, the final blow-up was in the bar scene. They had blow-up sex dolls, I found that really offensive. They had naked mannequins, I found that offensive. They had this big poster of Reagan as Max Headroom, which the guy had swiped from a Doonesbury cartoon. So I wanted that all torn down. I got in a violent argument with the art director, who said he was gonna quit. I wish he had. He didn’t.

“The next day, when I came to work, they said, “There’s a new cinematographer, and he’s not gonna fuck with the art director.’ And I was told to watch they didn’t want me to talk to R. J. on the set, only in the trailer, so he was happy.

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“So I watched. I got tired of watching after six hours, so I grabbed a camera, went outside, and put together my own 2nd unit crew and started shooting a lot of insert shots. We shot two cameras on the pyrotechnics and fights and shot a lot of closeups of fingers pulling triggers and so on.”

By this time, Jackson’s co-producer Randall Frakes had already been fired for insisting the film be shot as written. Said Jackson, “The script was cut so drastically by Neal Nordinger and R. J. Kizer it no longer resembled the action script we wrote. New World said we couldn’t afford it, but I’d just shot a whole movie for hardly any money so I know it can be done.

“When I was shooting I was going as fast as anybody could go and everybody was complaining it wasn’t fast enough. As soon as they put on another d.p., the pace slowed down to one-half. The original schedule was twenty days. They shot twenty-two days principal, plus five more days of pickups because they didn’t cover the action properly-it wouldn’t cut together.”

The final product pleased neither Jackson nor New World, who, ironically enough, now plan to release it directly to video rather than theatrically.

Donald G. Jackson Interview
donald-g-jackson-8654a26c-9cec-40fd-8880-fbb3db4167c-resize-750Tell us about the genesis of Hell Comes to Frogtown ? Where did you find the inspiration for frog mutants ? What kind of deal New World proposed to you ? And how do you feel about that afterward ?
Donald G. Jackson: There is a section of Los Angeles known as Frogtown. The story goes, that back in the 1940s this area was overwhelmed by a large invasion of Frogs — which is why it got its name. I had a friend Sam Mann, who was one of the actors in Roller Blade and lived in this area. We were driving along one day and he came up with the title, Hell Comes to Frogtown. From there, I ran with the idea and that is how the movie developed.

New World had made so much money on Roller Blade they offered to finance Hell Comes to Frogtown. My original plan was to shoot the movie with Sam Mann and Suzanne Solari (both from Roller Blade) as the leads. I was going to shoot it on 16 mm, with my Bolex — as I had done with Roller Blade. But then, New World decided they wanted to “Up” the budget. The problem is, the minute you let the devil in the door, the devil is going to take control over you. And, that is what happened with New World and Hell Comes to Frogtown. They decided that they wanted to cast name talent and take over the production of the film. So, the movie evolved from being a 16 mm art film, to a relatively high budget 35 mm cult movie. Sadly, my friend Sam didn’t get to play Sam Hell and Suzanne was only given a small part in the film.

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Were Roddy Piper and Sandahl Bergman your firsts choices for the roles of Spangle and Sam Hell ? What were they like on the set ?
Donald G. Jackson: No, as stated, my original plan was to shoot the movie with Sam Mann and Suzanne Solari as the leads. But, New World wanted to use Roddy Piper as he was a very famous wrestler at the time — and this was going to be his first movie.

As a fan of wrestling, I was happy to have him. But, as you can understand, what occurred was not fair to my friend Sam. I think I may have made the wrong choice by not standing by my friend Sam, who actually came up with the title and the idea for the movie. But, I spoke with him and he seemed Okay with what was happening. Though Hell Comes to Frogtown is, no doubt, my most famous feature, by my accepting New World’s offer, I believe it did set a lot of bad karma in motion.

Regarding Sandahl Bergman: She had just finished Conan: The Barbarian, and they wanted to use her for her name power, as well. I had very little to do with any of the casting of the film. Again, this is the problem when a large production company becomes involved in a project — the actual filmmaker is allowed very little creative control. Which is why I have never again worked with a large production company. But, Piper and Bergan were both very nice people to work with.

Anything to say on Cec Verrell (Centinella)?
Donald G. Jackson: No, just somebody cast by New World. Also, very nice

The “Dance of the Three snakes” scene didn’t really stand its promises ? Did Sandahl Bergman have something to do with that ?
Donald G. Jackson: In the script, Bergman’s character was to be naked in this scene. On the set, she would have nothing to do with nudity, however. So, it was one of those power struggle things happening between the actor and the director. Due to New World’s influence and decision, the actor won.

William Smith is one of my favorite actors. How did you get in touch with him ? He would have made a perfect Sam Hell too, don’t you think ? Are you still in touch with him ?
Donald G. Jackson: Yes, Bill is a great actor and a great friend. He has been around the film industry forever. And, I have known him for a lot of years. I put him in my films whenever I can.

Nicolas Worth is also brilliant, even under his heavy make-up. A very talented actor. Did you notice him from his creepy performance in Don’t Answer the Phone (1980) ?
Donald G. Jackson: No, he was cast by New World.

The makeup of the Frogmen are excellent, could you tell us about that ?
Donald G. Jackson: Steve Wang who went on to direct films like Kung Fu Rascals, The Guyver, and Drive was the main force behind the frog masks and make-up. He is a great guy and has gone on to do a lot of special effects work for a number of very big feature films.

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There’s always comedy coupled with eroticism and sexual content in your movies that remind me of the films of Russ Meyer. Do his films form part of your influence ?
Donald G. Jackson: Some of Russ’s stuff is great. Particularly when you think that he made them without the help of any of the big studios. But, he has never been an influence to me. It was more the avant-garde films from the 1960s like Dr. Chicago and Chinese Fire Drill that really inspired me as a filmmaker.

I think you’re also a car lover and “Hell Comes to Frogtown” showcases two amazing cars, were they part of your own collection ?
Donald G. Jackson: Yes, I am a big fan of classic cars. I love the cars made in Detroit from the 1950s and early 1960s. One of the cars in Frogtown is a 1962 Plymouth Belvedere. I found and purchased two at the same time. One, we customized for the film and the other one I customized to my own specification and have driven ever since.

R.J. Kizer, the guy guilty to have shot the useless and ugly new scenes of the American version of The Return of Godzilla is often credited as the co-director of Hell Comes to Frogtown. Why ? Was it imposed to you by New World ? Why ? What was your relations with him on the set ? Of which part is it exactly responsible in the final cut of the movie ?
Donald G. Jackson: Like a lot of people in the film industry, I sometimes say things, trying to soften the reality of what actually occurred in a particular situation and trying to make it more understandable for those who have never made a film. But, now is the time for me to spell out the truth.

Hell Comes to Frogtown was my baby. Though I have been the one to get the most press from the film, regarding Kizer, again, New World took over the project and said that was part of the deal — Kizer was going to be the co-director of the movie. Even though I was the creator, my complete creative control was taken away. New World became angry at my desire to maintain control over the project and I was eventually removed as the director and banned from the sets. There was never any collaboration.

Regarding the final cut of the film, New World handled it. Though I watched some of the editing — they didn’t like my flaring temper, when I didn’t like something I didn’t like. Again, this is why I have never worked with another big production company. Because it just takes all of the creativity away from the filmmaker.

CAST/CREW
Directed
Donald G. Jackson
J. Kizer

Produced
Donald G. Jackson
Randall Frakes

Written
Donald G. Jackson and
Randall Frakes (story and screenplay)

Roddy Piper as Sam Hell
Sandahl Bergman as Spangle
Cec Verrell as Centinella
William Smith as Captain Devlin/Count Sodom
Rory Calhoun as Looney Tunes
Nicholas Worth as Bull
Brian Frank as Commander Toty
Julius LeFlore as Squidlips
Eyde Byrde as Patton
Lee Garlington as Briefing Officer

Special Effects by
Grant Arndt  … creature effects
Wayne Beauchamp  … pyrotechnician
Makio Kida   … creature effects
Crit Killen  … creature effects
David Kindlon    … creature animatronics (as Dave Kindlon)
Steve Patino … creature effects
Matt Rose    … creature effects
Johnnie Saiko    … creature effects
Steve Wang   … creature effects
Ed Yang  … creature effects

CREDITS/REFERENCES/SOURCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY
Scottshaw.com
slashfilm.com
Cinefantastique v18n05
Imagi-Movies v01n04

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