The Maze (1953)

With most Twilight Zone-style, drive-in era horror films that save their major creative thrust for a big twist ending, it would be criminal to spoil the surprise for those not already in the know. In the case of The Maze, however, the last minute plot twist is the only reason to seek out the film in the first place, so it must be spoiled to be recommended. Read no further if you wish to avoid spoilers for a half-a-century old slice of schlock you’ll only ever run across in an especially bored 3 a.m. bout of channel surfing or YouTube scouring. In the 1950s, revealing the big secret at the end of The Maze would have been a major injustice; in 2017, it’s the only reason left for anyone to want to dig up this relic.

Two young, happy fiancées are derailed form their path to happiness when the groom’s Scottish royalty uncle dies of a mysterious illness, willing his nephew a castle. Leaving his fiancée’s side to tend to his uncle’s will, the groom cruelly cuts off all communication without warning, putting the question of their marriage in jeopardy. His fiancée arrives at the castle against his wishes in an attempt to talk sense into him & reestablish their romantic connection. She then discovers that he’s aged horribly, supernaturally, in the meantime, as some aspect of his new castle home is tormenting his soul. The mystery of what’s bringing him so much pain is obviously tied to the garden maze on the castle grounds, where no one is allowed to tread. It turns out that the hopeful groom is not the owner of the castle at all, but just a servant to the hideous beast that’s really running the show from inside the maze, a monster so terrifying it would drive any audience mad with fear.

Just kidding. The monster in the maze is just a humanoid frog. The final ten minutes of The Maze is a blissfully inane descent into mundane terror. The main “victim” of the film finally breaks into the maze and stumbles upon the real master of the castle has he hops his way to his regular nightswim in the castle pond. The frog monster isn’t even a killer, just a sadly deformed, centuries-old member of Scottish royalty. As is later explained, hilariously, “The human embryo goes through all stages of evolution, from invertebrate to mammal; he never developed past the amphibian phase.” Embarrassed when discovered by an outsider, the frightened froggy master hops his way up the castle steps & leaps to his own death, tempting everyone in the audience to think “’Tis beauty killed the frog.” Part of me really wants to feel bad for the poor guy, especially considering that the story is loosely based on legends of the real life Craven Castle. The other, louder part of me can’t get over the hilarity of watching a human actor menacingly hop around in an (impeccably made) frog costume.

The Maze is a lot like the original version of The Fly, except five years earlier and a thousand times sillier. The way the film chooses to lead up to its last minute reveal with a slow-moving, atmospheric dread puts a lot of pressure on its mysterious monster to deliver, especially since it (lily) pads out its 80 minute runtime with  direct-to-the-camera exposition & wedding celebration musical performances. By the time it actually answers audience impatience to “Get to the damn maze already!,” the monster it chooses to depict can only play like a punchline. I love its frog monster’s rubber costume and its dumb little roars that alternate between elephant & lion noises, but I can’t imagine anyone, then or now, receiving it as anything but a joke. Whether or not you believe those ten minutes of comedic bliss are worth the 70 minutes of empty horror “atmosphere” that precede it are up to you. Just know that I only provided details of the payoff as incentive for you to get there.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #40 of The Swampflix Podcast: Killer Frogs & Night of the Lepus (1972)

Welcome to Episode #40 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our fortieth episode, we kick off the Halloween season with five eco-horror films about killer animals. Brandon and Britnee dig up every movie they can find about killer frogs with special guest Hunter King, pet frog photographer/enthusiast & host of the surf rock radio show Storm Surge of Reverb on WTUL. Also, Brandon makes Britnee watch the killer rabbit horror Night of the Lepus (1972) for the first time. Enjoy!

-Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas

Hell Comes to Frogtown (1988)

As hardwired as my brain is to only focus on pro wrestling whenever given the opportunity, the name “Rowdy” Roddy Piper doesn’t automatically take me to the ring. Piper’s kilt-wearing, Goldust-kissing, race-stereotyping gimmickry as a wrestling heel is beyond infamy, but it’s his leading role in the John Carpenter sci-fi horror They Live! that defines his career for me. From the meaningless street brawl over a pair of sunglasses to the classic line “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass . . . and I’m all out of bubblegum,” Piper’s foray into Kurt Russell-esque genre film machismo was perfectly suited for his skills as a world class shit talker & in-ring performer. What I didn’t know until recently is that Piper actually headlined two outlandish sci-fi pictures in 1988. They Live! has rightfully earned its place as the one deserving cultural longevity, even seeing a recent resurgence in meme form after last year’s disastrous presidential election. Somehow, though, that film’s paranoia about space aliens brainwashing the American masses was the most grounded & plausible of Piper’s 1988 sci-fi pics. The other title was the real weirdo shit.

In the absurdly-titled Hell Comes to Frogtown, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper stars as the titular antihero Sam Hell, a gruff loudmouth who roams a post-nuclear fallout sci-fi dystopia as the most virile man on Earth. Although he prides himself as the ultimate alpha male, Hell has to learn how to navigate what is now a decidedly matriarchal society. World War III has drastically diminished the male population of the planet and left only a few survivors with a viable sperm count, putting the human race’s longterm survival at risk. And thus, even in the rare 80s genre film where the world is run by women, the citizens of Earth still need a man to save them. Hell is essentially enslaved as a sperm donor by the government agency Med Tech and given militaristic marching orders to impregnate as many as women possible in attempt to save the human race. The only thing standing in his way of fulfilling his literal stud duties is the other lingering side effect of the nuclear fallout disaster: humanoid frogs. Described in-film as “mutant greeners,” the villains of this dystopian wasteland are frog-like scavengers who are holed up in the titular Frogtown and lead by Commander Toadie, presumably in power because he has three dicks (one of the advantages of mutation, I guess). To simplify the plot & budget, Hell Comes to Frogtown boils down this worldwide crisis into a simplistic heist scenario. Lead Commander Toadie is holding fertile women hostage at his palace/harem for ransom (and pleasure). Med Tech commands Sam Hell to free these prisoners so that he can spread his seed, explaining “We’re gonna get them out and you’re gonna get them pregnant.” All in all, it’s a fairly solid contender for silliest Road Warrior knockoff ever.

It should go without saying that there’s a deeply strange sexual energy running throughout Hell Comes to Frogtown. I’m not convinced film didn’t start as an ill-advised exercised in erotic fiction that just got way out of hand and snowballed into a screenplay. The pervasiveness of this strange sexuality extends far beyond just the weirdo details of the plot and obviously charged imagery like rhythmic rifle-polishing and the hose of a gas can being carefully inserted into a tank.  In this dystopian hell hole, condoms are effectively outlawed. The Bible verse, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the Earth, and conquer it” is treated like a national slogan. A slow pan up a stripper’s body reveals a frog’s face, the first of the mutant greeners we actually see instead of just listening to their ribbits. Then there’s the BDSM undertone of Sam Hell’s relationship with his matriarchal captors. Outfitted with a high-tech, government-issued chastity belt, Hell is kept on a very short leash. His dick is now considered government equipment and any attempts to run away with it are punished by directly-applied electric shock. His captors tease him to keep him sexually excited, though, using military-sanctioned “seduction techniques” to keep him in the mood. This intense pressure to perform (and for an audience, no less) sometimes leads Hell to embarrassing moments of erection-killing anxiety. He barks at the female scientists in control of his sexual impulses, “Maybe you oughta try making love to a complete stranger in the middle of a hostile mutant territory and see how you like it!” It also seems a little odd that every woman in the world would be begging, desperate to sleep with and be impregnated by Hell at first sight, but at least that choice keeps the mood light; I wouldn’t want to watch a version of this picture where a matriarchal government was forcing Hell to impregnate women against their will.

Of course, the bizarre nature of this film’s sexuality is at least somewhat matched by its humanoid amphibian threat. The frogs that attempt to stop Sam Hell from saving the world through his progeny are weird looking boogers, resembling a cross between the classy masquerade scene from The Abominable Dr. Phibes and the Goombas from the Super Mario Bros. movie. They have the expressionless and flapping jaws of a cheap Planet of the Apes sequel, but a kind of incredible throat-swelling effect with every ribbit that distracts from their mobile limitations. Even when the villainous frogs’ general look isn’t exactly impressive, though, there’s always an underlying absurdity to their general presence, especially when they’re doing ridiculous things like wielding a chainsaw or insulting Hell by calling him “flat lips.” Combine that visual absurdity with the film’s weirdo sexuality and the campy cult classic potential just oozes from the screen like so much nuclear waste.

I can’t say that Hell Comes to Frogtown is entirely successful in living up to its full cult classic potential. As far as “Rowdy” Roddy Piper vehicles go, it’s certainly no They Live! and it’s difficult not to compare that film’s heights like the bubblegum one-liner to this one’s much lesser, “Eat lead, froggies.” Overall, Hell Comes to Frogtown’s comedic antics gleefully command a ten year old’s sense of humor, the same maturity range that seemingly dictates its Indiana Jones-style swashbuckling & slack-jawed fascination with naked breasts. Still, it’s overloaded with enough strange energy & discomforting sexual undertone to distinguish itself as a midnight movie novelty. Every scene in the movie looks like it was lit by car headlights. Piper brings distinct pro wrestling flavor to scenes where glass bottles are smashed over his head or where his loin cloth resembles a tattered version of his signature ring gear kilt. Camo bikinis with doily-style lace trim and phone chords tethering Piper’s crotch to mysterious electronic devices sear the brain with their kinky idiocy. This is an exceedingly inane movie that dares you to ask “What in the Sam Hell?” on a scene to scene basis, but somehow abstains from vocalizing that particular line itself against all odds. Hell Comes to Frogtown may not be the outlandish 1988 sci-fi picture that defined Piper’s career as a screen presence, but it has enough bizarre energy – sexual, amphibian, and otherwise – to stand on its own as a memorable, ramshackle novelty.

-Brandon Ledet