Tuesday, February 28, 2006



1971, filmed in glorious color and directed by Don Sharp

Starring Mary Larkin, Nicky Henson, George Sanders and Beryl Reid

Where to begin? There are so many wonderful things about this movie that it’s hard to decide.

What a statement this picture makes about the youth movement of the Sixties! I have never seen a better film on the subject. This is a moving story about daring young people pitted against a decaying modern society, about the triumphant power of the human will, and the faith and love that can survive – yes! -- Death itself. The kids in this picture, like so many in the Love Decade, are just looking for meaning in a world that seems to offer none. The heroine, a pretty young thing named Abby, is in love with Tom, the fearless and terribly handsome leader of their group. He asks her repeatedly to really commit to him…But Abby just can’t take the plunge. Without ever really turning his back on her, Tom leads the others in their group to a new level of freedom and awareness that they never dreamed existed. Abby, distracted from the purity of her love by outsiders who just don’t understand, still hesitates. WHAT WILL SHE DECIDE?

OK, I’m lying. In fact, this movie is about a bunch of disaffected kids on motorcycles whose only apparent pleasure is to ride through shopping centers, knocking packages out of people’s hands, and running other drivers off the road. They call themselves the Living Dead and wear the grooviest crash helmets ever, fixed to look like skulls. Abby is indeed a sweet shy thing, who helps her mother with the shopping and floats around in ultra-feminine mini-dresses when she’s not, for instance, chasing a screaming mother with a baby carriage through the aisles of a grocery store on her bike. Her boyfriend Tom, the gang leader, is an arrogant playboy type with the worldly assurance that comes from having a rich mother who will bail him out no matter what he does. We never find out much more about the other gang members – Jane, Hinky, Gash, Hatchet, and Chopped Meat – but we do know that they would cheerfully follow Tom into Hell. The core conflict of the story is that Tom really does want them to follow him into Hell. And only Abby really can’t decide what to do about the request.

OK, I’m still lying. This movie is about FROGS and their power to infiltrate, screw with human affairs, and hop away unnoticed. By the middle of the film we have been successfully bamboozled into forgetting ALL ABOUT the frogs. But the original title of this movie was, in fact, The Frog, and I think you need to bear that firmly in mind at all times.

We get a few tantalizing glimpses of Tom’s home life - - it’s just him, his Frog-worshipping mother, and their butler, Shadwell. Shadwell is QUITE an interesting character. He appears to be there only to serve the sherry and answer the door, but it transpires that he may actually be the prime mover in the story. Shadwell appears to be, not the Lord Of The Flies, but The Lord Of The Frogs. So why is such a powerful figure of amphibian consciousness butlering for a rich old lady and her son? He hints, in a sad comment about how rare the Frogs are getting these days, that the amphibian branch of the English Fish Conspiracy might have fallen on hard times. These might be the last two followers he has. But we never really get a better answer than that. We do learn that both Shadwell and the lady of the house see Tom as the great hope of the family, the one who can properly will himself to come back from the grave instead of wimping out like his old man did. Not many young people have such supportive families, especially these days.

So one day, during a truly hair-raising melee of terrorizing women in hot pants, the gang takes to the open highway to shake off police pursuit – and Tom launches his bike off a bridge into a river. He returns from the dead quickly and spectacularly, kills a few people just to try it out, and convinces the rest of the gang to kill themselves so they can join him and be as invulnerable as he is. Strangely, Abby hesitates. After her suicide attempt fails, she decides to break up with Tom because it just isn’t working out. So much for Love triumphing over Death.

I need to point out right about here that Shadwell showed up at Tom’s funeral and slung a Frog medallion into the open grave. There was no more ceremony to it than that, unless you count the mediocre folksong rendered by one of the gang before they covered him up. I was intrigued that by far the nastiest-looking gang member, Hatchet, handmade a flowered cross for Tom and slung that in, too. Lot of good it did. But I stray from my point: the Frog needs only to be present in symbolic form to work its special magic.

The tragic breakup aside, there turns out to be another catch. Tom’s mother is appalled that nobody except Tom was killed and buried with the Frog Seal Of Approval, and this decides her to stop the killing once and for all by breaking some sort of bargain she made with the Frog Forces, which will wreck her life and end Tom’s.

The film poses a seemingly endless list of tricky questions. I wanted to share some of them with you, but be warned that this is far from exhaustive. You can ponder the riddles in this movie your whole life and never be truly satisfied:

What is supposed to be so evil about the resurrected Living Dead gang members? They do nothing worse than Tom himself does, and yet Tom is supposed to be OK and the others are supposed to be evil. What’s the difference? THE FROGS, MAN, THE FROGS ARE THE DIFFERENCE! The rest of them were probably raised Church of England.

OK, even if you accept the idea that a biker can come back from the dead and be invulnerable – how is it that his bike is afforded the same postmortem bonus plan? There’s a scene where Tom kills a filling-station attendant to avoid paying for two gallons of gas, suggesting to us that the bike, immortal or not, still needs fuel to run. But Tom can also drive the bike through a brick wall without scratching the paint. And by the way, a visibly-undamaged-but-dead Tom was buried on his visibly-undamaged bike after the crash. Have you ever seen the remains of a motorcycle after it plummets thirty feet into a shallow river? OK, neither have I, but I would expect it to be a twisted heap of metal. Maybe the bike was ALWAYS immortal. Maybe I’m being persnickety. But it seems to me that the river was probably full of FROGS, and that explains a great deal. Tom – and his bike – come out of the water as damaged or as undamaged as the FROGS decide.

I can readily believe that there’s a nest of Frog-worshippers in the British upper classes, but -- hiring the Devil as their butler? Who has that kind of money? Is there no other way for the Ultimate Amphibian to keep tabs on things around Latham Manor, where Tom and his mother live? And wouldn’t cooking dinner and answering the phone distract Shadwell from more pressing duties, like encouraging the House of Lords to undermine the powers of Goodness?

Of course there’s another explanation. Maybe the Church of England is the ruling evil and the Frogs are infiltrating to bring more Good into the world. That certainly agrees with my own personal worldview, because as they say in the old soda-pop jingle, things go better with Frogs. Amphibians certainly seem benevolent in this picture. Look at the fact that Tom’s mother works for free as a medium, speaking to grieving families in the voices of the dead and reassuring them that the Afterlife (presumably Amphibian in nature) is happy and welcoming. What version of Frogless Christian theology offers that kind of comfort to suffering people? But they recoil in horror when one of the grieving families offers them the gift of a cross. What does that tell you? Yep -- Christianity is Evil and Frogs are Good.

But that begs another question. What does Frog worship have to do with the resurrection of the dead? LOOK INTO YOUR RECRUITMENT MANUALS. PAGE 1979.
Does anyone but me wonder why Shadwell, the Lord of the Frogs, is named after a Fish? This is just the kind of detail a landscum viewer would clean miss. Sometimes it doesn't hurt to be totally obvious.

Does Shadwell really give a crap about anything that goes on in the human world? He doesn’t try to talk Tom out of killing himself, he doesn’t turn a hair when the kid dies, and then he doesn’t even blanch when Tom’s mother says she is going to break the contract she signed with him and undo all the bad magic. The only time you see this guy react, just about, is when Tom brings home the Frog from the graveyard. At that point, Shadwell’s whole face lights up. Doesn’t that say "operative" to you?

I cannot understand why Tom’s mother signs a contract with the Lord Of The Frogs, apparently dedicating her infant son to the Powers of Dampness for life, without even reading the damn thing. I was astounded when she signed it, THEN picked it up and read it as Shadwell, the new owner of her only child, went to soothe the screaming little mite. What was that about? Then she gets upset and voids the contract when the kid actually starts acting up. Honestly, some people. But if you ignore the landscum propaganda in the movie and think of Frogs as GOOD rather than EVIL, it makes more sense. She isn’t getting what she paid for if Tom is a grinning mass murderer. Of course she might try grounding the little sneering shit first. That's just my opinion.

By the way, is Tom really any more evil after dying than he was before? I can’t quite see the difference, myself.

What is Abby’s problem? Geez, her boyfriend comes back from the dead looking just as good as ever, offering her the gift of a consequence-free homicide spree, and she turns it down!

Is it some sort of conspiracy of silence that prevents the other gang members from telling Chopped Meat that his biker name is incredibly lame? And whose bright idea was it to add the illustration of the hamburger patty to the name tag on his leather jacket? Let me deepen the mystery by informing you that in this movie, CHICKS DIG HIM.

Let’s talk about Gash’s suicide. He staggers down a long, empty sidewalk wrapped in chains and flings himself into the river. The sidewalk stretches back to the horizon. We see no bike, no car, no heap of clothing anywhere near to help us picture where and when he weighted himself down. Just how far did he hop along that sidewalk in that condition without being stopped? Does this guy have the power of invisibility or something? If he did, that would explain how he walked out of the morgue without his swimming trunks, without getting arrested, in the next scene.

Is there anything more sublime than the sight of a frog in an evening dress? I think not, my friend. Feel free to disagree, but I think not.

One last, never-to-be-answered question. As Abby is sobbing brokenly at the end of the movie, staring at The Horror That Tom Became, Shadwell drives up in the family limo, approaching our badly frazzled heroine. The credits begin to roll before we can find out what he wants. The possibilities multiply out of control when I think about it. Is he there to drape a Frog medallion over Tom’s remains? Recruit Abby to the Frog Worship Auxiliary League? Ask her for a job?

This film is not to be missed, ladies. You can never stop learning from it, no matter how many times you watch it.

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11:36 PM  

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