Hell Comes to Frogtown

4 out of 5

Directed by: Donald G. Jackson, R.J. Kizer

I’d like to think that Hell Comes to Frogtown formalized over a particularly giddy, drunken conversation: kicking around character names and settling on the fittingly badass Sam Hell; pitching taglines and catchphrases until you settle on dropping Sam Hell into a Mad Max-esque post-collapse wasteland; figuring Sam Hell would of course be best battling mutants; and then finally arriving at those mutants being frog-humanoids, and thus: Hell Comes to Frogtown.

This imagined feverish swirl surely can’t / couldn’t result in anything but a few laughs, but then I remember that a series of one-upping jokes led to the franchise that has maintained my interest for multiple decades – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – so whatever the (hopefully silly) origin story is for Donald G. Jackson’s film, it’s not impossible that it resulted in a surprisingly quality, entertaining movie.

..Which starts out in that Mad Max territory, with two wasteland occupants squabbling and shooting at one another in particularly campy fashion, prepping us for what has to be a B-movie, cash-in variant on the formula. But when we transition to the next set of scenes, which has the captured rogue Sam Hell (Roddy Piper) being interrogated by government agency ‘Medikit,’ and the backing premise is laid out – that a series of nuclear escalations has mutated part of the populace, and left the remaining population dwindling, as most are now sterile – there’s some world-building depth in the setup and intelligence behind the delivery that suggests we might be getting an undercover bit of comedy commentary stuffed in here. And the tone shifts a little to match, with Piper’s charmingly tough but sincere delivery and the stiff upper lip of his interrogators (including Sandahl Bergman as Dr. Spangle) is now more 80s adventure goofiness than camp. Then outfitted with a Spangle-controlled chastity belt – there’s a flap on it – and told that the contract he’s just signed has him agreeing to accompany the good doctor and her bodyguard, Centinella (Cec Verrell) into mutant territory in order to rescue some kidnapped, fertile women – Sam Hell’s one of the few potent males left, ya see, so it’s his duty to get down to impregnatin’ business – we flip over to cheeseball sex comedy, ditchin’ clothes and making wowza eyes at the camera.

But all of this is just, like, preamble. Director Jackson and R.J. Kizer and the cast all commit to these bits, but there’s self-awareness to them that prevents them from feeling cheap, or sleazy; while some characters are making “women rule everything nowadays” jabs, there’s moreso a sense that Frogtown is taking the piss out of masculinity and typical action star heroics, very obviously on the surface at times, but then also underlined by how the film proceeds. I don’t mean to suggest that it’s especially layered, but it’s fun, and more clever than it needed to be at most points, while also – such as these flashes of erotica – “giving the audience what it wants” and then kneeing it in the balls a moment later.

And all the preamble is for the movie shifting into its final form as the kind of Ice Pirates / Big Trouble in Little China oddball action / fantasy / adventure flicks we rarely see anymore: Hell does, indeed, come to Frogtown, and the mutant costumes are surprisingly good (and varied!), as Sam and Spangle and Centinella kick mutant ass (and more balls), make jokes, have a couple minutes of backstory, blow things up good, and drop a plot twist in for good measure, spot-it-from-a-mile-off though it may be.

Though maybe less immediate in its charms versus some larger scale 80s / early 90s movies of this variety, Frogtown is exactly the kind of flick that grows on you both as you’re watching it, and then over time. Its kooky intermingling of genres and yet the juxtaposed consistency of its approach – a straightforward, aim-for-the-goal story, and characters who remain rather appreciably linear (i.e. there’s no attempt to refigure Hell as the ultimate hero, or Spangle or Centinella as something other than a scientist and brawler) – make it consistently entertaining and accessible, and however much more proof we needed that Roddy Piper should’ve been a giganto star of a billion movies like this.