Binge-watching The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs has introduced me to some obscure and forgotten flicks. Several of the films the freedom-loving Texan screens are deservedly forgotten, and even hard to watch, with only Joe Bob’s off-the-cuff rants and film history knowledge keeping me going. Others, however, are real gems—rough-cut and a little sooty, but gems nonetheless.
One such film is Hell Comes to Frogtown (1988), a post-apocalyptic sci-fi action-comedy starring wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. Piper is better known for his role in They Live (1988), the John Carpenter classic in which Piper’s character discovers a pair of sunglasses that show the world for how it truly is. They Live—with its infamous six-minute fistfight—is the better film, but Hell Comes to Frogtown is really delightful.
The premise of Hell Comes to Frogtown is that nuclear war has decimated populations, and the resultant radioactive fallout has led to widespread sterility among humans. Additionally, humanoid frogs have mutated, and are at odds with the remnants of humanity.
A provisional American government uses MedTechs—weaponized female nurses—to identify fertile males and females, and essentially forces them to reproduce in order to grow humanity. Sam Hell (Piper) stumbles into the clutches of these civilization-saving Karens, and soon finds an explosive chastity belt on his, uh, unit. Hell’s sexual prowess has reached ludicrously legendary proportions in the wastelands, so the MedTechs seek to put him to work.
However, the wicked frog Commander Toty (Brian Frank) has kidnapped a group of fertile females, and Hell and the MedTechs must get him into Frogtown so he can use his wartime experience to save the girls.
Thus—Sam Hell comes to Frogtown.
Along for the journey are Spangle (Sandahl Bergman), Hell’s love interest and the by-the-book commander of the mission; and Centinella (Cec Verrell), a sporty and seductive gunner who attempts to find out “if the rumors are true” about Hell’s potency. The team meets up with Looney Tunes (Rory Calhoun), a kooky prospector and friend of Hell’s, and the mutant frog dancer Arabella (Kristi Somers). There’s even a frog in a fez and white coat whose bar gets shut down by Bull (Nicholas Worth), Commander Toty’s brutish henchman.
The story is like a samurai Western, with Hell throwing a sword on a surprise villain in the film’s climax. It very much had a Star Wars feel, but with more humor and slapstick, and less awe-inspiring wonder.
I particularly like the frog costumes and make-up. I love frogs, and I’ve been enamored of the idea of a race of frog-like people going about there business since at least seeing the frog knight in Chrono Trigger. The frog make-up is really well done, as is the world-building: frog beer is disgusting to humans, and they eat coleslaw that is made from grubs and insects, rather than cabbage and mayonnaise.
Indeed, the post-apocalyptic setting is familiar—I think the film is actually intended to be a mild satire of the genre—but the universe is still fresh and unique. The idea of infertile women going around and rounding up virile males and fertile females for breeding purposes to repopulate humanity is interesting. The film plays with that idea, too: infertile women like the MedTechs aren’t allowed to copulate with fertile men, for fear that doing so would rob the men of their potency. That rule naturally creates some conflict and emotional longing when Spangle falls in love with Hell.
Despite the focus of the film on sex—at least here to save civilization, not as some kind of hedonistic vehicle for carnal pleasure—it’s very lighthearted. Piper never plays Hell as creepy or oily; instead, he is often baffled by the many women—including a frog mutant!—making passes at him. There is a certain twinge of sad desperation to their advances, but it’s played for laughs. Hell’s reactions are innocent and hilarious, for the most part.
The plot is a bit all over the place at times, but the film is pretty easy to follow. It’s one to watch more for the creature effects, the humor, the unique set pieces, and the world-building than the story line. Piper delivers a stellar performance as the befuddled hero, and his sometimes secondary role reminded me slightly of Kurt Russell’s role as Jack Burton in Big Trouble in Little China (1986), one of my all-time favorite films.
I heartily recommend Hell Comes to Frogtown. Ribbit!