A Plague of Killer Frogs, One Ribbit at a Time...

Rana: The Legend of Shadow Lake [aka Croaked: Frog Monster from Hell] (1982)
Dir.: Bill Rebane
Cinema 4 Rating: 3/9

Mostly because of Kermit's influence and guilty feelings left over from high school, I've always been pretty partial to frogs. I have met and even held a few frogs and toads in the time since, and I generally think they are a pretty cute and personable lot. But I must admit that they can be a bit creepy when put on film in the wrong circumstances. Frogs and toads are predatory creatures after all, and they can be quite ravenous, even resorting to cannibalism in some species. But I suppose even the world's most kindly creature, such as a baby lamb, can seem pretty creepy if you angle the camera just right, adjust the lights to a mood appropriate for menace, and add a hauntingly plinking piano chord at just the right moment.

In Bill Rebane's Rana: The Legend of Shadow Lake, we are shown several brief shots of frogs early on in the film in the first couple of attack scenes, but since there is a horrible monster right on the poster of the movie, you know they are just there to throw you off the trail a bit. Sure enough, Rebane, the notoriously schlocky independent filmmaker (The Giant Spider Invasion, Monster-a-Go Go, The Capture of Bigfoot), is intent on going far beyond mere killer frogs with this effort. He gives us a monster frogman instead, as in a man-sized frog that kills people, not a murderous diver. And the way this creature kills is pretty unique to something that is half man, half frog; he prefers to chuck a spear through the victim's chest or thorax to pull his prey underwater to devour them.

The attack scenes in Rana are usually preceded by a few large bubble bursts on the surface of the water. I couldn't help but think of George Carlin's bit about the Fump, the mythic man who makes the bubbles in the bathtub when one farts in the water. But I also thought of Lawrence Welk's bubble machine the more the film went along, which also led my mind to the cult classic Closet Cases of the Nerd Kind where the bubbles start flying through the air as the short's spoof of the Close Encounters music starts to play. I also hummed the Mr. Bubble theme song too, so that might give some indicator of just how slow Rana was in the early going.

The first attack scene is pretty gruesome, and accidentally enhanced by the graininess of the print that is available on the streaming services (such as Amazon VOD and Troma's official YouTube channel). From there the film is rather slow-going as we meet character after character investigating this and that about the creature. We also meet Charlie, a wizened townie of partial native heritage and questionable intellect who claims that he knows everything that is going on with the mysterious disappearances in the town; mainly, that a race of ancient frog people haunt the area. In a truly committed performance, Charlie (played by some old dude) tells us all we need to know in several moments, but most dramatically in this brilliant bit of dialogue: "I been down to the lake. Been watchin' them frogs. They actin' very peculiar... very peculiar. They know, they know, they know, they know, they know..."

Charlie is not played by the worst actor in the film by half. One actress seems to have a particularly hard time getting through her dialogue, at one point panting out, "I'm... anxious... to see.. the site... where it... was found." She's riding on horseback, so she can't possibly be reading off of something (unless her dialogue is braided into the horse's mane), so maybe she can only repeat two syllables at a time, tops. The acting in the rest of the film is passable though, as long as you don't dwell upon it too long.

The film also goes for a little of that patented '70s-style rapiness (my term), where there always has to be at least one character, if not more, that gets a little too grabby with the lady-folk, especially when said females have passed out from being frightened. This definitely adds a bit more to the creep factor, and also makes it more pleasing later on in the film when this character meets his inevitable end at the hands of the creature. And speaking of inevitable ends, the violent fate of another noxious character, a trigger-happy local logger, gives his actor the chance to react ultra-dramatically in one of the most egregious examples of a slow-motion death scene that I have seen.

I may have rated this film pretty low, but that is not to say that I don't admire Rebane's resolve in getting his little Wisconsin-crafted films completed over the years. He has gotten a lot of knocks in cult film and genre review books over the years, but I think Rana has some scenes that work pretty well for what it is. I also know, watching this film for the first time as a man past fifty, that if I had seen Rana when I was a kid or a tween, that its atmosphere and a few of its darker scenes (such as the amphibian arm crashing through the window; always on my short list of genuine terrors) would have had me pooping my drawers, at least figuratively, if not literally. (We lived in the woods with a lot of uncovered windows in the house; the dark of winter was hell for me because of my lifelong tendency to be influenced by films like this.) There is a cool scene where the frog creature gets some of his fingers chopped off, and they continue to pulse and claw at the tabletop. Plus, Rebane's creature costume reminds me of a even poorer version of a Sleestak costume (a childhood obsession), and that is terror enough for me right there.

Troma Films, which now distributes the film, couldn't bear to go with the original Rana title and decided to gimmick it up even more by renaming it -- in Troma's usual subtle way -- Croaked: Frog Monster from Hell. In some ways, I guess this could be considered an upgrade, but the title and poster artwork for the original film were already pretty decent (as these things go). Certainly the artwork for the Troma version is far worse [see image to the right].

Rebane's films are always hard to watch on a technical level just because they seem to be shot in a fog and have terrible sound mixes. But I have always found them rather earnest in an Ed Wood-like way, and they are never tongue-in-cheek or played for straight laughs. His films are also usually shot in Wisconsin, which is always a nice thing to see for this descendant of cheeseheads.

What I said before about Rebane's efforts being accidentally enhanced by the low standards of his filming is true, at least for me. But on the Wikipedia page for this film, there is an non-cited reference to Lloyd Kaufman's autobiography where it says he included Rana [nee Croaked] as one of the five worst films Troma has released. I am going to say that if Troma had produced this film (since they actually didn't), it would have actually come out far worse than it already is. It would probably have been cheesier and laden with horrid, sexist jokes, probably the cinematic equivalent of the latter day poster they contrived for it. While there are several films of Troma's for which I have a genuine regard and even like very much, the bulk of their output is far, far below what is on display in Rana. Honestly, my heart kind of goes out to Rebane and his silly but earnest frogman film. It's really bad, but its the sort of badness I would have cherished as a kid, and the type for which I can still summon up some love today.


Frog-g-g! [aka Frogman] (2004)
Dir.: Cody Jarrett
Cinema 4 Rating: 3/9

Any fan of Raoul Walsh's White Heat (1949) -- or even Vernon Zimmerman's Fade to Black (1982) which makes knowledge of White Heat a plot point -- knows that the character James Cagney played in that film was named Arthur "Cody" Jarrett. So, when I am confronted with a director named Cody Jarrett, I am apt to take a cynical eye towards the veracity of the director's name. Is is a pseudonym? Is it a joke? Tribute? Hard to say, since his bio on IMDb says nothing about his name and I have found nothing elsewhere on the web regarding whether it is a stylistic hipster thing or if he is just named Cody Jarrett, apart from a tidbit about him playing in several bands in L.A. Still, I did have a hard time getting past dwelling on whether his name really was Cody Jarrett as I went into watching Frog-g-g! for the first time.

We are shown an opening scene where a mother and her young son are picnicking by a lake. The kid runs off -- his mother told him not to run! -- to "fish" with a string tied to a stick, but instead pokes the stick at a small blob-ish object in the water. The blob, presumably a giant tadpole, snaps at the pole and the kid screams. His mother tells him that he is going to grow up to be a big frog and the kid replies, as precociously as possible, "I'm not a frog! I'm an astronaut!" The credits start, and we are subjected to a slow-motion lesbian tonguing fest in all the places a lesbian can tongue another lesbian except where we would really like to see her get tongued, in order to not get an X rating. (C'mon, you know I am talking about the elbow, the greatest but least known erogenous zone there is... you sickos.)

One half of the loving duo is Dr. Barbara Michaels (Kristi Russell) and she will spend the bulk of the film, as a scientist and inspector for the Environmental Protection Agency, battling with a local chemical company over exactly what is going on with the contaminated water in the town. If this sounds remarkably in line with a certain problem going on in Flint, Michigan in the real world, be thankful (or saddened, in my case) that we haven't heard anything in the news about any violent attacks and disappearances due to mysterious frogmen in the Michigan area. In the small town in Frog-g-g!, we will deal with a strange creature that has not just been terrorizing the locals, but has also been trying to have his way with the ladies in the town.

But before we get to that, Dr. Michaels gathers the mounting evidence that, in Prince's words, there "must be something in the water they drink". She sees a fish that has several pairs of googly eyes attached to it, is told of a tadpole "the size of a Frisbee" (probably the one the precocious kid met in the opening scene) and finds that there are acid levels 50 times the norm in some samples she has taken. She does some basic science experiments you can find in any high school science class (we even see a dissected frog), and she also experiments with her girlfriend in some more slow-motion, gratuitous lovemaking. A low speed, relatively brief film, Frog-g-g! gets nearly to the halfway point without having anything in the way of rapist frog action at all.

The contaminated water starts to affect certain members of the town adversely (as contaminated water tends to do). On the way home from the bar, Dr. Michaels and Trixie end up in a car crash when a green, sprinting figure darts in front of their vehicle in the darkness. In the hospital, none of the authorities - including the obstinate but dedicated sheriff -- believe Dr. Michaels when she tells them what caused the accident.

And then the rapes start happening. A young couple are having sex when we get to see the frogman in full view for the first time. Up until this point, the film has pretty much played everything straight, without any real jokes outside of some small character stuff. But then the frog-suit is seen for what it is, and it becomes really hard to get past the original straight, serious tone with something so ridiculous and bug-eyed making jazz hands. The frogman kills the boyfriend with a slash of his arm, and then hops onto the girl and takes over the humping. It is at this point that we realize that maybe this film is more than just a tad rapey. While the girl, her eyes closed, suddenly realizes that the sex has gotten better, she then sees her boyfriend dead on the floor and then screams when she sees what is actually hopping up and down on top of her -- yes, with all four limbs spread-eagled, the frogman leaps up and down while commencing his "love" act.

If you are thinking that all of this buildup is just so the filmmakers can use the term "horny toad" at some point, you win a cigar, boy! "You're in no shape to go toe to toe with some giant horny toad!" is indeed shouted by the sheriff at one crucial juncture. If you are also thinking that "Hey... corrupt local company experimenting with toxins... amphibious rapist creatures in a small town... rampant nudity... isn't this Humanoids from the Deep?" then you win another prize.

The filmmakers are aware that the suit is ridiculous, however; they embrace this silliness pretty well when the frogman takes over a local high school football game, and there is a goofy frogman dance over the closing credits. They also have a couple of blink-and-you-will-miss them cameo roles for cult fave Mary Woronov and Gregg Araki regular James Duval, appropriate to this sort of schlock. Some of the smaller roles in the film are acted pretty stiffly, but the leads (Dr. Michaels and the sheriff) aren't too shabby for this level of film, and those actors at least commit themselves to their material. There is also a closing scene -- silly, but completely expected -- that was reminiscent of other more memorably fun horror films, such as Larry Cohen's It's Alive

The tone of the film shifts from serious to downright silly when the frogman suit is seen, but it is hard to laugh when the joke is that women are getting raped. Even when the rapist is a six-foot-tall, green frogman-creature with goggles for eyes.

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