Sometimes, I almost forget that Donald Jackson made some fairly legit films. “Hell Comes to Frogtown” is one that even I’ve heard of, though I’ve never seen it before. Still, of Jackson’s filmography, it’s the one that is probably the most recognizable. It’s postapocalyptic, which is right in Jackson’s wheelhouse and looks like it was even filmed in some of the same places he’d use for his Roller Blade series (that’s not surprising. Jackson LOVES his five or so stock locations).
Mutants have kidnapped fertile women, and Rowdy Roddy Piper as Sam Hell ride a shockingly pink truck straight into Frogtown to go and rescue them… and also possibly impregnate them. The role was originally written for a friend of Jacksons, but New World pictures decided that the film need some star power and offered it to Tim Tomperson. I can’t help but wonder how it will be different with him in it. When he passed, New World decided to go with Piper because of Jackson’s previous association with the world of wrestling in his documentary “I Like To Hurt People”. It’s bold casting, considering this is before “They Live” and Piper was an unproven quantity, but he’s actually pretty delightful in this film. I’ve always had a kind of low opinion of him, I’m not into wrestling and I don’t enjoy “They Live” but the way he chews the scenery and goes off on rants here is incredibly amusing. Even more amusing is the high-tech chastity belt they’ve strapped on him to ensure his cooperation. He’s a good pick for the role, his own inherent absurdity matching the lunacy of the film and its premise. Tomperson usually plays characters more straight and I can’t imagine him pulling this off with quite as much fun as paper did.
It’s the bizarre sort of film where women wear camouflage lingerie and fight frogs after all. A world where hot lady frogs throw themselves at Piper, much to his extreme discomfort (Even if she is wearing a bag over her head).
I don’t believe rowdy Roddy Piper for a moment when he says “I’m not just a machine you can turn on and off whenever you want to!” It seems somewhat out of character for him to be so reluctant to knock these refugees up. And yet, he rises to the occasion when it’s time for him to be serious and touching.
“The war was a long time ago,” she tells him. Piper turns and looks at her sadly.
“Not for me…”
I totally buy it.
They make their way into the Frogtown, an abandoned factory complex with Piper’s handler Spangle posing as his prisoner. They are greeted by a sign “Welcome to Frogtown! If you lived here, you’d be home by now! “. Jackson would use this joke again in “The Roller Blade Seven”, with a similar sign in the wheel zone. It wasn’t funny then either.
Inside the bar, we get our first look at the frogs. A go-go dancer struts her stuff on the table as other mutants drink. The make up reminds me a great deal of the lizards from “V”. Piper seeks out somebody to barter with, and encounters a frog in a fez. He’s totally playing Sydney Greenstreet’s Signor Ferrari character from Casablanca, only he’s a frog. Fez Frog serves Piper slightly radioactive beer and kicks off negotiations. There is something slightly disturbing about watching a giant bull frog ask if pipers slave woman can dance, before handing her over to another mutant frog with an eyepatch. It’s these little touches that really sell the characters, and I’m not sure if they’re really meant to be comical or not. The comparison to Casablanca comes into even sharper focus when the deal is busted by the head frog who tells him he’s shut down till further notice!
Everything was going so well until Piper and his handler get captured. Then you find yourself all tied up with a mutant frog holding a chainsaw coming at you.
The good news is, the chainsaw managed to accidentally get piper’s high-tech chastity belt off without hurting him. The bad news is, the belt exploded while the frog was examining it. Actually, I guess that’s good news too… except it didn’t kill him, the detonation just sort of pissed him off. Still, that green blooded such and such doesn’t know who he is dealing with! Piper leas into action, quickly dispatching the frog, then rushing off to save Spangle from the king frog with two wangs.
It’s fun direct to video sort of action, with just enough humor to land jokes and keep things light without turning the film into an out and out comedy. The whole thing has almost a Troma feel to it in its independence. Frogtown makes all the absurdity in it do exactly what it supposed to do… It amuses. It’s fun.
Daniel Jackson always resented the tight rein New World pictures kept in this, but I’m not so sure he should. This is arguably his best film, he seems to do much worse than his own. Despite having a co-director and a co-writer, it’s still distinctly Jackson, with the setting, the fixiation on samurai swords, and the general weirdness of everything. I have to wonder if he’s not better when he has somebody to reign in his wilder ideas. I also for the life of me can’t imagine how he could make a film like this on his future budgets. After all, there’s two sequels that follow this movie. I guess we’ll find out!
“The meek will inherit the earth!”
“Not without a good lawyer.”
– Deleted line from “Hell Comes to Frogtown”
“Hell comes to Frogtown” is probably the most recognizable film Donald G. Jackson ever made. But it has a long history that goes all the way back to Jackson’t previous film, Roller Blade.
There is a section in L. A. they actually call Frogtown. It seems that back in the 1940s this part of the city was overrun by hordes of Frogs, an event that inspired its name. One of the actors in Roller Blade lived in this area, and Don was on his way up to see him. It was the actor, who’s name was Sam Mann, who came up with the title, Hell Comes to Frogtown. The name intrigued Jackson, and he tucked it away in the back of his mind.
“Crazy titles were getting the be the big thing. You could actually sell a movie on the strength of the title”
The title “Hell Comes to Frog town certainly fit in with the weirdness of other films like “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” or “Killer Klowns from Outer Space”. It had potential, but was no time to start planning another film though He still had “Roller Blade” to complete as well as his night job to do. Jackson had worked with both Dennis and Bob Skotak (Who would soon become famous for their visual effects work on films like “Aliens”, “The Abyss”, “Terminator 2” and “Escape from New York”) back when they were still in Jackson’s native Michigan. Bob was the first to reach Hollywood (and had actually been the one responsible for hiring James Cameron in to New World). Dennis followed shortly after and Jackson had leveraged these connections to get his current gig at New World Pictures. It was at this night job for New World pictures that Jackson met Randall Frakes. The twilight shift pretty much consisted of the two men and no one else.
“We worked the midnight shift, setting up effects shots for the Skotak brothers to shoot during the day. During that time, Don and I bonded, and he talked about the kind of movies he loved and wanted to make.” Both were fans of old serials like “Flash Gordon”, “Captian Video” and “The undersea Kingdom”. These films would be huge influences on “Hell Comes to Frogtown”. There in the gloom of the FX studio, Frakes and Jackson let their imaginations run wild. “Working night shift, had time while babysiting the computer cameras doing visual effects to come up with all these bizarre concepts, come up an idea for a screenplay about murders happening in a special effects facility”
Meanwhile, Jackson was just about to wrap on “Roller Blade” when he received what he considered to be an omen.
“I was shooting the very last shot of the movie, I turned around and someone a gang memeber or somebody had spray painted on a brick wall the name “Frogtown” and I turned to the actors I was working with and said “That’s a sign. That’s our next movie; Frogtown”.”
He headed back to the studio but made a wrong turn and got lost, eventually finding himself in strange area, overgrown and full of graffiti on the walls. It’s featured in “The Running man” and “Alien Nation”. Jackson dubbed it “Grand Graffiti train station” and flagged down one of the homeless people squatting there. He convinced the bum to take him on a tour to showcase all the points of interest, and that’s where the world of Frogtown started to coalesce in Jackson’s mind.
Back at New World, the accountants were tallying up the profit on Jackson’s direct to video “Roller Blade”. With revenue topping one million dollars, New World decided to call Jackson back in t osee what else he had to offer. Jackson had one word for them. “Frogtown”. New World didn’t even blink. They set him up with a 150,000 budget and assigned the film to home video.
With the movie now greenlit, it was time for Jackson to call Frakes. During those late night FX sessions, Frakes had constantly tried to stress to Jackson the importance of scripting when it came to story. Jackson was ready to make him put his money where his mouth was. They met at a Mexican restaurant where Jackson bought them enchiladas and pitched his idea to Frakes. He had a page full of notes and ideas about a place called Frogtown and a dystopian future where the main character was the only fertile male on the planet, battling mutant people who looked like frogs. Looking down ant the page of ideas, Frakes was transfixed.
“I looked at it and the whole movie—from beginning to end, pretty much the way the first draft was written—just started playing in my head. I looked at the one-pager in a sorta trance for about 15 minutes.”
Frakes broke out of the trance when Jackson pointed out his enchilada’s were getting cold. Jackson was in a hurry to have a script to show to New World. Frakes rose to the challenge and declared he could have a full script delivered to Jackson in a week. Jackson was skeptical, but willing to gamble. He offered Frakes a five hundred dollar bonus if he made the deadline. Frakes accepted the deal, and began work on the script. Jackson followed him home and watched over his shoulder as he pounded out the screenplay on his battered old typewriter.
“It was pure stream of consciousness stuff—something I’ve never been able to repeat—and it resulted in a script 120 pages long.”
Not confident that the script alone would truly capture his vision, Jackson commissioned a comic adaption to illustrate the look and feel of his world, pulling from the rich underground comic scene he was so fond of. Max Hell stemmed from Spain Rodriguez’s “Trashman” while the frogs were inspired by a combination of Vaughn Bode’s Junkwaffle soldiers and Kevin Eastman’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Jackson would later work with both Eastman and his wife Julie Strain in his independent film days). He started binding the seven page comic in with the script, making it an eye catching point of interest.
Pre-Production began. Frakes and Jackson were planning to shoot as much of the film as possible on hand-held cameras, giving them a greater freedom of movement. Creature Effects artist Steve Wang, fresh off “Predator” and “The Monster Squad” was brought in to design the frogs. Jackson wanted something catchy, visually interesting. Something he could build a franchise that could be spun off into toys, cartoons, comics and merchandising. Wang drew up the designs in half an hour. Meanwhile, Wang was introducing Jackson to eastern Kung-Fu films and suggesting gags for wirework in Frogtown. Jackson was eager to try it all out.
Elsewhere, the comic adorned screenplay for “Frogtown” managed to catch the eye of Robert Rehme, an established producer with a special flair for action films, and also the president of the Academy Awards. He passed it on to his wife to read and see what she thought of it. The next day she reported back that it was a uproarious send-up of Mad Max and the Planet of the Apes, only they’re frogs! Bolstered by this review, Rehme pulled the script from Home video and transferred it to the theatrical department, causing an uproar. The Video department was keeping New World Alive at the time and everyone knew it, causing a rivalry between the different sections of the company. Rheme pulling “Frogtown” was just the latest slap in the face.
It was however, looking like good news for Jackson and Frakes. Now a theatrical feature, New World increased the budget to 1.5 million dollars and made it a low budget SAG production. Star power was on the table with names like Tim Thomperson and even Jay Leno being tossed around. New World locked both Frakes and Jackson into a pay-or-play deal meaning that even if the film fell through, they would still get paid. Their end would be nearly one hundred thousand dollars. The deal, which sounded like a dream come true, would soon become a nightmare for both men.
“Signing that deal—because it was pay-or-play—meant that we didn’t really have any contractual power and could be fired on a whim if they felt like it. So we lost creative control at that point”
The first signs that Jackson and Frakes were no longer in control came in casting the lead. New World wanted Roddy Piper for Sam Hell. It was a logical choice because of Jackson’s previous association with rofessional wrestling, and piper was quickly becoming one of the biggest stars in the WWF. Piper however, didn’t feel he was getting the recognition he deserved.
“At WrestleMania 2, the entire audience just started chanting my name. Hogan got all sideways. I heard, “Oh, we’ll take care of Piper,” meaning “We’re going to try to downplay his product.” Well, I went and did a movie. So, that stuck harshly with Vince. It stuck in his craw and then Hogan and Vince did “No Holds Barred”. ”
Piper would meet with Jackson telling him “I want to do this part so bad Don, I’ll do it for free!”
Back in reproduction, the studio also nixed the opening stunt Frakes and Jackson had planned with stuntman who had designed a motorcycle that could do a flip and roll and always end up back upright. They planned on featuring this in the opening action scenes where the government forces captured Sam. New World decided that even with the newly ex-anded budget, such a stunt was too expensive and proposed instead an on-screen graphic, a WANTED poster for Sam Hell, overlayed with giant red letters reading “Captured.”. Frakes mentioned this problem to Jim Cameron. He was furious. Cameron went to New world and offered to give the production $100,000 to film the opening chase. New World wasn’t sure to do with this offer. They decided to play it safe and declined to take Cameron as an investor, even after he proposed to put his name (by that time a big box-office draw) on the film as a producer.
Soon the studio was questioning every move. Jackson, not used to such interference started to get edgy. Trouble reared it’s head during his very first day on set.
“They had an art director creating one of the sets. When he finished, I checked it out and it all looked too clean and pretty to be a part of the film. I told him about it, but he didn’t listen. He had all the arrogance of an art director and felt he had to answer to no one. So, when he stormed off of the set, I got a few can of spray paint and went and spray painted graffiti on the wall of the set. When he came back, he freaked out.“11.
Elsewhere, Frakes wasn’t being nearly as subtle in hiding his outrage. The main villian, a frog called “Commander Tody” (named after Commander Cody of the rocketman serials) had been designed with four arms. The plan was to slowly reveal this during the bar sequence. One arm moves as game piece. Another lifts a cup to his mouth. Another reaches out to shake hands, ect. The arms ahd been built and the puppeteers were practicing when a New World executive came to Frakes and suggested the arms would be too expensive to build and operate. (For some reason, even though the overall budget on the film had increased by a factor of ten, Steve Wang’s budget for creture effects had remained exactly the same). Frakes tried to appeal to logic, pointing out that the arms had already been constructed and the puppeteers were hired, keeping this from being an actual cost cutting measure. The exec was determined to have his way. Frakes leapt up on a table, and began to jump up and down as he screamed at the executive about how incompetent he was and what a ridiculous idea this was. The exec left, and headed over to another art of the studio. In an attempt to turn the tables on Frakes, he actually sought out Jim Cameron and posed the question to him, “We don’t really need four arms on this character do we?” Cameron looked at him incredulously. “The more arms the better!” he replied. New World stood by it’s people. The extra arms for Commander Tody were discarded.
Frakes’ outburst on the table did far less damage though than the memo he circulated the next day, calling out the exec for poor decision making, and New Worlds short-sighted move in backing up the administrative decision. Jackson was called into the head offices the next day and informed that Frakes was no longer on the project and that if he tried to come back on set he’d be arrested. Jackson assured the suits that he understood. He did. The next day he would start sneaking Frakes in through the back entrances instead of the front gate where they had his picture posted.
New World was also hedging their bets at this point and assigned a co-director to the project. A veteran sound editor for the last five years named R.J. Kizer. Jackson was insulted that New World was assigning someone with less directorial experience than him to be the lead director on the film. Kizer for his part wasn’t thrilled either. He’d shot some of the US footage for “Godzilla 1985” but this would be his first full feature and he didn’t quite get the strange tone of this weird little movie. He worked slow. Jackson continued to work fast.
Rowdy Roddy piper was also working fast to get u to speed with his acting coach. Frakes had expressed some trepidation when he was cast. Piper’s skills were unpolished and he had a tendancy to mumble. However, he rose to the occasion and filled the heroe’s shoes well. His coach pushed him further, actually filling his shorts with metal shards to make him uncomfortable when wearing the film’s high tech “chastity belt”. When you see him squirm and scratch, it’s for real. So is the fear on iper’s face later in the film when faced with a Frog weilding a chainsaw. The saw was Jackson’s homage to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, and it was real. The studio was not pleased.
Jackson had already circumvented New World’s restrictions by building the “Frog Tank” for the climax of the film himself. As the money for “Roller Blade” had come in, Jackson had poured it into rebuilding a ‘62 Plymouth on a truck chassie, then spray painted it cameo colors. The vehicle would be used in several more films, including the second Frogtown movie. It even appeared at one point in an L.L. Cool J video. They were shooting at Vasquez Rocks and Indian Dunes (the last movie to be filmed at the Indian Dunes movie ranch by the way, before it was plowed under for a new housing development) away from Kizer. Unfortunately, the Frog Tank, which had performed perfectly in rehearsals, chose that moment to break down. It had to be kicked into neutral and pushed into every scene filmed, coasting past the camera. Jackson and Frakes struggled to get the ideal shots to make it look good. At one point, they needed a POV shot of a dead frog warrior, plunging off a cliff. A stunt person took the first jump into a mass of cardboard boxes, then they tossed an empty suit off the ledge and filmed it crashing into the ground. Finally, they achieved an overhead shot by Jackson bracing himself then grabbing Frakes’ ankles and dangling him over the cliff with the camera.
Finally, the studio had enough of Jackson’s renegade film tactics.
“I am a very hands on Director,” Jackson once said. “They told me, “Everybody has their job on a studio film. Yours is to direct the actors.” So, that was the beginning of the end.”.” Jackson too, would find himself fired and banned from the lot, though, once New World started to run into financial problems they invited Jackson back to consult on the edit. By the time it was ready for music, New World was in bankruptcy. The score was recorded in October of 1986, at Amigo Studios in North Hollywood, CA, with non-union musicians. In a final ironic twist, despite striking 2000 prints of “Hell Comes to Frogtown” for distribution in theaters nationwide, the movie still ended up going direct to home video.
R.J. Kizer would go on to direct only one more feature; 1992’s “Death Ring” starring Billy Drago as well as Steve McQueen’s son Chad and Patrick Swayze’s brother Don. He would spend the rest of his career back in the sound department. The creature effects in “Hell Comes to Frogtown” would catch the eye of Hollywood and Steve Wang would go on to be a much in-demand creator, providing creature effects for films such as A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, Godzilla, Bicentennial Man, Reign of Fire, They, Darkness Falls, Underworld, Blade: Trinity, Underworld: Evolution and Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem as well as directing the Guyver movies and several episodes of Kamen Rider. Randall Frakes would go on to be a successful screenwriter, getting regular work on video games, TV movies and small indie projects. He’d team up with Jackson again for “Kill, Kill, Overkill” (aka “Twisted Fate”) and the first sequel to “Roller Blade”