Sometimes the best movies are creations that feel like they were just ideas thrown against the wall, projects that can only have been forged in a time of true experimentation. According to Director Donald G. Jackson, this film was pitched to New World Pictures with the idea of “Mad Max meets Planet of the Apes – only they’re frogs!” For some, Hell Comes to Frogtown is remembered only for its ridiculous title, or the unlikely leading man, wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, but there are as many interesting stories behind the scenes as there was strangeness on the screen. The likelihood is that this is no one’s favorite piece of cinema, but in the 35 years since its release, more people should have seen this intriguing b-movie.
The film opens with a fantastic line, “In the latter days of the 20th century, there arose a difference of opinion,” and then we see the nukes go off. World War III didn’t go as planned and we are now in a post-apocalyptic wasteland with humanity attempting to rebuild the population. The radiation has made that difficult though, as the majority of the humans who are left are now sterile and there’s the who mutant problem. Somehow, frogs seem to have benefited from this the most and they’ve kidnapped a group of young fertile women. This is where our main character comes in, Sam “Hell” Hellman, but everyone just calls him Sam Hell. He’s not shooting blanks and Medtech, the government group responsible for getting as many women pregnant as possible, is going to make sure that Hell gets to Frogtown and rescues those mothers-to-be, so they can make babies with the hero.
Hell is an interesting character, but his initial introduction doesn’t paint him in a good light. He’s captured by one Captain Devlin, for sexual crimes against the man’s daughter. The first impressions sound bad, and considering Hell is a scavenger, it’d be easy to write him off, but our protagonist is denying the accusations and it turns out the young girl has changed her story and the whole situation is viewed in another light when it’s made clear that she’s now pregnant. As his new handler points out, in this world, “Mothers are national heroes,” treated like queens. We don’t get much more concerning this former soldier other than signs that he genuinely cares more about the women he’s supposed to impregnate than the two Medtech officers with him. The only other brief tidbit is that we learn Hell was married and had a daughter, due to the necklace he wears. Piper isn’t amazing in this role, but he’s working with what he has and is killing the facial expressions at least.
Accompanying Hell on the mission is Spangle – yes, like the “Star-Spangled Banner” – and she is incredibly focused on the mission and rightfully in charge. This woman is consumed by her work, but that might be why she comes across as so resourceful and determined, taking pride in her plan, even if saying it ‘worked’ is a stretch. Spangle may be rough around the edges and a bit abusive, but she’s also horny herself, even if she shouldn’t be partaking in Hell’s ‘fruit,’ since she isn’t fertile, and we get to see hints of personality and frustration out of her along the way. Even though she’s combat capable, Spangle does eventually get demoted to a brief stint as a damsel in distress, but this didn’t feel bad since viewers saw her in such a boss role for the first two acts of the film.
Sandahl Bergman (Conan the Barbarian, Red Sonja) portrayed Spangle and acts as most of the movie’s eye candy, but some of her banter with Hell is genuinely entertaining. Most remember this character for her line about being trained in seduction techniques and then proceeding to be awkward. Apparently, the post-apocalypse doesn’t have enough strip clubs or good pornography to use as educational materials.
The remaining cast sees Cec Verrell (Silk) as Centinella, the strong and silent type who acts as guard and gunner for the main trio. She’s also interested in Hell’s body of work and provides the nudity for the film, but takes a backseat in the third act. William Smith (Red Dawn, Maniac Cop) returns as Captain Devlin to be the true villain and Rory Calhoun (The Texan, Motel Hell) shows up as an old friend of Hell’s named Looney Tunes, but he feels underutilized and doesn’t seem to know how to fire a flare gun. Everyone else important is frogs.
For Frogtown being in the title and such an attractive aspect of the premise, I expected more. The titular settlement simply looks like any old steel mill somewhere in modern Detroit or a mine that’s being prepped for urban renewal. We spend most of our time in the bar and a few other rooms, but there is nothing memorable. Viewers don’t even learn much about the frogs’ society other than that they use lilies for currency and call humans “Flatlips.” Okay, that’s not true, we get some cultural lessons when it comes to the dance of the three snakes. In the real world, frogs don’t have penises, but here, the mutant amphibians, or some of them at least, have multiple now. We know the radiation did some strange things and one of the few bits of human blood we see near the end is brightly colored, so maybe the radioactivity changed a lot more.
It’s hard to call the toads the bad guys, they’re compared to Native Americans in the sense that our war created them and then the government forced them onto reservations. We learn that Devlin is using the group to try and build a new weapon and honestly, whatever bad they’ve done just seems part and parcel of this new post-war world. None of this is an excellent attempt at social commentaries, like having the humans call them all “Greenies,” but it’s something. The real enemy might be sexism and the need for reproduction, “See this used to be a man’s world, Sam. But now there are too many women that have us by the short hairs.”
There are a couple of solid actors under these frog suits, as I found myself laughing at many of the line reads from Bull and Commander Toty. The special effects and frog designs were done by Steve Wang, someone who has worked on Predator, The Monster Squad, and Underworld, and who does a lot in this film with very little. When the budget for Hell Comes to Frogtown was increased, he was given no additional money, but Wang still made everything work. Of everyone who was involved in this film, his career probably benefitted the most from it. Wang designed the creatures in under two hours and made them look convincing, it’s just sad there weren’t more frog suits to go around. These effects are often compared to 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, but that may not be fair when going up against Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. Though it’s interesting to see what a potential Battletoads feature or a guest appearance from the Punk Frogs might have looked like.
Sadly, those frogs weren’t going to be enough to save the film. Hell Comes to Frogtown had a snazzy title and an excellent trailer featuring the line, “It’s the end of the 20th century, and mankind has blown its wad. The fate of humanity rests in the groin of one man.” The finished product couldn’t live up to that. The aforementioned opening line of the film was brilliant, but what followed didn’t keep that same tone, and although it embraces that B-movie core with its irreverence, the film has trouble keeping it up. The second half drags, but even before that, it feels like the movie is struggling with its own identity and there is a good reason for that.
Once the project came under New World Pictures and the original budget was increased, the company attempted to replace a lot of people working on Hell Comes to Frogtown in hopes of hiring workers who would do the jobs for cheaper. They also brought on another director, R.J. Kizer, feeling that Jackson wasn’t quite ready for this big of a project. After researching some of Jackson’s Zen filmmaking style (which he used later), I kind of get it. These two men did not get along and according to Randall Frakes, the film’s writer, Kizer didn’t get the tone of what they were trying to make and had no enthusiasm toward it. Piper also apparently had some issues with the direction at first, and all of these issues together give some solid insight into why Hell Comes to Frogtown ended up feeling so conflicted in its own skin.
Another big name was almost attached to the movie, as originally James Cameron had some interest in the project and when the big motorcycle chase that was supposed to highlight the opening scene was cut, the famed director offered to put up his own money and even cameo in the movie to get it back in, but New World turned him down. Probably something they regret.
The first incarnation of the script for Hell Comes to Frogtown was also much raunchier. Our introduction to the character of Sam Hell was supposed to feature him masturbating, and Spangle’s actress was originally going to do the dance at the end of the movie naked. This is most likely why even though Bergman was a trained dancer, the sequence comes across as more comical, even though other scenes take themselves too seriously for some viewers.
Critics weren’t too fond of Hell Comes to Frogtown and even fans of it tend to discuss the film’s flaws quite openly. It isn’t quite a cult hit at the level of other movies from around the same time, but the legend of Sam Hell grows with every passing day. This was always planned as a series and there are two sequels (though one is said to be a standalone story) and even a recut for one of them, but as recently as 2019 fans were given a new trailer for…something. According to Jackson, the property was also considered for a television series that never materialized.
The legacy of Hell Comes to Frogtown is a tough one, as it isn’t “so bad it’s good,” but it’s also only decent for those who love the genre a lot. It’s in the middle and took inspiration from better films, like Mad Max, but then Fury Road basically followed its lead and used the ‘rescue the harem’ plot, so everything truly is circular. Sam Hell has his fans and people remember this one, there’s even an episode of Family Guy titled “Hell Comes to Quahog.”
The movie looks like a typical male fantasy action movie from the outside. Listening to the dialog and seeing how some of the characters are treated – like having to sedate the woman so she’ll calm from her trauma enough to let Hell impregnate her – just shows how much humanity has fallen and how undesirable the world is, even if the ending is ‘happy’ for the most part. There’s more to it, however, something that’s almost fun here that’s just barely being propped up and only works in the 1980s. Even with that in mind, it’s an interesting viewing and deserves some attention. Just maybe, it’s time for Hell to ride again.