Wednesday, September 4, 2019
Have I seen every bizarre old horror/science fiction movie? Certainly not. There's plenty I haven't gotten around to, or haven't had the time--or the inclination--to view. But yesterday I did take the opportunity to watch one of the most infamous films ever made--TROG, the 1970 British production that so happens to be the last theatrical feature the legendary Joan Crawford appeared in.
TROG developed originally from exploitation maven Tony Tenser, who passed it on to another exploitation maven, Herman Cohen. Among those who worked on the script were Hammer veterans Peter Bryan and John Gilling, and the director was Freddie Francis, who by this time had made several horror and science fiction films in England. (For more information on the background of the film, I suggest searching out LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS #31, which has a thorough article on the subject.)
The real reason Freddie Francis agreed to direct was the chance to work with Joan Crawford. The actress may have been at the end of her career, but she was still considered a Hollywood legend, and she had already starred for Herman Cohen in his wacky circus thriller BERSERK! If Crawford felt embarrassed about co-starring with a guy in an ape mask, she certainly didn't show it...the movie is bad, but it would have been totally unwatchable without her.
TROG opens with footage--way too much footage--of three young men exploring a cave somewhere in the English countryside. Finally one of them stumbles upon a vicious creature, and the poor guy is beaten to death. The man with him goes into shock, and the other explorer, Malcolm, decides to go to a local scientific institute instead of the police. The institute is run by a famous anthropologist, Dr. Brockton (Joan Crawford). Brockton is so intrigued by Malcolm's account of events that she decides to try and find the creature, getting the attention of the police and media. The creature comes out to the surface, right in the middle of a live TV broadcast. Brockton channels Annie Oakley and shoots it with a hypo gun, then takes it back to her institute for study. She calls the being "Trog" (after troglodyte) and attempts to communicate with it. Brockton actually has success in coming to a sort of understanding with Trog, but a very, very angry local citizen named Murdock (Michael Gough) is convinced the creature is a menace that must be destroyed. Murdock sets Trog loose, and gets killed by it in the process. After killing some people in a local village, Trog comes upon a playground and makes off with a little girl. He goes back to his cave, where Brockton tracks him down and convinces him to let the little girl go. Brockton pleads with the local authorities to spare Trog's life, but the cave man is killed by soldiers.
As with most bizarre films, a plot summary does not do TROG justice. One has to take into account Trog himself. The creature looks as if someone attached an ape's head to a pot-bellied white guy's body (albeit a white guy dressed like a caveman). The final result reminds one of somebody's uncle dressed for Halloween instead of a relic from a prehistoric era. A wrestler named Joe Cornelius plays Trog, and while he's underwhelming in the role, it has to be said that even Lon Chaney couldn't have made the creature work if he had to wear such an outfit.
The story tries to make the viewer feel sympathetic toward Trog, but it doesn't help that the first time we see him he's killing someone. Apparently we're supposed to take the side of Dr. Brockton when she goes on and on about how Trog should be studied and nurtured. Brockton reaches Trog through the use of children's toys, including dolls and a rubber ball. These scenes are played absolutely straight, which makes them appear even more campier than if that was the intention all along. When Trog runs off with the little girl in the climax, one assumes that he thinks that she is a little doll, but this isn't really developed enough. Dr. Brockton has a cute, blonde daughter who wears a miniskirt--I thought she would be the one to get carried off by Trog, but apparently he hadn't reached cave puberty yet. Brockton lavishes far more attention on Trog than she does her daughter in the film, and at times she gives him the same loving glance she would bestow upon the likes of Clark Gable in the 1930s. At other times Brockton angrily scolds Trog as if he were a naughty schoolboy. Instead of a dedicated scientist Brockton comes off as an elderly woman wanting to remember her child-rearing days.
I do have to give credit to Joan Crawford here. No matter how silly the situations in TROG may be, or what she may have to do, she gives a totally committed performance. She doesn't play it as a joke, or walk through it....she gives 100% at all times. This may have been her last film, but she goes down fighting. An actress of lesser stature would have been overwhelmed by all the goofiness.
I also have to give credit to Michael Gough, who once again makes a mediocre movie watchable by his over-the-top manner. Gough enlivened every Herman Cohen production he appeared in, and his presence here is most welcome, even though we never learn why his character Murdock hates Trog so much. Does he have a thing against cavemen in general?? Did Fred Flintstone run off with his wife?? Whatever it is, Gough looks upon Trog as if he's the Devil himself. If Gough had been, say, the father of the young man killed by Trog at the start of the story, it would make sense...but his all-consuming hatred of the creature, though enjoyable, is puzzling. There's not many of the familiar character actors one usually sees in a British horror of this period, except for Thorley Walters, who has a small role as a magistrate that wastes his abilities. You'd think someone on the production would have been smart enough to take advantage of Walters' eccentric personality and have him interact with Trog in some way. American B movie actor Robert Hutton (who worked with Freddie Francis on THEY CAME FROM BEYOND SPACE and TORTURE GARDEN) plays a scientist who helps Brockton experiment on Trog.
It's those experiments that give the film its highlights (or lowlights, depending on your point of view). Brockton and a group of scientists place what looks like a cable splitter inside Trog's chest, and this somehow enables him to "speak" (what comes out of his mouth sounds to me like a whiny moan). Brockton then hooks some electrodes up to Trog's head (see picture above) and shows him various slides of dinosaur skeletons. This causes Trog to have a flashback (which we the audience see) of prehistoric creatures battling one another--it's actually stock footage taken from THE ANIMAL WORLD. You'd think about 20 seconds of this stuff would suffice in giving the viewer the general idea, but it goes on way longer than that. I couldn't help be reminded of Malcolm McDowell's "treatment" in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE while watching this sequence.
There's really not as many schlock moments in TROG as one might think. And maybe that's the film's biggest problem. To me, the worst thing a movie can be is boring, and like most Herman Cohen productions, there's way too many scenes of characters standing around on sets and arguing with one another. (By the way, the interiors for TROG were filmed at Bray Studios, the then former home of Hammer Films...but that venerable location doesn't look as atmospheric when Bernard Robinson isn't doing the production design.) By this time Freddie Francis was an old hand at making low-budget genre films, and the movie is competently made--but one can tell he wasn't all that excited about it. Take away Crawford and Gough, and the movie would have no spark at all. I've said this before about the average Herman Cohen production--they're more fun to discuss than they are to watch.
Yes, TROG is bad...but it's not stupendously bad. It's not even bad enough to be perversely entertaining.