Friday, October 31, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #33: Trog

I'm a gay dude who loves movies -- a queer cinephile. I studied film in college and once reviewed movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). When my Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'm watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years. Go ahead, say it: "I can't believe you've never seen..."

Trog (released October 1970)

Trog (Joe Cornelius) covets Dr. Brockton's (Joan Crawford) pink silk scarf.

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: Trog is a low-budget British sci-fi monster horror melodrama about the discovery of a prehistoric man -- also known as a troglodyte. If it starred anyone besides legendary Oscar-winning actress Joan Crawford, it probably would have been forgotten decades ago. Widowed, financially strapped, a functioning alcoholic and still driven to work after five decades in movies, sixty-five-year-old Crawford took a part that required her to declare emphatically and with dignity, "It's my firm belief that Trog is the missing link." When you make 92 feature films, some of them are just not going to be very good. It's inevitable. If you're lucky, however, you might make at least one that's so bad it's good. Trog is Miss Crawford's bad masterpiece. She gets to speak science, like this:

"Conceivably, Trog was frozen solid during the long, long glacial age. A state similar to cryogenic suspension. Then as the underground streams and currents brought more and more warmth to the frozen atmosphere, his body thawed out. We now know that human sperm, red blood cells, bone marrow cells, even skin can be brought back to life after freezing."

And she sells that like only Crawford can. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

In the English countryside, a freelance expedition of three young British explorers -- Bill, Cliff and Malcolm -- stumble upon the entrance to a cave that's not on their map. Uh oh. Deep inside this impossibly well-lit, paper mache and fiberglass formation they find an underground stream with water "like ice." Malcolm concludes that "it's probably fed by subterranean glacial waters." Hearing that, Bill and Cliff immediately strip down to their adorable boxer shorts and dive right in because they don't want the "sub-aqua boys" to go first and take credit for whatever they discover on the other side of the stream. What they discover is an inhospitable troglodyte who's so peeved by guests dropping by in their underwear that he kills Bill and scares the shit out of Cliff. Malcolm rescues Cliff and takes him directly to a research institute conveniently located on the outskirts of a generic English village near the cave -- and, coincidentally, it's run by world famous anthropologist Dr. Brockton (Joan Crawford). Suffering from a serious case of bad-actor-in-shock syndrome, Cliff babbles about something "monstrous, like nothing I've ever seen before." Then Cliff disappears from the film entirely... which is unfortunate primarily because he looks quite good in boxers. Anyway, Dr. Brockton convinces Malcolm to take her to the cave because, "This could be the one chance in a lifetime. Who knows? An opportunity to lift the veil from the past." Dr. Brockton photographs the troglodyte and presents her evidence to the local police inspector along with a science lesson. "Half ape, half man -- trog -- a primitive cave dweller," she declares.

Next thing you know, curious villagers, police officials, the fire department, a TV news crew and somebody with a refreshment stand are all outside the cave waiting for the the sub-aqua boys -- Is this really what they call frogmen in England? -- to capture this primitive cave dweller so Dr. Brockton can look under its loincloth. Emerging from the crowd is Mr. Murdoch (Michael Gough), the sourpuss village idiot who has ferocious animosity toward Dr. Brockton. He's so bitter and acrimonious that you immediately suspect he's a rival anthropologist or spurned former lover from her past. No, not in this movie. His sole motivation for being a raging asshole is that he thinks her research is "taxpayer's money down the drain!" Really, he's like one of those insufferable Tea Party people, but with a British accent. So Murdoch thinks the whole thing's a hoax until the troglodyte unceremoniously bursts out of the cave, tosses a styrofoam rock at a TV cameraman and sends everyone scurrying away in fear. Except Dr. Brockton, of course. She came prepared with a tranquilizer dart gun that sounds like a shotgun.  

Back at the research institute, Dr. Brockton and her sweet blonde scientist daughter, Anne, feed Trog a rubber lizard. "For a senior citizen he certainly has a marvelous appetite!" Anne exclaims. They give him -- I guess it's a him; no one ever checks -- a doll and a train. He likes both. Gender-neutral parenting -- this movie was way ahead of it's time! And he likes Dr. Brockton's pink scarf so much that he puts it around his own neck, an obvious sign that he has a future in missy fashion design. They discover that Trog prefers classical music over rock and roll, meaning that he's going to be unbearable at dinner parties. But when they take him outside to play ball, he promptly strangles a German Shepherd to death. The town is suddenly outraged and there's an inquiry. This must have been a really beloved dog because there was no inquiry when Trog bludgeoned poor Bill to death in that cave. Dr. Brockton compares Trog to a "retarded child" that can't be held responsible for his actions. But Murdoch disrupts the inquiry, naturally, calling Brockton a heathen and sharing his two-point plan for handling Trog: "Kill it first, then study it's hide!" That retarded business aside, Dr. Brockton makes an impassioned speech on behalf of Trog and, to Murdoch's hammy dismay, gets to continue her research. Side note: As the odious Murdoch, Michael Gough is so over the top that it's amazing his career lasted long enough for him to portray the butler in every single 1990s entry in the Batman franchise.

Dr. Brockton recruits an American surgeon to implant a "micro-trans" in Trog and then he's hooked up to a TV that shows us his memories. Trog's memories -- stop-motion dinosaur battles, erupting volcanoes and glaciers that led to his "icy hibernation" -- look suspiciously like four minutes of garishly tinted footage from a 1956 Irwin Allen (yeah, the Poseidon Adventure and Towering Inferno guy) documentary called The Animal World. Oh, and the "micro-trans" thingy also gives Trog the gift of speech, which he uses to compliment sweet blonde scientist daughter Anne's blue dress. All this makes Dr. Brockton cry, leading you to wonder if that was in the script or if Crawford is weeping, understandably, for the mortifying demise of her once illustrious career.

Before Trog can reveal "the baffling secrets of evolution," there's yet another inquiry and more of Murdoch howling about this "murdering monster." To prove his point that Trog is a murdering monster, Murdoch breaks into the research center and frees Trog so that he can, presumably, choke more dogs, frighten everyone in the generic English village next door and kill somebody else. Not surprisingly, Murdoch The Village Idiot did not think his plan through; he's expeditiously beaten to death by Trog the Murdering Monster. Finally, Trog runs amok because, well, it's not like you would expect him to skip back to the lab, tie Dr. Brockton's pink scarf around his neck and arrange a tea party for that guy who implanted a "micro-trans" under his skin. No, this movie needs a suitable climax -- roughly fifteen laugh-out-loud minutes of Trog being naughty. He flips a car, murders some shopkeepers, terrorizes a playground and kidnaps a blonde girl. And you know what happens to people -- or troglodyes -- that kidnap little blonde girls. Spoiler Alert (but not so much): "It's got to be destroyed!"

Trog is the kind of movie that deserves an exclamation point in the title, just because. Alas, that must not have occurred to the three men responsible for the screenplay -- Peter Bryan, John Gilling and Aben Kandel. It also didn't occur to them to give Dr. Brockton a first name, or explain why her own daughter has an English accent and she does not. But, holy hell, they sure did concoct a heinous mashup of The Miracle Worker and Frankenstein, with a pinch of King Kong. No director could have saved Trog, but Freddie Francis stages everything so ineptly that it's mind-boggling to find out he'd actually directed eighteen other movies first. Incredibly, Francis went on to become a respected cinematographer who's worked for Martin Scorsese and David Lynch.

The credits tell us that Trog was designed by Charles Parker, a makeup artist who worked in movies from the early 1940s until his death in 1977 (his last film was Star Wars). He also worked on Stanley Kubrick's groundbreaking film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). If you've seen it, you'll probably remember that it begins with a sequence commonly known as "The Dawn of Man," wherein about a dozen Paleolithic man-apes figure out how to use a bone as a weapon. Only one of the man-apes is ever shown in a medium closeup, but watch carefully and you'll see a distinct resemblance to Trog. Looks like Parker recycled the worst of those masks for this film and just attached some hair.  It looks unfinished; somewhat better than a Halloween mask, but nowhere near as convincing as the state-of-the-art makeup Hollywood used two years earlier for Planet of the Apes (1968). Trog is just a goofy creation in a bad rubber mask, a silly loincloth (really, when did he decide to cover up his junk?) and a pair of big furry house slippers. You can't take him seriously as either missing link or monster. However, the chunky man under the mask (Joe Cornelius) appears to be having a blast.

Trog, a face that only People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) could love.

Stray Gay Observations: Trog has sexy legs, nice arms and a cute little belly, making him somewhat more attractive to me than Bigfoot. After a couple of margaritas I'd probably fuck him.

Crawford's wardrobe is regrettable. Only Trog looks worse. I wanted to blame it on the costume department, but my research turned up an interesting fact: the budget was so tight, Crawford wore some of her own clothes. I know she's supposed to be an anthropologist and all that, but yikes, there are some unflattering outfits here -- even for 1970.

Crawford worked steadily for nearly five decades, starting in silent films with 1925's Pretty Ladies. Along the way she made some really entertaining movies, including: Grand Hotel (1932), The Women (1939), Mildred Pierce (1945), Humoresque (1946), Possessed (1947), Johnny Guitar (1954) and (arguably her last great film) What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). The success of Baby Jane should have led to other good parts. It didn't. Left nearly broke from her last marriage, Crawford took the roles she was offered -- lurid, low-budget thrillers like Strait-Jacket (1964), I Saw What You Did (1964) and Berserk! (1967). By her own admission she hated Trog; it became her final feature film performance. But as awful an experience as it might have been for her to make Trog, Crawford commits to the damn thing with a shocking degree of sincerity for someone who's required to act with one of the most unconvincing beasts in celluloid history. Bad as Trog is -- and it's shockingly bad --  Crawford somehow manages to give the whole thing an endearing quality.

The remarkable career of Joan Crawford (1906-1977) has been somewhat eclipsed by the publication of adopted daughter Christina Crawford's harsh 1978 tell-all screed, Mommie Dearest, and its subsequent screen adaptation starring Faye Dunaway ("What's wire hangers doing in this closet when I told you no wire hangers... EVER!"). Here's how I feel about Mommie Dearest: I think the book is probably exaggerated BS from a disgruntled kid, but I regularly regard the film as the best worst movie ever made.

Sorry, I just couldn't resist...

"What's a troglodyte doing in this cave when I told you no troglodytes... EVER!" 

Should You See It? Absolutely. Here are three reasons: (1) this is an unbelievably cheesy, profoundly absurd movie; (2) it's an infamous camp classic that has to be seen to be believed; and (3) Joan Fucking Crawford. 

PS. I would also like to argue (with tongue firmly planted in cheek, sort of) that Trog is a prescient motion picture of significant importance. The Murdoch character -- an intolerant, blustering, overprivileged white male with unwavering contempt for science -- gives us an uncanny glimpse into America's future.

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