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Trog (DVD)

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1 Review

Genre: Horror / Actor: Joan Crawford / Director: Freddie Francis / DVD Release Date: 2007

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      16.04.2012 09:35
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      A strange horror film that never settles on a particular mood

      A film-only review. A region 1 DVD can be imported through amazon for about a tenner.

      This 1970 film is fairly notorious because it's Joan Crawford's last ever film. Reactions to Trog tend to range from 'it's a cult camp classic' (which the American DVD I have rather desperately blazons across the top of the cover) to 'it's disgraceful that Joan Crawford was treated this way in her last film' (although it's not like anyone held a gun to her head). It's not as terrible a film as its reputation suggests, but by no means is it good.

      Some men stumble across an unexplored cave in England. Unfortunately, it is occupied by a ferocious caveman who kills one of them. A local scientist, the world-renowned Dr Brockton, captures the caveman, which she names 'Trog' (short for 'troglodyte'). She decides it's the missing link, and in the name of science tries to teach it how to wind up toys and play games with balls, hoping that she'll somehow learn about earth's past in this way. Meanwhile, opposition to Brockton is led by perpetually angry local businessman Murdock, who vows to do everything in his power to have Trog destroyed.

      This is a mess, of course. A lot of the derision tends to be aimed at Joan Crawford, who plays Dr Brockton. To be honest, although there are stories of her being drunk most of the time on set, and having to use idiot boards as she couldn't remember lines anymore, she actually gives a perfectly acceptable performance. She never sends it up, and she never allows her boredom or contempt to show through (unlike, say, George Sanders in his late horror roles). Okay, so it's kind of sad to see her reduced to this, although she was never my favourite Hollywood goddess. But compared to the last films of Orson Welles or Boris Karloff, she actually did pretty well. Her main problem is that the part is so unbelievably bland that she has very little to work with.

      The film was made by producer Herman Cohen, who made several fun trash horror movies. His star for many of them was English classical actor Michael Gough, who appears in Trog as the villainous Murdock. Every time he appears he just starts shouting about something. He is obsessed with 'taxpayer's money' and is an evangelical Christian, so nowadays would probably be a junior minister. It's a terrible part, and even Gough fails to do much beyond sound obnoxious.

      The rest of the cast has much the same problem. The script is so terrible that usually reliable performers like Bernard Kay and Thorley Walters are unable to bring life to their roles. Fans of Italian horror will recognise a young David Warbeck in a small role.

      The plot is just bizarre. It doesn't seem to know whether it wants to be horror or science fiction. You expect a horror film from the early cave scenes, and the inevitable final rampage does give us some blood. But the middle period of the film has Joan Crawford trying to teach a caveman the names of different colours and how to dance, while occasionally having to go and take part in interminable court proceedings. This, as you might imagine, is not horrific at all.

      It's also odd that Trog doesn't take a shine to Joan's somewhat-crumpet daughter, as that's almost an unwritten law of apeman films - they make a beeline for the cutest (white) girl in the film. Instead, Trog takes a small child hostage. As Joan tells us in a piece of dialogue that probably wouldn't pass muster today, Trog himself is just 'a child. A retarded child.' One of the cavers is a keen young science student who joins Joan's lab, which leads us to expect he'll be quite an important character. I assumed he'd become Trog's love rival for the almost-crumpet daughter, but nope, he's hardly in it after the start. The other surviving caver just disappears from the film completely. This film is a mess. The story was co-written by John Gilling, who was one of Hammer's better directors.

      The direction is entrusted to Freddie Francis, normally a safe pair of hands, and occasionally a very good horror director. Here, though, he doesn't really make much sense of the film. It's not too badly made, it just never quite takes off. There are a few downright bad scenes, such as when Trog fights a dog which is very clearly just a fur coat that he's shaking around, but usually it's just bland. The cave scenes at the beginning are probably the closest it comes to being scary, but they're let down by a) obviously being sets, rather than real caves and b) the absurdly camp nature of the guys exploring them. Two of them strip down to their pants to 'explore' the cave, which isn't a euphemism, but it might have made the film more interesting if it was.

      There are some vaguely bloody scenes during Trog's climactic rampage, in which he bizarrely runs amuck in a village attacking small-business owners (weirdly, this is exactly what Murdock was worried about - Trog's effect on local business. There is a crazy Tory subtext going on here). It's a bit of a comedown, though. King Kong got New York; Trog gets to smash up a greengrocer's. There is one moment, oddly enough, which looks forward to a famous scene in Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Perhaps the caving scenes at the beginning look ahead to The Descent. Hell, maybe Trog is really the most influential horror film ever made and I'm just not seeing past the appalling plot, dialogue and characterisation.

      Although we're asked to dutifully hiss at Michael Gough's villainy, Joan Crawford and her friends aren't much better - they take poor Trog out of his natural environment, implant a microchip in him and try to hypnotise him. He also reacts very badly to rock n roll (only library music, sadly; I wish they'd been able to afford a real pop song for him to, ah, go ape over) but seems to quite like classical.

      Still, you can take the caveman out of the cave, but not the... uh... whatever the opposite of that would be. Like Eliza Doolittle, Trog soon realises he doesn't fit in, and starts killing people (I assume that's what Eliza Doolittle does).

      In a desperate attempt at padding, Trog has a lengthy flashback to a load of volcanoes erupting and dinosaurs fighting. (What's that you say? Cavemen and dinosaurs lived millions of years apart? Well that's what I thought too, but bear in mind Trog was actually there and you weren't!) These are very obviously clips taken from another film, and although they kind of liven things up, the effects are pretty poor (I think they're early Harryhausen - he got a lot better later).

      Probably the best thing about the film is Trog's mask, which is pretty impressive. Unfortunately, the rest of him is just a guy in furs (including dinky little fur boots. It's not clear whether these are meant to be his feet or whether he made the boots for himself in the stone age. In which case it shouldn't take him nearly as long as it does to learn how to wind up clockwork toys). He's not even a big guy, which makes the claims that he is superhumanly strong seem double ludicrous (he picks up a polystyrene rock to throw at someone, always a cheap and stupid way to convey strength).

      There isn't really a single 'worst thing' about Trog, though. It's just an accumulation of slightly silly and slightly dull scenes that is impossible to take seriously. It is nowhere near as bad as its reputation suggests, and is probably only reviled because it has Joan Crawford slumming it. If the character had been played by anyone more familiar in British horror - Peter Cushing, say, as there's no need for the character to be a woman - the film would hardly be remembered at all. I could easily name a dozen worse films than this, and it is at least somewhat endearing.

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