Comfortable and Furious

The Amusingly Bonkers: Part 7

Trog (1970)

I imagine you’ve got some sort of career going on. Presumably you’d like it to end on a high. Or at least suggest an upward trajectory, perhaps rounding things off with a nice, gentle plateau. You certainly wouldn’t want it to finish in ridicule, would you? But that’s what happened to poor ol’ Joan Crawford. She might have been one of Hollywood’s greatest stars and a Best Actress Oscar winner with a 45-year contribution to the big screen under her belt but that didn’t save her from a humiliating finale. Trog, a gloriously daft ape-man on the loose flick perhaps green lit after the massive impact of 1968’s Planet of the Apes, was met with such a savaging that Joan not only retired but became a recluse.

Altogether now: aaahhh

The story: Three young, university-based cavers in the English countryside get awfully excited to discover a hole in the ground. Given its noticeable size, I’m unsure why no one beforehand has managed to find it. They pop down. “Wow! I never expected this!” one blurts with boyish enthusiasm while admiring the walls, plastic stalactites and lumpy, overwhelming grayness. “No footprints! We could be the first humans down here.” His mate nods. “Yeah! Let’s look around!” Suffice to say, their exploration doesn’t go well when our cuddly troglodyte gives them a less than hospitable welcome. Yes, folks, it’s a mini-King Kong flick, although Trog ends up arguing with a grocer rather than perched atop the Empire State.

The characters

Dr. Brockton (Crawford): Looking and acting like a Thunderbird puppet, Brockton is a renowned anthropologist that’s written books and everything. Her professional curiosity is aroused when two survivors from the cave are bafflingly brought to her research center rather than a hospital with actual doctors and nurses. She then toddles off to the underground lair, sticks a camera through the first hole she sees and is rewarded with a perfect shot of the killer ape-man. Once he’s tranquilised she brings him back to her institution, keeps him in a straw-lined cage and tries to raise him like he’s a retarded, very hairy child. “People on the outside think scientists are a little deranged,” she says to a colleague at one point.

Yes, Dr. Brockton, I know.

Sam Murdock (Michael Gough): Businessman, woman-hater and petulant shit, Murdock is wonderfully one note from start to finish. He wants to get a housing project off the ground but fears Trog’s arrival will stall its progress. “Nobody wants to buy land with an ugly demon running loose,” he bitches while banging his head against whatever wall is in front of him. Desperate to have Trog destroyed but ignored by everyone except a fellow misogynist, his sour-faced utterances usually run along the lines of “poppycock!”, “insane nonsense!” and “bilge!”

Inspector Greenham (Bernard Kay): A humorless, obtuse, vexed and indiscreet investigator with a terribly off-putting way of trying to get the most basic info out of people. For example, when investigating the opening assault (in which one man was killed and another seriously assaulted) he asks a survivor: “You make a practice of poking your nose into these potholes?” Presented with a full color photo of Trog in all his ancient glory, he dismisses it as a student prank. Despite the murder, he doesn’t bother putting a police cordon around the cave entrance, let alone arranging for the place to be searched. Later he fails to alert a village packed full of children to Trog’s impending arrival. Presumably any one of these actions would require competency, a quality he sorely lacks. In every scene our clueless cop is out of his depth, both as a detective and an actor.

Cliff (John Hamill): One of the surviving cavers, we are reacquainted with him while he sweatily raves in bed. “Horrible! Horrible! That face… Those eyes… Monstrous, like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” he says before slipping back into unconsciousness. I think he’s talking about Trog rather than Dr. Brockton.

Trog (Joe Cornelius): Although our fanged, dyspeptic caveman does his sartorial best in a natty fur ensemble that includes a skirt and slippers, he’s not as appealing as Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C. I’m not even sure where he gets his pelts from, given there’s no antelope and the like sharing his subterranean domain. Anyhow, Trog is a fan of fish, lizards and, er, dolls, pink scarves and little blonde girls. Dislikes cavers, frogmen, camera flashes, barking dogs, pop music, small shop owners, car horns and bright sunlight. Also hates press intrusiveness and is likely to brain any journalist that points a camera at him. Is kept in a pen but considerately avoids pooping on the floor. His somewhat delayed entry into human society shows promise, but he doesn’t end up reading the newspaper and appreciating culture like the monster in Young Frankenstein.

Why it’s bonkers: Filled with pedestrian dialogue and performances that are either blank or overwrought, it’s fair to say director Freddie Francis (who had a marvelous career as a cinematographer) does a terrible but amazingly memorable job. His inept cast often stand around listening to Dr. Brockton speak about Trog like she’s reading from a textbook. The action is poorly staged, apart from a scene which predates Leatherface’s meat hook savagery in Texas Chainsaw by four years. Even the reactions of people confronted by a furious or rampaging caveman are weirdly delayed or lifeless. Most look like they’re at the cricket ready to break out into polite applause. Francis makes no effort to build suspense regarding Trog, introducing the fellah after a mere ten minutes and later offering the old Beast from 20,000 Fathoms frozen-in-the-ice explanation for his mysterious modern-day existence. Francis can’t get one thing right whether depicting a bout of surgery with a non-cutting scalpel, a magistrate trying to keep order in a courtroom or Trog lifting a man above his head without managing to keep the wires hidden.

Indeed, the never-dull Trog doesn’t have one scene that isn’t barmy or flat-out funny. It’s surreal watching Crawford gazing with unabashed love at the missing link as he winds up a battery-operated walking doll, happily sways to a burst of classical music or rolls a ball back to her. “Good boy, Trog,” she coos more than once. Best of all is the film’s lack of campiness. This might be low budget, but it’s still a mainstream effort played as if Francis is aping the first segment of Kubrick’s 2001.



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