Frog Dreaming Review
Woods Point, Victoria, Australia. Cody (Henry Thomas) is an American orphan, brought up by his father's friend Gaza (Tony Barry). With his friend Wendy (Rachel Friend) and her younger sister Jane (Tamsin West) he goes hiking into local woodland and comes across a waterhole which is not on the map but is known by the local aborigines as Donkegin Hole. It has a reputation as a "frog dreaming" place, haunted: and the children find the corpse of a fisherman who has died of fright at something coming out of the lake, as we see at the beginning of the film. Something is under the water, but what?
Brian Trenchard-Smith, English-born in 1946 from an Australian father, is nowadays best known as a stalwart of Ozploitation, a strand of Australian cinema made newly fashionable by the 2008 documentary Not Quite Hollywood, and championed by Quentin Tarantino among others. However, output is much wider than that. While no one (other than Tarantino, maybe) would claim him as the greatest auteur ever to grace an antipodean projector lamp, at his best he is certainly a strong craftsman and ultimately you do get what it says on the tin. He began making films as a teenager in England, and was commissioned to make a film about his school (Wellington College, Crowthorne, Berkshire). However, he was not able to get into the union in Britain and relocated to Australia at the age of nineteen. He entered the industry as an editor on Australian television, with a brief stint back in England editing film trailers.
He made his feature debut with the semi-documentary The Love Epidemic, on the subject of venereal disease, sold on its sexual content. His next film was The Man from Hong Kong, an Australian/Hong Kong coproduction, a vehicle for Jimmy Wang Yu. Turkey Shoot and Dead-End Drive-In are other examples of Trenchard-Smith's penchant for the fast-paced and bloodily violent. Yet elsewhere he made a terrifying 23-minute short public information film, Hospitals Don't Burn Down. (You can see it on the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia's Youtube channel here. Short version: oh yes they do.) He also on occasion displayed a taste for more family-friendly fare, such as BMX Bandits (which introduced a young actress called Nicole Kidman to the screen) and the film at hand. It has several alternative titles, such as The Quest, The Go-Kids and The Spirit Chaser, but Frog Dreaming is the original and the best and most appropriate.
For much of the time, Trenchard-Smith and screenwriter Everett De Roche keep the film balanced between naturalistic and supernatural explanations for the thing in the lake. I won't spoil it for you, but the film's ending falls down on one side but a brief epilogue keeps open another possibility. "Frog dreaming" is a term for a special place, a haunted place to the indigenous peoples, and Trenchard-Smith gives Donkegin Hole a properly numinous air, with snakes and reptiles in frame eavesdropping on the human goings-on. Local aboriginal Charlie Pride (Dempsey Knight) tells Cody that it's kadaicha ("blackfella magic" and itself the title of a decent Australian horror film made in 1988). But the film also obeys the maxim that magic may be something that we don't have the tools to explain, and it's eventually science that solves the mystery. Attractive cinematography from John McLean aids the mood though Brian May's score is a little overbearing, especially in Dolby Stereo.
Films aimed at children were not especially common in Australian cinema in the 1980s, partly due to the fact that reduced ticket prices for children and for matinee showings in general reduced the box office takings and the chances of profitability. However, the producers imported an American lead actor, Henry Thomas, thirteen at the time of shooting and at that point two years away from starring in E.T.. There's no attempt to hide his American origins and some exposition explains why he is in Australia with a local guardian. Another expat in the cast is Katy Manning, who will forever be known as a Doctor Who companion in the early 1970s, but who was resident in Australia for many years, and was to become a few years later the partner of the screen's Barry McKenzie, Barry Crocker. Rachel Friend, a year older than Thomas, made her debut in this film and went on to become a regular in Neighbours (for which Crocker sang the theme song) as Bronwyn Davies, though the DVD packaging emphasises the 1991 TV miniseries Golden Fiddles. Her screen sister Tamsin West had played the title role in Trenchard-Smith's previous feature Jenny Kissed Me (not a children's film) and also went on to a stint in Neighbours. Being a children's film, the youngsters are central and the adults secondary, but there is solid work from some long-standing Australian character actors, such as Tony Barry, who had begun on TV in the early 1970s (though the IMDB lists him as being in an unknown episode of Skippy which would have been in the later 1960s) and John Ewart, whose screen career went back to Charles Chauvel's 1949 Sons of Matthew and who had begun on the radio in 1932 at the age of four. This is the only feature film for indigenous actor Dempsey Knight: his only other credits are two TV movies.
Frog Dreaming was something of a troubled production, with Trenchard-Smith taking over from the original director Russell Hagg (whose name appears nowhere in the credits) two weeks in, but still completing the film on schedule. By now homevideo was a force in Australia as well as everywhere else, and after its cinema release in May 1986, Frog Dreaming made its way onto VHS in time for Christmas the same year. At that year's Australian Film Insitute Awards (now the AACTA Awards) it was nominated for May's score, for Jon Dowding's production design and for sound, and won for Brian Kavanagh's editing.
In the UK the film had a limited cinema release under the present title in 1987 at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts, a somewhat odd fit for that institution, and it had a VHS release under the title The Go-Kids. It had two showings on BBC2 in 1990 and 1991, and those may be how the film captured the imagination of those who saw it, as it was a regular on "what's the name of the film where..." film forum threads.
Umbrella Entertainment's DVD – no Blu-ray - is PAL format and encoded for all regions. The film runs 88:59 with PAL speed-up, which corresponds to the usually-cited cinema running time of 93 minutes. (A couple of sources do say 95 minutes, but that seems to be incorrect.) Frog Dreaming is probably not best for very young children, as the PG rating is due to a couple of quite scary scenes and some mild language, including one "holy shit" and Jane distracting her mother with the question "Can you get herpes from French kissing?"
The film is presented on DVD in 4:3, not anamorphically enhanced. While the lack of a Blu-ray release is understandable, showing a film this way is much less so. Fortunately it's an open-matte transfer so I advise you to watch it, as I did, zoomed to 16:9. The colours are strong and contrast is fine but unfortunately the line structure is quite visible in many places, and zooming makes that worse. While many films have been released on disc this way over the years, there's little excuse for it on a disc released on the last day of 2015 rather than ten or fifteen years earlier.
There's no issue with the soundtrack, which is Dolby Surround (2.0), a port of the Dolby Stereo mix heard in cinemas. It's a mix that certainly doesn't hide itself under a bushel or the aural equivalent, with May's score turned up quite loud and a good few directional effects, especially during a thunderstorm. There are no hard-of-hearing subtitles, which has long been Umbrella's policy, one to be regretted then and now.
The main extra are interviews (30:50), which are preceded by a spoiler warning. These were conducted for Not Quite Hollywood, so we hear from Everett De Roche (who passed away in 2014), Henry Thomas and Brian Trenchard-Smith, for about ten minutes each. In lieu of other extras these are quite informative, with De Roche and Trenchard-Smith (both very fond of the film) talking about the circumstances of the film's making and Thomas talking about his difficulties on set: he didn't like being treated like a kid, although he was one. He did not actually see the film until a few years later, and not in a cinema.
The only other extra is the theatrical trailer (1:35). If the feature being transferred in 4:3 is bad enough, the fact that this trailer is in 1.78:1 anamorphic adds insult to injury.