I’m not usually a fan of found-footage horror movies. There are of course exceptions like The Blair Witch Project,[REC], Cloverfield, and Paranormal Activity. Usually, these films come off as lazy and cheap to me. Also, shaky camera action, particularly on a big screen, can make my stomach churn. The film HAS to be able to establish a viable reason why there is a constantly running camera. More often than not this comes out feeling forced. Found Footage films usually pay little attention to the beauty of film or the importance of depth of field or blocking the actors. As a result, they depend on feeling amateurish for their authenticity.
The other caveat is that cryptid movies, which often rely on the found footage trope, have struggled to find a new myth that feels fresh. It seems like most of the known cryptids have been played out. Sasquatch, Little Grey Men, The Mothman, Chupacabra… we know about these local legends. but now we get this humble and fun new cryptid, The Frogman of Loveland, Ohio. Who, outside of the great state of Ohio was aware of this particular myth? Go to Loveland, and see for yourself!
The good news? Frogman overcomes all of my prejudices about the format with great characters and a plausible plot. It builds nicely and mixes in interpersonal humor well. It fundamentally still feels like a found footage film, but nothing feels forced. Surprisingly, this manages to be convincing, creepy, and fresh while using all the familiar tricks of the trade.
Frogman opens with a family vacationing in the quaint and lovely town of Loveland, a forested hamlet up the Little Miami River from Cincinnati. When the family hops out of the car, young Dallas captured a glimpse of a huge bipedal frog crouching in the woods through his video camera. It is 1999, and the footage created a sensation throughout the cryptid community. Eventually though, much like the blurry images of Nessie or Sasquatch, the images are debunked as yet another hoax. “Fake News!” the internet exclaims. They are a tough audience, even in 1999.
Fast forward to 2022. Dallas (Justen Jones), is now a handsome, but awkward aspiring filmmaker. He is eager to go back to Loveland and find the Frogman. After much cajoling, Dallas recruits his barista best friend, Scotty (Ali Daniels) to be his cameraman (an essential element in any shaky-cam found footage movie) on his hunt for the elusive Frogman. Dallas learns that his long-time crush, Amy (Chelsey Grant), is about to leave for California to further her acting career. Both Amy and Scotty have performed in Dallas’ shoddy amateur films. Now, Amy feels that she needs to get a real acting career going, leaving Dallas romantically and professionally heartbroken. Nevertheless, Dallas recruits Amy to join this Scooby Doo cryptid chase and sells it as a last hurrah of friendship.
Dallas, still the butt of internet scorn, wants to prove what he saw is real, with a serious documentary. Amy hams it up as a Southern Belle persona, wanting to make this a playful event, much to Dallas’ chagrin. She finds a garish blue fringed cowgirl jacket and matching red cowgirl hat, and she’s ready to play the event. Yee Haw! This awkward tension of old friends creates the backbone of story arcs for Dallas, Amy, and Scotty.
Arriving in Loveland, they set to work interviewing the local townsfolk. The town is quite proud of the local legend, and there are Frogman-themed tourist traps all along the main street of town. The locals tell tall tales, full of vague theories and second-hand sightings, but no proof of the elusive creature. Dallas is certain of what he saw. He saw the Frogman, and now he retraces his steps, searching for another Frogman witness.
As Dallas and his crew investigate and pry around the town, they draw unexpected heat. Some of the locals, including the sheriff, are not taking kindly to the amount of disturbance that these snooping investigators are making. What is in play, as true Lovecraftian Horror fans may have surmised, is The Shadow over Innsmouth, or for those of you non-readers out there, the Stuart Gordon film Dagon. Many of the townsfolk in Loveland are cultists, and the Frogmen are real. The cult ambushes our protagonists, but they manage to escape, now infused with this forbidden knowledge.
Common sense would tell the filmmakers to get out of town. But curiosity, as the old saying goes, killed the cameraman. Or, something like that. (Note… not necessarily a spoiler). Those who know the Lovecraftian source material will have a decent sense of what might unfold. Ribbit! Much of the town is in on the conspiracy, and the resistors are few, and in hiding. How far will the team go to try and uncover the truth?
Anthony Cousins admirably injects really good personal moments into a format that often struggles with a depth of character. Dallas comes across as earnest and driven, frustrated for being dismissed by the cryptid community. He could have come across as petulant and annoying, but I found him to be one you can root for. Amy is a spark of fun. She is doing this as a friendship favor. There is a veneer of the awkward but not inappropriate level of the friend zone in play between her and Dallas. Scotty is the stalwart wingman and the glue for the trio. Most importantly they all feel like real people, something that The Blair Witch Project rode to great success.
Cousins utilizes all the strengths of the shaky cam format. When the Frogman (Men?) arrive, the scenes burst into a frenzy of panic and wild camera movement. And, it’s the audio that carries the day. The croaks, peeps, roaring, and thrashing fill in the gaps of what you can’t see. There also is a rational excuse for the “Frogman” project, a justification for bringing the hand-held camera into the field, and why you would keep the film rolling. With lesser efforts, the point of view shifts, or the continuity breaks. The classic elements are present: The quick spin move leads to a dropped camera. That is followed by the classic camera power-down transitioning and the blind panic of confusion. We’ve seen it before, and yet this oozes authenticity.
Those elements make found footage believably frightening, but for so many films they feel forced and offer cheap jump scares. For Frogman, Cousins wove those elements with the aforementioned character arcs and natural dialogue. This is the best shaky cam film I have seen since Creep and it revitalized my hope in the sub-genre.
Cousins is a veteran horror short director cinematographer, making the jump to the feature film format. Two personal favorite films Cousins made were presented to me for the Portland Horror Film Festival: Every Time We Meet for Ice Cream Your Whole Fucking Face Explodes, and The Bloody Ballad of Squirt Reynolds. With Frogman, he proved that he is fully capable of the promise he displayed as a short film creator and entered the ranks of indie horror feature directors to keep an eye on. Both Jones and Grant show promise as genre actors worth following.
This movie is not yet rated. It is violent, and there are some grotesque transformations, usually fleetingly seen, and some coarse language, but I think this might be a PG-13 rating. The intensity level might bump it to an R rating, but I think this movie is safe for mature teens. Due to the nature of the shaky-cam trope often shies away from explicit gore. Suggestions and shadows rule the day. Think Blair Witch. It’s a decent comp, and high praise, well deserved. I reviewed this film thanks to The H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival. As of now, there is no formal release date for this movie. When a trailer drops, we will post it here.