Movies with Friends: From Frogs to Rocky Horror to Toco Hill

During my late elementary and middle school years, as now, a movie was a frequent element of the tween and early teen birthday celebration. The unintentionally funny horror film, often on the theme of nature’s revenge, was prevalent in the early 70s and perfect for group viewing. Such classic B movies, silly, clumsily cobbled together, yet still scary, wouldn’t have had the same impact had we been sitting around the TV in the cozy safety of a family room.

 

I think it was for my friend Katie’s birthday that we saw Frogs. It was playing in one of the increasingly faded theatres in Virginia-Highland. The movie poster shows a bloody human arm protruding from the mouth of a frog. Its breathless text reads:

If you are squeamish stay home!!! Cold, green skin against soft, warm flesh!  A croak, a scream. . .FROGS. The day nature strikes back.

The human villain of the story is the haughty patriarch of an old Southern family, eager to celebrate his July 4th birthday at his sprawling mansion nestled uneasily in the oozing spookiness of the swamps. Ray Milland plays Grandpa, as he is called by everyone. Fed up with the overabundance of icky, cold-blooded creatures that call the family property their home, Grandpa hires a man to saturate the surrounding landscape with pesticide. This, of course, does not sit well with the slime brigade, and lots of gruesome death ensues. Despite the movie’s title, frogs do no killing. They merely croak and look vaguely, disinterestedly malevolent. Snakes, lizards, alligators, leeches and spiders are among the many creatures that exact horrifying vengeance on the humans who have the nerve to try to move in on their domain.

Once the critters began to seek retribution, my friends and I huddled two to a seat, for better moral support. Sitting in darkness, surrounded by other shrieking kids our age, the experience was akin to a thrill ride at an amusement park.

We loved this kind of movie, in which most of the human characters are so proud, self-absorbed, or just plain clueless that one tends to root for the animals. The creatures, of course, were there first; it is the people who are interlopers. And like the rat army in the film Willard (for which the young Michael Jackson sang the theme song, Ben), from the year before, the fauna of Frogs were disdained and misunderstood. Their voices needed to be heard. They deserved respect, if not revenge.

Around this same time, we enjoyed another movie with a swampy setting, The Legend of Boggy Creek. It was a docudrama based on sightings of a smelly, hairy Bigfoot-like figure in the remote Arkansas woods. The film attempted a serious tone, which made it all the more laughable to us. Again, we empathized with the creature, whose existential angst was nicely expressed in his unnerving screeches. The rag-tag community of humans that inexplicably made their home in this marshy wilderness did not appreciate the beast’s sporadic appearances and attempts to dine on their pets and livestock. In an attitude common to city kids, we considered ourselves superior to our country counterparts, and the bog-dwelling Arkansawyers on screen were no exception. Yes, we were Southern, but not that Southern. We knew to avoid the double negative, and our accents sounded positively Yankee in comparison. Had anyone reminded me of my rural Kentucky roots, I would have pointed out that my family had the foresight to settle on higher ground.

During our high school years, more and more of Atlanta’s large in-town theatres closed. We continued to flock loyally to those that remained. On weekends we gathered, with crowds of other teenagers, at Garden Hills or The Plaza for midnight showings of Up in Smoke and Rocky Horror Picture Show. This was festive movie-going at its most social, its most raucously, gloriously communal.

The multiplex became more prevalent as the older theatres disappeared. When it was convenient, or for lack of anything better to do, we attended showings in such box-like rooms, the screens hardly larger than some of today’s TVs. A movie like Halloween, which appeared in 1978, was good fun, even at the multiplex. My eagle-eyed boyfriend still managed to note every inadvertent intrusion of the microphone.

My regular movie attendance in Atlanta ended at Toco Hill. Among all the cramped cinema spaces in the city, for years there still survived this 800-seat theatre in a suburban strip mall. Tickets cost just $.99. One needed only to wait a week or two, and nearly every major release came to Toco. Weekend showings filled to capacity, and every age group was well represented. Closed in 2000, the theatre may soon be the site of a bagel company. I hear Atlanta has been an absolute bagel wasteland.

The Plaza, though, now the last of its kind in the city, is still in business. And it still hosts Rocky Horror nights.

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Some of my movie-viewing pals and me,1972.
Apparently, during several years in the 70s, we only
took photos around Christmas time.

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