Monday, October 12, 2020

The Quest (aka Frog Dreaming) - A Forgotten 80's Horror/Adventure Flick for Kids

 When most people think of actor Henry Thomas they think of the movie E.T., and rightfully so. It is by far his most well known role and the movie is a classic. My mind, though, produces images and scenes from another movie that is a good bit more obscure. I think of a VHS case with said actor standing in black, inky water, a rifle in one hand and homemade scuba gear strapped to his back. Behind him a creature raises out of the depths, long neck and jaws dripping with slime and moss. In typical 80's fashion, the title The Quest is scrawled in thick, paint-brush-swipe font with neon pink shadowing.

The movie made an impression on me. It was one of those that my mother probably rented in the late eighties when I was less than ten years old, and I devoured it as I had so many other movies that cycled through the VCR from the rental stores during those times. In my thirties I still remembered bits and snippets of that movie, like the muddy water of the abandoned quarry where it was filmed, the isolated setting, the thought of some hidden monster hidden in the murk, and the bubbling and frothing from the center of the pond when the beast was about to make its appearance. I remembered the title The Quest.

Some twenty years after I first laid eyes on that movie, though, I found it hard to locate. You would think in the vast reaches of the internet that any and every movie you could think of would just be a couple of clicks away, but that wasn't the case. At least not at first. Over the years I would search Google for "The Quest" and it would turn up with a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. I did locate a VHS copy through ebay that I quickly snatched up. Eventually I discovered that the movie was only titled The Quest in the U.S. In it's native land of Australia, where it was filmed, the movie's title was Frog Dreaming.

I didn't know what the hell frog dreaming meant, but once I learned that it was the title I searched on Amazon. Sure enough it popped up (as of this writing it is available for free on Amazon Prime). I bought the digital copy there for around four bucks, and sat down to relive my childhood.

Maybe nostalgia overpowers my other senses, but I felt the movie held up really well. It's basically a kids adventure movie with an eerie twist. Henry Thomas' character, Cody, is a fourteen-year-old inventor. He's a bit of a rebel, but a likeable one that tests the limits of his endurance with his own brand of science experiments (a more subdued version of Data from The Goonies comes to mind). He and his friends stumble upon an abandoned quarry while exploring the dense forests of Australia.

This quarry creeped me out to no end as a kid. In the very first scene in the movie, before we meet Cody, a man is resting in a rowboat on a pond. Cliff faces surround him. The place is still. Frogs hope from lily pads at the bank, disappearing into the brown water. A ramshackle hut sits near a small dock, and a rusted windmill twitches in a light breeze. When I saw the windmill more memories came back. Yes! The windmill! It will start turning faster, it's squeaks changing from lazy squeals to a continuous, high-pitched rattle and as it does, the still surface of the pond will begin to roil and bubble. And it did. Something impossibly big sloshes around, and the windmill announces the creature's presence. The man in the rowboat manages to get out of the water (after his boat capsizes) but sees something so terrifying that, we find out later, he dies of fright. 

The pond is the centerpiece of the story, and the main source of mood and atmosphere. The underwater scenes throughout the film are eerie and unsettling. One other scene, though, brought back memories of watching as a child. Cody decides he has to know what is going on at the quarry after he and his friends catch a glimpse of the beast. He goes on a trek that takes him downriver from the coast to find a man called Charlie Pride, who knows of a legend called donkegin. The local people take him to see this man, and Cody ends up at a boat dock at night. It is about to storm. Thunder and lighting crack in the distance. Charlie Pride reveals himself on the dock, where a veil of mist drifts along the river and casts a feeling of spectral mystery over the scene. Cody, who doesn't frighten easily, approaches the man and asks him about donkegin. Charlie points to the end of the dock, and tells him to "dance with the devil," and then he'll know about donkegin. Cody looks, and at the dock's far edge a shape moves and twitches. It is backlit, and the light casts its limbs as elongated shadows that reach out into the fog. Again, great setpieces, and great atmosphere. When Cody reaches the end of the pier he finds that the figure isn't a devil. It isn't a living thing at all. It's a prop hanging from the ceiling, no more than a scarecrow, and it is attached by an arm to a boat moored at the dock. As the boat sways, the creature moves. It's an interesting piece of foreshadowing for the climax of the movie.

The movie's ending, though not quite filled with the monster magic it implies, was still memorable to me. In fact if there were two moments that always stuck out to me as a kid, it would be the first scene in the quarry when the mystery of donkegin first makes itself known, and the ending. 

Cody is a cool kid. He devises his own, homemade diving gear in order to search for donkegin in the bottom of the pond (I always wanted to do that afterwards). When he uses his equipment and goes missing beneath the surface, his friend has to run home and tell everyone he's trapped or, more likely, drowned. The authorities begin draining the pond. We discover the donkegin, like the "devil" at the end of Charlie Pride's pier, isn't a creature at all; Cody is trapped inside an old mining crane underwater. The long neck and head of donkegin are the jib arm and shovel bucket of the crane covered in seaweed, mud, and slime. The windmill somehow activates the machine. When raised from the depths it looks like some prehistoric water beast, but the gunk soon starts falling off of it to reveal what it truly is. The image of the thing, roaring its rusted metal roar, was burned into my brain the first time I saw it. With how far we've come today with graphics in movies, the effects of this are probably considered laughable. Still, if you can look past some of those shortcomings there are a lot of thrills to be had.

It turns out the term frog dreaming basically means cursed. I'm not sure if this is a real term or one made up for the movie. Cody explains it early on when he tells his friends the whole area is filled with frog dreamings, which are like sacred sites or haunted places. Weird name for a haunting, and a weird name for the movie itself, but I guess The Quest isn't exactly a memorable title either.

One thing I suppose I should mention is the probable political incorrectness of some of the language in the film. I'm not sure of how volatile race relations are in Australia but if they're anything like the U.S., some people won't be happy with some of the words used. The terms "blackfella" and just "blacks" are used several times, and though it doesn't seem overly derogatory in context it does seem to imply a separate entity - i.e. they are them, and we are us. Kind of like separate but equal. I didn't take it as intentional disrespect to the people of aboriginal descent (which I did not know were considered black until I looked this up), but I did learn that among some it is considered offensive to use the term "blackfella". Other web pages suggest that blackfella is a common term used to describe a certain way of life in Australia. I don't know enough about it to make an educated stand one way or the other, so I'll just mention it here and let the viewer judge for themselves.

All in all, the movie was still a lot of fun all these years later. It wasn't exactly scary, but the air of mystery that pervades it was enough to keep me interested even today as I watched. I held onto memories of that murky pond and the crane monster for over thirty years until I found it again. I feel that it lived up to the hype of my childhood mind. 

Long live donkegin!