[Editor's Note: Although I'm taking the summer off from looking at violent thrillers & horror movies, Brennan Klein has very kindly offered to take up the slack. Every Saturday this month, he'll be taking us on a tour of the German crime genre that led into the Italian crime genre that led into the American horror genre that etc. etc. etc. Enjoy, and thanks, Brennan! -Tim]

I'm sure you're all familiar with the 80's slasher and - if you're a committed reader of Summer of Blood - the Italian giallo genre of the 70's that bled into it. And you're certainly familiar with the grandaddy of all these slashers, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho from 1960. But here's the thing about cinema history. Whenever you try to pinpoint the "first" of anything, there's always going to be some progenitor lurking in the wings that was doing the same thing even earlier than you could possibly conceive. This takes us back to 1959 and the beginning of the German krimi cycle.

When producer Waldfried Barthel decided to acquire the rights to two of British author Edgar Wallace's crime novels with an option for more should the movies be successful, there's no way he could have known he was setting European cinema on a path that would lead to dozens of increasingly violent Wallace adaptations in the proceeding decade. But commercial cinema loves to repeat a success, and his first effort made such a splash that the rushing tide of newly spawned krimi (meaning "crime thriller") was irreversible.

The film in question is Der Frosch mit der Maske, adapted from the 1925 novel The Fellowship of the Frog, which also gives the movie its English language title. It tells the tale of a crime syndicate whose members are all marked with a frog-shaped brand. While they cause chaos in the streets of London, leaving behind a trail of empty safes and bloody corpses, Scotland Yard - particularly Inspector William Elk (Siegfried Lowitz), and the chief's American nephew, amateur sleuth Richard Gordon (Joachim Fuchsberger) - dash around trying to shut them down. Meanwhile, the leader of this group - a mysterious masked man known as "The Frog" (Himself) - has set his eyes on the beautiful Ella Bennet (Eva Anthes), coercing her to be with him in any way possible. Including implicating her brother John (Carl Lange) in his criminal enterprise.

So here we already have a familiar horror trope couched in this crime thriller. Like all of my favorite slashers, there's an integral whodunit element. This masked villain in particular is already as baroque and creepy as a deep-80's slasher thriller. It's not some Halloween "frog" design, but rather a featureless gas mask with bulging eyes that evoke a frog in a manner more menacing than I would have ever thought possible.

Kermit has a big surprise coming when he gets his 23 and Me results back.

The kills - and there are kills, they reach the double digits in fact - tend to be far from what we've come to expect from a slasher in modern times (we get a lot of gunshot and squib action, which is poison to a traditional slasher movie), but also a couple intriguingly outré blasts of poison gas and one throat slashing that is rather gruesome considering the time period. We don't see the wound, but the seepage of blood from behind the hand of the man in question is certainly evocative.

There isn't much beyond this in the realm of true slasherdom, but we could hardly expect that from a film that's both of this particular vintage and the first in a cycle that's only going to get bolder and more over-the-top with every entry. What's intriguing is how many other tropes and genres it manages to draw in and blend with its murderous mayhem.

Considering the British bent of its source material, there are a lot of proto-James Bond tropes in the mix, including a throwing knife-wielding henchman of whom I am particularly fond. But Fellowship of the Frog also manages to wedge in a bit of screwball romantic comedy (the flirtation between Richard and Ella couldn't have aged worse - a major moment in their affair is him literally breaking into her house to snoop around) and a full production number (the Lolita nightclub forms the center of one of the Frogs' operations, but not until we see Eva Pflug warble every last second of "Nachts im Nebel an der Themse").

This blend of genres is certainly unusual, but it's not even the most interesting blend in Fellowship of the Frog. This is a typical Scotland Yard crime drama, but filtered through the not entirely discerning eyes of German continentals. They approach the material with gusto (every single character in the movie feels compelled to give a menacing look to the camera whenever they're left alone, and when we find out that the criminal's accomplice has a cleft chin, suddenly everybody we meet looks like Clark Kent), but the clipped, exaggerated primness of the dialogue is truly delectable and reaches near-parodic levels in one of my favorite exchanges:
"What a horrible crime, and on a Sunday too..."

"Pull yourself together, man! YOU weren't murdered."
Things proceed cheerily on from there in as British a manner as possible, until all of a sudden a figure with a gun emerges from a trapdoor like Nosferatu rising from his coffin, and we're squarely back into pure German terror mode. It's a heady cocktail, to be sure, and one that livens up proceedings that can tend ever-so slightly toward the tedious when we aren't directly interacting with The Frog.

The biggest flaw of Fellowship of the Frog are these scenes, in fact. They're almost exclusively cast with white men between the ages of 35 and 45, and it can be quite difficult to discern who is doing what at any given moment. This is a problem to the point that when the identity of The Frog is finally revealed, I literally had no idea who I was looking at. But no matter, in a film as chock full of wild leaps into fistfights, double crossings, hidden surveillance cameras, and secret late night signals, it's impossible not to have a good time. Hopefully the proto-slashing will amp up in following entries, but if every film is even remotely as delightful to watch as this one, this is going to be a very happy month.

Body Count: 11; 5 by gunshot, 2 by poison gas, 3 by knife, and 1 by a careening bus. I'm not entirely certain I've included everyone who dies in a shootout between the police and the Frogs, but at the very least this number reflects every moment that could conceivably be considered a "body count" death and not just crime story window dressing.

Brennan Klein is a writer and podcaster who talks horror movies every chance he gets. And when you’re talking to him about something else, he’s probably thinking about horror movies. You can find his other work on his Dread Central column applying film school theory to silly horror movies, his Ghastly Grinning column pairing the week’s releases with the perfect classic horror double feature, and his blog Popcorn Culture where among other movie reviews, he is running through every slasher film of the 1980’s. Also check out his podcasts, Scream 101, where he and a non-horror nerd co-host tackle horror reviews with a new sub-genre every month, and Attack of the Queerwolf!, an LGBTQ discussion of horror classics that he produces for the Blumhouse Podcast Network.