Well I’ve taken a look at quite a number of vintage treasures for Curnblog, most of them in the realm of science-fiction and fantasy, with a couple of them being quintessential, influential classics from that crazy decade, the 1950s. So, it should come as no surprise that I would return to said decade to look at yet another sci-fi film from that era, this time one that was cheaply made, and would in the sixty years following its initial release gain infamy thanks to countless home video viewings and Internet speculation based on one embarrassingly bad effect alone. This film happened to be one of the very few misunderstood gems that I missed watching in my youth, and which somehow avoided being riffed on by one of my childhood favorites shows of all time, Mystery Science Theater 3000. But before I get to the subject of this review, I want to give a little bio of my pre-teen cinephilia.
In my mid-to-late childhood years – and most particularly during the 1990s – when I was growing up in Tennessee and South Carolina, I pretty much ate up everything that I saw on the standard 4:3 screen, most of it in pan-and-scan long before the days of various disc video formats and widescreen TVs. It all started with my dad, who during the early days of home video viewing would build his home video collection using the following technique. He would rent a video from chains like Blockbuster and tape it onto a blank cassette. The movies that he recorded onto the blanks were pretty much my introduction to cinema.
Several notable examples (apart from the original Star Wars trilogy) included John Houston’s Moby Dick (1956) which was my intro to Gregory Peck, Richard Basehart, Harry Andrews, Orson Welles, and Ray Bradbury (who wrote the screenplay). There was also Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). There was Silver Bullet (1985), my intro to Stephen King and first R-rated movie. And then there were my first 1950s monster movies, the killer giant-ants classic Them! (1954) and the re-edited 1957 U.S. English-dubbed cut of Rodan (1956), the latter being my intro to the Japanese kaiju eiga films of Ishiro Honda that included the original Godzilla. (As the original 1954 Japanese version would not be released in the United States until its 50th Anniversary in 2004, I was stuck with the ’56 “Americanized” version featuring footage of Perry Mason’s Raymond Burr.) And yes, there were eighties classics like Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982) and Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters (1984) and a few episodes from the original Star Trek. Of course, Dad bought a few of the movies on VHS, as the blank tapes in his collection gradually deteriorated from repeated viewing, but it was a great way to start.
And as my brother and I were fans of dinosaurs and any monster movies featuring them, Dad got us GoodTime Video’s VHS trailer compilation, Fantastic Dinosaurs of the Movies!, a collage of classic monster movie previews which included the works of stop-motion animation legends Willis O’Brien (King Kong) and Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts); American monster movies like The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and Them!, which both launched the giant creature-feature as a commercially viable genre and inspired the Japanese types; and plenty of B-movies in a similar vein from the 1950s, 60s and early 70s. And all of this before we saw Spielberg’s Jurassic Park in theaters in 1993!
I did my best to follow Dad’s example of building a film collection, starting with the monster movies advertised in the trailers from Fantastic Dinosaurs and working outward. Many of the movies I taped – including When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970) and others like The Land That Time Forgot (1975), which was my introduction to Edgar Rice Burroughs of Tarzan and John Carter fame – were on American Movie Classics and Turner Classic Movies, commercial-free and mostly with introductions from hosts as esteemed as actor-film historian Robert Osborne, and guest filmmaking artists like the late FX icon Stan Winston. And of course, I bought several those titles on VHS at mall stores like FYE Music and Video and Suncoast Motion Picture Company, and more general stores like K-Mart and Walmart, starting in Charleston, South Carolina and then later when we moved to Asheville, North Carolina. It was by this time that DVDs were starting to appear on the horizon – and I had to make the switch from VHS to DVD, just as I have more recently made the gradual switch from DVD to Blu-Ray (and now gradually to 4K Ultra-HD) – but even as VHS was going the way of the dinosaur (no pun intended), I had built up a vast list of titles, a substantial number of them which were sci-fi. Some titles were most notable to me because of the date they were taped – The Quatermass Xperiment (1956), for one, was taped off TCM on 9-11.
But it wouldn’t be until my early 20’s that I finally saw a movie featured in the trailers of Fantastic Dinosaurs, and I began to wonder if I really would have enjoyed it more when I was a kid. It was released in 1957 – six decades ago now, although I don’t intend this to be a film anniversary article – and that year alone was chock full of schlock. That was the same year that gave us true masterpieces and gems like The Bridge on the River Kwai, 12 Angry Men, Touch of Evil, Paths of Glory, Throne of Blood, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Jailhouse Rock, Nights of Cabiria, An Affair to Remember, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Prince and the Showgirl, Sayonara, The Three Faces of Eve and Funny Face. And in terms of sci-fi and horror, we got during that same year the likes of Curse of the Demon (aka Night of the Demon), The Incredible Shrinking Man, Harryhausen’s 20 Million Miles to Earth and Hammer’s banner triple threat of The Abominable Snowman, Quatermass II (aka Enemy From Space) and The Curse of Frankenstein. Some lesser efforts also made the cut, like Kronos, The Invisible Boy (starring Robby the Robot!), The Land Unknown, The Monolith Monsters, The Monster That Challenged the World, The Mysterians, and the original Not of this Earth by Roger Corman (which he later remade with ex-porn star Traci Lords in 1988) and The 27th Day, which are actually not bad despite their limitations.
But that same year is particularly infamous for giving us the likes of The Amazing Colossal Man, Attack of the Crab Monsters, The Aztec Mummy, The Beginning of the End, The Black Scorpion, Blood of Dracula, The Brain from Planet Arous, Cat Girl (the unofficial, unforgiveable remake of 1942’s Cat People, which makes the 1984 Paul Schrader version look vastly superior by comparison), The Cyclops, The Deadly Mantis, From Hell It Came, Invasion of the Saucer-men, The Man Without a Body, Monster from Green Hell, The Night the World Exploded, She Devil, The Unearthly, The Unknown Terror, Voodoo Island, Voodoo Woman, Zombies of Mora Tau… and even The Dead Talk Back, which was filmed that year but not officially released until distributed on home video by Sinister Cinema in 1993 and mocked on MST3K. And to that end, we have the subject of this essay, which as I said before successfully avoided being mocked on MST3K but became infamous in its own way – The Giant Claw (1957), a low point in the careers of its lead stars, producer and director at the time.
The Giant Claw, which was also known under the alternate title The Mark of the Claw and released on a double bill with The Night the World Exploded, was just one of many cheapjack B-films executive-produced by Sam Katzman, who headed the B-movie unit at Columbia Pictures. Katzman had previously done features and serials for Monogram Pictures, later a division of Allied Artists. Most notable are The East Side Kids films, several films starring Bela Lugosi, the highly successful Superman serial in 1948, and the Jungle Jim serials from which he earned his nickname “Jungle Sam!” He was also responsible for several B-flicks, including Creature with the Atom Brain (1955) and Zombies of Mora Tau. Given the 200 features and serials he produced, it would be of no surprise to the viewer of today to find that those films were of financially (if not always artistically) low quality, and The Giant Claw is no exception. Please keep in mind that this was from the time when the studios owned the theaters and churned out every schlock flick to entice the post-World War II baby-boomer crowds, Katzman himself being on par with other B-movie kings like Ed Wood, Samuel Z. Arkoff, Roger Corman and Edward L. Cahn.
It’s not The Giant Claw itself that’s the problem. It pretty much goes by the book of every creature-feature made at the time, complete with black and white film, shoddily mismatched stock footage and models, and continuous (not to mention, after a while, irritating) narration. As you would expect, the plot concerns the hero (either a military officer, scientist or misunderstood teen, in this case an “electronics engineer”) discovering the monster early on but having his report disbelieved by the authorities until several incidents force them to take him seriously; the monster wrecks mayhem and eats people (and attacks models and clumsily integrated stock footage in the process, including fighter jet models not matching those in the stock footage during a dogfight, and with some annoying stock teens against a backscreen in a night driving scene for good measure) while being impervious to conventional weaponry and terrorizing crowds (the stock footage here more or less integrated clumsily); and finally, the hero successfully finds and uses an ingenious method to stop the monster with the help of a female love interest (in this case, a “mathematician and systems analyst”), who he romances in the interim.
For the most part, the film is competently done. It even has some decent build-up, keeping the monster in the wings (again, no pun intended) and developing some mystery around its existence and early destruction, complete with competent and atmospheric cinematography. We are told, rather than being shown, continuously about how the monster looks like a “flying battleship”, helping to drive some suspense regarding the unknown. (The less said about how many times the monster looks like a flying battleship or actually is, the better. Flying battleship my ass!) This is largely thanks to director Fred F. Sears, who before this had just directed the Harryhausen sci-fi effects hit Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) for Katzman (and reused some of the same destruction footage for this movie), and who also directed the first film in the double bill The Night the Earth Exploded.
There’s also some witty dialogue delivered with dead-on acting from the two leads. Former stage and radio actor and commercial artist Jeff Morrow was already well known for playing the alien Exeter from 1955’s This Island Earth, which followed his first big-screen supporting role as a Roman centurion opposite Richard Burton in the first CinemaScope film from 1953, The Robe. He had also starred in The Creature Walks Among Us (1955) and Kronos. He was ably supported by showgirl and actress/pin-up model Mara Corday (1955’s Tarantula, TV’s Combat Sergeant) as the love interest, who later went on to become Playboy Playmate Miss October 1958, tied with fellow showgirl and model-actress Pat Sheehan. Both play characters that are charming and easy to root for (well, save for the part where Morrow’s scientist playfully forces a kiss on a sleeping Corday during an inflight scene, which leads to pillow talk). Both became eventual cult icons, mainly for their work in 50s sci-fi, but in my opinion they deserved better than they got – even prominent critic Leonard Maltin has gone on record saying that Corday had far better acting talent “than she was permitted to exhibit.”
There’s even an attempt to show how past mythology concerning monsters could be integrated into a 50s monster flick. Here we get a rare reference to the French-Canadian myth of la Carcagne, a banshee in bird-like form that appeared in Samuel Hopkins Adams’ story, “Grandfather and a Winter’s Tale.” It’s proof of how the myths and folklore of old could still serve as a template for cautionary sci-fi horror flicks of the post-WWII/Cold War era that allegorized (or at least attempted to), in mostly absurd terms, the fears of nuclear attack emerging from the ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the threat of the communist Soviet Union to the United States through cautionary tales of Earth-based science going awry.
Sadly, the monster in this movie does no justice to the director, stars or referenced myths like la Carcagne. And it is definitely no “flying battleship.”
It’s not even the sketchy science behind the film’s monster that’s the problem – a giant extraterrestrial bird from an anti-matter galaxy light-years from Earth, capable of producing its own anti-matter force field that gives it stealth from radar and immunity to both conventional and nuclear weaponry (and, I would assume, the cold vacuum of space during its travels?). It’s the bird itself. And when the bird does finally make its onscreen appearance more than twenty minutes in… oh my god.
I could describe it as a mutated behemoth California Condor on crack, but that only comes halfway close. Obviously both the most pathetic and obnoxious (not to mention obnoxious-sounding) monster and one of the worst practical effects in motion picture history, the Giant Claw is just a rigid bird puppet with rickety wings connected to a ridiculously long rubber neck, ending in a head with cartoonish boogey eyes that don’t even close, a crooked beak with overly thick teeth sticking out, a wispy-thin Mohawk that poorly predicts the heavy metal scene to follow decades later, and a shriek that sounds like a crumpled boat horn that keeps getting honked over, and over, and over… and over again. And the only thing that’s right about this puppet? Its nostrils flare convincingly and it has anatomically correct feet and talons… well, as far as birds from space modeled after terrestrial birds go. (They even get several close-ups!) The 1950s gave us many ridiculous creations like Robot Monster (1953) and the clunky Venusian robots from Target Earth (1954), but this outdoes them in the Department of Hokeyness… and this article’s author actually – seriously – had nightmares afterwards about his own dick breaking off and mutating into this freak!
It didn’t have to be like this. Katzman had executive-produced the Harryhausen classics It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955) and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) before, and was originally going to bring the “Dynamation” puppetry effects pioneer to design and animate the bird. Audience members who went to see this film thought they would be getting the same effects featured in Katzman’s previous Harryhausen collaborations. But the fact of the matter was that Katzman didn’t really care about the quality of these films, seeing them mostly as ways to keep the studio system intact by making quick cash grabs on the side. And as stop-motion animation takes months of effort and plenty of money to make the animation models come to life, when time and money got short, he opted on short notice to dump Harryhausen and recruit a Mexican effects company to create the monster. Oh the humanity! (As Arnold Schwarzenegger once said while working on 1990’s Total Recall when the producers were worried about the escalating budget, “Pay the turnaround no matter how much it costs.” Words of wisdom.)
Needless to say, this movie was met with fits of laughter during its initial premiere and release, not only from critics and audiences but also the cast and crew who worked on it. This is one of those movies where the actors were filmed reacting to the monster in professional ‘50s acting styles but never actually really got to see it, and after finally seeing it walked away with sheer embarrassment. And as much as people complain about pathetic CGI effects nowadays that don’t age so well or are just lousy to begin with (for example Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson transformed into the Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns, 2001), or the cheesy practical suit and puppetry work in vintage schlock like Reptilicus (1961) and A*P*E (1977), as well as lesser kaiju eigas from Toho and the 60s and 70s Godzilla films, this one pretty much trumps them all.
What’s strange is that, while you would expect a movie like this to be detrimental to the careers of the people who made it, it really wasn’t. Sears made several more films for Katzman before a tragic car crash a few months later ended his life at age 44, with several films completed and released posthumously. Morrow went on to work in television, landing guest roles in Bonanza, The Twilight Zone, and Perry Mason, a lead role in the series Union Pacific, and later, even as he retired from acting, a guest spot in the 1980s Twilight Zone reboot… but not before appearing in a cameo in the low-brow Italian Octaman (1971), written and directed by ‘50s sci-fi veteran Harry Essex, as a nod to his early sci-fi acting career work. Corday worked mostly in television, but in old age she did act opposite her friend Clint Eastwood – who had an early bit part as the commanding pilot in the climax of her Tarantula – in Pink Cadillac (1989) and her final film, The Rookie (1990) which Eastwood directed. As for Katzman, after 1957 he went on to produce over thirty-three more features and the short-lived TV series Tallahassee 7000 before his death in 1973.
So yeah, The Giant Claw is more of a curio or an anomaly… and I guess I should count my blessings that I missed out on this one in my pre-teens and only saw it recently. Had I seen it earlier, I probably would now wonder whatever it was I saw in this film in the first place. It’s not really a bad movie – the “so good it’s bad” kind like Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) or Troll 2 (1990) or Showgirls (1995). The big problem with this film is that, except for that ridiculous-looking E.T. anti-matter turkey vulture – primarily the film’s main claim to fame as a ‘50’s “classic” – it’s otherwise well done for its time and therefore elicits more disappointment than actual delight in its competence in writing, acting, cinematography and direction. If Harryhausen had been hired for the effects, it would probably have simply been one of the above-average features from his early career. But of course, he wasn’t hired, and I will go on record saying that The Giant Claw has probably the most notoriously awful practical effect and monster from 1950s sci-fi celluloid, rivalling Plan 9’s flying saucer models and the Creature from the Haunted Sea in 1961, and I find it hard to forgive this Big Bad(-looking) Bird for the emasculating phallus-detachment-and-mutation nightmares it has given me (but that’s another story). Thankfully, long before finally seeing The Giant Claw, in my teens I found a “flying monster bird movie” to fall back on that remains one of the best of its type and remains a favorite of mine… but that’s a film for another essay.