[Reading time: 5 minutes]
American, 1957, Kaiju Eiga, directed by Fred F. Sears, starring Jeff Morrow, Mara Corday, and the Giant Claw, Columbia Pictures.
If you’ve read my King Kong vs Godzilla review, you know how much I like monster movies, or as they’re called in Japan, “kaiju eiga”. This time, however, our kaiju eiga hails not from the Land of the Rising Sun, but from the good ole United States of America, with a Hollywood monster movie from the 50s! Who is the kaiju in this film? What kind of American monster will our valiant heroes be battling? Will it be an alien, a dragon, an octopus, a giant insect, or Donald Trump’s toupee? No, it’s the “Giant Claw”. What’s a “Giant Claw”, you say? Well, I’m glad you asked…
Our story begins, as many other American films do, in a military airbase, where a brave airman called Mitch McAfee (50s indie cinema star Jeff Morrow) is conducting a series of USAF aircraft tests under the watchful guidance of his superior, General Edward Considine (character actor Morris Ankrum), who doesn’t appreciate the scout’s rebellious and insolent attitude. Mitch’s girlfriend Sally Caldwell (model, Playgirl and actress Mara Corday) is a genius lab assistant who loves him almost as much as she loves science. When a mysterious unidentified flying object appears on the base’s radars, three aircrafts are sent to chase it down, and go missing. Mitch is determined to solve this mystery, and the tension effectively mounts as we get brief glimpses of the flying object, hypotheses are formulated as to its nature, we see the damage it is capable of causing, and as the stress escalates and reaches its peak level, Mitch eventually discovers that the UFO is… Wait, I’ll save that part for later.
Let’s talk about the acting for the moment: the actors are mostly serviceable if lacking in charisma, and deliver decent, but not spectacular, performances. The best actor in the film is Jeff Morrow, who seems to channel James Dean at times in his cocky, defiant attitude, and his constant verbal sparring with Ankrum’s bossy General is a nice light touch in a film that is otherwise very serious in tone, or at least, intended to be serious (more on that later on…) Mara Corday does a good job of being a romantic interest who ISN’T just another boring “damsel in distress”: her scientific knowledge is what saves the day in the end, and not once does she find herself screaming, fainting, or forced to make the male heroes a sandwich. Of course, she’s no Black Widow, but for a film released in the 1950s, it’s a nice change to have a competent woman scientist rather than another outdated stereotype of a chauvinistic era.
The story, too, is largely effective, with a progressive escalation of tension leading to an explosive all-out finale in New York City. The question that permeates the film is whether or not the Giant Claw should be killed, and later, how to kill it, seeing as it is seemingly invincible. This could very easily have been a very scary and tense monster masterpiece, a film well on its way to joining the original King Kong and Godzilla films in the pantheon of black-and-white horror pictures. However…
SPOILER WARNING: I’m about to tell you what the Giant Claw is! If you want to watch the film, STOP READING, OK? PS, don’t watch the film.
Still with us? OK, fine, I’ll spoil ahead… The UFO is a monster, the titular Giant Claw, which is a gigantic extraterrestrial bird, bigger than a battleship, resistant to any kinds of weapons or projectiles thanks to its “antimatter shield”, and capable of crashing planes and eating their pilots. So far, so fearsome. You might hope that the giant bird looks absolutely terrifying, on the level of the threat it represents for our heroes and the world… And yet, when the Claw arrives on screen, the reaction it elicits is not one of fright, or even of indifference, but a reaction somewhere between, at best, a mild smile or chuckle, and at worst, outright hilarity. It is almost a major disappointment to see that the vicious volatile villain looks like a cross between an angry turkey that escaped from an abattoir at Thanksgiving, and a hideous cartoon vulture ready to prey on the corpse of Wile E. Coyote! The beast is portrayed by an unconvincing marionette, which rumor has it, was conceived by a low-rent Mexican taxidermist after producer Sam Katzman had to cancel his original plan, which was to have it made by noted model artist Ray Harryhausen. While the creature’s movements are relatively fluid and realistic for the time, though far from perfect, it’s hard to take the threat realistically for a single second when the creature looks so ridiculous, especially when its screech sounds like someone put a live monkey into a meat grinder!
Overall, I can’t really say that The Giant Claw is the worst movie I’ve ever seen on the level of something like, say, Howard the Duck, Food Fight, or Holiday in Handcuffs, but nor is it an underappreciated classic like Wonder Woman or Batman & Robin; if anything, it’s more like King Kong vs Godzilla, a film which has the potential of being truly good, but doesn’t have the production values to back up its bold premise. The plot, pace, script, and acting are all par for the course in 50s horror films, and though it excels at nothing, it at least provides decent entertainment for creature-feature enthusiasts. But then, that bird comes on screen looking like something out of The Muppet Show, and all the good work that went into making this movie just fizzles out and the ensemble collapses onto itself in a gelatinous gusher of cheese, like a failed attempt at making a savory soufflé. I try my hardest to keep a straight face during the film’s better parts, but then, here comes the Claw shrieking its piercing “WRAAAWK WRAAAAWK!!!”, and I start bursting into uncontrollable hysterics as New York is attacked once more by the terrifying turducken.
Score: 8 out of 10.
Recommended for: fans of “kaiju eiga” who want to see what an American giant monster movie looks like; people who like giant ugly raptor birds; people who want to pursue a career in movie special effects, and want an example of what NOT to do.
Next week, it’s more monster madness for the Master of Movie Disaster, as he reviews POKEMON: MEWTWO STRIKES BACK, an innocent and wholesome children’s cartoon about genetic engineering, cloning ethics, war and death… oh, and Pikachu is in it too.