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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Reel Bad Cinema: The Giant Claw (1957) review



Jeff Morrow (Mitch MacAfee), Mara Corday (Sally Caldwell), Robert Shayne (General Van Buskirk), Morris Ankrum (Lt. General Edward Considine)

Directed by Fred F. Sears

"Yow! Holy Toledo! I've seen some big chicken hawks back on the farm, but man, this baby takes the cake... Honest to Pete, I'll never call my mother-in-law an old crow again..."--two Air Force pilots about to become food for a giant turkey.

The Short Version: The letter 'B' means so many things in relation to this timeless, fun 50s favorite about a "bird as big as a battleship" from outer space that not only attacks the Earth and builds a nest, but it also laid an egg at the box office. The butt of jokes for years, and an embarrassment for those involved, this titanic turkey has an inept charm most movies of its ilk can't replicate. Undercooked in design and execution, the mutant muppet nonetheless gets more screen time than most other movie monsters do; although it does run a-fowl of destruction stock footage syndrome on occasion. An historic disaster, it's also the only giant bird movie made in America. Japan had better success with RODAN (1956) while we got stuck with THE GIANT FLAW. 

"SCREAMING DOWN FROM THE STRATOSPHERE", a giant diseased looking turkey puppet monstrosity from outer space comes to Earth to build a nest and munch on miniature Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Striking "PANIC FROM BROOKLYN TO BOMBAY", the mighty muppet proves impervious to modern weapons. Thankfully, a scientist devises "Atomic Spitballs" powerful enough to penetrate the anti-matter shield of this "FANTASTIC FLYING MONSTER", successfully severing the wires holding it up, and sending it into the sea -- denying millions of a hearty Thanksgiving dinner.

SciFi-Monster movies of the 1950s were often much more than mere entertainment. Not only did you get outer and inner space threats, but you also got lessons in science and how things work at military installations. The glorification of scientific discoveries, breakthroughs, and military advancements were staples of genre cinema during this era. This grand gobbler from 1957 is no different. There's frequent babble-icious discussions of matter, anti-matter, protons, neutrons, electrons and even morons. 

Aside from learning about science and how it works, every aspect of Sears movie unravels with the utmost seriousness... till the alien feathered fury shows up, that is. And even in the presence of the title creature, the actors display a level of fear that could be just as easily translated as one of those looks of "What the hell have I gotten myself into?!"

In their defense, the actors were ensured the creature was going to be as terrifying as their acting would make it out to be. In the end, no one (particularly in front of the camera) knew just what the 'Giant Claw' was going to look like till the picture hit theaters. However, the trailer is packed with images of the title turkey, so it begs the question, "Did no one see the damn trailer beforehand?!" The film is startlingly well acted for this sort of thing -- much to the chagrin of the actors upon getting a gander at the mutant muppet. It's this earnestness that clashes with the spectacularly tacky special effects that makes this such an enjoyable mess of a movie. As straight-faced as the actors take the scenario, the dialog itself is occasionally ridiculous. 

Some of the lines are downright rotten -- turned into pearls of wisdom by the fervent conviction delivered by the actors. Such is the case when some military officials are discussing how to kill the bird and one of them jokingly suggests, "Electronic Spitballs" to which Jeff Morrow's MacAfee (no, not the anti-virus protection service) retorts, "Close, General, close. Only not Electronic Spitballs. Atomic Spitballs!!"

Then there's the multitude of times the bird (or when it's mistaken for a UFO) is referred to as being 'as big as a battleship' -- Not just in the movie, but the trailer, too!

The Bird is definitely the word in THE GIANT GUFFAW. Built by Mexican effects technicians, the producer, Sam Katzman, reportedly bragged about how great the title nemesis was going to be, and that the bulk of the budget was going to be spent on the ever so "special" special effects. Some bridges were definitely being bought and sold on this piece of cinematic chicken scratch. As far as puppets go, the slapped together bug-eyed feather duster curls its lips, flares its nostrils and eyebrows while it's mostly immobile everywhere else. It also has its own unique bird squawk that sounds sort of like "RAT, RAT, RAT!!! UH, OH! RAT, RAT, RAT!!!" 

In the end, the foul fowl resembled a cross between Beaky Buzzard and a mutant ancestor to Gonzo the Great and Marty Feldman. Could it be the marionette masters of Katzman's movie possibly inspired the chicken lovin', misfit artist popularly seen on Jim Henson's THE MUPPET SHOW? 

Seeing it in all its nappy headed, warty, Dermatitis-ridden splendor, this wire propelled abomination is anything but the poultry of pulchritude. It's as ugly as they come. And it looks bad. Really bad. You'll find it nigh impossible to name another movie with a monster this cataclysmically awful that gets as much screen time as this undercooked turkey sandwich gets. The aerial "dogfight", among other action "highlights", is of special note. Not only do the model planes not match up with the stock footage aircraft, but we get to see the bug-eyed big bird noshing on the parachuting pilots as they make a futile escape.

Speaking of stock footage, viewers familiar with EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS (1956) will spy bits of Ray Harryhausen's spectacular destruction footage inserted to enhance the "strings and firecracker" special effects this production cooked up. You'll even see a glimpse of a UFO crashing inside a building at one point! Outside of bits and pieces culled from other sources (like 1953s WAR OF THE WORLDS), and not to be outdone, the plumed squawk box goes on its own low budget rampage destroying both the Empire States and United Nations buildings.

Furthermore, the stock footage crowd scenes are a riot, too. During one brief shot, you'll spot a man in the seemingly disinterested crowd take off his hat and wave at the camera!

"I'm not being flippant. I'm not wisecracking. I'm just scared... we all are, I guess. So let's face that and try and do something about that bird!"--Jeff Morrow's line of dialog could also apply to his horror after seeing THE GIANT CLAW at its theatrical premiere.

Jeff Morrow did a string of quality SciFi movies during this time period. Unfortunately, THE GIANT CLAW isn't among them. It's quality of a different sort. His genre credits include the likes of the colorful classic THIS ISLAND EARTH (1955), the underrated THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956), the unique KRONOS (1957), and appearances in stinkers like LEGACY OF BLOOD and OCTAMAN (both 1971). Compared with Morrow's other genre pictures, THE GIANT CLAW is in a class all by itself.

The stunning Mara Corday became one of the most popular "scream queens" in SciFi movies. She only appeared in three of them, but Corday definitely stood out not just for her curvaceousness, but also for her acting ability. Her status as a popular pinup model and 1958 Playboy Playmate enhanced her viability with genre cinema fans. Her stint in monster movies lasted within a two year time frame beginning with 1955s TARANTULA and then with THE BLACK SCORPION and ending with THE GIANT CLAW (both 1957).

THE GIANT CLAW, for all its faults, has attained a certain degree of cult status that belies its numerous deficiencies. People love it because of its radioactive level of badness. How ironic that the cast treated the material with absolute professionalism only to later discover the cinematic turkey waddle they were ultimately appearing in. The picture is actually quite well made much of the time; and if the monster had turned out better, we'd be looking at an entirely, and differently toned movie altogether. Over 50 years after its theatrical run, THE GIANT CLAW continues to be remembered fondly by SciFi fans and bad movie buffs alike. It's without doubt, one of the most enduringly entertaining movies of the 1950s -- even if it's for all the wrong reasons.

This review is representative of the Columbia Icons of Horror Collection 2 disc set.


Dead Moon Night said...

Great writeup! Where did you buy your copy?

venoms5 said...

Hi, DMN. I bought it at either Best Buy or amazon. I got it when it first came out so I am not sure which it was. But amazon has copies for under $11. There are three other films in the set -- CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN, ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU and THE WEREWOLF.

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