Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957) review



Richard Garland (Dale Drewer), Pamela Duncan (Martha Hunter), Russell Johnson (Hank Chapman), Leslie Bradley (Dr. Karl Weigand), Mel Welles (Jules Deveroux), Richard H. Cutting (Dr. James Carson), Beach Dickerson (Ron Fellows), Charles Griffith (Tate), Maitland Stuart (Mac), David Arvedon (voice of Hoolar the Giant Crab)

Directed by Roger Corman

The Short Version: Seven years before he was marooned on Gilligan's Island, Russell Johnson was part of another expedition that ends up trapped on an island dominated by gigantic, atomically enhanced crabs with both the gift of gab and a taste for human flesh. There's action, some brief gore, and bad special effects aplenty. A lot more fun than you'd expect it to be due to the unapologetically ludicrous premise. Played entirely straight, the thought of giant, telepathic crabs hellbent on world domination dares you to keep a straight face the duration of the "Tidal Wave of Terror" promised by the film's trailer. It's all you can eat crab legs, cheap but delicious for the seafood horror lover in you.


After communication is cut off on a Pacific island where scientists were conducting experiments on the effects of nuclear fallout, a second group of scientists and other personnel are sent to find out what has happened to them. Upon their arrival, they immediately discover dangers both on the island and beneath the waves when a crew member is decapitated by something underwater. Finding all of the previous group have mysteriously disappeared, the rescue team themselves become stranded on the dangerously unstable island. Strange noises, including disembodied voices, leads to the discovery of gigantic, irradiated crabs that not only eat their victims, but absorb their intelligence; and intend to make meals of them all.

The 1950s was the decade of Atomic Monsters, and particularly movies about giant bugs. The high point of these is unequivocally Gordon Douglas's THEM! (1954). Towards the low end, but above bottom-dwellers like THE CYCLOPS and BEGINNING OF THE END (both 1957) lies Roger Corman's ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS (1957). At just a little over an hour, Corman keeps his pace as brisk as the silliness. Writer Charles B. Griffith was a frequent Corman collaborater (he has a small role in the picture) and his script is a good one despite its ridiculous scenario. The pitch meeting must have been an eyebrow-raiser for sure. "Well, you see, these people are trapped on an island by giant, regenerating crabs that talk and use telepathy to lure the humans to their deaths." It's an utterly absurd premise that's far more fun than you'd think.

As corny as talking crabs with bulging eyeballs are, Corman manages some minor tension in the film's early scenes. There's some palpable eeriness to the fog-encrusted shoreline and some moody atmosphere enhancing some stock miniature shots during a storm. Apparently audiences were privy to it as well. CRAB MONSTERS was made for a reported $70,000 and made more money than any of Corman's movies up to that point.

The giant crabs are goofy-looking, parade-level constructs that are about as mobile as the alien cucumber from Corman's IT CONQUERED THE WORLD (1956). Apparently there are some moments where you can see the shoes of the crew members operating the big crab. You see a few brief glimpses of them early on, but mostly the creepy clacking sounds of their claws; that is till they reveal they can talk, and start boasting about world domination.

Made for Allied Artists between AIP gigs, Corman's directorial prowess is in abundance, as is his "all hands on deck" approach to filmmaking where many of the crew performed more than one duty on set. Despite the minuscule budget, the picture is remarkably well made. Corman and his crew are able to give the impression of an isolated island locale when it's just Leo Carillo beach in California. Some (presumably stock) shots complement this illusion; but it's later betrayed by some of the underwater shots filmed at the now closed Marineland park in Los Angeles. Lots of movies and television programs filmed there before and after its closure in 1987.

Third-billed Russell Johnson is one of the few cast members that went on to a successful Hollywood career. For him it was primarily in television. Other than CRAB MONSTERS, Johnson pops up in a few other SciFi features, some of them bonafide classics such as IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953) and THIS ISLAND EARTH (1955). His last genre picture was THE SPACE CHILDREN in 1958. He did however appear in small screen SciFi with a 1964 episode of THE OUTER LIMITS (1963--1965) and a 1967 episode of THE INVADERS (1967--1968). Johnson starred in two TWILIGHT ZONE (1959--1964) episodes, both of which dealt with time travel--the classic 'Back There' saw him travel back to 1865 to try and stop Lincoln's assassination; and in 'Execution', he creates a time machine that brings an Old West murderer dangling from the hangman's noose to then modern-day 1961.

Elsewhere on the film front,  he appeared in some great westerns; such as LAW AND ORDER (1953), where he co-starred with future President of the United States Ronald Reagan playing Reagan's brother, Jimmy Johnson. Around the same time he appeared in some Audie Murphy adventures like COLUMN SOUTH (1953) and RIDE CLEAR OF DIABLO (1954); and the 3-D western TAZA, SON OF COCHISE (1954) starring Rock Hudson and Jeff Chandler. He played a vicious gunfighter on the season 2 episode of GUNSMOKE (1955-1975), 'Bloody Hands' from 1957. Johnson had three other guest appearances on the show playing different characters. But his most recognized role was playing the Professor on three seasons of GILLIGAN'S ISLAND (1964--1967) and three Made For TV movies and voicing on cartoon series.

Mel Welles is another name on the roster, only not necessarily in star status. Cult film fans know his face primarily as the flower shop owner in Roger Corman's THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1960); but he had a very busy career behind the camera as well as in front of it. Welles was a director and performed voice acting on a variety of foreign pictures. He was fluent in several languages so this came in handy for his prolific sojourn overseas; particularly when writing and or directing such entertaining movies like MANEATER OF HYDRA (1967) and LADY FRANKENSTEIN (1971).

Roger Corman directed several other highly entertaining SciFi cheapies in a similar mold to CRAB MONSTERS, but none quite as fun as this bad movie made good. The title is one of the catchiest, exploitation-heavy monikers ever devised, and it's attached to a movie that matches it. If you're a fan of Corman, Drive-in movies, vintage and cheaply made SciFi, you will welcome this ATTACK into your blu-ray player.

This review is representative of the Scream Factory blu-ray. Specs and extras: 1080p anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1; new 2K scan from a fine grain print limited to 1,000 units; audio commentary with Tom Weaver, John and Mike Brunas; A Salute to Roger Corman featurette; theatrical trailer; running time: 01:02:51

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