The Giant Claw

December 7th, 2014 by Perfesser Deviant

The Giant Claw   giant claw poster 1957 cr 80x120 sci fi reviews horror Directors: Fred F. Sears
Writers: Samuel Newman & Paul Gangelin
Release Year: 1957

When giant space-birds attack.

Electronics expert Mitch MacAfee (Jeff Morrow) is working with the US Defense Department to calibrate their northern radar network when he sees a UFO that he describes as a “flying battleship”. No one, not even the lovely female mathematician Sally Caldwell (Mara Corday) believes him, but soon the plane that they’re flying out on is downed by… something. Soon it becomes clear that there’s a giant bird flying around that’s immune to any kind of attack. So it’s up to the scientists to find a way to deal with the problem with the entire strength of the military behind them….

Oh, the giant bird is really, really stupid-looking.

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(Spoilers follow…)

The plot of the film is nothing special for 50s creature-features. A monster appears – due to radiation, from space, or from the depths of the sea – and proves to be impervious to conventional military technology. Scientists have to work hard to come up with a new weapon to defeat the creature and then either succeed or fail, but either way, mankind is dealt a bit of a spanking. These films were representative of the paranoia of the Cold War era and gave form to the fears that people had that the United States – and so, by extension, us – would someday meet up with a force that the people in charge would somehow not be able to defeat. Most Americans really couldn’t handle this idea very well because they didn’t like borscht.

I agree.

The Giant Claw   The Giant Claw 1 sci fi reviews horror Another thing that’s common to these monster movies is a romance buds while the terror is ongoing; in this case, the new love is between Mitch and Sally. Mitch seduces Sally in a creepy scene on an airplane where he kisses her like a slightly rapy Prince Charming and his Sleeping Beauty; actually, did you ever read those Beauty books by Anne Rice? Never mind that, their banter on the airliner becomes too indiscreet for the 50s and another passenger (George Cisar) has to ask them to keep it down. The reality is, during periods of extreme stress, people are more likely to form mating bonds as a defense of the species. Often, these bonds become less strong after the stress is removed, which is why the basis of a good marriage is living in fear; which is probably why people tended to stay married for life during the Cold War.

The Giant Claw   The Giant Claw 2 sci fi reviews horror One thing that’s a lot less common in 50s movies is the way that the character of Sally Caldwell is handled. Usually, she’d be a shrinking violet or a tough broad – or both really, one after another – but Sally isn’t a “woman” character, she’s just a character. She’s smart (she’s the one who reasons that the bird has arrived on Earth to build a nest), competent (her mathematics skills are needed to design the weapon used against the bird), and does her best to make herself useful in ending the threat (even flying into combat with the bird when she’s called to). When a bunch of teens are killed, she looks away, but even tough Mitch has a look of misery on his face – he’s also driving, and looking away would be a bad idea – yet she still runs to help the survivors. No one ever questions a woman being involved in all these events, except Mitch, and that’s not because he believes that it’s too dangerous for a woman, but because he loves her and wants to protect her. Further, she never has to fall down or be rescued – in fact, she saves herself and stays cool under difficult situations – and it’s shocking that a film from 1957 is more progressive than a lot of films nowadays. Even if the filmmakers had pulled an inverse Ripley and changed her gender to male, there would have been very few differences… except the now-gay romance, which probably wouldn’t have flown in the 1950s.

The Giant Claw   The Giant Claw 3 sci fi reviews horror You know what else wouldn’t have flown? The stupid-looking giant bird. The special effects in this film are really, really, REALLY bad. The bird looks like a cross between a turkey-vulture and a plain turkey, but with teeth, whiskers, a mohawk, flaring nostrils and big googly crossed eyes; note that this was several years before Karen Black made a very similar look her own. Yes, the special effects are terrible, the bird itself is laughable, the wires holding up the mismatched model planes are clearly visible, and the scene where the bird picks up a model train is hilariously bad; seriously, it looks like someone simply had claws grab this model train and carry it off like a bunch of sausage links. Incidentally, carrying off a whole train is just not possible as the couplers are neither designed for three-dimensional movement nor are they strong enough to support the weight of a train dangling below.

The Giant Claw   The Giant Claw 4 sci fi reviews horror Speaking of weight, a creature the size of this bird would not be able to fly as it would be too heavy. This film is ignorant when it comes to science, partially because it was the 1950s and the general public’s knowledge of atomic structure and such was much more limited. What is a little less forgivable is the whole idea that the bird is protected by a field of antimatter that stops bullets, missiles, and other projectiles but allows planes, guys in parachutes and even buildings to get through. Now, it’s really nothing new that there would be some bullshit “Science!” explanation for the field – it was needed to make the film last longer than it took for the military to go say “hi” to their new feathered friend – but a bit of thought could have made it make more sense, like that the bird was composed of material so tough that our weapons can’t scratch it. Still, it’s a minor quibble. The finale with generals Edward Considine (Morris Ankrum) and Van Buskirk (Robert Shayne) taking the pilot seats as Mitch, Sally and Dr. Karol Noymann (Edgar Barrier) – who’d been working with them on their ray-gun – finish putting the weapon together in flight is fun enough to be satisfying.

The Giant Claw   The Giant Claw 5 sci fi reviews horror The thing is, this film is really two movies: the movie the cast (and probably most of the crew) thought they were making and the film that really got made. Jeff Morrow went on record several times saying that the special effects that they had been promised would be excellent were terrible. This is a rotten thing to do to a bunch of people who worked on a serious, well-made film by making them look like fools. It’s especially unfortunate because much of the acting was good to very good. Jeff Morrow did a good job as a driven man who wanted to solve this terrible problem, but never really lost his wry wit. Mara Corday had a pretty good role for a woman – especially a very pretty woman who actually posed for Playboy magazine the very next year – and was very good in her part; it’s a shame that family took her away from films, she was really good (much later, she appeared in one of the Dirty Harry movies as a waitress who puts too much sugar in Harry’s coffee to alert him to a robbery in progress, showing that she was still written as a smart character all those years later). The minor characters like the French farmer Pierre Broussard (Louis D. Merrill) were consistent and good, although his accent was a little silly. Even the narrator (director Fred F. Sears) – who, at first, gave me upsetting flashbacks to The Beast of Yucca Flats – was like a character and he tied all the elements of the film together to make everything work.

The Giant Claw   The Giant Claw 6 sci fi reviews horror Yes, this film did do quite a lot on what must have been a low budget. Aside from the crappy effects, lots of stock footage was spliced into this one. This is hardly surprising when one discovers this was the work of Sam Katzman who, as a producer, was notoriously cheap. This one was relegated to being part of a double bill with The Night the World Exploded – another film directed by Fred F. Sears – for Columbia Pictures.

Ultimately, one must ask if this film is good. Well, I define a “good film” as one that entertains me, and this one does the trick. First, the parts with the actors are fun because they’re well-made and make me wish that the effects had been done better so that this one would be thought of as a classic. Second, the special-effects parts are fun because they’re so stupid that I secretly am pleased that they’re not any better because I get a good laugh. Finally, the film is a scant 75 minutes long, just the right length to give my brain the equivalent of a warm soak in the tub. You could think of this film as very similar to watching a good film on late-night television: lots of good stuff interrupted by terrible local commercials that are funny in a “Mr. Plow” way. Yep.


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Trailer on YouTube.

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