For Halloween last month, I reviewed a movie starring Frankenstein’s Monster as a way to tie in with the holiday. I love the holidays, so I challenged myself to do it again for Thanksgiving. Naturally there aren’t any Thanksgiving-themed giant monster movies out of Japan, so I had to get a little more creative. My first thought was Rodan. He’s a big flying monster, sort of like a big bird, like a turkey, the go-to Thanksgiving food. Knowing I could do better, I went with an American flick from 1957, The Giant Claw. Not only does the titular beast look like a radioactive turkey got humped by a mutant vulture from Hell, but the movie itself is a real turkey! I can hear your booing through the internet, please stop.
We’ll talk about how the movie drove its star to booze, its unflattering peek at the state of gender equality in the 50s, that hilariously unfortunate looking monster, and a whole lot more! Hop aboard a flying battleship and fire up your anti-matter screen, we got a turkey to fry!
Now normally I like to start off by linking to the film’s score, but for the first time, I wasn’t able to find the soundtrack isolated for your listening pleasure! Instead you can hear it during the trailer. The trailer of course features all the best/worst moments, so if you don’t feel like watching the whole thing, the trailer is a solid Cliffs Notes version.
The music doesn’t do anything stupendous, but it adequately sets the tone, and captures all the bombast you’d expect from a giant monster movie. Composer Mischa Bakaleinkoff made the understandable decision to go uncredited for Giant Claw, but he got around back in the day. Among other films, he contributed scores for the old Batman serials and a handful of Ray Harryhausen creature features. Speaking of Harryhausen…
The stop-motion monster master was originally going to bring Giant Claw’s monster to life, but ultimately that job went to a much smaller outfit from Mexico to cut on costs, and boy did they get what they paid for. Outsourcing the monster creation didn’t stop them from reusing special effects shots from Harryhausen’s Earth vs. the Flying Saucers though. The crumbling Washington monument doubled for New York City skyscraper debris, and if you look closely, you can even catch a split-second of flying saucer.
But Giant Claw doesn’t just drop a few recycled shots into its cataclysmic climax, oh no. Stock footage permeates the entire production, starting with the bizarre montage and narration that opens the film. Plenty of giant monster flicks kick off with ominous footage of nuclear bomb tests accompanied by a deep-voiced narrator. When it’s done right, it’s a chilling (though played-out nowadays) way to get us thinking about the possible horrors nuclear testing could unleash, or the impossible vastness of the universe we might share with extraterrestrials, or the folly of man’s hubris. In The Giant Claw it’s definitely not done right, because it’s a jumble of random images of the earth, then construction equipment, and then finally bomber planes and tanks and stuff. It is accompanied by narration that says, and I quote:
Through the centuries, science has made man’s lifetime bigger, and the world smaller.
I get what they’re going for, I get the sentiment behind it, but I don’t get why they hired Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer to write it.
Now make sure you read that quote like a folksy Mark Wahlberg, because that’s what the narrator sounds like. It’s great when he talks about “radah” being used to locate bombers, rain clouds, and… homing pigeons. We’re introduced to our leads, an electronics engineer named Mitch MacAfee who also doubles as a test pilot for some reason and beautiful mathematician Sally Caldwell working with him in an arctic research station. Shortly after their introduction, we have to deal with the batshit narrator again, who’s now dramatically recapping everything we’ve just been shown. The highlight being when he tells us:
People doing a job, well, efficiently, serious, having fun, doing a job.
He also gives us hilariously detailed updates on the time, date, and weather. The first time he does it is when MacAfee calls in the bird monster as a UFO sighting, so it sort of made sense. The next five times do not.
Really, the presence of a narrator at all is a bad sign. Nine times out of ten it means there was a major fuck-up and the audience couldn’t quite figure out what was going on, or they needed to pad for time. Considering how straightforward The Giant Claw is, and how much stock footage they stuffed in, it’s gotta be the latter. The English dub of Rodan has narration too, but it’s the main character telling us about his life, setting up the story, creating atmosphere and cluing us in to what’s going on in town. I’m sure the down and dirty filmmaking reason for it is to cut down on having to match English speech to Japanese-speaking mouths, but it works. It’s hokey, but it moves the story forward, and it doesn’t recap things we’ve already seen.
When MacAfee first spots the monster, it looks like a tumbleweave scooting across the sky. It’s a pretty smart call at this point, making the monster a truly unidentified flying object, as well as hiding the ridiculous creature from us for a bit longer. Though a glob of hairy schmutz zipping by isn’t a huge step up. This is also when we first hear the beast compared to a battleship. Throughout the film’s brisk running time, each and every character will refer to it being “as big as a battleship” at least twice. Including the narrator. Sometimes they just call it a “flying battleship.” I lost count, but you could play a very dangerous drinking game by taking a shot every time you hear someone say “battleship.” Even the poster couldn’t fucking help itself:
Anyway, when our engineer/pilot lands, his ground crew tells him nothing showed up on radar. MacAfee and Sally quickly wrap up their work in the arctic, and board a plane to NYC. On their way home, they find out that a squadron of planes swept the arctic airspace for MacAfee’s invisible monster, and one of the planes never made it back.
Our leads are baffled and unnerved by the news, just as an unexplained storm starts tossing their plane around. MacAfee rushes up front to help the pilot, and the pilot’s acting is so amazingly bad that it forced me to realize the actors playing MacAfee and Sally are doing a pretty bang-up job. The pilot is knocked out almost instantly, and he starts bleeding from… the turbulence that gently jostled him into unconsciousness? It took me a minute to figure that out, because the blood had the shade and consistency of motor oil.
Our heroes’ plane is now disastrously out of control, and we’re treated to some miniature plane shots. It looks good enough at first, but it starts wobbling and changing speeds hilariously, and I suddenly appreciated the wire work of Toho’s effects teams even more than I did before.
MacAfee and Sally manage to survive the crash somewhere in rural French Canada, but the
robot pilot perishes. A friendly French Canadian bumpkin named Pierre (because of course he is) gives them shelter from the storm in his cabin and serves them moonshine. He wanders outside to check on his livestock, but flips a shit over what he sees in the sky. Our heroes rush out to bring him back inside, but Pierre is completely fried with terror. He tells MacAfee and Sally that he saw “the devil in the storm” or La Carcagne, a supposed creature from French Canadian folklore with the face of a wolf, the body of a woman, and gigantic wings. I’m skipping ahead a little bit, but here’s what The Giant Claw actually looks like:
It is hilarious. It’s a bird marionette with a tooth-filled beak, bugged-out eyes, an impossibly squat little bod, and the wispiest mohawk. I actually think in the right context, this thing could have been scary. Like, in a David Lynch-style surreal horror film. The hero follows the echoing sound of a baby crying in an abandoned hospital, finally finding a single, covered crib. The hero throws back the blankets, and sees a split-second shot of this thing convulsing madly and stewing in wet viscera instead of a crying human infant. But instead of surreal horror, we have accidental hilarity as this thing screams through the sky, menacing a feature-less airplane:
The cops show up at Pierre’s shanty to investigate the plane crash and help our heroes get home. They quickly give up on interviewing Pierre because he’s “scared stiff.” I have to agree, the actor playing Pierre does a great job. His terrified sobs are convincing; he really sells that Pierre thinks The Giant Claw is an omen of his own imminent death. MacAfee and Sally are given a plane ride home, and that’s when shit gets creepy for completely different reasons.
When the scene opens on our heroes flying home, MacAfee is smoking a “thank God we’re not dead” cigarette. Nothing creepy there, just a sign of the times, and fun reminder of what a different era it was. MacAfee looks over at his colleague Sally, she’s fast asleep. So he leans over and starts kissing her passed-out lips.
But she wakes up and slaps him, or at least politely tells him off, right? NOPE. They make cute small talk and flirt. Then he steals a newspaper from a sleeping passenger. Then he flushes an adorable puppy out the plane’s toilet. Okay maybe not that last one, but shit, the way things are going it wouldn’t have felt like that much of a stretch, would it? He steals the paper to try and explain his theory that the Giant Claw is attacking in a pattern. He marks the Claw’s attacks on a map, making an almost straight line, but instead of connecting the dots directly, he does it with a huge looping spiral. I was happy to see Sally agree with me that that theory looks like crazy bullshit. Since we’re finding out MacAfee is kind of a shitbox, he pouts when Sally doesn’t agree with him. He apologizes for acting like a big shitty baby, and goes in for another kiss, and this time she’s up for it.
The movie thankfully takes our mind off the fact that Sally has the worst taste in men ever by finally showing us the monster, in all its stupid glory. Our folksy Mark Wahlberg narrator gives us another detailed update on the time, date and weather as pilots call in the creature. This time they finally call it a giant bird. The Giant Claw, a huge mutant chicken, gets called a battleship more often than it gets called a bird. The beast destroys the (again featureless) plane, with the brave pilots parachuting just in time. Just in time to get eaten by the Giant Claw!
They dangled actors in parachutes in front of a screen playing the monster footage, and with some swift editing it all comes together really well. It’s not perfect, but I can’t imagine it looking any better with miniatures or stop motion. Especially on this budget.
MacAfee and Sally are taken in to a high-ranking general’s office to discuss how to handle the monstrous bird. They decide to use recordings from weather balloons to track the creature’s whereabouts, and we get to see a series of ridiculous monster selfies:
Over the radio (more slick cost-cutting!) the general has a group of fighter jets engage the evil turkey. The pilots are quippy as hell, with one declaring “I’ll never call my mother-in-law an old crow again!” The whole movie is like that, with MacAfee spewing the most one-liners. The delivery is so dry I can’t tell if it’s intended to be funny, or if it’s just a matter of old idioms sounding sarcastic to a modern ear. Combining the dry one-liners with the awesomely shitty monster almost makes it seem like The Giant Claw is a giant farce, but it’s lacking the self-aware wit to push it into intentional comedy territory. It’s not meta enough be a Young Frankenstein or a Cabin in the Woods. Giant Claw came out early in the atomic monster wave, and there’s some other evidence that points to it being a genuine attempt at nuclear horror that we’ll talk about later.
The Giant Claw of course makes short work of the fighter jets, revealing that conventional weaponry can’t even touch it. The nuclear option is authorized almost immediately and without any fuss, which seems really strange compared to so many other kaiju and atomic monster films.
Rather than showing us what would happen if the bird was blasted with a bomb, we’re escorted into a classroom so a scientist can tell us a bunch of pseudo-science explaining the monster. Some movies can do this well, Gojira being possibly the best example. In Gojira they admit that they don’t have any definite answers, and are basing their presentation on what little information they do have. It actually makes the monster seem even stranger and more mysterious. The Giant Claw of course is no Gojira, so instead of a scientist presenting us with his findings, we get a guy telling us about anti-matter, and that the monster surely projects an anti-matter screen that protects it from our weapons. The monster in turn attacks us by opening the screen just enough for his beak and claws to pass through. Also, it’s definitely a space alien from an “anti-matter galaxy.”
The scientist never explains how or why he came to those conclusions. The closest we get is when he shows us how “expensive” it was to try to analyze a feather from the monster they found. He points to a pile of wrecked equipment, so apparently trying to take readings on the feather blew up their instruments? Apparently all this irrefutable evidence is enough to convince the armed forces to not even attempt nuking the beast, and the monster sets off on a worldwide rampage.
We get a quick, stock footage filled montage of what the narrator helpfully describes as “Panic, terrah, and horrah.” This is actually pretty cool: in it’s own budget-conscious way, Giant Claw delivers on the global terror that so many atom-age monster movie trailers promise. Curfews are enacted and the military steps in to transport supplies to citizens. We even find out that the nations of the world are working together to try and stop the Giant Claw. Despite what the radio declares a “fantastic orgy of destruction, “Sally visits MacAfee in his apartment. They seem weirdly cheerful for living in a world terrorized by a gigantic man-eating space bird. Giant monster throwing humanity into chaos:
Anyway, Sally rolls up because she’s convinced The Giant Claw is on Earth to build a nest and raise what would have surely been hilarious-looking babies. She’s sure of her theory because she saw a giant footprint outside of Pierre’s cabin. I’m usually not a nitpicky viewer, especially when it comes to schlocky B-movies, but come on. This is a gigantic prehistoric space-bird from a bizarro universe that can fucking manipulate anti-matter: it could be here for a trillion different reasons, including no reason at all! I like the nest route, it gives us one of the more fun sequences in the movie, and it’s a tried-and-true monster movie trope, but you could have led into it with something more substantial than “I saw a footprint one time.”
So MacAfee and Sally high-tail it back to French Canada, which of course, is ze best Canada. They track down The Giant Claw’s nest, complete with gigantic chicken eggs. The Giant Claw is still adding trees to its nest, and it’s actually some pretty impressive puppetry. The monster sometimes looks decent in profile (sometimes) but is still a scream for all the wrong reasons when you view it head on. MacAfee starts blasting eggs, which satisfyingly spray goo on impact. Sally tells an incredulous MacAfee “I’m from Montana!” as she grabs a rifle and starts bulls-eyeing huevos.
I didn’t quite get what happened next. I think the bird started dropping trees on our heroes in retaliation for her shattered eggs? And then something happens to Pierre, which makes him a dead guy. I really am not sure what though. Too much wine and cheese? Complications from a mime-related injury?
MacAfee and Sally decide it’s time to get the hell out of French Canada and hop into their car. They keep their lights off to avoid attracting the Giant Claw, but the shitty youths drunk driving in a hot-rod behind them don’t give a hoot! They are awesome, hanging off the sides of the zooming little car, swinging beer cans, flashing their lights and yelling at our cautious heroes before finally passing them and continuing their joyride. This being a “horror” film, The Giant Claw goes into full Jason Vorhees mode to punish the reveling teenagers for being young, irresponsible, and impetuous.
Before the Claw even has a chance to do anything, two of the kids bail while the car’s still pushing 90. The Claw swoops down for the remaining teens and carries them up into the sky, hot-rod and all. The car doesn’t explode in its grasp, but the monster has to let go and have the car drop a bit for the explosion to go off. The same thing happens whenever the Claw bites into an airplane. This is of course due to lackluster special effects, but for some reason, my stupid brain decided to meet the The Giant Claw halfway. What if this was intentional? What if the monster is purposely dropping vehicles onto its invisible anti-matter screen to blow them up? The very credible scientist from earlier in the film tells us that the Claw absorbs energy from what it destroys through osmosis, so maybe the anti-matter screen does all the absorbing?
Our heroes make it back to NYC, and find out that mesic atoms will break through the bird’s forcefield because reasons. While MacAfee, Sally and Dr. Exposition work on making a mesic atom launcher, the Giant Claw finally goes apeshit on New York, and we get the movie’s remaining monster money shots. The Claw gives King Kong a nod by perching atop the Empire State Building:
Blazes a new trail by taking a bite out of the UN Building (breaking it’s neck in the process?):
And later it haphazardly derps into a random skyscraper, showering the panicked pedestrians with debris. And when your monster looks so awesomely bad, it’s a joy to behold. Now that’s not me just being a cynical filmgoer jaded by modern multi-billion dollar special effects; opening day audiences found The Giant Claw to be a riot too. Star Jeff Morrow first saw the movie in his hometown, but hearing the audience roar with laughter every time the monster popped up, he left early to go home and drink.
On one hand I absolutely get where he’s coming from. The Giant Claw was not the next Gojira or the next Them! and is by all rights a laughable train wreck of a movie. But it’s important that it’s a laughable train wreck. It’s fun to watch, maybe for the wrong reasons, but who cares? I always prefer movies that are hilarious flops to movies that are play-it-safe, forgettable, middle-of-the-road affairs. Even with its many, many problems, Troll 2 is a million times better than, say, a movie like SWAT. Troll 2 is a ridiculous mess, but I remember it fondly, I have great memories of watching it with my friends, and it was a ton of fun speculating what happened behind the scenes (and then finding out by watching Best Worst Movie). SWAT does everything competently, takes no chances, never falls flat on its face, and I think I fell asleep during it. Or at least wanted to.
Even with all its problems, The Giant Claw doesn’t quite reach the divine lunacy of movies like Troll 2, The Room, or Plan 9 From Outer Space. It’s just too damn coherent! That said, The Giant Claw earns its Z-movie status and delivers battleship-sized laughs (and cringes) throughout. Happy (early) Thanksgiving, ya turkeys.