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DIRECTED BY: Fred F. Sears
FEATURING: Jeff Morrow, Mara Corday, Morris Ankrum, Edgar Barrier
PLOT: When an unidentified flying object terrorizing the globe is discovered to be an enormous, grotesque bird, the planet’s collective scientific brainpower and military might are brought to bear against the winged menace.
COMMENTS: One of the great stories of cinema is the tale surrounding the production of Jaws. It seems the robotic shark that was built to terrorize the citizens of Amity was temperamental at best, unusable at worst. Accordingly, director Steven Spielberg was forced to scrap many of the intended scenes featuring the automated predator, instead resorting to obfuscatory tricks to keep the villain hidden until the last possible moment. This ended up working to the film’s benefit, as the star’s delayed entrance only served to magnify the tension. Spielberg had stumbled backwards into brilliance.
Of course, it’s questionable how much his tactics would have worked had the ultimate reveal of the shark not paid off the suspense. Once the chum-shoveling Roy Scheider comes face-to-face with Bruce the animatronic carcharodon, then we’re off to the races, because the reveal has justified the withholding. You can believe your eyes. It is the black-eyed, remorseless killing machine we were promised.
In some respects, The Giant Claw faces precisely the same dilemma. The filmmakers want to hold back the full and awesome power of their beast for as long as possible. We get hints, of course: blurry visions of an airborne foe, evocative descriptions of a flying creature “the size of a battleship,” an enormous footprint indicating the immensity of the monster, and many Spielbergian stares into the unseen maw of a force to terrible to behold. But at some point, the monster has to be revealed. And when at last it is… my goodness, how can I do this justice? Can it even be conveyed? I mean, here are just a few examples of my peers attempting to reckon with this thing:
- “…one of the silliest looking monsters in the history of cinema…”
- “…one of the worst puppets ever committed to screen…”
- “…a cross between a demented vulture and an anorexic turkey…”
- “…not just his claw, but every ill-advised turkey-feathered inch of the damned thing. It is … well, just, wow.”
- “…a heroin-addicted cousin of Gonzo from The Muppets…”
- “…oh, what a monster – part vulture, part Looney Tunes Dodo, and all puppet…”
- “…not just badly rendered, it is hilariously rendered, resembling nothing so much as Warner Bros. cartoon-character Beaky Buzzard…”
- “The bird’s body looks like a turkey, at least up to the point where the accordion-like neck protrudes from the torso. Perched atop the long, featherless neck is a bizarre visage: large rolling eyes, flaring nostrils (how a bird has flaring nostrils in its beak is beyond me), a fanged mouth, wiry whiskers, and last but not least, what looks like a lock of human hair glued to the top of its lumpy head.”
- “…there’s no description I can give that can accurately define it.”
All true, and that last one probably comes closest to illustrating just how wrong-headed it is. The filmmakers clearly knew enough to want to keep their fearsome feather duster hidden for as long as possible. But each reveal manages to hit maximum levels of ridiculousness. We meet the puppet attacking an airplane that looks like a Mold-A-Rama sculpture. Then we stare down its felt gullet as it pursues hapless parachutists. Punctuating this sequence, a series of weather balloons deployed to capture an image of the great soaring emu return the most sublime closeup of the thing, looking for all the world like if Taxi’s Reverend Jim were a bird.
If we’re being honest, The Giant Claw doesn’t belong in the same multiverse with Jaws. Even by the standards of 1950s low-budget monster movies, it’s pretty weak sauce. Countless minutes are wasted explaining the ridiculous details of the plot’s pseudoscientific foundation. Characters indulge in any number of Oscar-clip moments contemplating the cause of their fate or the faith in divine providence that will be required to emerge victorious. So many scenes of people walking in and out of rooms. And then those very, very 50s elements: smoking on planes, shots of booze as a cure for emotional trauma, and kissing a sleeping woman on a plane without even the risk of a smack to the jaw and a jail term. It’s all puts the film squarely in C-movie territory. But then that bird shows up and The Giant Claw starts to slip the surly bonds of Earth.
There are stories about the making of The Giant Claw that have the whiff of legend but feel true. One is that the filmmakers originally intended to enlist stop-motion legend Ray Harryhausen to create the beast, but the budget was too thin for anything approaching that level of quality, so they turned to a cheap prop house in Mexico to render a usable marionette. (Seems authentic, but the telling of it feels like an unnecessary slam on Mexico.) Another is that star Jeff Morrow didn’t see the creature until the premiere, having been told during shooting to imagine a kind of streamlined eagle, and when he finally saw the creature that was terrorizing his onscreen self, immediately departed the theater and retreated to the nearest bar.
Morrow’s reaction is completely rational. But his embarrassment is our embarrassment of riches. The Giant Claw is supremely goofy, at once pretentious and slapdash, riding high on the wings of the most ludicrous-looking creature. You will not feel scared, but you will feel, and the feeling will be a delight.
The Giant Claw has been released many times on home video over the years, most recently in Arrow Video’s 2022 Blu-ray box set “Cold War Creatures: Four Films from Sam Katzman,” where it appears alongside The Creature with the Atom Brain (1955), The Werewolf (1956), Zombies of Mora Tau (1957), and far more special features than any of these films probably deserve.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“For about the first 20 minutes of The Giant Claw you’ll be lulled into believing that you’re watching just another typical 1950’s giant monster movie… about 20 minutes into the film something happens, something magical, that guaranteed The Giant Claw cinematic immortality. The monster appeared on-screen. And I’m not talking about just any monster. I’m talking about quite possibly the goofiest, silliest, stupidest looking monster to ever grace the silver screen… the epitome of the so bad it’s good movie.” – Jon Condit, Dread Central
(This movie was nominated for review by Beverly. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)