06 June 2008

Anti-Matter Muppet Takes Manhattan: The Giant Claw

The Giant Claw (1957)
Directed by Fred F. Sears. Starring Jeff Morrow, Mara Corday, Edgar Barrier, Morris Ankrum, Robert Shayne.

I originally called this post: “Anti-matter Muppet Takes Manhattan.” In a moment, the reasons why.

The Giant Claw is a legendary film among ‘50s science-fiction enthusiasts and crap film cineastes, and I count myself as a member of both groups. (Actually, anyone who is a member of one group is a member of the other; it’s a natural synergy and probably the basis of a dull thesis paper that somebody, somewhere, is writing at this very moment.) However, for many years copies of The Giant Claw were hard to come by, and I had never seen anything of it aside from the hilarious images posted to numerous websites. These pictures of the titular menace of The Giant Claw showed me what a feat of weirdness was in store for me when I at last got hold of it. The release of the film in the Icons of Horror: Sam Katzman DVD collection at last brought the terror of an enormous anti-matter goony bird into my apartment. (Katzman was Columbia’s B-picture producing maven.)

Until the star monster makes its appearance, The Giant Claw actually seems slick and professional for its genre. There is an enormous amount of military stock footage, but that’s SOP for the ‘B’ science-fiction film of the decade. The photography is professional, the sets realistic, and the performances from the anonymous troop of stock figures are completely passable. In fact, Jeff Morrow makes an appealing, square-jawed lead as Mitch MacAfee, the robust civilian pilot who first makes contact with the flying engine of destruction that is . . . The Giant Claw!

And a half hour later we, the robust viewers, make our first contact with the flying engine of destruction that is…
Take your pick from the following descriptions:
  • Your Thanksgiving turkey—out for revenge!
  • Beaky Buzzard
  • A muppet fashioned as a background dancer for a Leo Sayer number
  • A goony bird
The second option seems to be the most favored with online reviewers, but I lean more toward the last two: there is a solid Jim Henson vibe about this beastie, and you can’t miss the strings running up to the puppeteer.

Hollywood legend has it that none of the cast and crew knew what the big bird would look like during filming. Columbia, who originally wanted Ray Harryhausen to do the effects work with stop-motion animation, instead farmed out the work cheaply to a Mexican company. Actor Morrow was horrified when he saw the creature on screen for the first time at a special hometown screening, and he snuck out of the theater listening to the insane laughter of the audience. I don’t know if this tale is true (but it comes from Bill Warren’s book on the genre, Keep Watching the Skies, so I’ll credit that as “good authority”) but I have no doubt that audiences started spitting popcorn kernels when they saw the fury that is . . . The Giant Claw!
From this point on, the film is an absolute hoot. Morrow and Co. putter about in the boilerplate search for a way to kill the beast, but as a viewer I was shivering with anticipation of the next nutty appearance of the killer muppet marionette. A killer muppet marionette from an alien dimension surrounded with anti-matter, no less. In the grand conclusion the killer muppet menaces some photos of New York and stock footage of folks running away from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Earth vs. the Flying Saucer (the shot of the Washington Monument crushing some poor sap in the park gets re-used). The military fires missile made from unbotanium at our goofy goblin, and the horror of The Giant Claw comes to its sad conclusion. Beaky, we never knew ya.

A final irony: The Giant Claw came out in 1957, the same year that the greatest flying monster film of all time also premiered, Rodan.