Film #97: The Giant Claw (1957)

film 97 the giant claw

Rating: 2.5/5

“Something, he didn’t know what, but something as big as a Battleship has just flown over and past him.”

Finally released on DVD as part of a Sam Katzman Collection, The Giant Claw is notorious for its monster, described as a “bird as big as a battleship” in the film, and an “extraterrestrial turkey” by everyone watching it. As a result of this alien invader, the film has made it (rather appropriately) into the Son of Golden Turkey Awards, the Medveds’ sequel to their infamous Golden Turkey Awards – unfortunately it doesn’t win the the award it’s been nominated for, the Most Laughable Concept for an Outer Space Invader, with that dubious honour going to the carpet monsters in The Creeping Terror instead.

Despite containing some of the classic “bad movie” elements, The Giant Claw is more kitsch than terrible. The voice-over narration that introduces the story is typically emphatic and serious in tone, discussing – as so many of them do – scientific progress and the implications such progress has. Once the world was big, the narrator tells us, but now “the farthest corner of the Earth is as close as a pushbutton.” Fully engaged in scientific development, we are then introduced to our hero, an engineer, Mitch McAfee (Jeff Morrow) who is conducting special radar tests when he encounters a UFO (in the truest sense of the word) that, inexplicably, doesn’t appear on the radar. Needless to say, no one believes him, but as more pilots begin reporting unidentified objects before disappearing off the face of the earth, eventually the officials are forced to take notice.

There is a bit of a paradox at play in The Giant Claw. The UFO itself remains out of view for quite a long time – when it appears, it’s shown in blurry swooshes as it rushes across the screen, too fast to see. This effectively keeps the viewer guessing – like so many movie monsters, the anticipation is often more scary or impressive than the final reveal (Cloverfield, I’m looking at you). The film’s fairly low budget too, so this is an economical and pragmatic decision to make. However, the problem arises when the alien is finally revealed. By not showing it immediately, the anticipation grows and, inevitably, the creature not only fails to live up to expectations (if you’re looking for something genuinely imposing, that is) but shatters those expectations in an instant. After several attacks on buildings, planes, and farmsteads, this UFO, with the strength, speed and appearance of a “battleship” turns out to be a giant turkey-creature – a shoddily-made puppet with the most wonderfully comic Villain expression. Even now, I don’t know who’s got a better static evil expression, this or It from It Conquered the World: both have pantomime eyebrows and manic, unblinking eyes; they’re both a joy to look at, but neither are even remotely scary.

The story itself is fairly generic – along with Mitch, his mathematician girlfriend Sally (Mara Corday) and some other men in uniform attempt to stop the bird, which transpires to have travelled across galaxies somehow to lay its eggs on Earth. The creature is actually quite sympathetic, despite its ridiculous features, primarily because the humans are unpleasantly trigger happy. They take great pleasure in destroying the poor bird’s eggs, and there are no attempts to communicate with it (I know that sounds silly, given its appearance, but perhaps it’s an incredibly intelligent animal – they usually try communicating with the human-shaped aliens). Meanwhile, the bird, in its rage, destroys lots of places with the power of recycled footage taken from far better 50s sci-fi movies (The War of the Worlds, It Came From Beneath the Sea, Earth Vs The Flying Saucers) and ends up ripping off King Kong as it tries to turn the Empire State Building into its new home.

The film is, apart from the monster, no better or worse than any of the other movies of the time – and, in truth, many of the beasts in these “creature features” were daft. To be fair, The Giant Claw‘s concept is rather barmy, but it’s a fun movie as a result. There’s a real pleasure to be gained from witnessing that bird, with its comically angry face, swooping down to swallow up some hapless people. Morrow, who had battled far more impressive opponents in other movies (This Island Earth, The Creature Walks Among Us) reported that none of the cast knew what they were reacting to during filming – they were just told to look terrified, and were assured that the alien would be an indomitable foe. Unfortunately, the production ran out of money and the result, immortalised forever more on screen, is one of the most entertaining monsters around.

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Film #63: Zontar: The Thing From Venus (1966)

film 63 zontar the thing from venus

Rating: 2/5

“Although his name is untranslatable to any Earth language, it would sound something like Zontar.”

An often word-for-word remake of Roger Corman’s low-budget classic It Conquered the World, Zontar is the result of some particularly restrictive budget constraints. At a cost of approximately $22 000, Larry Buchanan was charged with remaking Corman’s film in colour, and this is the result. Buchanan’s known as one of the worst directors of all time; Zontar, however, isn’t a complete disaster. The film definitely benefits from being a remake – the plot remains interesting and engaging, although it undoubtedly lost some of its cultural relevance in the years that passed between the two versions. Whereas It Conquered the World is a classic 1950s narrative, capitalising on the fears of communism, Zontar lacks a similar association. There is, however, an unexpected cynicism that emerges in Buchanan’s movie; his direction seems quite detached thanks to some particularly terrible acting and a frequently perfunctory editing style.

Anthony Houston replaces Lee Van Cleef as Keith, Zontar’s associate on Earth, while regular Buchanan collaborator John Agar takes on the protagonist’s role, Curt. Agar, who was once married to Shirley Temple, is the closest the film has to a “star” – he had made a name for himself in minor roles in mainstream Hollywood films, appearing alongside John Wayne several times. He is, however, better known for his cult movies, notably Revenge of the Creature and those by Buchanan, and he’s generally decried as one of a number of particularly wooden performers – the Medved’s nominated him for the Lifetime Achievement Award of Worst Actor of All Time in their Golden Turkey Awards; he eventually lost to Richard Burton. Yet while the Medveds claim Agar’s style is that “he refuses to act,” in Zontar he is required to do very little more than play the straight man. As such he is perfectly adequate, and far better than some of the other cast members – Houston is dislikeable in a slimy kind of way, while Pat Delaney is truly dreadful as Keith’s wife Martha. Poor Martha, who is strong and fearless in Corman’s version, is whiny, neurotic, and supremely irritating here – everything she says is actually true, but Delaney’s combination of wooden and overwrought results in her appearing to simply be a nag. Quite frankly, it’s difficult to not sympathise with Keith when he’s subjected to yet another impassioned speech of hers, and it’s a relief when Zontar finally takes her out.

There’s very little here that surpasses Corman’s film. The colour is a pleasant, if garish and obviously low-budget addition, although it makes the “night” scenes rather unrealistic. The comic relief included in Corman’s movie is brought over to Buchanan’s as well – the two dunderhead soldiers may have a familiar quaintness to them in It Conquered the World, but here they’re just dreadfully, embarrassingly unfunny. Everything here is tinged with cheapness and ineptitude – exposition is related via static, long takes in which one person listens to another deliver a lengthy speech, and there is little to engage the viewer. The acting definitely doesn’t, and the sets are basic and uninteresting, while the camera moves only when it really needs to. The result is a poorly paced, frequently dull movie; a testament to Buchanan’s lack of talent. He has, however, added a few extra scenes, predominantly those at the government installation that had previously lost control of the satellite that allowed Zontar to travel to Earth. Apart from that, it is a generally faithful remake, with two notable differences.

The first is Zontar itself. While Beluah the space carrot was never named in It Conquered the World, here, we find out its name. The final reveal, in the Venus-esque caves as before, shows Zontar to look nothing like a space carrot whatsoever, and more’s the pity. Beluah was naff, cheap and not even his permanently grumpy expression could make him appear scary, but it was at least memorable – Beluah is what distinguishes Corman’s movie as a cult classic rather than a standard addition to the world of 1950s sci-fi. In contrast, Zontar is a slimy, indistinct creature – we never properly get a moment to look at it, but it is evidently a person in a suit, and it has wings and a rather plaintive expression. In a way, it’s far more believable that Buchanan’s vision birthed the “insectapods” that attacked the important members of the town – Beluah had little in common with its own pod creatures – but it’s a weak substitute for the delightful kitsch appeal of Beluah and, although I’ve seen Zontar before, I couldn’t remember for one second what it looked like.

The second difference is Agar’s final voice-over, a long speech heard over a montage of dead bodies – the scientists, the wives, the policeman, the General (who doubly died, having been both shot and electrocuted). In fact, the death rate is far higher here – or at least, more explicit, and it would appear there is little hope despite Zontar being defeated. Offering the audience a slight glimmer of hope at the end of what has been a particularly bleak (if reasonably entertaining) film, Curt becomes uncharacteristically philosophical – this being the man who calmly shot his own wife earlier – and tells us that “Man is the greatest creature in the universe.” Wait, what? Yes, it turns out all this destruction and death has made him realise that us humans are totally awesome. Except, of course, there is a price. Poor Keith, he says, “learned that a measure of perfection can only be slowly attained, from within ourselves. He sought a different path, and found death… fire… disillusionment… loss. War, misery and strife have always been with us, and we shall always strive to overcome them. But the answer is to be found from within, not from without. It must come from learning; it must come from the very heart…” It’s a strange final message; bleak and hopeful; arrogant and humble; profound and inane at the same time – like the film itself, a bit of a garbled, confused mess, but perhaps there’s a nugget of truth in there somewhere. You’ve probably got Roger Corman to thank for that though.

Film #61: It Conquered the World (1956)

film 61 it conquered the world

Rating: 3/5

“You think you’re gonna make a slave of the world… I’ll see you in Hell first!”

Directed by Roger Corman, It Conquered the World is best known for its baddie, an alien from Venus frequently described as a giant cucumber. It’s a surprisingly difficult film to get a hold of, considering its reputation and director – my copy is a second-hand VHS yet still manages to be one of the most expensive films in my collection. I bought it for two reasons: first, to see this infamous monster; and second, because it was later remade as Zontar: The Thing From Venus, by notorious badfilmmaker Larry Buchanan. Zontar is a pretty dreadful movie (which will be reviewed shortly), and I was curious to see how the two films compare. With regards to this film, I was pleasantly surprised.

Made right in the middle of sci-fi’s most prolific decade, It Conquered the World shares much with the other, better known films of the time. It’s now widely acknowledged that the sci-fi movies of the fifties exploited social and political fears – the threat of nuclear war or the spread of communism in particular – and this film is no exception. Lee Van Cleef is Tom Anderson, a scientist in direct communication with a being from Venus (or so he claims). Despite the scepticism of his wife Claire (Beverley Garland) and friend Paul Nelson (Peter Graves), neither of whom can hear anything other than static on Tom’s radio set, the scientist is convinced that the creature he’s communicating with is going to be of great benefit to mankind. Naturally, he’s deluded about its true intentions, and things rapidly take a turn for the worse.

It Conquered the World invites several comparisons. The alien, officially named Beluah by its creator Paul Blaisdell, lands on Earth and quickly stops all technology (except for that of its allies) – cars, house lights, telephones, even the water supply ceases instantly, at 3.03pm. Yet this is not a peaceful display of power, as in The Day the Earth Stood Still, but a way of stopping communications and making a human retaliation more difficult. It also has strange little flying creatures who bite human hosts and transform them into mindless pod people – like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (made in the same year), these people look the same, but they are all controlled by their Venusian leader. The idea of one’s neighbours, family and friends suddenly becoming the enemy, without any visible indication of their new status, is a recurring one in 50s sci-fi, perfectly capturing the social paranoia regarding the apparent threat of communism. This was the final year of the Second Red Scare in America, when McCarthyism had reached its peak – anyone could be the enemy. Here, Lou Rusoff’s screenplay makes the metaphor blatant, with characters at one point even specifically discussing communism – it’s obvious now, but it’s still effective.

Like many of Corman’s movies, there are several interesting aspects hidden below the drive-in, teen-friendly narrative. Tom’s wife is a headstrong and determined woman (in a decade when women are almost always secondary characters) – her actions may prove futile in the end, but she is a strong and self-assured character, who at least attempts to stop the madness going on around her. Tom himself is an interesting leading man – far more interesting than the more steadfast Paul. He is utterly convinced that he is helping humanity, but this deluded arrogance is what enables Beluah to come and (attempt to) take over the planet. Lee Van Cleef, a classic bad guy (dark hair, little moustache), is cold and scientific – ruthless even, and cruel to his wife in particular. Van Cleef plays well against the traditional “good” looks (both in terms of physicality and character) of Graves.

Ultimately, however, it is Beluah itself that is the most memorable character here. The creature is truly a sight to behold – its flying minions are daft and never particularly visible, but Beluah is eventually unveiled in all its glory. Officially it’s a kind of sentient fungus, which is in itself a unique and intriguing concept, but it’s difficult to take the thing seriously. What does impress is the actual size of the creature – it’s a cumbersome, awkward and immobile object, with a pantomime villain’s expression, but when shown alongside the characters, is impressively large. That’s about all that’s impressive, however – it fails entirely as a horrifying villain, but I can think of few other creations that really match it in terms of visual entertainment (perhaps the carpet monsters in The Creeping Terror come close; good ol’ Ro-Man should also get a mention).

Despite the obvious budgetary constraints, Corman does deliver. The film is surprisingly professional considering its meagre shooting schedule of just five days; it’s acted well, with a coherent narrative and some engaging, topical (if not particularly original) concepts running underneath. Viewed today, it’s enjoyably kitsch, predominantly because of Beluah. They don’t make ’em like they used to, that’s for sure.