"Hmmm... looks like it might be
glaucoma." - Dr. Herman Mansfield,
Making a giant monster movie is a lot like dating someone you meet in an Internet chat room. Just as there's no way of knowing that sexy "Clarissa" (who knocked your socks off with her quick online wit and lightning-fast typing fingers) isn't really a six-foot lumbering dairy farmer named Lyle until you meet her in person, monster movie stars must take it on faith that the film's effects technicians will produce a creature with an on-screen presence to match their acting. If things go well the result is a movie like Gamera, Guardian of the Universe. If things go horribly, horribly wrong you end up with a film like The Giant Claw. The late Jeff Morrow and his surviving relatives have occasionally recounted the tale of the film's premiere: when Morrow got his first look at the astonishingly silly monster (and heard the guffaws of the audience), he quickly exited the theater and met his family in the parking lot afterwards.*
Sally bemoans the lack of
'giant creature combat miles' on
her frequent flyer plan.
The last time we saw Morrow he was Dr. Leslie Gaskill, the studly scientist who got the girl and defeated a giant robot from space in Kronos. This time he's the less nerdy but equally virile Mitch MacAfee, electronics engineer and test pilot who "kinda makes his own rules." The picture begins during the kind of "routine experiment" that opens so many of these pictures -- regular Joes introduce the main character to his future girlfriend with playful banter while indicating their undying respect for the man and evincing the kind of "roll up your sleeves" work ethic that made 1950s America such a swell place to live. In this case the experiment is a test flight in Alaska, and just as things start to wrap up, Mitch spots it. A U.F.O. There's something adorable about a movie where everyone enunciates "U.F.O." in such a way that makes it obvious not everyone in the viewing audience would be familiar with the term.
A grim-voiced narrator takes over, recapping the situation and characters we have met thus far, just in case we were at the snack bar getting drinks. The narrator also introduces to us the most important motif of the movie when he intones:
"Make sure you shoot me from
my good side."
"...something as big as a battleship had just flown over and past him at speeds so great he couldn't begin to estimate them."
Comparing things to a battleship is what this movie does. The Giant Claw's size is constantly compared to a battleship, but occasionally the movie throws a change-up and compares something else to a battleship. The standard of measurement is always a battleship -- never a destroyer or a frigate. If these people were asked how tall someone was, they'd give their answer in tiny fractions of a battleship.
When Mitch gets back to the ground it turns out that no one believes him. The military's radar didn't pick up anything, so the brass thinks he was kidding. During Mitch's reprimand, however, the major in charge is told that another plane reported a UFO shortly before crashing. The major doesn't rule out that the occupants of the crashed plane might have been kidding too.
Mitch and his "calculator" Sally (Mara Corday) take off from Alaska for New York, but their plane crashes in France. Or maybe it's Canada. Thanks to our education in the public schools we don't know which country is between Alaska and New York, but we're pretty sure it was one of those two because our heroes escape the wreckage and run into a guy named Pierre. At Pierre's hovel Mitch arranges for a flight back to New York the next day. That night Pierre is scared witless by a giant bird, but since a giant bird isn't much at all like a UFO, Mitch assumes he was kidding.
On the flight back to New York Mitch deduces that whatever he saw is flying in a spiral pattern. (Hey Mitch, didja notice that you can take any random series of dots and draw a spiral through them? Oh, never mind.) In the meantime more planes have been downed, and Sally comes up with idea of checking weather balloon cameras in the area of the last crash. They do so, and finally our heroes discover once and for all they're dealing with "a bird as big as a battleship!" Then the most 1950s thing in the whole movie happens. Armed with this knowledge of a giant deadly bird, Gen Buskirk announces that everything about it is "top secret"! Is he kidding?
What can the military possibly gain by keeping the bird top secret? They don't know where it is, so when it shows up in some civilian area, the jig is up. We suppose the usual reason given in this kind of situation is "to keep people from panicking," but what's going to panic people more: knowing there's a giant bird out there, or being attacked by a giant bird without any warning at all?
"And here, out in far orbit,
is our credibility."
The Giant Claw continues in the tradition of other '50s sci-fi with dramatic revelations and the eventual defeat of the creature through newly-invented scientific means. Corday and Morrow play their parts as earnestly as they can, but the picture brings its own brand of foolishness to the party. For one thing, the characters insist on flitting back and forth across the country in airplanes despite the existence of a giant UFO that eats anything in the air. There's also a lot of cheesy, inappropriate dialogue that indicates the filmmakers thought they might be able play the film for laughs. Would a fighter pilot, upon discovering an enormous and dangerous bird, stop to make the joke that he'd never call his mother-in-law an old crow again?
Quirky dialogue aside, the film has little to offer that other 50s-era sci-fi flicks don't. There's a lot of boring stock footage (which may explain why Mitch and Sally keep taking to the air to get the most mileage out of that airplane stock footage someone purchased), the obligatory "rebellious kids who get eaten while saying 'daddy-o' a lot" scene, and some particularly unsubtle love scenes between the principals. What makes The Giant Claw a schlock fan favorite, however, is the monster.
"...and then the Fraggles shall
make me their QUEEEEEN!"
And oh, what a monster part vulture, part Looney Tunes Dodo, and all puppet, the Giant Claw glares at us with its googly eyes, flares the nostrils on its mushy beak(!), and mocks us with its shock of black hair. It speeds through the sky at impossible speeds, downing innocent airplanes as it fills the air with its horrid cartoon screech. You will recoil in horror that is, if you can keep from doubling over with laughter. The explanation of the bird's origins (it's from an anti-matter universe) will extract further uproar from the audience, as will Mitch's eventual defeat of the bird's "anti-matter force field" with little more than the help of a trusty sidekick and the love of a good woman.
Flying monsters have always been difficult to depict with conventional special effects, especially if they are of unusual immensity. The two most prominent airborne critters, Mothra and Rodan, have always suffered from logistical problems. Their tiny little talons couldn't grip anything and they could only perform two actions -- flying around and sitting still. Screenwriters for these creatures went to all kinds of lengths to find new ways for the monsters to interact with their environments. (Rodan caused a lot of wind damage and Mothra was eventually given lightning-like energy bursts.) Fight scenes were always problematic, because if an earthbound monster caught hold of his flying opponent, the fight was pretty much over. Mothra and Rodan, however, usually had the advantage of looking fearsome -- something the Giant Claw (the creature and the film) just can't manage.