Saturday, July 30, 2011

THE GIANT CLAW (1957) - it's a's a's a bird as big as a plane...wait...WTF is going on here?

Whatta turkey!”
-typical hack review of The Giant Claw

When a movie stars a giant turkey on strings, it’s easy to dismiss it with a turkey pun. The key word here is “easy”. Hacks aren’t inept, they just repeatedly go for the obvious and the cheap. Personally, I like to see some god damn effort. Some may blame the pun itself, that it’s a substandard form of comedy. Yeah, tell that shit to Groucho Marx.

I don’t think the pun itself is necessarily the problem, but rather, the execution, and more specifically in this case, both the inspiration and the imagination involved. Just because a hack comic will fall back on “why did the chicken cross the road” doesn’t mean that chickens can’t be funny. Take, for example, a chicken wearing a toga, laughing maniacally after he orders the execution of a pineapple via firing squad. The charges, you may ask? Ruffling feathers. Well, I thought it was funny.

Anyway, the science fiction genre is noted for using pulp material to explore important issues dealing with humanity and science. Right off the bat, the filmmakers want to make it clear that this giant turkey monster movie is actually a conduit for ideas. We see a paper mache globe spinning while the voice over guy explains that “science has made man's lives bigger, and the world is getting smaller”. I guess man’s science is taking over the world, and it’s about time for the world to fight back (paraphrasing, of course). Why "the world" would seek revenge on the human race in the form of a turkey monster is a bit puzzling. Either way, it’s nice to see the filmmakers employing subtext.

Later on, the heroes discover that the monster is attacking humanity in a specific spiral pattern. While this seems like an odd point to dwell on, I view it as another form of social commentary. The spiral reminds me of the Fibonacci Circle, a graph of numbers that is used by Wall Street brokers (among other uses) to bilk more money out of the system while never actually contributing anything. Could this “giant turkey Fibonacci death spiral” be a prescient metaphor for the damaging consequences of free market deregulation coming home to roost? Probably not, but it’s certainly an excuse to play a song by Suzy Putterman's favorite band, The Fibonaccis:

The heroes in the film are “people doing a job well, efficiently, serious, having fun doing a job”, but are forced into extraordinary circumstances when they are forced to deal with the reality of a rampaging scourge of the skies. The monster is repeatedly glimpsed as a blur by several pilots, but cannot be detected by radar. Much of the movie consists of conversations about the monster between various officials (military, scientists, technicians), what it is and how to attack it, Along the way a relationship develops between our two main heroes, a studly electronics engineer pilot and a hot stuff radar engineer. Their oddball sexual innuendo culminates in a scene on an airplane where they flirt using baseball metaphors, like Bull Durham distilled to its essence.

Our two heroes and another dude experience mysterious turbulence and are forced to crash land near the home of a friendly French-Canadian who happily takes them in (thank god yet again for the friendliness of Canadians). The faux-Frenchy sees the bird and relays that French-Canadians have a legend about a giant turkey that will curse you to die if you happen to gaze upon it. This is supposed to portend the ominous, just like Crazy Ralph does in Friday the 13th, and also shows how Canadians are more attuned to danger than their American counterparts (or more attune to the obvious).

Well, the shit finally hits the fan, and the monster becomes clearly visible, attacking a plane full of parachutists. The parachutists are forced to jump out of the plane, but luckily they are equipped with parachutes (figures). Unfortunately (or fortunately, if you enjoy senseless carnage), the turkey just flies by and eats them. So, is the bird merely hungry after all? If so, scouring the skies for humans to eat is a fairly inefficient way to fill your stomach, as you’ll only happen upon a person by blind luck (maybe a hang glider if you’re lucky). It’s sort of like a vegan looking for something to eat in a Fatburger.

The American military tries to blow the turkey out of the sky, since that’s how they roll, but the bird appears impervious to damage. As a scientist explains, the bird has a forcefield made out of anti-matter, making it invincible and also undetectable by radar. Well there ya go. The scientist tries to find out the bird’s origins, testing a feather left behind by the monster. The feather, despite looking, well, like a feather, contains “no elements known to man”, and “finding that out was expensive”. I bet it was. The scientist deduces that the bird comes from an “anti-matter galaxy”, and that “no other explanation is possible”. I guess that makes sense. If you want an anti-matter shield, you probably want to head out to the anti-matter galaxy. After all, that’s where the anti-matter is. It’s sorta like someone wanting to be a movie star and moving out to Hollywood.

I've heard of taking the train, but this is ridiculous. Sorry, that's horrible.

We learn that the monster isn’t simply hungry, prowling the skies for human food, but rather that it aims to destroy things in any capacity, as it gains energy from destruction through “molecular osmosis”. I guess it’s sort of like if you used entropy to fuel your Prius. Keep in mind my knowledge of science is strictly tied to having seen Real Genius like 17 times.

I won’t give away any more of the plot, except to say that the bird is not defeated through further scienciness, but rather, through some astute women’s intuition of a sort. This speaks to the classic American form of problem solving, where fancy science talk is nice and all, but common sense and hometown values really get the job done. Also, there is a rad cameo from a group of hot rodding kids, seemingly straight out of Hot Rods to Hell, released 10 years later. This proves my point that Hot Rods to Hell is curiously old fashioned. Not that it’s any less awesome, of course.

Speaking of hacks, another hack move film reviewers will sometimes whip out is the proclamation that a movie is “Ed Wood-esque” or “Ed Woodian”. This is really just a fancy way of saying that they think the movie is inept, not that it actually contains any of the specific artistic aspects that distinguish Wood’s oeuvre (note to self: look up what the word "oeuvre" means). Speaking of turkeys, it was the Medved’s book The Golden Turkey Awards that started all of this when they proclaimed Plan 9 From Outer Space to be the worst film ever made. It established a sort of baseline for the critically lazy, an extreme synonym for the word “crap” that people repeatedly abuse in order to seem more clever than if they had just called the movie “inept garbage”. I believe it was the great philosopher Mortimer Coup de Souffle IV that said “the road to reality is paved with distinctions”. Evoking Ed wood as a descriptor is useless if you just want to point out that a movie sucks. Just say it sucks and move on with your life. Asshole.

So, I would indeed place The Giant Claw in the ball park of Plan 9 From Outer Space (meaning both movies play baseball, if you follow), what with the strange sci-fi threat and the amusingly stylized dialogue and the B-movie sciency talk pushed to brain melting extremes. At the heart of The Giant Claw is a monster that fails to meet the demands of modern blockbuster realism (CGI robots, I guess), but nevertheless disturbs in its own way. Let me put it this way - if you were sitting on a park bench, feeding pigeons bread crumbs, and a Hindenburg sized Turkey with
evil eyes and a mohawk came swooping by whilst held up by strings reaching up to infinity, you’d be more than merely afraid. Rather than a rational threat, here is an utterly irrational monster that defies both science and modern aesthetics. The scariest monsters are the ones that don't play by the rules; that is, perpetrators of anarchic horror. Maybe that explains the mohawk. You know, if any punk rockers get together to celebrate Thanksgiving, this monster would make a pretty sweet mascot. Too bad punks don't believe in Thanksgiving.

P.S. This was written as part of the "50's Monster Mash" over at the Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear blog. There are a ton of other reviews, so check them out.Link


  1. This was a fun review. I think your asides about Bull Durham, Groucho Marx, etc. were more interesting than the plot of the turkey movie, but I like your reviewing style.

  2. That turkey monster is cracking me up! It has the face of an angry pea hen or a reject Muppet.

  3. Punk rock turkeys...what manner of hell has mankind wrought?

    And wouldn't an anti-matter bird blink out of existence in our universe?! head hurts...

    Thanks for the hysterical review, my friend.

  4. I think your review is probably better than this anti-matter turkey movie could ever be. I can't help wondering what exactly the moral of this movie is meant to be. The onslaught of SCIENCE leads us to invasion by anti-matter turkey which must be defeated by err, good old American values. So what the hell did science have to do with anything? Now, if the movie were called Revenge of the Thanksgiving Turkeys, we'd have all the info we needed.

    Great job. Glad you chose to review this movie.

  5. "an utterly irrational monster that defies both science and modern aesthetics" - I think you've nailed it there. I've heard of this movie as a kind of benchmark in awfulness, but your review makes me want to see it. I rather liked the clips of the Bird snarfing a parachutist in its beak, rather like a dog catching a treat in its mouth, and the one of it hauling away the train like a long link of sausage. I suppose my one quibble with the Bird is--where's the giant CLAW itself, but maybe the budget couldn't allow it. Our hero reminds me of another bird-monster, the title character from THE FLYING SERPENT, a 1940s PRC classic about George Zucco keeping Quetzalcoatl in a cage and sending it out to do his dirty work (highly recommended for Turkey fans). Really enjoyed your hilarious post - great writing!

  6. I think it's the Larry Fine haircut that really sells that thing, don't you?

  7. @W.B.
    I think Curly could've taken the bird out with his bare hands. I don't mess with that guy.

    @Grand Old Movies
    Thanks! I've seen one or two PRC monster movies, but not that one. I'll check it out at some point. It sounds like a precursor to Q the Winged Serpent

    Thank you! I think the lesson of the movie is that reality is like anti-matter that slips through your fingers like sand. It's very existensial. :P

    "wouldn't an anti-matter bird blink out of existence in our universe?!"
    THANKS A LOT. Now we'll have to go back and digitally erase the turkey from the movie. :P

    Thanks for having me ;)

    I didn't know what a peahen was until now, but I absolutely agree. Also, FWIW, I really dig your sunshine band. Keep up the good work. :P

    Thank you! I've found that most turkey plots are pretty uninteresting. Either it's a monster turkey killing people, or family members yelling at each other at Thanksgiving.

  8. The spiral reminds me of the Fibonacci Circle, a graph of numbers that is used by Wall Street brokers (among other uses) to bilk more money out of the system while never actually contributing anything.

    Wow...that's...far out, man. But I still think it's a movie about a giant turkey.

    Fun review, Thomas.

  9. @Ivan

    Hey, you don't impress film professors when your thesis is "it's just a giant turkey!"

    I also mentioned the Fibonacci sequence in my review of Robot Monster, so I guess it's a bit of an in-joke. MAYBE it's a bit of a stretch ;)