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Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Giant Claw (1957)

Written by Samuel Newman & Paul Gangelin
Directed by Fred F. Sears

Jeff Morrow:  Mitch MacAfee
Mara Corday:  Sally Caldwell
Morris Ankrum:  Lt. Gen. Edward Considine
Louis Merrill:  Pierre Broussard

This is a cautionary tale. The caution is "when you farm your movie's special effects out to a cut-rate Mexican effects company to save money, insist on a demo reel and regular progress updates or your movie is going to look incredibly stupid". Let that be a lesson to us all. Otherwise people will make fun of your movie for more than half a century, and you will deserve it because your predatory avian menace from beyond the stars will look like a homicidal buzzard muppet.

The film starts with one of those "droning narrator talks about SCIENCE! while the globe turns" prologues. This one is filmed with a fog machine working overtime and a bumpy camera rail, so already the movie's getting off to a start that could be charitably described as semi-competent. The narrator talks about advances in communications technology making the Earth smaller at the push of a button, so I'm gonna give him full marks because flattery will get you everywhere. Still, buckle in for the rush of stock footage of military bases and bulldozers and an explanation of the DEWline, the Distant Early Warning radar installations that were supposed to let America know if it was going to be incinerated within the next fifteen minutes or so. Of course it is important to figure out whether or not your brand new radar station is working properly, and the way to calibrate a radar station is a pretty simple one:  You get a pilot to fly a known path at a pre-determined speed and then check your radar screens to make sure that the results from the equipment match the results you were expecting. If you get significantly different results, it's time to break the glass housing an emergency Brooklyn Guy to go fix the radar wiring and schedule another test flight.

Today's test flight is being supervised by Mitch MacAfee, a civilian electronics engineer that borrowed some stock footage of three or four different jets to overfly the command bunker at an arctic DEWline station and irritate the hell out of Sally Caldwell, the mathematician that will be collating and computing the results of the test flights in order to figure out if the radar station is working accurately. Check out the smirks that the two (male) Air Force officers give each other when she complains about MacAfee flying like a jackass--it's the sweet, sweet return of Mad Men era casual sexism. The gender politics of this movie are even more mockable than the monster.

A brief moment here to point out that I really like scenes where people plot out flight paths with a grease pencil on a big glass vertical map in a room. At the time, this was the highest of high-tech options, with radio and radar giving instantly updated information to the guys with the protractors and slide rules. I kinda miss seeing stuff like that in our flatscreen world now. Even the narrator babbling about people having fun doing a job like he's trying out for the Beast of Yucca Flats voiceover job can't ruin it.

During the test flight, MacAfee sees something weird and blurry in the sky. He calls in a radio report of a UFO (which the narrator defines for the audience; I wonder when that acronym became general knowledge to American viewers?)--but the radar operator can't find anything in the sky but the plane that's supposed to be there. And he'd know. The whole point to the test flight and scan is the shake down the radar system and determine that it's working. The Air Force officials tell the pilot that there's nothing in the sky and MacAfee tells them his eyes work fine, thank you very much, and he needs to get a closer look. Amusingly enough, the narrator tells us that there was no mistaking the urgency in the pilot's voice during a scene with no dialogue--just the score and voiceover. According to the narrator, MacAfee describes the UFO as being "as big as a battleship", and I hope you like that comparison because it's going to be used quite a bit over the course of the film.

The major in charge of the base scrambles fighter jets to go look at the whatever-the-hell-it-is in the sky, and when MacAfee returns to the base he gets chewed out by the officer, who threatens to end his career over his "prank" of reporting something up there that the radar couldn't spot (which would be completely impossible). The engineer gets defensive and accuses Major Bergen of blowing things out of proportion until the Air Force man informs him that one of the five planes sent out to look for the UFO didn't come back. A phone call interrupts MacAfee's chewing out, and Bergen is informed that a commercial air flight with a full crew and five dozen passengers gave out a distress call and then vanished from radar and the airwaves; it appears that Mitch MacAfee really did see something up there in the sky, and that the most advanced technology that the American government has at its disposal is blind and useless while looking for it.

Oh, and the screenplay gets turbo-stupid at this point and will largely remain on this setting for the rest of the film--after hearing that at least two planes have been swatted out of the sky by the UFO as big as a battleship, MacAfee and Caldwell immediately make plans to take a plane to New York City. I'm pretty sure I'd ask for a jeep or something instead. A pair of roller skates. Train tickets. ANYTHING but a plane.

And hey, while flying over an unexpected rain cloud, the plane that the two protagonists are in gets overflown by a blurry birdlike effect; no sooner has the Expendable Meat pilot said that he lost sight of the UFO when it went overhead than one of the plane's engines gets destroyed. The pilot gets a face full of diluted chocolate syrup smeared on his face when he bonks into the control panel and MacAfee has to land the plane with one engine on fire (represented by one of the great Terrible Model Plane Effects of the decade). One crash landing and explosion later, the hero of the film lives through another encounter with the flying monster by sacrificing someone else. I don't know if the screenwriters noticed it, but being near Mitch MacAfee when the monster shows up is more hazardous than being a red-shirted drummer for Spinal Tap smoking weed at summer camp while knowing Charles Bronson.

Ragingly offensive Canadian stereotype Pierre Broussard shows up at the crash site and lets the two conscious protagonists drink up his home-brewed applejack at his farmhouse while a raging storm howls outside without getting any rain on his windows. Caldwell and MacAfee makes plans to get to a nearby airport and fly to New York City, which I cannot imagine any sane human being with a functioning brain planning to do after avoiding death by UFO twice in the same weekend. Caldwell tells the implausible truth that a flying battleship knocked them out of the sky in a manner calculated to be disbelieved when a local cop asks about the crash; during this viewing, I found myself wondering if Samuel L. Jackson needs to scrape a couple 50s fighter jets off the front grill of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s most expensive toys.

MacAfee takes a phone call from a General Van Buskirk while at Pierre's swinging bachelor pad. Apparently the military believes that MacAfee is playing some kind of prank since none of the radar stations tracking any of the doomed planes spotted anything; if they're right, crashing your plane for a gag shows levels of dedication that Andy Kaufman would find excessive.

Something flies over the cabin during the storm and frightens the heck out of Pierre's horse. When he goes outside into the storm to check on the animal he screams in terror, having seen something in the sky that he interprets as La Cacagne, a Quebecois flying monster banshee creature with the body of a woman and the head of a wolf. You might expect MacAfee to realize that this monster that Pierre saw moving fast at night illuminated only by lightning was actually also the killer UFO that he's encountered twice, but instead he gets all up in the poor farmer's grill, telling him he didn't see anything. If there was an Olympics for being an obtuse jackass, Mitch MacAfee would have to do a piss test every hour to prove he wasn't using performance enhancing drugs after this scene.

A pair of police in bone-dry uniforms walk in out of the storm to drive our heroes to the airport. The sergeant tells MacAfee that according to the legends of La Cacagne, seeing it means you're doomed to die very soon. His delivery of this pronouncement is a very solid entry in that Jackass Olympics from the previous paragraph; I bet he could go for bronze easily, and maybe a silver if the East German team is having an off year.

Caldwell and MacAfee fly to New York City, and the battleship-sized Cacagne leaves their flight alone for whatever reason. There's some classic late-fifties sexual harassment presented as romance (the guy sitting behind the pair who tells them to shut up speaks for the entire audience). One other thing gets accomplished in this interminable scene--the engineer makes a rough sketch of the five spots that planes have been attacked by the flying battleship bird creature thing monster and finds out that they all fit on a spiral pattern (or, for that matter, a line). There's now at least a wild-assed hypothesis to guess where the monster will strike next--although, being a woman, Caldwell scoffs at Mitch's guess because she's got to be wrong and he's got to be right.

The next thing we see is something that cracked me up when I was eight years old seeing it in It Came From Hollywood for the first time, and has only gotten more ridiculous in the intervening years. Five Expendable Meat investigators from the Civilian Aeronautics Board have their plane attacked by the monster and are all eaten as they try to parachute to safety. This could have been a horrifying scene if they were willing to spend a dollar or two on the sequence, but nobody involved in financing this movie could be bothered to do so. Which means we get this:

Wait till you see it move...

So now the monster has done enough damage and killed enough people that the military has started to do something other than just point and laugh when MacAfee goes into his "giant killer bird thing" speech; he gets summoned to the Pentagon in order to brief Van Buskirk about what the heck is going on (and this scene also makes sure to have the men prove that the "spiral pattern of attacks" theory is right, more or less specifically so that Sally Caldwell has to show that she knows she was wrong in a reaction shot.

Dr. Caldwell turns out to have one of the keys to the problem--as part of her previous efforts for the Department of Defense she had cameras in balloons taking pictures of the Earth's curvature. As it turns out, the giant space buzzard flew past some of those cameras and there are photos of it, so at least everyone knows what to shoot at now (I am assuming they didn't want to take out a perfectly harmless space canary if they saw one). The shot of Air Force men looking serious while standing next to a slide projector will make any Mike Judge fan mutter "Jesus, Collins..." under their breath, by the way. I've seen it happen.

Van Buskirk and the two heroes get on a plane to Washington, D. C. (Why? Why would you do this?) in order to brief an even higher-ranking general played by B movie "hey, that guy is a general in everything" stalwart Morris Ankrum. He oversees the Air Force efforts to murder the space bird to death, listening in on the radio as the pilots report that their puny weapons are useless against the bird, which has no trouble at all killing the lot of them. Obviously, another tactic is needed.

The civilian heroes eventually figure three things out:  the bird is made of antimatter (so it doesn't show up on radar) and has some sort of invisible made-up bullshit force field that destroys all the weapons fired at it. It's come to Earth in order to lay an egg, which does not have a force field. And lastly, constructing a mu-meson projector that can be fired at the bird will somehow poke a hole in its force field so that conventional weapons can kill it.

Of course this plan will eventually succeed at the last minute, but before that we get shots of the bird attacking New York City (as well as stock footage of Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers standing in for either an attack on the nation's capitol or just more buildings getting damaged in New York City without any regard for the architecture that is actually there). There's a word salad science lecture from someone in a coat and tie to explain the way that the mu-meson projector will work (for a given value of "explain"). And there's a group of hot-rodding teenagers that have to get killed instead of MacAfee so that he gets away from one more encounter with the space buzzard. For that matter, Pierre buys the farm in the immediate aftermath of the successful attempt to destroy the gigantic egg; it's really dangerous to be anywhere near Mitch MacAfee in this movie.

The fact that a bunch of sufficiently talented working actors all sold their dialogue as best as they could makes the movie so much more entertaining than it would have been with better effects. They all commit to their gibberish lines with full fervor, and none of them allow the viewer to realize that they know how ludicrous their plans are. If the deadly antimatter predator looked like an actual bird of prey rather than something that wouldn't be allowed on set for "The Great Space Coaster" the conflict between expectation and actuality wouldn't fuel nearly as much laughter. It's one thing to have people look to the skies in terror when you've got a MUTO streaking overhead; it's quite another to have a googly-eyed, nostril-flaring vulture pick up an entire train like a string of sausages and fly away.

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