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Monday, October 6, 2014

HubrisWeen 2, Day 1: Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957)

Written by Charles B. Griffith
Directed by Roger Corman

Richard Garland:  Dale Drewer
Pamela Duncan:  Martha Hunter
Russell Johnson:  Hank Chapman
Beach Dickerson:  Seaman Ron Fellows

It's that time of year again; in 2013 I thought I'd try and boost the readership for my blog by doing twenty-six reviews in alphabetical order for October--from Alligator to Zombie. I called the project HubrisWeen because I was positive I wouldn't actually do it, but I did. And it worked. I got more page views that October than for the eight months or so that I'd had the blog going before that. It also wiped me out and I didn't post any reviews for about two months after that, because I didn't plan things out particularly well and wound up doing a full review something like every day for the last two weeks of the month.

This time around, I at least know what I'm getting into, but as another goad to my ego, three friends are going to try doing a HubrisWeen of their own. And now that I'm doing it twice it looks like it's a tradition. There will be a HubrisWeen central page with everyone's links on it, and I hope to update that daily while the project is going on. Check the bottom of each review page for the link. It'll be to the same celluloid zeroes that I normally link to minus Cinemasochist Apocalypse but adding Freeman "Dr. Freex" Williams, who is one of the reasons I started my review blog in the first place.


I don't think I'd ever seen the "Associated British Pathe" logo before a movie before, and it's got a crowing rooster as opposed to a roaring lion. Perhaps that's a bit classier, being understated and English and all. The film that follows is as American as Ayn Rand's Social Security checks, though. One of Roger Corman's earlier films, it's also a bit rougher than I expected from the year "Bye Bye Love" was one of the biggest singles.

The movie starts with storm clouds and a Bible voiceover, so it can only be American science fiction from the fifties. A Navy raft lands on a beach (sorry, "island"). About eight people disembark and walk onto the beach. A French-accented middle-aged guy says you can feel the lack of welcome (it's Corman mainstay Mel Welles! With Beach Dickerson in this film as well you just needed Dick Miller or Jonathan Haze and you'd have a quorum). We get a little bit of exposition here as the lieutenant in charge of the group says that the previous expedition vanished, but not what the current expedition is doing or where they are. The sole woman on the beach (and in the cast) says some of the missing explorers(?) were friends of the other scientists from the same institute. I kinda like the way the exposition is only telling some of the information. That's probably closer to how it would go in real life than movie dialogue tends to come.

There's a second raft full of supplies that's being brought to shore when one of the sailors falls overboard. There's a rather cool shot of him screaming underwater and when he gets hauled out of the water HE IS MISSING HIS HEAD HOLY SHIT I DIDN'T KNOW YOU COULD DO THAT IN A MOVIE FROM 1957! Not only that, but we're four minutes into the film, including the opening credits! Damn, Roger, you have my full attention. Which undoubtedly was his plan.

The two Komedy Sailors move a crate of grenades onto shore, and the lieutenant makes plans to take the body of the third sailor back to the naval base. He says there's a radio setup at the Science Bungalow that will be used as the home base for Operation:  We Haven't Quite Told You What We're Doing Yet. The beach home that the scientists will be using looks a bit too permanent and 50s-Californian to be something constructed on an island. The island doesn't really look too much like an island either, for that matter. One character says there's no animals on the island other than the crabs that are skittering around on the beach, which contradicts the stock footage of a flock of seagulls shown during French Guy's speech.

At the house, there's not a sign of the vanished previous expedition but they left some journals behind that will get read later when stuff gets weird (this is not a spoiler if you have ever seen a monster movie with an empty house and notebooks in it). The lieutenant and the body of Threat-Establishing Casualty Sailor are on the seaplane when there's a camera-quake and booming noises. Then an exposition drop when the two Komedy Sailors and the movie's blue-collar character, Hank Chapman, start talking about what the heck they're supposed to be doing there. The island was blanketed with heavy fallout after an H-bomb test. Each scientist is there to study a different effect of the radioactive particles on the island. The parade of actors past the camera and voiceover explaining their specialties means that we don't get a lot of "As you know, Bob" dialogue where the cast explains things to each other that they should already know but that the viewer needs to get hip to. There's probably a really filthy joke to be made from the setup ("A geologist, a botanist, a biologist, a marine biologist and a nuclear physicist walk into a fallout zone...") but I really don't know what it would be.

Everyone goes to watch the plane take off, and we get a second surprise when it explodes in midair, followed by stock footage of a rainstorm--which makes the radio reception on the island worthless, so the scientists can't tell the Navy that they're down one officer, one enlisted man, one plane and the sailor's stack of Archie comics. Since they're stuck inside during the rainstorm anyway, the scientists get started reading the journals left behind by McLean, the head science person from the vanished previous expedition. An early entry mentions a piece of earthworm tissue that couldn't be studied because it healed too quickly to cut a piece off of it for closer examination. The diary ends so abruptly that the "caught by a typhoon" theory for the earlier group's disappearance cannot be true, and Chapman gets a little creeped out. There's more booming noises and camera shakes.

The next day there's WEIRD NOISES! that turn out to just be a tree branch scraping the outside of the Science Friends headquarters. The marine biologist, Dr. Hunter, is gathering samples in the ocean (and apparently isn't worried about contracting a fatal case of Head Chopped Off, which would be foremost in my mind). A second SCUBA diver shows up and tries to go for a kiss; my notes contain the phrase "Air hoses, fool!" at this juncture. They explore a sunken ship, providing a little production value for a movie that so far has only had two rafts and a house in it (and, briefly, a seaplane). On shore, Dr. Hunter says she got turned around lost underwater when a huge black rock she was using as a landmark disappeared. On shore, other scientists helpfully point out a massive fifty-foot-deep pit that just formed twenty minutes earlier (which is actually pretty neat, the way Corman only shows us the pit when the scientists see it; he had to have framed earlier shots of the "island" to avoid hinting at its existence or just filmed out of sequence, with the pit in a completely different location than the house and beach).

That night, a voiceover tries to wake Dr. Hunter up, and now I know one of the things that was getting mocked with affection in The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra. The voice says that it's McLean, and he needs help. Dr. Hunter goes outside, like a doofus, and runs into another scientist who heard the same voice and neither one heard the other person being summoned. Jim the geologist goes into the pit to look for McLean just in time for more booming and rumbling noises, and then a scream from just out of the frame. Everyone goes back to the house and meet the Komedy Sailors, who say that a gigantic chunk of the cliffs sheared off and fell into the ocean in a sequence too thrilling and expensive to be shown in this production.

Everyone but two of the scientists go to the now-revealed caves to try and rescue Carson; one of the pair who stays back at the science house gets attacked by a gigantic crab claw and leaves his bedroom in a sequence that I wish I knew enough coding to turn into a NOPE motion .gif for my own amusement. Back at the cave, everyone's moving cautiously in case there's another quake or tremor, and eventually give up looking for Carson. Back at the house, the power is out and the monster is gone. The radio is destroyed and everyone does some half-baked theorizing that the gigantic crab is afraid of or vulnerable to electricity. And the island is literally falling apart--the mountains are now gone completely and after several more of those boom-and-quake episodes there won't be any place for the scientists to hide from the radiation-spawned giant crabs.

Back in the cave, the search for Carson goes disastrously as the French botanist loses a hand to falling chunks of rock (in another scene waaaaay more explicit than I was expecting). Some emergency first aid gets called in to bandage the wound and the sailors run into the cave to say that even more of the island has fallen into the ocean. Later that night the Odious Comic Relief is playing cards and they get killed by a rogue POV camera, not a moment too soon. Deveraux, feverish and in bed, hears the two sailors calling to him and leaves for the pit; that claw from earlier yanks him off-screen by the neck and his screams wake Dr. Hunter up. Everyone goes to the bedroom where Deveraux was sleeping and it's empty--as you would imagine--but they have a conversation with his disembodied voice. The departed spirit of the botanist quickly figures out that they know he's gone and promises to return. Doctor Wigand says that their situation is clearly impossible, but is also happening. I love hearing dialogue like that in a monster flick.

That night, Spooky Evil Voice transmits itself through a gun, and reveals that it can both hear and speak through anything made of metal. The voices of the departed cast members say they want to show the others what happened, and lure them to the cave where they are attacked by a GIANT GOOFY CRAB PUPPET! that cannot be harmed by bullets or grenades, but a falling stalactite drops on it and destroys its brain. Because the Piercer is the natural enemy of the giant crab puppet, of course.

Things are looking pretty good for our heroes until the second crab makes an appearance. Hank Chapman dynamites the cave and the survivors run back to their house to take stock of the situation. A close examination of a chunk of giant crab monster claw shows that the atoms don't have any cohesion, which I guess makes them largely invulnerable. They can also eat and absorb the bodies and minds of their victims due to this atomic decoherence. Just roll with it. It's a monster flick from 1957. We also get plenty of handwaving made-up science talk bullshit to explain how the crabs are capable of literally tearing the island apart. And Dr. Hunter figures out that the female crab monster is pregnant. That's even worse news than the incredible shrinking island and our surviving protagonists have to figure out a way to kill it before it spawns.

Fortuitously enough, the scientists discover that electricity reduces the chunk of crab claw to ash (because every invulnerable monster has to have a weakness, at least in American movies). Now all they have to do is figure out some way to put fifty thousand watts of power through the telepathic indestructible crab monster; among the complications to the scheme, the cave entrance is now underwater. Eventually they decide on making a metal plate connected to an electrical arc device; when the crab steps on the plate it will go up like the world's largest bug zapper. Dr. Hunter has to go through another underwater scene in order to rig up the trap but manages to get it placed. The whole scheme is discussed in a room full of metal objects, by the way, and they're all lucky the crab wasn't telepathically eavesdropping on them.

Hank sneaks up on the sleeping crab monster and tries to cut a sample off of it, which wakes it up. He and Dr. Hunter flee to the ocean and the crustacean follows. It pursues them to the beach, and the puppet looks rather worse in full daylight. There's another earthquake and the island is even smaller now. Two male scientists go to the cave and Dr. Hunter finally realizes she's in a 50s sci-fi movie and prepares a meal for everyone. Hank has fixed the radio, but the transmitter isn't working yet. Still looking for the crab, the scientists creep around in the cave. One of them sees the crab, runs away, steps on the trigger plate and gets zapped unconscious. Then the monster eats him, and he had it coming.

Back on the surface of the island, more earthquakes tear more of the place apart, and destroy the science headquarters shortly after Hank managed to send a telegraph message out explaining what's going on. The crab mocks them and the survivors run to the radio antenna; Hank drops the transmitter tower on the monster and destroys it at the cost of his own life (because a blue-collar guy isn't the proper survivor love interest for a woman with a doctorate) and the credits roll mere seconds later.

This one sure as heck didn't overstay its welcome--at 62 minutes, it's barely feature length. But an absolute ton of stuff happens during the film--the monster is introduced, crazy telepathic stuff happens, the island falls apart, there's a couple SCUBA scenes, lots of plans proposed and put into effect and a heroic sacrifice. By the one hour point of the King Kong remake I think they mentioned Skull Island for the first time. Sure, the monster props don't look very good, but there's some extremely canny shot choices and location work and a really creepy idea given half-baked fruition with the memory-absorbing crabs. You certainly could do a lot worse if you're looking to watch some fifties sexism and science.

This review is part of the HubrisWeen 2014 marathon. The other reviews for movies beginning with today’s letter are:

The Terrible Claw Reviews:  The Alligator People

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