Thursday, February 21, 2013

All-Out Giant Monster Attack! Episode 12 - Attack of the Crab Monsters

This movie is awesome!

I knew I had to include a Roger Corman movie for All-Out Giant Monster Attack!, the man is a living legend of Hollywood.  Despite working exclusively in the realm of independent B-movie production, Roger Corman is the grandfather of a massive film tradition.  He's produced over 400 movies according to IMDB, and directed over fifty.  The list of people who have worked with Corman on his cheap horror, exploitation, and comedy films is mind-boggling with directors such as:  James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola, Joe Dante, Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese, Johnathan Demme, and Robert Town all going through the Corman school.  And that's not even including actors, where we have:  Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Sandra Bullock, David Carradine, Sylvester Stallone, and Talia Shire. Chances are, if you've worked on a crappy B-movie at point during the last sixty years, you've worked on a Roger Corman movie.  Corman might just be the most prolific filmmaker in all of history, and he's still at it, still making terrible monster movies for the SciFi channel.

In the Fifties, a typical Corman production took around two weeks to film, and would cost something between ten and seventy thousand dollars, which even at the time was an incredibly low amount of money with which to make an entire feature film.  But Corman was the type to get the work done, using a crew of professionals working around the clock with multiple jobs, pumping out movies like factory products.  In a single year Corman could produce as many as nine movies.  One of his best-known movies, the 1960 original "Little Shop of Horrors" was filmed entirely in two days.  In "Attack of the Crab Monsters", the chief actors were paid six-hundred dollars per week of shooting, which for many desperate starving actors in Los Angeles at the time, was perfectly fine.  Even the star, Russell Johnson, who previously starred in the SciFi classic, "This Island Earth" and would go on to be The Professor from Gilligan's Island, was glad to have the paycheck.

"Attack of the Crab Monsters"* was born in typical Corman fashion, with him suddenly deciding one day to make a movie about giant crabs attacking.  He also demanded from his screenplay writer, Charles B. Griffith, that every scene contain suspense or action, so they wouldn't have to film any unnecessary and pricey scenes of characterization or even exposition.  And I would say, for the most part, this strategy worked, because "Attack of the Crab Monsters" is an excellent movie.  I mean, yeah, its obviously a very cheap B-movie and the characters are lousy, but the movie has a great atmosphere of unrelenting suspense.  And it has one of the most original giant monsters ever, which add to the creepy tone of the entire movie.  There is not one scene that doesn't work to continue to build the suspense the eeriness of the isolated madness that the characters have been trapped within.  "Attack of the Crab Monsters" is a perfect lesson on how to make a cheap monster movie.  This is how its done.

Probably the single most important thing about a good horror movie is the set-up.  If you're setting your movie in a government lab in the middle of civilization with connections to the entire power of the US government, its not going to be very scary.  But if you set your movie on a deserted island with protagonists that have no chance of escape for days, then the giant monster becomes much more frightening.  Yeah, "Tarantula" was resolved easily with napalm, but what if you can't call in an airstrike with napalm, or even call for any kind of help.  "Attack of the Crab Monsters" does one better and even mentions how the heroes are in the same situation as a group of previous characters, none of whom survived.  There is some very great craftsmanship with the horror here.  You don't see the monster for about half the movie, and before that, you only hear strange chewing noises, and the disembodied voices of the crabs' victims.  That's how you do horror.  The mood is helped considerably by a very creepy soundtrack, essentially turning this SciFi monster movie into a haunted house film.  Plus the movie is so weird with its plot points, the island itself is constantly in flux and changing, the monster is so bizarre, that its actually chilling.  You get the sense that you're in some strange nexus on the border of our reality and some alternate alien nightmare world where crabs eat people and the sun never stops shining.

"Attack of the Crab Monsters" opens rather confusingly with a bunch of scientists landing on a deserted island, without much explanation as to who they are or what they're doing.  Turns out this is an expedition set up by the US government to investigate the effects of nuclear fallout on an entire ecosystem.  But the landing is already full of dread, as the last group of scientists who were working on the island all disappeared without a trace.  By the way, I should note that lacking in the party of main characters is that blond woman in the green bathing suit from the poster, the only woman in this movie has black hair.  Well, the expedition begins badly from the very first minute.  One of the sailors working with the scientists falls out of the landing boat, and has his head decapitated by an unseen creature.  Jesus!

This being the 1950s, full-on decapitations were a very rare sight.  That's the Atomic Age's approximation of hard-core R-rated torture porn.  Wow.  I mean, you don't see his head come off, but you do see his friends pull his headless body out of the water.

Anyway, the expedition just keeps getting worse.  The seaplane they came on explodes, in what was probably stock footage.  Then it turns out the island they're on is ridiculously unstable. During the course of the movie whole mountains disappear, massive holes in the ground come out of nowhere, and the island more or less disintegrates into the sea.  We get to read the notes of the last team to visit the island, who mention that the island is completely lacking in bacteria and they found a strange biological substance that looks like an earthworm but cannot be cut.  Our main heroine, Martha, played by the rather homely Pamela Duncan (though she has a great body), goes for a swim and then on her walk back, finds a huge cavern that appeared out of nowhere.  That night, Martha and one of the scientists are led outside by the voice of one of McClane, the leader of the previous expedition.  They come to the hole, and a sudden earthquake drops the guy into the hole, while Martha faints instantly due to being a weak-willed Fifties gal.

At this point, I should make a note that Roger Corman seems to have had no idea how to film a night shot, or simply couldn't afford a dark filter.  Until cameras grew sophisticated enough to film in low light around the 1980s, most night shots in movies were "day for night" shots, where they would film in normal light outside, but filter the camera with some kind of blue, or underexpose the film stock to make it appear darker.  This, at best, made the night shots appear to take place in the late afternoon or early twilight, and usually it looks awful.  "Attack of the Crab Monsters" is very inconsistent with its lighting, so characters will walk around in what I think was supposed to be the impression of night-time, and then end up in the day.  Or perhaps this island is so unnatural that the sun simply never sets.

Anyway, the crab monster:


As you would expect from a 1950s monster movie, it looks terrible.  This image doesn't do much justice to the actual film, where you rarely get a shot as clear as this of the monster, but its still very goofy.  The monster, as you can see, has eyes, similar to that of the poster.  It has such a perverted look on its face, its bizarre.  But it oddly fits this movie, which seems to exist in a reality all of its own.  Because for one thing, when the crabs eat you, they steal your soul.  So the voices the characters were hearing were the crabs projecting the voices of the victims outward to manipulate the humans.  Even better, these are the smartest giant monsters ever, having acquired all the knowledge of their victims, so they can use dynamite, and they're smart enough to completely destroy a radio with surgical precision.  Not only that, but the monster taunts the humans, laughing about how they'll never be able to kill it, and how its going to take over the world.

Oh but it gets better.  Because "Attack of the Crab Monsters" has the most awesomely terrible explanation for its monsters.  The radiation has mutated the monsters into a new exotic state of matter, where their atoms freely flow like that of a liquid, but they still have solid shape and volume.  So you can't cut them or shoot them, the bullets flow right through.  And if you cut off a limb, it will just grow back.  (Somehow, however, cave-ins using perfectly normal rocks to piece the crab brains work perfectly fine in killing them.)  This means that since these crabs are basically atomic ghosts, they can absorb the electrical impulses of your brain, thus stealing your soul.  And more hilariously, these crabs are negatively charged so any electricity (all electricity is apparently positively charged) will destroy them instantly, vaporizing them into dust.  I've heard some crazy goddamn shit from these Fifties giant monster movies, but this is something else entirely.  This is a new level of madness.

Its so ridiculous that I'd say its actual awesome.  Because think about it:  super intelligent, psychic, giant monster crabs that are immune to bullets!  This makes so little sense that its almost frightening in of itself.  If something this impossible can happen, what won't this movie throw at us?

Just when "Attack of the Crab Monsters" starts to get a bit dull, it ends.  The Professor from Gilligan's Island (who just a moment ago was making some moves on Martha, who I think is actually married to another scientist), climbs on top of a radio tower and rides it down on the monster's brain, electrocuting it and saving humanity from what was clearly the new master race.  Still up until then, the movie had a great atmosphere, it had a great villain, it was a lot of fun.  This is one of the best Fifties SciFi film I've ever seen.  At least the weirdest one, and that's not a bad thing.  Yeah, the characters suck, the dialog is crap, and for some reason the characters decide to climb down to investigate the weird caves to look for their buddy no less than three times, when that could have been one single scene.  But I'm thinking "Attack of the Crab Monsters" should be rediscovered, it should get a remake.  There is some wacky brilliance here and the inclusion of a real budget and modern effects might make the greatest ever made.  Or at least something really really fun.

As for the movie's historical importance... I don't think it has much.  This isn't a very well-remembered film, and I'd say that's unfortunate.  This is way better than "Them!" or "Tarantula", it deserves more recognition.  Unfortunately, Roger Corman is not going to come back on our countdown, though I hope one day to review some of his other movies, particularly something that kicks ass like "Battle Beyond the Stars" or "Frankenstein Unbound".  Plus, "Attack of the Crab Monsters" is only an hour long so its shorter, scarier, and more fun than most movies of this period.

On the next episode of All-Out Giant Monster Attack! - space aliens invade Japan with a giant robot in "The Mysterians".


* I keep wanting to call this "Attack of the Crab Creatures" because the alliteration is so obvious and so much more pleasing to the ear.  Sadly, that's not the case.

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