Strike me pink, it's brilliant. If you're having a movie-watching party, it'll slay the room.
I'm probably the only person in the world who thinks so, mind you. It's a 1950s monster film whose producers employed a low-budget model maker in Mexico City to build the film's main star. The actors didn't learn what it looked like until they saw the movie in cinemas, which sounds as if it was a traumatic experience. Jeff Morrow describes the audience roaring with laughter every time they saw the "Giant Claw", leading him to sneak out before the end for fear of being seen and recognised.
However this is also the source of its greatness. It's a miracle to find any entertainment value in a 1950s monster movie, let alone to find yourself gasping for breath. The comedy never stops. When I first saw it, I roared. Twenty minutes later, I might still start giggling. Even three minutes before the closing credits, I was still capable of laughing at it. It's a rubber marionette that looks as if it's got Jim Henson's hand up its bottom.
In other words, it's genius. The purpose of cinema is to get an emotional reaction from the audience, right?
That's not the end of the ludicrousness, though. To appreciate this film fully, you've got to be in the right mood for the following gems:
1. An endearingly low-budget plane crash, in which the blood on the pilot's face is so unconvincing that I'm not sure if it's even meant to be blood. The explosion is achieved by throwing burning pieces of fuselage past the actors.
2. Army generals who don't believe in a UFO that's destroyed three planes and been repeatedly reported... because it's invisible to radar. In this movie, the word "radar" is taken by all to be akin to "God" or "infallible". At one point someone asks Jeff Morrow if it's possible for something not to appear on radar. He says no, but he's an electronics engineer! Why does that make him an expert on radar technology? Of course in real life, even in 1957 the United States already had radar-absorbent coatings on its U-2 spy planes and was about to commission a new generation of stealth fighters.
3. The technobabble had me on the floor. The "Giant Claw" is invulnerable to all weapons and can fly at superhuman speeds (except during the action-packed finale, when it could be outrun by a toddler on a tricycle)... because it's made of anti-matter! I nearly died. No, wait, it isn't. Even characters in a 1957 movie can spot the flaw in that one. Actually it's invulnerable because it radiates an energy screen of anti-matter. This would be bizarre even if we weren't talking about a bird. You know, with wings and a beak.
4. This bird can apparently fly over all places on Earth simultaneously.
5. How in the world did Morrow hypothesise that flight pattern? I didn't believe it for a moment.
Anyway, you get the idea. We're talking about a complete load of ludicrous toss, aren't we?
Actually, no. The genius of this film comes from the fact that while on the surface it's ripe fifties cheese and as such full of unintentional entertainment, at the same time I'd also it defend as far better written and acted than its more esteemed contemporaries. It's a good film deliberately.
Firstly, the script. It's witty. The dialogue has a light touch, giving the actors far more to play with than usual in this genre. There are exchanges I'm having to restrain myself from quoting in their entirety, because they're fun, slightly flippant and letting the actors enjoy themselves. The excessive narration at the start is weird, though. They're so in love with the narrator's voice that they even have him telling us what the characters are saying, instead of just having him shut up and let them speak.
However on top of that, I also love the story structure. Obviously in a 1950s monster movie, you have to bring in the army... but perhaps surprisingly, they never take over the film. Instead it stays all about Jeff Morrow and Mara Corday. They're our heroes and the centre of attention throughout. This is good because they're cool. However that's only one reason why the film never drifts into wooden 1950s auto-pilot. There's always something new and it's always going a bit further than you'd expect, whether it's that hilarious first burst of technobabble, the "oh my God" follow-up technobabble involving mu-mesic atoms or the radio announcement about all governments in the world declaring a state of emergency and imposing martial law.
On top of that, the lead actors are wonderful. I'd seen Jeff Morrow before in the likes of This Island Earth
and The Creature Walks Among Us
, but until now I'd never particularly noticed him. Here, he blew me away. The script's giving him some freedom and he's taking full advantage, playing with his dialogue and really bringing the film to life. I also love his characterful face, since he's no pretty boy but instead a grizzled fifty-year-old. People used to call him the "Cro-Magnon Man". In particular he has chemistry with his co-star, Mara Corday. Corday was a model and showgirl as well as an actress, but here she's showing real screen presence and sparking with Morrow. I defy anyone to watch the scene where he's chatting her up on a plane and not admire the quality of their work. She gave up acting at the start of the 1960s to raise a family, but after her husband died in 1974, she allowed herself a comeback and appeared in several movies for Clint Eastwood.
Corday would also be the October 1958 Playmate of the Month.
This film has it all. It's hugely entertaining, both intentionally and otherwise. It has 1950s teenagers saying "Hey, daddio, get Rin Tin Tin off the road." It shows someone in the middle distance getting gratuitously squashed under a falling building. It has army generals who ride in the plane themselves to shoot down the monster at the end. It's not sexist. It's busting its little socks off to present us with the most detailed, intricate science it possibly can. (Mu-mesic atoms are real, you know.) In a decade whose SF and monster films tend to be even more stupid and wooden than one expects anyway, this one is full of character, charm and a muppet that's beyond parody.
"I admire your spunk and you keep climbing on our backs."