The Thursday Horror Picture Show is serving Grade-A Thanksgiving turkey this week with Fred F. Sears’ deliriously dreadful The Giant Claw (1957). To give some barometer of its quality, consider that it was released in June of 1957, and even though Sears died in November of that same year, in the intervening five months he managed to crank out another eight movies and one TV episode before handing in his Directors Guild card. To say he was a meticulous craftsman would be an untruth of some note, but he could undeniably churn ‘em out. And in all honesty, it’s not the workmanlike direction, the screenplay, or the echt-1950s acting that stuffs and bastes the bird. It’s the bird itself. In fact, the first 26 minutes of the movie aren’t that bad. And then … the title monster shows up—and not just his claw, but every ill-advised turkey-feathered inch of the damned thing. It is … well, just, wow. This is one of those rare cases—owing to the way the film was put together—where it’s easy to believe that the stars, mindless of what the monster looked like, went to the premiere showing, only to slink away in abject embarassment, hoping not to be recognized. The truth, though, is that it’s entirely due to this plucked buzzard-from-hell puppet that anyone remembers the movie today. Otherwise, The Giant Claw would be nothing than just another 1950s giant monster flick. As it is, its unique awfulness makes it a strange kind of very, very wayward “classic.”
To give credit—or blame—where it’s really due here, you have to look to the producer—the astonishing Sam Katzman, one of the most underrated names in exploitation. Indeed, old Sam may well have been the first truly successful exploitation filmmaker—by that I mean he made a working career out of it. He started, unpromisingly, making serials and westerns in the 1930s, but he came into his own with his Banner Productions in 1940 at Monogram (the first time he had access to actual studio releasing). Here he turned the Dead End Kids into the East Side Kids and offered a down-on-his-luck Bela Lugosi to star in a series of really cheap movies that offered a lot of Lugosi and very little else.
Contemptuous of everything—including his audience (he once went on record saying there was “something wrong” with the people who saw his movies)—he was the ultimate schlockmeister. Always ready to latch onto a trend, it was hardly surprising that he’d gravitate toward sci-fi in the 1950s. Actually, his 1956 epic Earth vs. the Flying Saucers isn’t bad, but those Ray Harryhausen special effects were not Sam’s cup of tea—meaning they cost money. So he found something cheaper—farming out the effects on this one to a Mexican studio. That the monster was laughable (let’s face it the most horrifying thing about it is that it sometimes looks like a demented Jimmy Durante) was no concern of Sam’s. This may be the origin of outsourcing, come to think of it.
This is why no one in the cast—except for the screaming extras who parachuted into a the buzzard’s mouth, or rather a rear-screen projection of it—even saw the bird till it was too late to realize that the monster they’d been “reacting” to in stark terror was quite possibly the most ludicrous thing ever put on film. That it managed to embarass actors whose credits weren’t all that spiffy to begin with makes this no small accomplishment. That this was the sine qua non of silliness in the era that saw Bert I. Gordon showing “giant” grasshoppers crawling up photos of skyscrapers is nothing short of mind-boggling.