I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’m not a humongous fan of seafood. Outside of the occasional piece of salmon or Chilean sea bass, it’s just not for me. Having said that, I did used to like going crabbing as a boy. When my family went to the shore for vacation, my brothers would pack up the crab traps. We had about three or four of them, and half the battle was getting the strings untangled and hooked up appropriately to close the traps. For those who don’t know, the basics of amateur crabbing goes a little like this: You put bait in a collapsible trap (there are non-collapsible traps, too, but they cost money). You chuck the trap into the ocean, and hopefully, it fully opens up when you do this. You then wait. And then you wait some more. Then you haul the trap up, and hopefully, it fully closes when you do this. If there are crabs in the trap, you’re in business. If not, and the sneaky little bastards stole your bait, you re-bait the trap, and do it all over. After a successful day of crabbing, our family would, of course, have crab for dinner. To no one’s surprise, I never partook (I probably had a salami and cheese sandwich instead, a delicacy for which the addition of crunchy beach sand only accentuates the experience). Outside of the waiting, I enjoyed the activity of it crabbing. The waiting, as Tom Petty said, is the hardest part (the reason I could never do things like hunting and fishing on the regular, not that I don’t have patience, but I could sit around my house waiting for something to happen just as easily). Now that I think about it, maybe I didn’t enjoy the activity (there really isn’t much activity to enjoy). Maybe I just enjoyed the company. Either way, it would be tough to catch the sort of crabs featured in Hernan Cardenas’ Island Claws (aka Giant Claws aka Night of the Claw), not only because they’re far ornerier than your bog standard crabs, but also because they’d be too damned big to fit in our piddly little traps.
Somewhere in Florida, Dr. McNeal (Barry Nelson, a long way from The Shining) and his team at the National Marine Biology Institute are researching ways to grow crabs bigger as a way to solve world hunger using hot water. Enter cub reporter Jan Raines (Jo McDonnell), who spends more time hanging out with research assistant Pete (Steve Hanks) than doing any sort of reporting. After a safety incident at the local nuclear power plant releases super-heated, irradiated water into the local area, the crabs in the area get uppity and start to act at odds with their normal patterns of behavior.
The thing that stands out to me the most in terms of themes with Island Claws is the idea of the small community at risk from the big threat. The Institute may be in a bigger city (we’re never privy to the geography of the area), but Pete actually lives in a tiny fishing village on the coast. Pete’s adoptive father Moody (Robert Lansing, an actor whom I’ve always felt was actually miserable under his miserable exterior, even when he’s smiling) runs the local bar, The Half Shell. The bar is the daily gathering place for the locals to get plowed, gamble on hermit crab races, and listen to Amos (Mal Jones) strum his banjo to the accompaniment of a player piano. In many ways, this is a Western frontier town. There is essentially one road that runs straight through the middle, and it’s made of dirt. Everyone congregates at the local saloon. Most importantly, everyone knows one another and their business, almost all of which involves commercial fishing (this film’s version of panning for gold). This tightknit community is unassuming, workaday, and mostly pleasant (if plagued by rampant alcoholism and some halfhearted prejudices). The menace of the crabs rises up to threaten the village, but this is not a threat of the villagers’ making. This is not vengeance from nature on humanity in general. It is the specific targeting of this tiny town as a result of something that occurred at a place of wealth and corruption. The power plant is the symbol for money, and one of its big muckety mucks, Frank Raines (Dick Callinan), who is also Jan’s father, is so entrenched in the cover up of the safety incident, he would even lie to his daughter about it (she being in line with the working class/pro-ecological types). This is the big conflict taking place in the film. It’s the struggle of the working class men against the apathetic, borderline flagitious, wealthy/corporate class. It’s not so much that the business suits of the power plant actively want to destroy the small village. They simply don’t care whether it’s destroyed or not, and it’s their indifference that may prove more destructive than the killer crabs themselves.
Interestingly, and again in the vein of the Western frontier town, the people in the village are not without faults, and the mindset that trickles down from the wealthy power plant structure affects them as well. This is embodied in the subplot of a group of Haitians who arrive illegally on the shore and hide out, stealing what they need to survive. The first reaction of the fishermen, most particularly Joe (Tony Rigo), is to protect their stuff from the Haitians, even at gun point. Turning on this concept, once the crabs start killing and maiming beloved members of the community, the villagers blame the Haitians, and they get so riled up, an angry mob forms to corral the illegal immigrants. The villagers feel threats coming from those who are above them socio-economically as well as from those who are far below them on that same scale. And yet, they never storm the power plant for creating the mutant crabs, but they do go after the Haitians, because they are an easier target, even though the assumptions about them are completely wrong.
Island Claws is a Fifties giant insect movie that arrived about twenty-five years too late, but that’s also the majority of its appeal. Its heroes are common people (even the scientists). It takes its time building up its menace. It gives the audience a scattering of melodrama to maintain some interest in between attack scenes and build up sympathy for the victims. It’s a classic monster movie set up; something I love. The big problem that arises is that the script never totally coheres all of its elements enough to completely work. Some examples: Dr. McNeal is hardly in the film at all outside of providing some occasional exposition. The Haitians are totally undeveloped outside of their wrongly accused refugee status, but their subplot takes up a lot of screen time. Frank Raines appears in exactly one scene just to show us that he’s Jan’s dad and more than a little shady. Further, the back story involving Frank and Moody doesn’t carry any emotional weight, because it’s never followed through on or refined outside of being a bomb to drop on a character (which turns out to be a dud, regardless). Most disappointing for me was the fact that the giant crab’s ultimate defeat is pretty mundane. I wanted our protagonists to use their heads and improvise something clever. However, while they do improvise something, the solution isn’t so clever. With all that in mind, I enjoyed the film as a breezy, imperfect throwback to the likes of Them! and the movies that colored a giant swath of my childhood’s monster love.
MVT: For being on the cheap, the life-sized giant crab monster is actually impressive.
Make or Break: The Kingdom-of-the-Spiders-esque attack on a character’s bus-home tickled my fancy, and it is effectively orchestrated.