Roger Corman began his boom year of 1957 with a marvelous bit of ‘way-out’ sci-fi — a ‘Tidal Wave of Terror’ no less. This note just arrived from Donald J.’s Seafood Emporium: “You puny, dunderheaded humans, don’t let the campy title fool you! Soon you will be ‘absorbed’ into our crabby super-mentalities, heh heh heh. We atom-age crustaceans are made of electric anti-matter — it’s incredible! Our telepathy is the best telepathy ever — everybody says so! It is what it is!” The new Blu-ray will charm fans seeking prime ‘fifties monster nirvana.
Attack of the Crab Monsters
1957 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 62 min. / Street Date August 25 , 2020
Starring: Richard Garland, Pamela Duncan, Russell Johnson, Leslie Bradley, Mel Welles, Richard Cutting, Beach Dickerson, Tony Miller, Ed Nelson, Charles B. Griffith, Maitland Stuart.
Cinematography: Floyd Crosby
Film Editor: Charles Gross Jr.
Assistants of all stripes: Maurice Vaccarino, Charles B. Griffith, Lindsley Parsons Jr., Beach Dickerson, Ed Nelson
Titles: Paul Julian
Original Music: Ronald Stein
Written by Charles B. Griffith
Produced and Directed by Roger Corman
I know it’s tragic, but while lucky ’50s kids just a couple of years older than me saw the marvelously audacious Attack of the Crab Monsters new at the bijou, I had to wait until I was fifty years old. All the Allied Artists shows were on Chiller Theater channel 11, and from a hundred miles away our TV antenna resolved KTTV as ugly NTSC snow. No The Cyclops, no Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, no Forbidden Planet from MGM. Donations to Deprived CineSavant Charities Inc. are now being accepted.
The unambiguously titled Attack of the Crab Monsters came out on a so-so DVD in 2010, widescreen but a little soft and dull. Just a few weeks ago Shout! Factory announced that a new Blu-ray would be available from their website only, and we jumped at the offer. We weren’t disappointed, as I explain in my non-technical quality assessment below.
Everything you didn’t necessarily need to know about Attack of the Crab Monsters.
It’s one thing to discuss 2001 or Solaris with the general public, but a learned essay about Attack of the Crab Monsters is a tougher sell. It’s always been a joke title emblematic of the monster-crazy year of 1957. Forrest J. Ackerman clocked nearly a hundred sci-fi and fantasy releases in that boom year, and even TV’s Beaver Cleaver took his pal to the movies to see outrageous monster movies. The show fascinates from both a sci-fi and a production point of view. Roger Corman’s first two American-International sci-fi efforts followed the end-of-the-world and alien invasion playbooks, but this dynamite Allied Artists double bill with Not of This Earth inspires the pulp imagination. It’s not just crabs crawling around eating people; Charles B. Griffith stacked the screenplay with original ideas. Philip K. Dick may have admired some of the conceptual twists here.
The Corman-Griffith story seems fashioned from what could be filmed really fast in 1) Bronson Caverns, 2) Leo Carrillo State Beach, and around what looks like a private residence in the Hollywood Hills. The show is a ‘Los Altos Production’ — did Corman have a house on Los Altos Place, just South of the Hollywood Bowl?
A nuclear survey team arrives at a small island to study the downwind effects of the Elugelab Thermonuclear Test, but as soon as they hit the beach things go wrong. A previous team has simply disappeared, leaving only a journal with incomplete entries. Two sailors come along as guards, but another is mysteriously decapitated in the surf, and the seaplane that brought them explodes on takeoff. A storm makes radio contact impossible. More bizarre events stack up. Loud rumblings are heard as various parts of the island crumble into the sea. A deep pit opens up not far from the expedition’s headquarters. Oceanic biologist Martha Hunter (Pamela Duncan of The Undead and My Gun is Quick) hears a voice calling in the night, which physicist Karl Weigand (Leslie Bradley) identifies as belonging to one of the members of the lost first expedition. The new arrivals soon come under siege by several gigantic land crabs, super-intelligent atomic mutations with eerie telepathic powers. Professors Wiegand and Jules Deveroux (Mel Welles) theorize that the creatures aren’t even composed of ordinary matter. The crabs are causing the island to break up and disappear. Soon there will be no place for the scientists to hide.
Charles Griffith said that Roger Corman’s instructions were to write a script where every scene has meaningful action or introduces a new note of mystery. Excellent visual continuity ties together Corman’s three main locations, making his story flow even though 80% of its fantastic content is off-screen. We mostly hear about the crabs’ fantastic properties and abilities — that they’re made of a different kind of energy, that they absorb and consolidate the memories and even speech patterns of people they eat. Wasn’t there some experiment that showed that planaria flatworms ‘inherit’ the learned conditioning of other flatworms that they consume? In another slightly less successful twist, the crabs can make their ‘voices’ heard out loud by vibrating metal objects — a plate, even a gun — to produce the sound. It’s not something supernatural — all sound is produced by something vibrating. The movie zips along too fast to let us contemplate the inconsistencies in these ideas.
We expect monsters to eat people but the idea of being incorporated into a monster’s psyche is an atom-age equivalent of the living death of vampire movies. The crabs ingest and file away the personalities of every person they consume — the victim’s brain is now part of the crab’s searchable database. Martha telepathically hears a scientist’s voice. Is it the scientist himself talking, or is the crab using his victim’s personality as a disguise? The Remote Control of Human Beings is a core ’50s sci-fi theme, but few pictures envision human identity as a non-spiritual pattern that can be ingested and repurposed as an offensive weapon.
The movie works despite its fairly threadbare physical production. The science outpost ‘shack’ looks like a modern private home… Corman’s own, perhaps? Everything on this uninhabited island had to be carried up a path from the beach, but the living room is fully decorated. I’m not sure we see any costume changes in the film save for the bathing suits and a nightgown for Ms. Duncan. Leading man Richard Garland wears the same bandana around his neck at all times. Corman obviously didn’t want to waste time in costume changes, or worrying about continuity matching between shots filmed days apart. It’s the same reason his characters don’t normally eat or drink anything, or smoke — why waste shooting minutes checking continuity Polaroids? Why spend for Polaroids?
This is a key movie to show creative uses for the tunnels at Bronson Caverns, which instantly become multiple locations and angles. At a single camera position at the convergence of three passageways at the East end of the main tunnel, Corman could shoot five ‘different’ scenes just by rotating his tripod. He and ace cameraman Floyd Crosby know how to vary the view and use screen direction to connect ‘unrelated’ locations. The only giveaway is when bright light to the left or right tells us that we’re near a sunny entrance, when we’re supposed to be deep in a tunnel. In the commentary someone mentions that a rope must have somehow been fastened to the tunnel roof, but I think that shot was filmed at the entrance, where one rock wall can ‘play’ the bottom of the pit that the crabs have excavated.
The movie is scarcely an hour long, which means that it doesn’t have the extra reel of ‘walking around’ footage seen in shows like Universal’s The Mole People. Although there is perhaps one too many ‘walk in the tunnel’ scenes, the pace is so brisk that it doesn’t play like padding. Only in the underwater footage does the movie mark time — nothing really happens. Note that the scuba doubles for Ms. Duncan and Richard Garland are filmed in the big tank at the long-gone Marineland of the Pacific. More than once, we see the walls and edges of the tank.
The crabs are actually a single Fiberglas crab construction, with two men inside to move it and several puppeteers activating the claws and legs on piano wire — note the marionette sticks used to wiggle the wires in the colorized BTS photo. (↑) Through judicious angles and cutting, the crab proves marginally more effective than the cucumber Venusian seen in Corman’s earlier, slightly less ambitious It Conquered the World. The crabs are clunky & flimsy and the wires are right out in the open, especially on this sharp transfer.
Forget ‘realism’ — these effects lean on the audience’s willingness to get into the spirit of the fun. To see terrific special effects we’ll go to Them! or The Black Scorpion — and some fans think those monsters look fake. Attack’s entire budget was reported as $70,000, which likely didn’t cover the cost of Jack Warner’s giant ants. Biggus Crabbus might have cost all of $2000… or maybe a lot less. Since this is a Corman movie, forget the ‘maybe’ part. [Note: D. Earl Worth says the price was $400, by a company called ‘Dice Inc.’] Frankly, I don’t mind Corman’s Clunk-O-Crab at all — the sight of it clambering over those seaside rock is pretty eerie ( top image ↑) .
The intellectual ideas in Attack are limited mostly to the dialogue, yet they’re pretty interesting. The crabs possess a vaguely defined ability to project energy, or heat things up (?) which is supposedly how they accelerate the erosion of the island. This part of the story is pretty sketchy, the ‘crumbling’ action expressed with a few earthquake effects and stock shots from One Million B.C.. When the house is washed away it suddenly transforms into a ‘native’ structure with a different roof. But I have to say that the under-represented destruction of the island would not be improved with million-dollar CGI effects of the kind seen in 2012 or San Andreas. The sci-fi effects ratio in Attack seems balanced. The little movie knows what it is and sells its drama with efficient storytelling and earnest performances.
Pamela Duncan looks intelligent and focused — she solves biology problems as easily as she does crossword puzzles. (↑) Ms. Duncan is one of many glamorous starlets that worked with Roger Corman on his early films; they seemed to have enjoyed his crazed style of filmmaking even if the high billing they received didn’t lead to more prestigious work. They must have been enthused and motivated to perform cowboy fights in the mud and work even when injured. In this movie Pamela Duncan takes at least one dip into California’s ocean water in November.
Richard Garland may have been given top-billing due to his impressive scene opposite Gary Cooper in Allied Artists’ Friendly Persuasion, the prestigious William Wyler production of the previous year. Or did anybody notice? Not even Tom Weaver mentions Garland’s best scene as a movie actor. The capable Leslie Bradley and Mel Welles would work again for Roger as, respectively, a caveman paterfamilias and an ethnic flower merchant. Richard Cutting is a face we’ve seen but can’t place; don’t be thrown by his IMDB page because they’ve put up a picture of Russ Brown, from South Pacific. All-purpose actor, helper and crab wrangler Beach Dickerson worked odd jobs and acted for Corman (and Corman’s brother Gene) on numerous crazy film adventures of the late 1950s — we recognize him immediately. Actor Ed Nelson has a nice bit up front but stayed on to aid with sundry on-set duties, like helping to ‘actuate’ the crab mock-up.
The film’s best remembered performer may be Russell Johnson. Everyone associates Johnson with Gilligan’s Island but he contributed fine support to dozens of movies. TCM just showed his first movie, Paul Henried’s For Men Only (1952), where he’s excellent as a murderous frat boy. Johnson partly narrates Attack, and his expert acting smooths over under-produced scenes. At one point Johnson’s technician discovers that a monster crab has vandalized the expedition’s lab. It’s obvious that the lumbering crustaceans shouldn’t be able to slice small glass radio tubes neatly in half, but Russell Johnson relates that news with no-nonsense authority. His saying it makes it so.
I need to recant on one issue. I’ve often repeated that Attack displays images of land crabs and seagulls right after a dialogue line saying that ‘all animal life has disappeared from the island.’ Listening this time, I can see that nobody says exactly those words at all. I am enrolled in a special meditation program, to work out the details of my atonement.
Roger Corman began his career as a reader and producer’s assistant at Fox. Back in 1972 he told interviewer William Johnson that he chose material for his own films by looking for ‘a sense of excitement within the story, plus a theme of some importance.’ He also went on to say that he was never really satisfied with his work in the sci-fi field. Be that as it may, Corman’s satisfyingly constructed fantasies field more imaginative ideas than does his competition, whether other independent outfits or the major studios. Corman always voiced pride for his 1960s color films but for a while lost interest in his ’50s output, especially the A.I.P. and AA pictures for which he retained little profit participation. Of course, with his Hollywood canonization in the last twenty years, the genial producer-director has been more willing to discuss details of all of his film work.
The new Blu-ray of Attack of the Crab Monsters is a happy surprise. We were grateful for the 2010 DVD, but despite being in widescreen it was not anything to write home about. It seemed to be a transfer from an English print, as it carries an ‘Associated British Pathe’ distributor logo.
The new transfer is great. The box text says ‘from a fine grain print’ but the contrast and detail in the final encoding looks as if they meant to say a fine grain printing element, which is basic lab talk for a genuine pre-print transfer source. The quality is far better than anything I’ve seen. Transferred at 1:85, it is stable and sharp and displays good contrast. It shows Floyd Crosby’s talent for exposing a negative ‘just so.’ In 16mm TV prints with clogged dark areas, it was difficult to read facial expressions under the California sun. Here we see deeper into the shadows, even in day-for night scenes.
The extra detail lets us second-guess everything technical in the movie, which of course is half the fun. The stock shots stick out; except for a crummy lightning bolt most look fine. It’s funny to see one, maybe two shots of typhoon havoc, when the average budget thriller would pad out the film with a forty-second montage from an old Jon Hall jungle movie. The shots go by so fast that we can’t identify much, except of course the tabletop earthquakes from One Million B.C..
Those piano wires are all over the place, enough for us to ask if the crab sang “I got no strings” in between takes. We don’t mind at all, even when an off-screen shadow or two indicate Beach Dickerson or Ed Nelson wiggling a wire stick just off camera. Considering how it may have been cobbled together in someone’s garage, the crab looks darn good… except maybe those silly, sleepy eyes.
The two main extras are holdovers from the 2010 DVD. The audio commentary is by Tom Weaver and his film history collaborators John & Mike Brunas. The trio’s banter is quite good in general although they’re perhaps they’re a little too eager to poke fun at the show, saying things like ‘Crappy Monsters’ instead of the real title. But then they’ll say something that shows they love it as much as we do. Weaver refers to the original script to comment on how Corman constantly simplifies Griffith’s more elaborate effects and action scenes. John and Mike aren’t miked quite as well as is Tom and are less polished speakers. But they show they know their material by stating that the film’s reputation was made through television exposure as part of an early-1960s “Chiller Theater” syndication package.
Also included from the original DVD is a lengthy video testimonial, which was possibly assembled to promote Roger Corman’s candidacy for the Honorary Oscar he won in 2010. Corman receives kudos from everybody from Peter Bogdanovich to the makeup people on his 70s releases — Jack Hill, George Hickenlooper, Cindy Weintraub, Harry Dean Stanton, Peter Kuran. We know others by name but not by face — the more successful ones fulfilled Corman’s prediction that if they succeeded on one of his shows, they’d never have to work for him again.
“A Tidal Wave … of Terror!”
About the altered TV prints for Attack: Joe Dante once said that his fellow film collectors were frustrated by TV prints they acquired of some Allied Artists shows — these sixty-minute features were routinely padded out to be long enough for ninety-minute TV slots with commercials. The padded TV opening for Attack of the Crab Monsters is included on Shout!’s old DVD. The prologue opens up with a flash-forward preview of Pamela Duncan’s ‘midnight telepathic wake up call’ scene. The action plays out uninterrupted until Richard Cutting falls into the pit (2 min 30 seconds). That’s followed by the standard animated title sequence with the clever Paul Julian artwork.
Then, an added opening text crawl moves slo-ow-wl-ly up the screen, reading thusly: “You are about to land in a lonely zone of terror… on an uncharted atoll in the Pacific! You are part of The Second Scientific Expedition dispatched to this mysterious bit of Coral reef and volcanic rock. The first group has disappeared without a trace! Your job is to find out why! There have been rumors about this strange atoll… frightening rumors about happenings way out beyond the laws of nature.” That title crawl takes a minute and four seconds. Speaking medium-slow, it took me only 27 seconds to read that 71 word speech.
Next, we cut to the opening of Allied Artist’s 1956 film World Without End, a textless B&W shot of the Earth spinning in space. The opening music notes of the World Without End music score come right along with the image (12 seconds).
Then, a jump cut takes us to a long string of raw stock shots that look just as they might have come from the stock library: slow waves on the ocean, five different atomic explosions, several conventional explosions, and then maybe twenty ‘tropical typhoon destroys island’ special effect miniature shots from some older, expensive studio film — more of the ‘Jon Hall tropical disaster footage’ I mentioned above. Some shots are step-printed to slow them down (2:28).
That’s the end of the added TV prologue. It presumably cuts to the theatrical opening, with the brief shots of the storm with Russell Johnson’s ‘God created the Earth’ speech. [Note: Tom Weaver tells me that a second text crawl was added to the end of the film, for TV… wow.] With this footage the 63-minute film stretches close to the seventy-minute mark, presumably the preferred broadcast minimum for a ninety-minute movie time slot.
As I said, people that see Attack nowadays normally exclaim, “Hey, it’s The Professor!” It’s a Hollywood tragedy that Gilligan’s Island couldn’t have had a special movie-of-the-week ‘Attack’ episode in which the familiar Sherwood Schwartz characters find themselves on an irradiated tropic isle: Gilligan Versus the Crab Monsters.
“A Three-Hour Cruise… to Terror!”
Russell Johnson’s role wouldn’t change much at all. Ginger Grant could wake up at midnight, hearing the voice of Mrs. Lovey Howell calling through the palm trees: “Come to the cave, Ginger! I have a surprise for you. Bring Mary Ann and Gilligan! But leave the tartar sauce behind, please!”
Either that, or Attack of the Crab Monsters begs to be adapted into a campy musical, like Little Shop of Horrors. Offer Roger Corman a deal!
Note: The September 5 CineSavant Column has an item and photo from 1957, showing this film opening at a neighborhood theater in Florida.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Attack of the Crab Monsters
Movie: Very Good ++
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Audio commentary by Tom Weaver and John & Mike Brunas, trailer, archive featurette for Roger Corman.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Reviewed: August 31, 2020
Text © Copyright 2020 Glenn Erickson