For the second time in less than a year, I find myself reviewing a movie about giant, killer crabs. It’s a safe bet, however, that this will be my last review about killer crustaceans for the foreseeable future. I just don’t believe there are that many movies that deal with such a subject. And besides, most people just aren’t that terrified of crabs. Well, at least not the aquatic kind.
Attack of the Crab Monsters is one of the earliest films produced and directed by film legend Roger Corman. The screenplay was written by longtime Corman collaborator Charles B Griffith (A Bucket of Blood, Death Race 2000), who also has a small part in the film. The film was originally released as part of a double-bill with Not of this Earth, another of Corman’s early classics.
The film brazenly shows off its ego by immediately throwing its large cock all up in your face. No, really. It’s a pretty large-sized rooster and it’s literally the first thing you see. Okay, so it’s actually the distributor’s mascot, but it’s still pretty forward of them.
The actual film begins, or at least the opening credits begin. There are some fairly bizarre artistic renditions of sea life during the credits. This is what fish like look like to someone whose only encounters with them happened while high on LSD at a local aquarium. That is then followed by a monologue delivered by the voice of God. He reminds us to tip our waitresses and the story portion of our movie begins. God’s appearance may also be a part of the same acid trip.
A small boat carrying more people than it rightfully should drifts into shore on a small tropical island in the Pacific. The island was being used as a military research facility for studies into the effects of radiation from the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests. However, the first research team, led by a Dr. McLean, has disappeared without a trace. This new group has arrived to try to determine what became of the first group of scientists.
It’s quickly noticed that there is something “off” about this island. There is neither sight nor sound of life, human or animal, living on this island, other than the small crabs that litter the beach. Their suspicions are further raised when, within the first 5 minutes, one of the naval men (played by Ed Nelson – Night of the Blood Beast, TV’s Peyton Place) falls from the boat into the water and resurfaces decapitated.
Shortly after their arrival, a series of underground explosions rock the small island, the ground shaking violently as they occur. A storm, like the one that hit the island on the night of the first team’s disappearance, prevents them from obtaining a radio signal. Russell Johnson, “The Professor” of Gilligan’s Island fame, plays “Hank”, an engineer assigned to the team. Hank stays behind to work on fixing the radio while the other members study the research notes left behind by McLean. The notes discuss the finding of a large, wormlike, chunk of living tissue that seems impervious to physical damage. The notes stop mid-sentence.
Later in the evening, some of the researchers are discussing what the 1st team may have found, as well as what incident may have happened to force them to stop their notes so abruptly. As they talk, they hear a loud clicking sound from outside. They exit their cabin to find the lines for the radio cut and dangling against the outside wall. Despite the clean cut, the damage is attributed to the storm winds.
The next morning, a large, 5o ft deep pit is found to have opened up on the island. The rocks found along the edge appear to have been exposed to a great deal of heat, almost as if they had been in a kiln. The pit is disregarded and the researchers return to the cabin.
That evening, Martha (the obligatory sole female member of the team) hears a voice calling to her while she sleeps. The voice claims to be that of the missing Dr. McLean. His voice pleads for help, forcing Martha to rise from her bed and venture out into the night in rescue. Sure, she’s a headstrong dame, but waking the others for assistance might have been a good idea.
Out in the island jungle, she encounters Jim Carson, another member of their expedition. Jim was also summoned by McLean’s voice. Martha believes that this may be someone mimicking McLean’s voice, as she feels certain that the man is now dead.
They trace the voice back to the large pit. Despite earlier warnings against it, Jim repels himself down the pit’s walls. The tremors recommence, which somehow causes Martha to faint, despite the fact that none of the earlier ones had any sort of adverse effect on her. Jim, meanwhile, loses his grip on his rope and plummets to the cave floor below, screaming the entire way down.
The quake must have covered the entire island, waking the other scientists and alerting them to the absence of 2 of the crew. That’s the only reasoning I can think of to explain why ALL of them show up moments later. Martha snaps right out of her swoon just as Jim calls from the bottom, exclaiming that the fall has broken his leg.
Karl, who is the top scientist in the 2nd group, reasons that since the pit opened from below, the island’s series of caves must connect to it, and therefore can be used as a way of reaching the bottom and rescuing Dr. Carson. Karl seems to know more than he’s saying, but he’s doing a horrible job of hiding it. The rest of the crew is immediately suspicious of him.
Martha is escorted back to the cabin by her partner and boyfriend, Dale (Richard Garland – Panic in the Year Zero, TV’s Lassie), while the rest of the men scour the caves for the injured Jim. If there is one thing women were good at in these older sci-fi flicks, it’s being useless. She could be a physicist, an award-winning actress, a successful lawyer, or even a high-ranking member of the military, she’s inevitably going to become a quivering mass of screams and tears in the face of danger. Thankfully, there will always be at least one man there to save her. Sure, he’s usually much older and desperately trying to hide his gut under those slacks that are pulled up to his armpits, but he’s a “Man”, dammit. I’m pretty sure that she’s contractually obligated to quit her career and spend the remainder of her life making babies and casseroles for him.
It is soon discovered that the island is being destroyed by a pair of gigantic crabs in an attempt to corner the humans and eat them. Not content with this being just another “giant monster” movie, Griffith adds a truly bizarre twist by having the crabs absorb the memories of their victims, allowing them to project messages like radio waves through metal items in the voices of the deceased.
The crabs do indeed pick off, or “pinch off”, the majority of the cast before a rather anti-climactic final showdown with the more dominant male crab on the rocky shores of the island. While most of the deaths occur off-screen, there is a severed hand, as well as the aforementioned decapitated body, presented for your ghoulish delights.
As for the crabs themselves, while they have been the subject of ridicule over the years, I found them to be impressive creations, if only for their sheer size alone. The biggest downfall of the design is that the creatures were given humanoid-like eyes instead of the stalked things that crabs actually do have. If this decision weren’t distracting enough, the eyes almost look like they are in a drug-induced stupor, which would explain the earlier “trip” to the aquarium.
It’s worth nothing that Ed Nelson co-created the crab creatures, as well as operated the appendages from within.
While given 3rd billing, Russell Johnson is the “star” here. Okay, the crabs are the real “stars”, but as far as human actors are involved, Johnson steals the show. “Hank” is presented as much more of a “common man” than the doctors and scientists surrounding him, making him more fitting of the “hero” role later bestowed upon him. There is the notion of a budding love triangle between Hank, Martha, & Dale, but it never goes anywhere. And that’s a good thing for Johnson as both Mary Ann and Ginger are much more of a “catch”.
By far, the highlight of the show comes via a pissy diatribe spouted by the male crab after he loses one of his claws. Heavy handed dialog is usually worth a chuckle, but it’s just hilarious hearing it come from a papier-mâché crustacean.
Attack of the Crab Monsters is undeniably dumb. It’s also undeniably fun. At a quick 63 minutes, there’s really no reason not to watch this early Corman classic. It’s a reminder that films don’t always need to have large budgets or be “intellectually stimulating”. Sometimes they just need to be entertaining.
I’d like to take this moment to pat myself on the back for making it through this entire review without once making a reference to “crotch critters”.