Fred Sears told the cast of The Giant Claw to act scared. Even though they had no idea what the eponymous monster of their 1957 sci-fi horror movie would look like while filming (since it hadn’t even been made yet), he instructed them to just act scared. It would all come together in post.
Sears’ cast complied, never knowing how upsetting the monster would finally look on screen — upsetting in the anticlimactic sense, not the scary one. By that point, the production had run out of money, so the creature the Mexico-based special effects team produced left little to be desired. At best, the end result looks like one of the Goblin King’s merry muppets. At worst, it’s the misunderstood villain of an off-brand children’s show from your parents’ childhood. All it can do is squawk and clumsily flap its wings when it’s not wreaking a havoc that has everyone in a tizzy, because Sears told his cast to act scared, when they should have been embarrassed.
In fact, a famous story from the aftermath of The Giant Claw concerns star Jeff Morrow (who plays a snarky electronics engineer and pilot). When he saw the monster for the first time at a premiere in his hometown, he fled to escape ridicule before it finished. Instead of recoiling in terror, the audience had laughed every time the bird appeared on screen, and he didn’t want to wait around to hear their overall reactions.
But by today’s standards, the puppet is so underwhelming it’s not even laughable.
The Giant Claw’s plot unfolds with Sears’ overbearing narration — entire scenes pass with no dialogue, only explanation. Morrow’s character, Mitch MacAfee, is conducting a fly test when he notices a UFO as “big as a battleship.” But it isn’t registering on radar with the scientists on land, including leading mathematician lady Sally (Mara Corday). One of the subsequent military planes sent after the thing disappears. Then a passenger plane does too. And then Mitch and Sally’s plane crashes. This is not a good time to fly.
Eventually, the scientists and military officials identify the UFO as the living, winged monstrosity it is. And it’s not enough that she’s (I’m calling her a she because she lays eggs) a colossal, carnivorous, flying monster, bent on nesting when she isn’t devouring and destroying anything that gets near her. She’s also protected by a shield of antimatter, making her impervious to bombs or bullets.
The entire world is united in its terror, because the bird can fly anywhere and eat anything and anyone. She even has horses running scared, literally. All anyone can do is hide while the scientists, led by Mitch, try to figure out a way to create “mesic atoms,” whatever those are. Seriously, I don’t even know if they’re real. I’m not so good with this STEM stuff.
Giants were a big horror movie trope of the mid-20th century. By the film’s release in 1957, gorillas were already claimed by King Kong, reptiles by Godzilla, and, in the years before The Giant Claw, even spiders, scorpions, and 50-foot-tall women saw their moment in the spotlight. But birds were an untapped market, and there’s some legitimacy in their terror.
Colossal, often violent birds have appeared in many cultures over the span of time. In the film, the doomed French Canadian character Pierre Broussard calls the creature “La Carcagne,” a giant woman-wolf-bat hybrid. If you see it, it’s a sign you’re gonna die. While this particular folklore was made up specifically for the film, there are plenty of mythical beasts with similar traits to Broussard’s: the harpies, the Maori Poukai, the Middle Eastern Roc, the Persian Simurgh. Heck, there are three in Jewish folklore alone. The Hungarians even have a miracle chicken, but it isn’t quite as nefarious as the Giant Claw. And birds are often known to be harbingers of all sorts of things, including death. Pierre has every right to be worried. Especially since he dies.
But instead of relying on historical inspiration, The Giant Claw looks forward and gives its bird a sci-fi bent. The creature is from somewhere so deep in space that it’s not even made up of the same atoms as anything on earth. It’s like the writers knew that the only way a giant killer bird would really be believable is if it had an Independence Day-style space shield. Actually, now that I think about it, Independence Day may have stolen a couple of ideas from The Giant Claw.
Still, it’s a bird, and a crappy looking one at that. So “Who’s afraid of the big bad bird,” as one teenager exclaims right before he gets eaten? No one. No one is afraid.
Lost in the Fifties: Recovering Phantom Hollywood by Wheeler W. Dixon, p. 55
The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Themes, Works and Wonders, edited by Gary Westfahl, p. 246
Susan Cohen decided to leave her career in journalism to go back to school — for journalism. She's still not sure if she made a mistake. Visit susanjcohen.com to learn more about her.