It’s been a while since we paid tribute to the golden age of science fiction with one of our double bill recommendations, and what better time than the run-up to All Hallows Eve? We’re returning to the world of atomic ogres and cold war paranoia with a bang, revisiting a classic pair of low-fi monster movies from the king of schlock himself, Roger Corman.
Considered by some to be a kind of Ed Wood-on-steroids, Corman is so much more. While his movies may be produced on a budget of buttons, the man is beloved Tinseltown royalty that has launched countless careers – and as a result, many thesps have leapt through hoops to work with him. You certainly don’t get to brazenly name your autobiography How I Made a Hundred Moves in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime without a sizable degree of know-how.
With the producer-director beginning his career with a spectacularly consistent run of a dozen movies in three years, Corman’s thirteenth picture was far from unlucky; it became his highest-grossing effort yet, and laid down a strong template for some of his future work. That it was such a smash is hardly surprising though – after all, who could resist a title as lurid as…
Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957, dir Roger Corman)
There are B-Movie titles, and there are B-Movie titles; Attack of the Crab Monsters certainly couldn’t be accused of hiding its intentions with that moniker. What may surprise a cynical viewer, however, is just how smart and impressive this flick is as a SF thriller, rather than just a slice of camp kitsch. Solaris it ain’t, but Corman’s caper is also far removed from the likes of Queen of Outer Space.
Originally released as a double-bill with Not of This Earth, another Corman collaboration with celebrated screenwriter Charles Griffith, Attack of the Crab Monsters is unsurprisingly an atomic age tale. The obligatory team of scientists land on a deserted Pacific island, keen to research the effects of radiation from a recent weapons test (SF cinema was very much still living in the shadow of the nuclear bomb in 1957), only to find a scorched earth. It soon becomes apparent that an earlier team had arrived on this particular slice of paradise, and met their makers at the claws of a pair of hyper-intelligent giant mutant land crabs (with human faces that bear a striking resemblance to the Sweet Jesus meme).
Crab Monsters, you might say. Who attack.
Corman dreamt up the title of his shocker before the script was written, but thankfully he had the foresight to offer the scribing gig to Griffith. A distinguished screenwriter who would later re-team with the director on iconic genre fare such as Little Shop of Horrors, A Bucket of Blood and Death Race 2000, as well as inking the Barbara Steele-starring horror classic The She-Beast and the legendary Barbarella, Griffith had a very simple brief from Corman – insert something ominous, witty of frightening in every scene. For the most part, he succeeds.
Yep, believe it or not Attack of the Crab Monsters is a creepy and effective little thrill ride. It’s undisputable that it wasn’t just the victims of the eponymous crustaceans that were feeling the pinch during production, with the micro-budgeted nature of the flick evident from the start (never has the term “every penny is up there on the screen” been more apt), but the performances are all far better than a movie of this nature has any right to expect (hero Russell Johnson went on to enjoy a long stint on Gilligan’s Island), and Griffith’s screenplay ensures that Corman could use what few resources he had effectively. Voices of the dead whistle on the wind to create a tense and moody atmosphere, there are a handful of rug-pulling twists to wrong-foot viewers used to conventional A to B-Movie plotting, the origins and the motives of the shell-dwelling SOBs that kill off the cast are interesting, and plenty of welcome tension-punctuating guffaws (intentional mirth at that – Attack of the Crab Monsters encourages you to laugh with it, not at it) add to the appeal.
The movie was fraught with the usual catastrophes that befall both low-budget movie-making and aquatic action. Most of the underwater scenes were shot in a marine tank off-location, but the crab props would not sink to the bottom of the submerged set, Johnson broke a bone in his foot whilst cavorting for a scene and was made to continue lest the film be wasted, and Corman unsuccessfully attempted to coerce co-star Pamela Duncan into swimming with real-life sharks for the sake of realism. None of this appears on-screen, however; Attack of the Crab Monsters remains an absolute hoot to watch, and remains one of the more underrated entries into the canon of classic monster movies.
Corman continued his spectacular work ethic after the release, repeating his pattern of twelve more flicks in three years (encompassing a variety of genres) before cooking up the second half of our double-bill here. This one is less well-received than its predecessor, but here at DragonDark we consider it one of our favourite slices of cinematic junk food. It’s time to meet…
The Wasp Woman (1959, dir Roger Corman)
Even by Roger Corman standards, The Wasp Woman was quick-and-dirty production. Produced for peanuts in under a week and shelved for the best part of a year, the movie finally saw release in 1960 – with new footage, shot by exploitation guru Jack Hill, tacked onto the beginning to make the movie a more palatable purchase for television.
Taken at face value, The Wasp Woman looks like a shameless xerox of Kurt Neumann’s The Fly. The screenplay, penned by actor-writer Leo Gordon, tells the tale of Janice Starlin, a glamorous Liz Earle-alike cosmetics mogul who finds her profit margins falling sharply. It’s pointed out to Starlin that people have lost trust in her brand since she stopped modelling it herself, a decision made thank to the inevitable march of her own advancing years. Naturally a hare-brained scheme follows – Dr. Zinthrop, a disgraced scientist, approached Starlin claiming that enzymes extracting from a wasp queen can reverse the ageing process. It seems to work at first, but there’s a sting in the tale – Starlin finds herself turning into some kind of murderous were-Wasp.
First thing’s first – the movie is nowhere near as exciting as the poster promises, as the off-screen transformations feature an unconvincing wasp mask over Starlin’s body (yep, just like The Fly – there’s no buzzing bug with a woman’s head here. It’s also quote slow-moving, with well over half the running time elapsing before the first transformation, and the tone is occasionally confused – The Wasp Woman largely takes itself seriously, but there are occasional slightly jarring moments of slapstick (possibly shoehorned in to accommodate the recycled musical score).
So, why are we recommending hoisting it upon our innocent and unsuspecting readers? In short, because of Susan Cabot, who is superb as Janice Starlin in what would prove to be her final screen role. Cabot is an engaging and captivating presence throughout, likeable when portraying a ball-busting queen of the boardroom (very rare for the time this movie was produced – as was standard, every other female role in the flick is that of a secretary), and wholly sympathetic when acting as a caring, three-dimensional woman who wishes for the impossible. Credit is also due to the make-up department; while the wasp effects don’t pull up any trees, the job done on the then-32 year old Cabot, along with her own varied performance, effortlessly convinces when playing the character in her forties at the beginning, and as a fresh-faced twenty-something when the formula kicks in. Cabot carries herself differently each time, and even adds some fast, jerky movements when under the influence of her inner insect.
The Wasp Woman was also the first flick to be released under the illustrious banner of Corman’s renowned Filmgroup company, which alone should be enough to act as a minor claim to fame. It’s also been remade twice; as a gloriously tacky slice of 80s excess called Rejuvinatrix, and once more in 1995 with the delectable Jennifer Rubin portraying Starlin (a largely forgettable slice of hokum that does manage to rectify the wasp-to-woman ratio portrayed on the original poster). While it has no real place at the top table of 1950s science fiction classics, we can’t help but find it charming and entertaining in its own, wholly limited way.
That’ll do us for now, DragonDarkers. See you next time!