Saturday, February 19, 2011

Invasion Narratives and Attack of the Crab Monsters

Films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing, and Them! are routinely referenced in discourses on the 1950s Red Scare mentality. While these fairly high-profile movies are certainly prime exemplars of the genre, a look at one of my favorite low-low-budget films of this period, Roger Corman’s 1957 film Attack of the Crab Monsters, demonstrates just how pervasive and formulaic Red Scare horror films had become by the end of the 1950s.

Several dollars were spent on the making of Attack of the Crab Monsters. The sets and effects used in this film make Invasion of the Body Snatchers look like Gone with the Wind. Fortunately, sci-fi invasion narrative tropes are free, and Corman used them all.

A scrolling text intro explains that we are about to witness the landing of the second scientific expedition to an “uncharted atoll in the Pacific.” The first group of scientists has disappeared without a trace, and it is the viewer’s job to help the second group find them. We soon learn that the expedition is a cooperative effort between the U.S. Navy and this group of scientists, a plot device that runs consistent with the “military-scientific ‘cooperation’” theme that Redmond mentions in his introduction to the invasion narratives chapter (316).

Through character banter we learn that the U.S. had been doing H-bomb testing in the area, and the atoll had been covered in “a blanket of hot ashes and radioactive water.” The first team of scientists had been sent to study the effects of the nuclear fallout—one more cold war theme that Corman has checked off the list.

The second team of scientists consists of a male nuclear physicist with an ambiguous “foreign” accent whose point of origin lies somewhere between Bavaria and Boise; a male botanist with a Pepé le Pew accent; a military technician played by Russell Johnson (“The Professor”), who was henceforth typecast as a hunky island dweller who fixes radios; and a male and (token) female team of biologists who are, of course, a couple because men and women can't be friends without developing romantic attachments.

The search party soon learns that the first group of scientists has been killed by giant crab monsters, who absorb their victim’s intellect and lure new victims to their lair by speaking telepathically (?) in the voice of the last victim they killed—an obvious metaphor for communist brainwashing. Fortunately, the botanist is one of the first to bite it, so for the vast majority of the film the giant crab monster speaks in a Pepé le Pew voice, which is awesome. Later, the quasi-Bavarian nuclear physicist becomes the new voice of the crab monster. So, for most of the film, the crab monster speaks with a distinctly un-American accent, solidifying its role as the “image of Otherness” that Biskind discusses (322). Says the voice of the Bavarian crab monster: “We will rest in the caves and plan our assault upon the world of men.” Scary, diabolical communist crab monsters.

Speaking of the world of men, Attack of the Crab Monsters is lousy with negative female stereotypes. In the early exposition, Russell Johnson explains to a young sailor that the male biologist “works on land animalism” while the female biologist, Martha, “takes care of the sea food.” Among her other specialties is skin diving in a bikini, clinging to men, screaming, wearing tight turtlenecks and lethally pointy bras, fainting, and being awakened in a flouncy negligee (never visit an uncharted atoll without one) by telepathic crab monsters in the middle of the night. Also, she is an untrustworthy tease who openly expresses just enough vague dissatisfaction with her current relationship to generate a spark of hope in the technician (Russell Johnson), who nearly kisses her more than once. Later, Russell Johnson’s desire to win Martha’s affection leads to his selfless heroics and subsequent grisly demise as Martha and her biologist fiancée cower behind a rock with their arms around each other. Martha manages not to faint this time.

The film’s tension culminates in a battle with the very worst kind of crab monster— a pregnant female. In this regard, Attack of the Crab Monsters is very much consistent with Biskind’s description of the queen ant in Them!: “[The queen ant] implicitly presents, in slightly disguised form, a paranoid fantasy of a world dominated by predatory females. The ant society is, after all, a matriarchy presided over by a despotic queen. The queen, it seems, strikes only at patriarchy…. all her human victims are male.” As is the case with Them!, only male characters are killed in Corman’s film. Furthermore, Russell Johnson dies while fighting a female crab in order to save the life of Martha (the tease) and her fiancée. So, in a sense Johnson is killed by two women, the poor sap. Like Them!, Corman’s film “has as much to do with the sex war as it does the cold war. The film’s attack on extremism becomes an attack on women in a man’s world” ( Biskind 322).

Attack of the Crab Monsters trailer:

1 comment:

  1. Lisa, I am going to have to find a way to watch this. I absolutely adore Roger Corman--I am actually watching his version of The Raven right now. Unforunately, Netflix does not have this film.....I must seek out other means of seeing it : )