Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Island Claws (1980)

Who brought the lemon butter?

I have a weird amount of affection for the Night of the Crabs series of books by Guy N. Smith. They are trashy and not particularly well written, but they are full of sex and violence and giant crabs and sometimes that's enough. It's prime source material for an entertaining monster movie, but the only film adaptation of the series that I have heard of is this one, the 1980 made-for-TV movie Island Claws. Apparently it's based on Night of the Crabs, but really it has nothing to do with the book aside from the idea of giant mutant crab(s). Selling the movie rights did help pay for Smith's house, so it least something good came out of it.

The movie takes place on a small, idyllic fishing community somewhere on the Florida coast. It must be a pretty slow news week, because a news reporter named Jan Raines (Jo McDonnell) is sent out to interview a team of marine biologists investigating the effect of increasing water temperature on crab growth. Conclusion: Delicious! For the next phase of the experiment they are going to examine the effect of topical application of melted butter. They also discover that higher ambient water temperature can cause vast increases in size and growth rate, and wouldn't you know it, the local nuclear power plant has just dumped a whole lot of super-heated, radioactive water into the bay. Don't worry though, the owner of the plant says that everything is fine and there's nothing to worry about. Phew!

One of the marine biologists is the blonde, square-jawed Pete Adams. He takes a shine to the sexy young reporter, as he reveals on a visit to his surrogate father Moody, the very Irish owner of the local watering hole The Half Shell. Moody is played by Robert Lansing, who had already established his monster movie bonafides in Empire of the Ants a couple of years earlier. Moody raised Pete Adams from childhood after his parents were killed in a drunk-driving accident. The drunk driver in question was the nuclear plant owner Frank Raines and Moody still holds a grudge, so he's not too happy when Pete reveals that he's sweet on Jan Raines, his daughter.

With all this gripping human drama, you might have forgotten that this movie is supposed to be about killer crabs. Clearly this film lacks the kind of budget to show giant crabs rampaging through the town, so for most of the film they have to make do with implied violence and lots of regular sized crabs. The problem with this is that regular-sized crabs aren't particularly dangerous or scary, so to ensure a fatality the victims generally have to act like complete morons. Take, for instance, the first victim, a creepy Deliverance-esque banjo player who presides over the nightly hoe-downs at The Half Shell. He lives in an abandoned school bus, and during the night he is faced with dozens of tiny crabs pouring in the windows and doors. Rather than simply step over the crabs and exit the bus he freaks the fuck out, spilling some kerosene lamps and causing the whole bus to go up in flames.

Similarly for one of the scientists, Lynn, who flips out for no good reason when walking through the forest. While she's running from nothing in particular (although the lighting is so poor it's almost incomprehensible), she trips and lands face first in a pile of innocent crabs. You'd think she'd be used to crabs, being a marine biologist and all, but instead she screams her head off and runs into the claws of a giant crab that is lurking just off screen. Pete and Jan find her and take her to the hospital, where the doctor explains that she might just lose her arm.

Because this movie doesn't have enough subplots already, there's also a part about the tension between local fisherman and some Haitian immigrants that have set up camp in the forrest. The local fishermen blame them for Lynn's injury and put together an angry mob, although it doesn't really make sense that the Haitians would hack up a local's arm for no reason (the fishermen mention voodoo, as if that explains everything). Still, I've got to admit that it's a little suspicious that the Haitians have never been attacked by the crabs even though they've been sleeping outside every night. Maybe the crabs are racists too.

The best death scene in the film by far is that of Moody's dog Trouble, truly worthy of Shakespeare. He totters pathetically onto the beach, smeared with fake blood after an off-screen run-in with the crabs, before collapsing into a heap at Moody's feet. Moody tries to get Trouble to the vet, but he dramatically expires on the passenger seat of his car. Bravo! Clearly everyone else in the film agrees, because the rest of the cast show more energy and emotion over Trouble's death than they do towards any of the other victims in the film. I don't think anyone even mentions the death of the poor banjo geek.

Sadly they could only afford one giant crab, and it only appears in a couple of scenes. Firstly there's a part where it smashes a house trying to get to Pete and Jan, but we only see it's claw. In the last ten minutes of the film you see the crab in it's entirety, and it's a pretty impressive creation. If this film were made these days it would be terrible CG, but here it's a giant animatronic puppet about 20 feet across. It looks pretty menacing but unfortunately it has limited articulation and is clearly stationary. Only a couple of people die during this scene, and only because they were dumb enough to stand motionless within reach of it's claws.

A giant model like this is clearly made to be blown up in a fiery explosion. You can ram it with a truck full of gasoline, cram an LPG tank in it's mouth, or you can go the Jaws: The Revenge route and have it explode for no reason at all. Not here though, as Pete just hacks off it's eye stalk with a metal spike and it keels over dead. Maybe they wanted to keep the model for a sequel, or maybe it had to be returned to roof of Joe's Seafood Shack. Either way it's a pretty disappointing ending.

Of all the criticisms you can lay at Night of the Crabs, and there are a lot, you can't say that it's boring. This movie, however, is. It's boooooring. With five O's. It takes forever for the crabs to show up, and the plot wanders around almost as much as Lansing's Irish brogue. The script reads like they decided to put in all the traditional monster movie subplots (the love interest, the evil capitalist) but then lost interest and failed to follow up on any of them. Unlike Smith's books, the movie doesn't even have an environmental message. Frank Raines never receives his comeuppance, and in fact he only appears in a single scene at the beginning of the film. Sadly it looks like the world is still waiting for an acceptable Night of the Crabs adaptation, although in this film's defense I will say that the clickety-clicking noise of the crabs was just about perfect.

No comments: