When a team of scientists disappears while investigating radioactive fallout from nuclear tests on an uncharted Pacific atoll, a second team visits the island to determine what happened. Soon these intrepid explorers are besieged by earthquakes and giant mutant crabs – and tormented at night by the disembodied voices of their fallen comrades.
Produced and directed by Roger Corman, ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS nobly attempts to rise above the average monster-on-the-loose fare of the late 1950s, but falls far short. Charles Griffith’s screenplay adds some nice twists to the genre, offering filmgoers genuinely creepy creatures that are as intelligent and calculating as they are gigantic. The mammoth crabs herein have been altered at the atomic level, changing not just their size, but their entire molecular structure, allowing them to absorb the minds of the people they devour. As each new victim is consumed, his or her consciousness joins the growing collective and the monster is able to speak with the deceased’s voice (using metal objects as conduits). This enables the cunning beasts to manipulate and lure the survivors into traps to be devoured as opposed to just smashing through walls ala your typical marauding mutation of the early atomic age. The crabs can also use some sort of heat beam to knock huge chunks of the atoll into the ocean, giving the trapped scientists fewer and fewer places to hide as the island itself actually shrinks around them.
Despite these innovations, ATTACK never gets off the ground because it is bogged down with flat acting, leaden pacing and underdeveloped characterization. The audience never sees the original research team and neither the players nor the script can succeed in selling the mystery of their disappearance or making us care. The new team is comprised of one-dimensional archetypes who are strangely lifeless for a Corman film. Usually the King of the B’s compensates for slow points in his narratives with plenty of tawdry melodrama. Here we are teased with a possible love triangle between curvy scientist Pamela Duncan, her fiancé Richard Garland and stalwart Russell Johnson (the Professor on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, and veteran of many 50s sci-fi/horror films), but nothing much comes of it. Only Johnson and Duncan ever rise above the high school play level of dramatic delivery, while Mel Welles and Leslie Bradley are laughably bad in their attempts to affect credible French and German accents, respectively.
Corman includes some expected exploitation elements, including the busty Duncan in a swimsuit and scenes of a Navy diver being decapitated by a crab and a scientist losing his hand in a cave-in, but these bits are not enough to enliven a story which plods from scene to scene as though it were being shown in real time. The crabs themselves are stiff but look sufficiently grisly and are photographed very well, so this might be a rare case in which the filmmakers would have been better off not keeping their clunky monster prop hidden until almost the very end. Things only really pick up when the enormous crustaceans are actually attacking – something that the script and the budget both keep to a minimum.
The premise of ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS is so interesting that it’s hard not to be almost completely disappointed by the end product. In this age of remakes and retreads, this is one story that might actually benefit from a new, high-tech update. Though there are brief flashes of inspiration and ingenuity in the original version, it ultimately leaves the viewer feeling a little cheated. Thinking, talking, man-eating giant crabs should really be a whole lot more fun than they are here.