Friday, July 9, 2010

Say Hello to My Little Friends

Island Claws (1980)
Miami, Florida

For the city of Miami, the run-down shacks that litter the property around Jimbo's, a former shrimping operation on Virginia Key, are an eyesore in need of razing; for Jimbo's patrons, they're just part of the increasingly shoddy scenery around the bait shack, where generations of South Florida residents have gathered for Jimbo's weekly smoked fish and beer parties. But for low-budget horror film fans, those shacks are the last remnants of one of the strangest chapters in Florida filmmaking history -- and since we're talking about the state that gave us Blood Feast (1963) and Nude on the Moon (1961), that's saying something.

Island Claws has always gotten a bad rap, in my opinion. Made at the tail end of the second wave of giant bug/monster movies that emerged somewhat anachronistically in the 1970s, Claws lacked the star power of Kingdom of the Spiders or Empire of the Ants, and didn't have nearly the level of manic silliness found in, say, The Giant Spider Invasion or Food of the Gods. As such, it's been relegated to the shadows -- which is a shame, since not only does the film boast an impressive (for this type of film) giant crab (built by Oscar-winning special effects veteran Glen Robinson), along with decent performances by Robert Lansing and Barry Nelson, and a script co-written by Creature from the Black Lagoon star Ricou Browning, it also has one of the most fascinating back-stories of any of its contemporaries.

The film began production in the summer of 1980, and Cardenas Productions immediately made a splash by constructing an entire fishing village on Virginia Key (hence, the shacks at Jimbo's) and putting out a call for residents to help the filmmakers round up 2,000 land crabs to augment the "star" of the show -- a 9,000-pound mechanical crab.

"We have high hopes that this will be the first blockbuster movie made here," said Mary Lee Lander, director of the Dade County Office of Film and Television Coordination, in a Miami News Reporter article. She had reason to be hopeful; unlike other Florida horror films, this one boasted a substantial budget: $3.5 million, most of it coming from the film's principal financers, Dario and Hernan Cardenas.

Which is where the story gets interesting. Hernan Cardenas (credited as the film's director), later described as a "Colombian abstract expressionist painter," came up with the film's concept while bicycling with his wife. As for financing, a Dec. 3, 1987, article in The Lakeland Ledger posits the budget may have originated from the Cardenas' brothers other business -- cocaine.

According to the Ledger article, Hernan and Dario had a another brother, Gabriel, who also happened to be the brother-in-law of Medellin Cartel boss Jorge Ochoa. Although Gabriel had been nabbed in a cocaine bust years earlier, the Ledger article makes the case that Island Claws may have been an elaborate and expensive money laundering "investment."

The Cardenas brothers certainly didn't skimp on the production. In addition to hiring Robinson to build the monster crab, they brought on veteran Florida producer Ted Swanson (who had worked on Rocky and Caddyshack). A July 8, 1980, article in the Miami News also noted that Jimmy Pergola, Ron Sinclair and David Whorf would "direct and edit" the picture.

Pergola is a cinematographer whose credits range from Dillinger (1973) to Major League (1989) to "Baywatch." Editor Sinclair had worked with both Roger Corman and William Grefe. Whorf was an experienced second-unit director who had worked in both film and TV. It's possible that Whorf either directed the film uncredited, or was at some point actually replaced by Cardenas.

The $500,000 crab itself sounds more impressive than it wound up looking. From that same Miami News article:

"The crab will be powered by a bulldozer, along with separate Honda and Volkswagen automobile engines. The legs and claws will be moved by a massive hydraulic system connected to a computer. An 800-pound fluid tank will provide the blood-like juices. A four-camera closed-circuit system will be its eyes."

From what I can gather, the film did not have a theatrical release, and later turned up on TV as Night of the Claw. It was also a staple (under its original title) of late-night TV and was released on video by Vestron.

It's been out of print ever since. According to the old video box, the film's copyright is held by "Hernan Cardenas, Colby Cardenas, his wife and Producciones Cardenas Inc."

Swanson passed away last year. I haven't been able to determine if any of the Cardenas brothers still live in the U.S. Island Claws remains sadly unavailable on legit DVD.

1 comment:

  1. I've always enjoyed this movie. I have the Vestron VHS and occasionally enjoy putting it on to soak up the cheeseball throwback 50s monster movie atmosphere. All it needs is Henry Fonda as "Mr. Whitehead" and it would be perfect. Oh, and maybe a pretty girl in a white one-piece swimsuit being menaced from beneath by the crab as she swims.