By all rights Crabs! seems like it ought to be the sort of film that is a complete joke. Nominally it is about a horde of murderous mutated horseshoe crabs that invade and terrorize a coastal town. It feels like it ought to be the sort of low effort, low budget SyFy picture original awash with shoddy CGI and poor acting. Yet, surprisingly, the film escapes such classification with a lot of obvious hard work and intention in its production. The debut feature of writer/director Pierce Berolzheimer, Crabs!, packs with it a ton of heart and love both for the craft of genre filmmaking and the golden age of horror comedies that were dominated by scores of little monsters from which it draws inspiration.
They set the tone quickly with the opening scene of the film where we find a lone crab strolling along a beach until its path is stopped by a seemingly endless fence. The camera pans up to show viewers a nuclear power plant that quickly explodes in a deliberately cheesy fashion. We then smash cut to the film’s logo overlaid on a couple having sex on a beach. It is crude yet paired with the framing of the shot and the upbeat score hits quite comically and hearkens back to the days when every midnight horror flick had to hit its requisite quota of T&A no matter how contrived the path was to squeeze it in.
But, this opening scene also does just as much for setting up the style of the film effects-wise in a pleasing manner. I referenced the poor CGI of many SyFy picture originals for a reason because that was my biggest fear going into this movie. However, it was a great relief to find the first kill is handled entirely through practical effects with the crab latching onto its victim’s head facehugger-style and then chomping away as blood squelches out either side. That’s not to say there is never any CGI used throughout the film, but it was kept to a minimum and appeared briefly enough that it was never too jarring. I will die on the hill championing practical effects in horror films and it made me endlessly pleased to see just how much care was placed with portraying these killer crabs.
After firmly setting expectations, we are introduced to the coastal town of Mendocino and our central leads Phil (Dylan Riley Snyder) and Maddy (Allie Jennings) who are two easy-going high schoolers. Rounding out the core group is Phil’s older brother Hunter (Bryce Durfee) who serves on the local police force and Maddy’s mother Annalise (Jessica Morris) who teaches at the school. There is a lot of praise that should be given for their performances as well as the majority of the cast. The other pitfall with this type of horror flick is to have weak or uninteresting characters that just feel like they’re standing around waiting to be picked off. They spend a good bit of time characterizing the central cast and the relationship between Phil and Maddy felt surprisingly natural and realistic; never forced as if Maddy only existed for the sake of having a romantic interest. They joke around with one another in a way that just hits right, which in the wrong hands could have been painfully awkward. There is some real chemistry between them and their family members that just makes it all work.
I think it is also important to note just how refreshing Phil is as the lead character. When was the last time you saw a horror film with a wheelchair-bound character among the main cast that didn’t exist effectively to be one ongoing joke and/or an easy early victim for who or whatever happens to be killing people? I can think of a few examples, but the bad definitely outweighs the good. They handle his condition in a pretty balanced and realistic way. He is something of a genius, seemingly inheriting a bit of legacy from his late father who we don’t learn much about but definitely seems to have an air of mad scientist about him. The film never treats him as a joke and he remains just as capable as the rest of the cast, even proving to be instrumental in solving the problem in the end.
A running subplot of the film is Phil acquiring a sci-fi MacGuffin called the Amorium Clustergram in the hopes to use it to create a sort of exoskeleton-like device which will enable him to walk. In short, some technobabble later reveals it is effectively a highly advanced energy source. It almost seems incredulous, but I think that we’re supposed to accept it due to the focus as a horror comedy. There is a particular riff that hits often in the score that has the classic theremin vibe of early science-fiction horror flicks of the 50s which says it all. If you’re cool with radioactive killer crabs, then a dash of super science should pass too.
The crabs themselves are a hoot. They often have a sort of grumbling-without-talking style of dialogue going on, bringing to mind the best of the subgenre like Critters. Late into the film, there is even a pretty obvious homage to Gremlins where the crabs have overrun the town and start indulging in food, getting drunk, and playing games with reckless abandon. Whether they are going to be scary or not really depends on individual taste. I struggle with bugs in horror and something about horseshoe crabs has always triggered that same phobia for me, so I found the idea quite unnerving. However, the laughs and cleverly executed kills manage to carry the film regardless of whether the idea inspires any terror.
We also get some great monster moments thanks to their radioactive nature. Eventually, some of the crabs start to molt and grow into hulking humanoid crab monsters. Again, this is another area that if handled wrong, it would be a major slight upon the film, yet they deliver in spades with actual dude in a suit style effects. These larger crabs look a lot like a rejected tokusatsu monster one might find in Power Rangers or any number of shows in that vein. Practical effects rule the day for me and their devotion to the craft is admirable. They even manage to keep these larger creatures mostly framed in the shadows until late in the film, never showing too much until the action has already kicked in.
The film wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows for me, however. There is one particularly prominent character that I have avoided discussing thus far. Phil and Maddy have an exchange student at their school named Radu (Chase Padgett). I don’t want to be particularly cruel to the film or the actor, but comedy is a tricky thing and highly subjective. Horror tends to be the same way as what is scary from one person to another can differ wildly, so too is this true of comedy. Thus, the horror comedy becomes something of an even greater hat trick to land and it is no surprise to see that this is a subgenre with often polarizing receptions from viewers.
Radu starts the film seeming like a poorly composed stereotype, a kind of bully if even by ignorance. For all my bemoaning of low-budget SyFy cash in flicks, he was the sort of character I was ready to see die. To my actual horror, he survives the film and becomes more and more prominent with extended scenes of him ranting and ultimately coming back around to save the day and ride things out to the end with the core cast. It just did not work for me. In a film where the four primary characters all have great chemistry and interactions, he sticks out like a sore thumb for all the wrong reasons. This gets capped off with a cringe-worthy credits song performed by the character. The actor is clearly very talented, but this concept just did not land well for me at all.
That is probably my biggest complaint and given the nature of comedy, Radu could very well be the best thing about the film to others. However, if you are like me, there are so many other things to love about this film that if that is the worst you can find, it is still a great time. Also, a lot can be forgiven when the film blows up into a full-on tokusatsu style special effects show in the climax. The root of all the crabs traces back to a giant kaiju-sized crab that eventually makes landfall and threatens to crush everything in its path. Looping back in the mad science angle, our heroes use the lab Phil and Hunter’s father left behind to whip up their own giant robot to square off against it. With Phil at the helm, we get an epic showdown between the giant crab and their mecha-shark creation.
It is incredibly fun and stays true to the spirit of classic Godzilla flicks, giving you two dudes in giant rubber suits that have been superimposed or shot in such a way to look like the towering titans they ought to be. It is an immensely satisfying, if goofy, resolution to things but so reverent of the material it is drawing inspiration from that it is hard not to smile and cheer along. It made me realize that more monster movies should cap off with giant kaiju battles. Why not really? Across the whole film, a love for classic movie monsters has been infused in the production to such a degree that it tends to outshine any perceived flaws.
Crabs! is an incredibly fun movie that is sure to be a satisfying time for fans of the subgenres it lovingly pays homage to. From the science-run-amok flicks of the 50s to the “little creature” horror comedies of the 80s and just a dash of the comically sincere special effects work of kaiju flicks, the film manages to synthesize all these elements into a delightful experience that makes the perfect movie night pick and will likely play equally well to a packed theater crowd. With solid pacing, the movie manages to pull a lot of laughs and some great gore gags without overstaying its welcome and they avoid the pitfall of being a more forgettable film with generally solid acting and some well reasoned and charismatic characters.
So go ahead, give your friends the gift of Crabs!, it is sure to be an experience they won’t soon forget!
Crabs! was screened as part of the 2021 Arrow Video FrightFest. With screenings both in theater and online.
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Dustin is a potentially overqualified office worker who has a lifelong love and fascination with Japan and all things Horror. With a bachelor’s in English Literature and a master’s in Library Science, he devotes way too much time to researching and thinking critically about the media he enjoys. When not celebrating trashy horror films, anime, and idol music, he can be found raving about all things genre cinema as a co-host on Genre Exposure: A Film Podcast or indulging a passion for storytelling through tabletop roleplaying games.