The Monster That Challenged the World (1957)
"Crawling up from the depths... to terrify and torture!"
Following an earthquake in the Salton Sea area of California, a number of people are turning up dead in and around a US naval base, which initially puzzles the authorities. It turns out that the earthquake ruptured a fissure in the deep depths of the sea, releasing a swathe of huge blood-sucking molluscs.
Let me first clear up that at no point do any of the monsters challenge the world. There’s a brief mention that if uncontrolled, they could reproduce and pose a threat to mankind, but the actual monsters are too content with terrorizing the Salton Sea area of California along a few canals and the military base as opposed to having any major plans for world domination. That nit-pick aside, The Monster That Challenged the World is a hugely underrated 50s sci-fi atomic monster flick which deserves a bit more praise than it gets. By the time 1957 had rolled around, almost every plausible creature under the sun had been mutated by radiation and atomic testing, terrorising America cinemas since the early 50s. I'm not sure that giant blood-sucking molluscs would have been the easiest sell to a producer but congratulations to whoever did it because you've got one of the most solid examples of sci-fi horror from the period under your belt.
The Monster That Challenged the World does run very much like your run-of-the-mill 50s sci-fi flick and there’s little change of course during the film’s running time. By 1957, audiences knew what they were going to get: square-jawed military heroes, old school damsels-in-distress and self-assured boffins joining forces to take on mutated monsters in old school black and white glory. Variety of monster aside, there's not a huge difference between this and the likes of Them!, The Black Scorpion, The Deadly Mantis et al. The plot runs almost the same, the characters may as well have walked off one film into the next without so much as a hiccup in the script and the end results are near identical - avoid atomic testing (though it has to be said the molluscs here are never explicitly referred to being 'mutated' by radiation but the link is pretty easy to make). There's copious exposition and a superfluous romantic sub-plot to pad out the running time which, if other elements of the film weren't as strong, could have really torpedoed it.
But this is no run-of-the-mill 50s monster movie. One thing that makes this stand out from the rest is just how daring it is. The Monster That Challenged the World pushes the boat out for its time with some grisly moments involving two dead bodies being found with all of their blood and bodily fluid sucked dry. The make-up effects look a bit laughable nowadays but I’m sure that back in the 50s, they’d have caused a bit of disgust. There’s also some inspiration for Jaws here with the beaches being closed at the first sniff of something dodgy and the scene in which a female bather is pulled underwater will instantly bring back memories of the opening scene from Spielberg’s classic.
Considering what we’re dealing with here basically equates to giant snails, the film does a terrific job of turning them into a nasty threat. The monsters are a bit feeble in scale (when compared to the rest of the humungous 50s sci-fi atomic monsters which tower over buildings and famous monuments) but they’re a creepy sight, all done with the use of a $15,000 hydraulic prop monster covered in slime and with big bulging eyes. It may move a bit mechanically and slow but at least we get a couple of sequences in which we see the damage it can do, grabbing hold of its victims by their heads and necks in its pincers. We do get to see a lot of them as well – practically from the first attack, though I’m not sure whether this was a good idea as a bit of a slow-reveal approach would have given the film some added intrigue.
However there are some great attack scenes and time is spent in building the tension up a little bit first – the one along the canal is ‘Spielbergian’ with some false tension first and then a brilliant ‘out of nowhere’ moment which always makes me jump. I’d hasten to say it’s one of the best scares I’ve ever had. The fact that the characters can interact with the giant prop on-set and on-location makes everything look so plausible and convincing. Audiences will actually buy these creatures as a legitimate scientific threat, rather than some daft puppet monster or rear projected absurdity. The underwater scenes are tense and claustrophobic, utilising the general eeriness of the black and white film footage combined with the murkiness of the depths to really create effective sequences.
The Monster That Challenged the World will play out very familiarly to anyone with a fondness for 50s atomic monster movies but there's more than enough here to warrant it being given a tad more acclaim in the genre than it gets. Don't judge a book by it's cover and the sound of killer snails may not be too appealing but trust me, if these critters were in your garden munching your plants, you'd be best advised to call in the army!
The Monster That Challenged the World
Director(s): Arnold Laven
Writer(s): David Duncan (story), Pat Fielder (screenplay)
Actor(s): Tim Holt, Audrey Dalton, Hans Conried, Barbara Darrow, Casey Adams, Harlan Warde, Gordon Jones
Duration: 84 mins