Sunday, 15 April 2018

The Monster That Challenged the World (1957)

The Monster That Challenged the World, produced by Gramercy Pictures and released through United Artists, is essentially a stock-standard 1950s American monster movie, its main distinguishing feature being that it’s fairly competently executed.

The U.S. Navy has a research establishment on the Salton Sea. They do all sorts of things there, including the testing of parachutes. Navy personnel make parachute jumps into the Salton Sea and are then recovered by boat. It’s all routine stuff, until three men are killed. Why they died is a mystery but it’s what happened to their bodies that is worrying.

Lieutenant Commander John Twillinger (Tim Holt) is not happy about it. He’s a guy who does things by the book and doesn’t take chances so he advises the local sheriff to close the beaches (to the disgust of the locals since it’s the height of the tourist season). And he sends some samples to Dr Jess Rogers (Hans Conried) at the laboratory at the base.

The results are puzzling. Even more puzzling to Dr Rogers is the radioactivity. He’s pretty sure the Navy hasn’t been doing anything that would explain the radioactivity, but there it is.

And then more people start dying.

It’s a nice slow buildup. We know something terrible is happening but at this stage we have no idea what it might be. As always what you don’t know and what you don’t see are more frightening than the things you do know and see. This is something that makers of horror movies keep learning, and then forgetting.

Of course eventually comes the dreaded moment when the monster has to be shown. Since the monster in question is a giant carnivorous mollusc one expects the worst but it’s actually not too bad. And the special effects in general are very good. There is real creepiness here. It was a standard feature of monster movies of the era to have the Scientist giving an expository lecture and showing a little film to explain things to the other characters. In this movie Dr Rogers has a little film about the very unpleasant habits of molluscs and I have to say that it enhances the creepiness fact quite a bit. It makes you really not want to encounter a gigantic mollusc.

Even after the monster is revealed this movie still relies on building suspense and genuine terror rather than just the slightly silly mayhem you so often get in this genre. Director Arnold Laven understands pacing as well and on the whole this is a pretty well-made film. The ending is very expertly handled. It’s also a bit more grisly than most 50s monster flicks. And even the hero shows real fear at times, a hero of course not being someone who is without fear but someone who can be afraid and still do his job.

There are some intriguing foreshadowings of a much more famous later movie, a movie about a deadly shark made by some guy called Spielberg.

And there’s some decent underwater photography. This was obviously a B-picture, but just as obviously it was made on a slightly more generous budget than usual.

The acting is well above the standard you expect in a monster movie. Tim Holt is very good as Lt. Cmdr. Twillinger, a character with a bit of complexity (by monster movie standards). He’s a man who pushes others, and himself, very hard. He’s a bit of a martinet and not overly popular with the men under his command. This seems to be just the way he approaches his job since he can be quite affable with civilians. He’s not an obviously sympathetic hero type but right from the start we respect his professionalism.

Hans Conried is not an actor you expect to find playing things straight but that’s how he plays Dr Rogers and it works pretty well. The supporting players are all competent.

The Salton Sea, a huge saltwater lake in the middle of the desert in southern California,  is a good choice as a setting for this type of movie. In the movie at least it has a rather brooding feel to it (particularly at the beginning). The All American Canal System also features prominently and is used just as effectively.

While other giant critter sci-fi horror movies gained cult followings The Monster That Challenged the World ended up being pretty much forgotten. This is both surprising and unfair because this happens to be a well above-average example of the breed.

I caught this film on TV and happily it was a very good letterboxed print. It’s been released on DVD and more recently on Blu-Ray as well.

The Monster That Challenged the World turned out to be a very pleasant surprise. Highly recommended.


tom jones said...

I looked for this after reading your review and eventually found it on streaming, on Amazon Movies (although not free, at least in the UK, so I rented it for £3.50). Looked at least DVD quality.

Wow, it is good! I mean, it's a monster movie, not Citizen Kane or The Third Man, but I think it's definitely one of the best American 1950s monster movies or even US SF movies in general. The moments of comedy in particular mostly work really well because there's a lightness of touch, rather than the "look, we've got a funny bit!" business that ruins so many films. The acting is very good for a monster movie, mostly because the character stuff is well done. And I can clearly see an inspiration for Jaws - although of course it may be coincidence.

I especially liked the setting. I've never heard of the Salton Sea, but they really used the geography well. It was certainly well thought out.

My one gripe would be that it's usually - but not always - crystal clear who dies next!

If I had a region-free BR or DVD player, I'd probably buy this.

Randall Landers said...

I really enjoyed The Monster That Challenges the World. My favorite has to be Hans Conried, as you pointed out, in a very serious role. I wish he'd done more of this sort of work! Thanks for a great review!