When the mood strikes, there’s nothing better than an Atomic Age Monster Movie (B Division). Glorious black & white, damsels in distress, iron willed heroes and rubberized villains never fail to hit all the pleasure centers. The Monster that Challenged the World (1957) is one such film, and better made than most of the era. As the tagline says, “A New Kind of Terror to Numb the Nerves!” Well, you may just feel a tingle, but it’s a blast nevertheless.
Released by United Artists in the States in June and rolled out to the rest of the world in ’58, Monster was produced for $250,000; a fair chunk of change for Gramercy Pictures, run by producers Arthur Gardner, Jules V. Levy and director Arnold Laven - they also produced the same year’s The Vampire (read my Dust Off here). And the price tag shows too; Monster is as polished looking as a film about ten foot killer mollusks is ever going to be.
How does it play out? We start at a naval base located off of California’s Salton Sea. Handy narration tells us that the government is conducting experiments on atomic energy (oops) in the waters, diving and testing parachutes, which, as everyone knows, are crucial components for testing atomic power. An underwater earthquake (double oops) releases our titular creatures, and before we’ve even started on our popcorn, we’re down two divers and a parachutist (triple oops). New base arrival Lt. Commander John “Twill” Twillinger (Tim Holt – Stagecoach) heads out to the waters, and he and his crew only find one diver on board (very dead, with a bug eyed expression on his face – according to the doctors, he was scared to death), and a white, marshmallow-like substance on the side of the boat.
Back to the lab we go, for analysis and aw-shucks flirtations with widowed secretary Gail (Audrey Dalton – Mr. Sardonicus). The slime exhibits high levels of radiation (natch), so we’re off to the water for more diving (this film is drowning in it), this time resulting in the recovery of a huge gestating sac and the death of another diver. Return to the lab you say? Okey-dokey! It’s exposition time, as Dr. Rogers (Hans Conried – The Shaggy D.A.) explains that these giant mollusks, possibly developed by radiation, eat flesh, are laying eggs, and if they make it to the canals, the whole world could be in trouble, mister. Can our intrepid heroes stop the sinister snails in time? *Cue dramatic music, please*
One of the best and most surprising things about Monster is the creature design. No miniatures or forced perspectives, they actually built a thing ten feet tall, and operate it pretty damn well. It looks closer to Cronenberg’s “larva birth” dream sequence from The Fly (1986) than it does to any mollusks I can think of. (Disclaimer: I completely glazed over when Dr. Rogers showed footage of actual mollusks in action. I ignored learning in school; I’m not about to start paying attention now.) Which means it looks great, with huge bug eyes and sharp pincers that you actually get a sense of due to the physical construction. This plays well into the moments of suspense; each attack has weight because the filmmakers bothered to have the creatures inhabit the same space as the characters, whether it’s a boat side bustle or a supply closet siege. It all works due to the care and mobility invested in the massive maggot design.
We’re invested in the characters too; they’re a chatty bunch, but it isn’t all exposition, as writer Pat Fielder (also The Vampire) lets a lot of humanity bleed through. Sure they’re stock characters, but at least they get to touch on love, loss, and other foibles besides the imminent danger. The film moves at a good clip for its 84 minutes, only sagging a bit in the middle (as these usually do) before racing to a thrilling climax. Credit to Laven and his extensive TV background for running a tight ship.
Star Tim Holt was very well known for acting in Westerns; Stagecoach (’39) and My Darling Clementine (’46) being the most noteworthy. But he also showed off his range in Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (’42), and by the time Monster rolled around, he had practically retired from acting to focus on ranching. Occasionally he would take on a project as a favor, like he does here. Not equipped with stock leading man features, Holt comes across as a southern Lon Chaney Jr., his gruff exterior hiding a softer core that suits the quieter conversational moments between himself and Dalton. Again, this sets Monster apart from other zipperback flicks of the era; Holt is a refreshing change of pace from the granite jawed He-men that permeate so many of this ilk.
It truly is puzzling why this little gem isn’t mentioned more in the annals of Atomic horror, as it checks off all the B boxes: creepy creatures, beautiful ladies (Dalton is stunning, and more than holds her own against Holt), sand, surf, the military, Brylcreem, laboratories and lab coats, fire extinguishers, adorable moppets, bulbous sacs, cool cars, apoplectic moms, bunnies, exposition for days, and above all, an eagerness to entertain. The Monster that Challenged the World probably won’t challenge your brainpan; but it should radiate some smiles and respect, numbed nerves be damned.
The Monster that Challenged the World is available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.