Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Monster That Challenged The World (1957)

Okay, we all know that Herschell Gordon Lewis invented the gore film with his 1963 release, Blood Feast.  But before that, some drive in features were experimenting with gruesome images such as dismemberment, decapitations and, in the case of The Monster That Challenged The World, desiccated corpses.  But, unlike other drive in movies dabbling with gore in the 50s, this film is quite good and hold up well today, despite a rudimentary plot.

Yeah, first we get the long monolog talking about an earthquake near the inland Salton Sea in California.  Though activity on the military base is back to normal a few hours later, a number of Navy personnel and civilians nearby resorts start turning up dead, their bodies drained of all fluids.

Yeah, just what you want washing up on the beaches during the tourist season.

Despite closing the beaches (to the dismay of local resort owners), desiccated corpses pile up at the morgue, until the Navy discovers the culprit, a giant prehistoric snail.

Despite destroying the entrance to it's cave with depth charges, a group of scientists believe the cave was opened by the recent earthquake, unleashing a group of these deadly mollusks.  And, as these creatures can transition from salt to fresh water, and travel across land, the lead scientist believes the snails are heading to a nearby series of rivers that serve as irrigation canals for the area.

Of course, the system leads to the deep blue sea, the ultimate destination of the snails.  Once in the ocean, they will breed unchecked, destroying all marine life and eventually threatening all of humanity as they travel through the waterways of the world.

The Navy, along with the scientists and local police officers, attempt to stop this migration, but are only able to follow a trail of withered corpses left behind by the ravenous mollusks.  One can only hope humanity can stop these monsters before they reach the ocean and breed out of control.

And if pointy sticks are our only option, I think we're screwed.

If you know anything about the giant monster genre of the 50s, you know the humans will prevail. No spoiler warning needed, as the end of the film is about as obvious as the references I made to more recent monster movies in the above paragraphs.  But this film is much better than the summery suggests, thanks in part to a solid script, some well drawn characters and terrific performances from the cast (at least as good as a 16 day shooting schedule).

Let's start with the main character, Lt. Cmdr. John "Twill" Twillinger.  Played by Tim Holt (who's previous credits include a lot of Westerns), Twill is a Navy straight arrow, not hesitant in berating personnel who admit to talking on the radio with fellow enlisted men "like on the phone."  Perfect hard case character, if you were casting someone like James Arness or Peter Graves.

But Holt isn't physically imposing, his character is nice to kids (more on that later) and, as he battles the last of the giant snails with nothing more than a fire extinguisher, he looks about to wet his pants in fright.  That might be a bit of an over-reaction on my part, but he feels more realistic than the square jawed hero facing a giant monster with a steely glare.  Holt is terrific, more human than most scripts would allow their hero to be, and a big reason why the film still works.  And remember, he pulled this off on a 16 day shooting schedule.  Bravo, sir.

Sure, it's nice to think you'd be more like Bruce Campbell.
But this photo is probably more accurate.  

And, as I mentioned it, let's get back to the kids.  Twill attempts to strike up a romance with the pretty secretary in the science lab, Gail MacKenzie (Audrey Dolton, Mr. Sardonicus), a single mother with a young daughter, Sandy (Mimi Gibson).  No big deal now, but remember, this was the 50s, and single parenthood was considered a taboo subject on film thanks to The Hays Code (which required the sanctity of marriage and Christian home life be upheld).

But, in another nice character arc, we learn that Gail is a widow, who's husband died in a military plane test years earlier.  Sure, it stops the film a bit after we get to see the monster for the first time, but it's a well written scene and Dolton does a wonderful job explaining to Twill her past and why she can't comfort another woman who learns her husband died investigating the deaths in the area.

Now this death leads into another interesting bit of scripting (yep, the segues just keep coming!).  As two scientist investigate an underwater cave never charted by previous divers, one is killed by a giant snail.  His diving partner swims away in fear and you might expect him to be the character that doesn't make it to the ending credits, as he has to "pay" for his cowardice actions.

Well, I was going to go back down, but now I think I'll stay up here with your guys.

However, the screenplay by Pat Fielder (The Vampire, The Return of Dracula), based on a story by David Duncan (The Time Machine, The Black Scorpion), refuses to follow the rules and allows this character a bit of redemption during the attack on the snail nesting ground.  And, as Twill looked ready to run away from the final creature in the last minutes of the film, I think the script shows that, in such circumstances, anyone might flee when facing such overwhelming odds.  It's a very human statement, and a refreshing change from the action heroes populating the Giant Monster Genre in the 50s.

And the creatures look amazing.  The effects work by Robert H. Crandall, Ted Haworth (as Edward S. Haworth) and Augie Lohman (as August Lohman) holds up better than most of the CGI work of today, and I'm not just talking Syfy cheese.  The desiccated corpses look great (okay, for the time, but still), and the full sized, PRACTICAL EFFECT snail is jaw dropping, especially during the final moments in the science lab.  You could argue that Harryhausen might have done a better job, but not on a half month shooting schedule.  The effect team delivered some of the best low budget giant monster effects I can think of, including the early works of Bert Gordon and, despite the budget, even rivaling THEM!.

Even as a black and white still, this looks so much better than most
modern monster movies.

Despite homages in Joe Dante's Piranha and Motel Hell, this film seems to be a forgotten classic, and that's a shame.  The Monster That Challenged the World delivers on the important giant monster tropes of the 50s, while the script undercut others as fast as possible.  The actors gave solid performances, despite a short shooting schedule, and the effects team created a monster that holds up against most of the CGI creations on the screen (both big and small).  If you haven't seen it, I seriously suggest checking it out.  I've watched it three times this year and still get lost in the film.  It's deserves to be included with THEM! as one of the best Big Bug (okay, MOLLUSK, quit being so picky) Monster Movies of the 50s.

Okay, and if that review didn't convince you to watch this film, 
here's Barbara Darrow in her few minutes in the movie.

I can't believe I'm sinking this low....