I've always had a soft spot for 50s monster movies, especially those of the alien invader or “big bug” variety (The Thing from Another World, Them!, Tarantula, It Came from Outer Space, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, etc.) and The Monster That Challenged the World is high on my list of favorites. It's a modest creature feature, but very effective nonetheless, with a first-rate monster design, some memorable shock scenes and an unusual location – the Salton Sea in California.
Most of the action centers around the Naval Auxillary Air station, where Our Boys are conducting parachute tests over the Salton Sea in southern California, near the Mexican border. When three men go missing after one such routine test, newly-appointed, by-the-book Lt. Cmdr. John "Twill" Twillinger (Tim Holt) heads out to investigate. He finds one crewman apparently dead of fright, one shrivelled, his bodily fluids drained out, and no signs of the third. Twill notices some odd white goo on the gunwhale of the naval skiff, and takes some back to be tested at the Naval Laboratory by Dr. Jess Rogers (Hans Conreid).
As a precaution, Twill has Sheriff Josh Peters (Gordon Jones) and his men close down the beaches, over protests by the local businesses who are loathe to turn away tourists during the hot summer season (shades of Jaws). When a young woman (Barbara Darrow) and her serviceman boyfriend go missing during a secret late night swim, Twill and Dr. Rogers' research team head out in search of the bodies, and come across more than they bargained for, in the shape of giant, radioactively-mutated mollusks, freed from their centuries-long slumber by a recent earthquake.
They also recover one of the creatures' large egg sacks, and bring it back to the lab for further study. Dr. Rogers ensures the egg is kept from developing further by controlling the water temperature in its tank. Of course, seasoned monster movie viewers know that sooner or later, some unsuspecting ninny is going to turn the temperature gauge up and unleash some serious havoc.
Despite having his plate full with monster trouble, the stern Twill finds a silver lining when he meets Dr. Rogers' cute secretary, Gail MacKenzie (Audrey Dalton). A widow and single mom, Gail quickly sees through Twill's gruff exterior, especially when she sees his gentle interactions with her daughter, Sandy (Mimi Gibson). In a brief break between monster hunting, the two start a tentative romance, enjoying a candlelit Mexican dinner south of the border. This is but a brief idyll, as events transpire which escalate the danger. It seems the creatures have escaped the Sea via a nearby canal system. The race is on to find their nest and destroy it before the danger can spread...
Tim Holt was only 38 when he made The Monster That Challenged the World, but he seems a long way from his days as the svelte star of countless fun B westerns and higher-profile gigs like The Magnificent Andersons and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. As the brisk, serious Twill, he's older and thicker around the waist, but that adds to his appeal. He's not like the usual lean, muscled types that populate 50s sci-fi, he's more of an everyman hero. Competent, tough, yet just a regular guy. At this stage in his career, Holt was more or less retired. Who knows what lured him back to the film world to work on this movie, but I would have liked to see more of Holt the monster fighter; he's rather good at it. His low-key presence, as well as an equally competent, low-key supporting cast, keeps this low-budget flick grounded.
Holt shares some of the limelight with Hans Conreid, a veteran radio and TV comic who gives a rare and quite effective straight performance here as the waspish professor. 23-year-old Audrey Dalton makes a fetching heroine, and the rest of the cast is peopled with familiar character actors such as Casey Adams, Ralph Moody, Milton Parsons and Charles Tannen. Lovely young starlet Barbara Darrow makes quite an impression in her brief role as the doomed young lover who chooses the wrong time and place to go for a moonlight swim. Her demise, shrieking and flailing as she's pulled under the flat surface of the sea by an unseen threat, is very reminiscent of the death of Chrissie the skinnydipper at the start of Jaws.
The movie has a slightly more sensitive script than the norm, thanks to screenwriter Pat Fielder (working form a story by David Duncan). A rare female writer in the male-dominated sci-fi genre, Fielder penned a number of interesting films, including The Vampire (also 1957), The Flame Barrier, The Return of Dracula (both 1958), 1962's Geronimo and a slew of TV westerns, including The Rifleman. Fielder's script for The Monster That Challenged the World gives more time than usual to establish interesting little character quirks. She allows male and female cast members alike interesting little character moments to play: from the pregnant wife of one Dr. Rogers' research assistants constantly trying to get her hubby's attention, to Twill's secretary, always on the phone to her mom, to the eccentric museum owner complaining of local council affairs, and the doomed young bathing beauty's quarrels with her controlling mother. This gives the movie a refreshingly lived-in quality, that balances out the usual monster combat.
However, the movie doesn't scrimp on shocks. The monster attacks are frequent and pretty grisly for the time, and there's one big "jump" scare that still packs enough of a wallop to send hardened horror mavens (myself included) hopping out of their seats.
Arnold Lavin directs in the typically straightforward, semi- documentary manner accorded most 50s sci-fi fare. Besides the interesting script and cast, the film's main asset is its very effectively-realized and well-conceived monster. Designed by Augie Lohman, the 10-plus foot monster suit is one of the best of its type to grace a 50s science fiction film. It's not a particularly mobile prop, but its drooling, clacking mandibles, glossy eyes and slimy, textured skin makes it a vivid creation.
While not on a par with more famous counterparts such as Creature from the Black Lagoon and Them!, The Monster That Challenged the World is quite enjoyable in its own right, and is just the ticket for fans of 50s B-movie monster fests. While many viewers unable to tune into its retro wavelength may find it all a bit square and occasionally silly, those who like and understand this kind of flick will have a helluva good, popcorn-munching time.
Though its depth is greatly exaggerated by the movie's narrator, the Salton Sea is an intriguing location. Seen here at the height of its heydey as both a resort area and military training facility, it's now a largely abandoned, eerie place, a veritable environmental disaster zone ripe for some real-life mutant monster action. (You can read more about it here).
DVD Note: MGM has put out two DVD versions, one with just the movie itself, and a later Midnite Movies Double Feature edition, pairing it with another atmospheric genre gem, the Alien precurser It! The Terror From Beyond Space. The double feature disc is the way to go, two movies for half the price.
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