By Orrin Grey
The Monster That Challenged the World (1957). Directed by: Arnold Laven. Starring: Tim Holt, Audrey Dalton, Hans Conried.
Welcome back to the Vault of Secrets, where we’ll be unearthing another classic (or not-so-classic) vintage horror film for your delectation. The Monster That Challenged the World may have a somewhat misleadingly bombastic title — I guess “The Monster That Mildly Inconvenienced a Naval Base” doesn’t have the same ring to it — but it’s a surprisingly good and largely underseen entry in the “big radioactive monsters” genre that dominated 50s drive-ins. (I shouldn’t be too hard on the title. It’s much better than the film’s working title, The Jagged Edge, which sounds more like a Tom Clancy novel. Or even its other working title, The Kraken, especially given that the eponymous monsters don’t really bear much resemble to any version of a kraken I’ve ever seen, regardless of what the film’s scientist would have us believe.)
Of course, The Monster That Challenged the World hits most of the usual notes for a movie of its type. There’s a voiceover narrator who shows up in the first ten minutes, then never again. He tells us about the Salton Sea and parachute testing. There are square-jawed army guys and scientists as our heroes, and pretty young women menaced by monsters. There are plenty of shots of people scuba diving. There’s a segment where characters show other characters a film, in this case of lots of close-ups of snails, which are said to bear a “remarkable similarity” to the titular monsters, though, like the kraken, they really don’t. There’s even a coroner with a sandwich gag! But Monster also has a lot more going for it than its (lack of) reputation might suggest.
The characters are, as Dave Sindelar remarks in his brief review on Scifilm.org, “unusually well drawn for this type of movie.” The actors aren’t horror mainstays, though our leading man Tim Holt (who was in a boatload of westerns over the years) has a voice that sounds a lot like Lon Chaney Jr. at times. And the lead scientist is played by Hans Conried, who had previously been the voice of Captain Hook in Disney’s Peter Pan and would go on to voice Thorin Oakenshield in the Rankin/Bass version of The Hobbit.
Where The Monster That Challenged the World really shines, though, are in the monsters. They may not resemble krakens or snails much, but they are wonderful looking, brought to life by full-size figures and given plenty of screen time. There’s a gross moment early on where one gets stabbed in the eyeball and a great sequence with one loose in a lab at the end of the movie.
The monsters are supposed to be giant, possibly prehistoric mollusks who got woken up when an earthquake created a crack in the bottom of the Salton Sea. (Radiation also gets involved, naturally.) The story was apparently inspired by an actual event where shrimp eggs were revived by water after millions of years — so inspired, in fact, that at one point in the movie, the scientist actually stops to point out a magazine article about that very event.
Whoever designed the monsters seems to have not gotten the memo that they were supposed to look like snails. Instead, what we get are bug-eyed creatures that more closely resemble giant caterpillars. They do have shells like snails, though they’re rarely seen until a climactic underwater sequence, but they also have caterpillar legs and insect-like mandibles that constantly hinge open and closed.
The monsters may be the highlight of the movie, but possibly its most surprising elements are the ways in which it prefigures a couple of later, more famous monster flicks. There are “closing the beaches” scenes that are reminiscent of Jaws, albeit almost twenty years earlier, as well as a sequence of a swimming couple being attacked at night. Their discarded clothes are even found tangled in seaweed the next day, in a scene so similar to the finding of the girl’s body in Jaws that it almost feels like it must have been intentional homage on Spielberg’s part, though perhaps that’s giving Monster too much credit here.
More overt is its connection to Joe Dante’s 1978 riff on the Jaws theme, Piranha, which borrows the basic conflict of trying to stop the creatures before they get out into wider waters and spread across the world. To make sure that we don’t miss the similarity, one of the characters in Piranha is actually watching The Monster That Challenged the World — specifically, the scene when the monster gets poked in the eye — on TV.
That’s it for tonight, but be sure to join us next time when we encounter a somewhat less respectable creature from a somewhat more haunted sea ….