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1957 gave America a glut of monster movies, so many that it probably overwhelmed the market. On TV's Leave It to Beaver, the non-existent matinee item "The Monster that Ate Cleveland" became a running joke. One of Forrest Ackerman's first Famous Monsters articles was a piece that basically listed them all of 1957's monster shows. The bonanza was probably what made the magazine seem feasible.
The Monster that Challenged the World, made by the Levy-Gardner-Laven partnership, was one of the best of '57 despite being as generic a monster show as could be imagined. It persists as a favorite because it's pitched at a relatable human level, and because the players all perform in earnest, taking the show seriously. That tack didn't help the LGL boys with a no-budget, no-nothing groaner like The Flame Barrier, but this show has solid production values plus direction that's a slight cut above standard. Maybe we're too accustomed to groaning our way through the real cheapies, but TMTCTW comes off smelling like a mollusk from the bottom of a rancid sea... soaked in perfume.
Commander John Twillinger (cowboy favorite Tim Holt) runs the Salton Sea Naval Experimental Station like a martinet, but softens his style when tragedy strikes. Two seamen are killed, their bodies drained of all fluids. Dr. Tad Johns (Casey Adams) needs help, so 'Twill' enlists the aid of the on-base atom researcher Dr. Jess Rogers (Hans Conried) in identifying some radioactive slime residue left by the unknown killer. More people die, including a teenager and a young sailor, before the creatures show themselves: they're enormous shelled mollusk monsters, with powerful jaws. While the sailors search for the monsters' lair (we don't know how many there are) Twill closes the beaches. He turns to Rogers' secretary Gail MacKenzie (Audrey Dalton), a Navy widow, for companionship. It looks like the monsters should be controllable, once Twill finds them in the Sea or in the various channels bringing irrigation water from the Colorado. But what about the specimen that Dr. Rogers is keeping in a tank right in his lab... only a few feet from Gail's desk?
The Monster that Challenged the World delivers some nice jolts with its nifty monster, a pneumatic-mechanical apparatus like the ones used to animate the giant ants in the earlier Them! Twenty years later Carlo Rambaldi reached the big time as a specialist in this kind of rubbery engineering, but Augie Lohman's monster is one of the better critters of the decade.
If tracking down a slimy creature were all there was to this story, the movie would be Snooze City. Fortunately, the filmmakers assembled a group that tackles the job in earnest. Star Tim Holt was a level-headed fellow with no illusions about his movie work, even though he ended up in several bona fide classics, almost by accident: major roles in The Magnificent Ambersons and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and noted parts in Stagecoach and My Darling Clementine. Holt's no-nonsense personality grounds the movie. When he looks scared during the monster attacks, so do we. His Twill begins softening up right away, and we think he's the perfect guy for the secretary who needs a husband and the little girl who needs a father.
The drop-dead gorgeous Audrey Dalton also keeps the show on an even keel. When cornered by a snail monster, she's made to scream bloody murder only once. Emotions are kept in a reasonable perspective: this isn't like the same year's The Black Scorpion, where people are dealing with incredible horrifying monsters one minute, and casually kissing the next. Twill & Co. essentially have a dangerous extermination problem on their hands. At least nobody suggests putting salt on the monsters.
Even as kids we knew and loved Hans Conried, and his immediately recognizable pretzel voice. It was great to see him in a straight role. Other comedians did well in straight roles, because we already liked them and were invested in their wellbeing. Don Rickles comes to mind. Conried is one of the better scientists in '50s monsterdom, not overplayed and sincerely trying to help out in a crisis. The producers fill the rest of the parts with friendly faces. Nobody is mere monster bait.
Screenwriter Pat Fielder reportedly studied other movies of this type but took her characters seriously as well. When someone dies, it leaves a wound with the others. Gail is trying to rebuild her life, while Mrs. Simms (Sarah Selby) and Connie Blake (Marjorie Stapp) are not abandoned when they lose loved ones. It's a show with modest aims, but it also has a Val Lewton- kind of human integrity. Everybody has a job, relationships, a back story of their own. Except maybe the comedy relief museum expert, played by Milton Parsons. He isn't even credited, along with others in substantial parts -- Selby, Byron Kane, Ralph Moody.
Apparently The Monster that Challenged the World was filmed in the aqueduct system but not in the Salton Sea itself, which even in the 1960s was a pretty depressing place, with ridiculously salty water surrounded by foul smelling brackish mud flats. A Boy Scout overnight there in 1965 made me feel I'd been marooned as some sort of punishment. We're told that the boating scenes were all done on the ocean, which makes sense.
The monster is seen too much, and some of the underwater angles are less than convincing, but as '50s monsters go he gets an enthusiastic pass. The creature really gets a workout during the final showdown, smashing and thrashing against the ice of a fire extinguisher and then howling as it is hit by a blast of live steam. It was so well made, they weren't afraid its rubber would rip or its mechanics would fail. Director Laven's work is not particularly stylish, but it's certainly effective for scenes of a creature chomping its way through a door, or rushing into the frame to nail an unlucky canal watchman.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Monster that Challenged the World is an excellent widescreen (matted) transfer of this quality show. This particular title has always looked good but TV prints were compromised somewhat by the open-matte framing, which made compositions look too loose, and showed too much monster in the monster scenes. The image is clean and detailed, keeping us better connected to characters in group scenes. With the B&W cinematography looking so bright and crisp, the show will please a lot of monster fans.
The great extra is a commentary by expert Tom Weaver, who during his years compiling his interview books seems to have talked to everyone connected to the film. He has actual quotes about the genesis of the show, the writing process, the feelings of the actors (Hans Conried was delighted to play a 'straight' dramatic role) and the career adventure of tyro screenwriter Pat Fielder, who served as office girl while writing her draft. Weaver doesn't just name every bit player in view, he has relevant things to say about each of them. Weaver even shows some tact when he ID's one bit player as Raymond Burr's life partner. David Schecter drops in to talk about the music, and a vocal imitator reads interview material from Ms. Fielder. The only tiny bias I detect from New York resident Weaver is a negative remark about Southern California and the 'cesspool' of The Salton Sea. Yeah, It's a regular hellhole here in Los Angeles. We have gangs here too, and the parking is lousy. Just kidding. 1
A trailer is included. It's pretty rough compared to trailers for successful '50s monster fare -- trailers really made the difference back then. It has two shots not in the movie. One big cheat is an angle of teen babe Barbara Darrow being cuddled by Augie Lohman's rubber colossus. From out of left field comes a wild attempt at hyperbole, a crude matte angle of the monster looming behind some New York skyscrapers, seemingly enlarged to be a couple of miles long! Is there a deleted scene in which 'Twill' drops acid and experiences a bad daydream?
I'm assuming that the colorful cover artwork is for the Italian release. The U.S. posters look worse, but not by much. I'd prefer a large image of dreamy Audrey Dalton. It doesn't even need to have anything to do with The Monster that Challenged the World. But that's just me.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Actually, Angelenos will look at the Colorado River water in those irrigation channels and think about our critical drought situation, which is scary. Maybe this is a good time to buy Riviera-style temperate beach property -- in Alaska.
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T'was Ever Thus.