The Monster that Challenged the World (1957) **
Atomic bugs and atomic dinosaurs were pretty much a dime a dozen during the 1950’s, but every once in a while, somebody would come up with something to irradiate into a monster that hadn’t been tried before. Richard Matheson had his Incredible Shrinking Man, Roger Corman had his Crab Monsters, and Ray Kellogg had his Killer Shrews. But the prize for originality might have to go to the folks over at United Artists, who gave us, in the form of The Monster that Challenged the World, what appears to be the world’s only atomic snail flick. More’s the pity, then, that this movie couldn’t have been either substantially better, or much, much worse.
We start off Deadly Mantis-style, with a brutal assault on the audience by the Deadly Narrator and his arsenal of Deadly Stock Footage. Captain Voiceover tells us that one of North America’s more remarkable topographic oddities is the Salton Sea (which, in his pronunciation, comes out closer to the obviously redundant Salty Sea), a 400-square-mile body of water located smack in the middle of an otherwise inhospitably arid Southern California desert. It is on the shores of the Salton Sea that the US Navy has set up one of its research and training stations, where atomic power is studied by Pentagon-funded scientists, and where less heavily credentialed sailors practice such things as oceangoing search and rescue. We are then told that on May 17th (presumably 1957), the Salton Sea and its environs were hit by an earthquake centered on a point some 350 feet below the sea floor.
Now if there’s one thing I’ve learned from all the monster movies I’ve watched over the years, it’s that atomic power and earthquakes are a bad mix. Either one is usually enough to spawn a monster, and when you put the two together, there just has to be trouble ahead. And sure enough, a rescue-training exercise conducted out on the Salton Sea shortly after the quake meets with some unexpected monster-related interference. When the boat carrying Seamen Johnson (Jody McCrea) and Sanders (William Swan) reaches the spot where the airman they were supposed to pick up went down, they find his parachute, but the man himself is nowhere to be seen. Johnson dives into the sea to look for him, and soon he has disappeared too. Finally, something looms up out of the water to menace Sanders...
It takes about 45 minutes for anyone to miss the three men. When it happens, Lieutenant Commander John Twillinger (Tom Holt, from The Yesterday Machine and This Stuff’ll Kill Ya!) and his second-in-command, Lieutenant Robert Clemens (Harlan Warde, of Donovan’s Brain), take a second boat out to go looking for them. It isn’t a pretty sight. Johnson and the airman are floating dead in the water, their bodies completely shriveled, as though something had sucked all the moisture out of them. Sanders is more or less intact, but he’s still just as dead as the others. And strangest of all, the gunwales of Johnson and Sanders’s boat are coated with a thick, whitish slime.
Clearly, this is a job for the white coat brigade. Twillinger takes the slime to Dr. Jess Rogers (The Twonky’s Hans Conried, who was also the voice of Thorin Oakenshield in The Hobbit), the top scientist at the Navy lab, for analysis. Rogers calls the stuff “some kind of marine secretion”— not a terribly helpful identification, if you ask me. The scientist is intrigued by the mucus-like slime, though, and he wants to hang on to it so that he and his assistants, Doctors Johns (Indestructible Man’s Max Showalter) and Blake (The Invisible Boy’s Dennis McCarthy), can run a few more tests. Meanwhile, Sheriff Josh Peters (Gordon Jones) has his medical examiner take a look at the bodies of the dead seamen, confirming what our eyes have already indicated. The dead men Twillinger’s people fished out of the water have indeed had every drop of liquid sucked out of their bodies, perhaps through their identical sets of mysterious puncture wounds. As for Seaman Sanders, he appears to have died from a stroke— evidently something literally scared him to death! And when Rogers, Johns, and Blake accidentally discover that the white slime from the boat is highly radioactive, Twillinger talks Sheriff Peters into closing all of the beaches on the Salton Sea.
But there’s a lot of waterfront property surrounding that body of water, and a great deal of it is privately owned. That means Peters and his men have to talk to each individual property owner in order to effect the total quarantine of the shoreline, and that takes a good bit of time. Time enough, as it happens, for a teenage girl to go swimming with her serviceman boyfriend and get eaten by whatever’s living in the Salton Sea. (And you can tell this chick is doomed the moment she peels off her dress to reveal that white one-piece bathing suit. As skinny dipping is to the slasher flick, so the white maillot is to the 50’s monster mash.) The deaths of these kids, however, are not in vain, for they inadvertently lead to the discovery of the monster’s lair. Rogers, Johns, Blake, and Twillinger take a boat out on the sea to search for the young couple the day after the girl’s mother notices they’ve gone missing. While poking around on the bottom, Johns and Blake find the fissure opened up by that quake at the beginning of the film, and they go down to have a look inside. They find three important things in the crevice. The first is a man-sized blob of gelatinous protoplasm anchored to the sea floor, which they cut from its mooring and send up to the surface in a net. The second is the body of the missing girl, which turns up tangled in a kelp bed, sucked dry in the same manner as the sailors had been before. The third and most important discovery the divers make is that of the huge-ass monster that eats Dr. Blake. It looks something like a cross between a snail and a centipede, and though it’s a bit hard to get a fix on its size, I’d say it’s got to be at least 18 feet long and weigh most of a ton. And after killing Blake, it follows Johns back to the surface, where he, Rogers, and Twillinger are able to repel it only by jabbing it in the eye with a gaff.
Well, then. Having established beyond question the existence of our monster, it’s time to call in the depth charge attack. And believe it or not, this actually does work fairly well. It closes up the mouth of the fissure where the monster— or rather, monsters— live, and apparently destroys all of their eggs as well. As for the egg Rogers now has in captivity, he’s incubating it at the lab under conditions precisely calculated to keep it alive while preventing it from actually hatching. The secret is the water temperature, which must remain constant at 38 degrees Fahrenheit. (Is it possible that American scientists were still using the Fahrenheit scale as recently as the late 50’s?) And yes— that is most definitely a plot point in the making.
But the more immediate trouble is that there’s another way out of the monsters’ lair. An underground river runs from it to a series of pools that link up with the canal system that riddles the surrounding countryside. Not only does this mean the monsters can get out of the fissure, it gives them access to a wide array of spawning grounds, and puts them within easy reach of all the delicious humans they can eat. And given the extremely wide sprawl of the canal network, it also makes the job of tracking the monsters down before they start laying more eggs a whole hell of a lot harder.
The Monster that Challenged the World, huh? The Monster that Challenged My Patience is more like it! The atomic snails are some incredibly cool critters, but this movie’s biggest weakness is that they’re hardly ever onscreen. Way too much of the film’s running time— and rarely has 83 minutes seemed so long— is devoted to the search for the creatures rather than to the efforts to destroy them once they have been found. And because the slaying of the teenage swimmers is the only time they make their presence felt between their initial attack on the rescue drill and Johns and Blake’s discovery of their lair, that stultifyingly uninteresting search is scarcely broken up at all by monster action. Instead, it’s broken up by a love-story subplot involving Commander Twillinger and Dr. Rogers’s war-widow secretary, Gail MacKenzie (Audrey Dalton, from Mr. Sardonicus). True, this one is surprisingly inoffensive by the usual standards of love-story subplots in 50’s monster flicks, but far more time is devoted to it than the movie can support. The fantastic atomic snails still make The Monster that Challenged the World minimally worth sitting through, but the emphasis in that statement rightfully belongs on the word “minimally.”