Friday, April 17, 2009

The Monster That Challenged the World (United Artists, 1957)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked out was The Monster That Challenged the World, which was a 1957 entry from producers Jules V. Levey (the man behind the 1947 film New Orleans, which was actually pretty good but would have been far better if its African-American leads, Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday, had been permitted to star without interference from a decidedly “C”-list white cast enacting a clichéd plot whose resemblance to the 1936 MGM San Francisco had eluded me until Charles pointed it out) and Arthur Gardner, director Arnold Laven and writers David Duncan (story) and Pat Fiedler (script). This film doesn’t appear on the complete list of extant Mystery Science Theatre 3000 episodes but it might as well have; made with the infrastructure of a major studio behind it, The Monster That Challenged the World was at least somewhat more credible than the cheapies American International and even smaller producers were cranking out for the drive-in audience at the time, but it was still a sci-fi monster movie from the 1950’s with all the vicissitudes of the genre.

This one takes place at a Navy base in the Salton Sea area, with Navy paratroopers doing practice runs jumping into it — only one of them lands in the water and then doesn’t re-emerge even after the boat that’s supposed to pick him up arrives. The two sailors on the boat dive into the sea at that point and they both get killed, one being eaten by the titular monster that’s about to challenge the world and the other dying of fright as the monster, who is apparently amphibious, gets out of the water and appears before them. Then a “fast” girl in the surrounding community runs away from her overprotective mom (who runs a diner that services the servicemen) to go for a dip in the sea with her boyfriend — and they get eaten (as with a lot of movies of this type, the monster is surprisingly decorous and moral, enforcing the standard rules by picking on people having supposedly illicit sex to kill). The key dramatis personae are Navy investigator Lt. Commander John “Twill” Terwilliger (Tim Holt, whose career trajectory remains one of Hollywood’s most bizarre mysteries; he appeared in two of the greatest films ever made, Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons and John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but most of his movies were “B” Westerns and other cheapies), who takes charge of the investigation and uncovers the giant monster (actually “monsters,” plural, more on that later); Gail MacKenzie (Audrey Dalton), secretary in the base’s research facility (and a single mother who’s raising a less-obnoxious-than-usual movie child whose daddy died in the backstory); and the head of the lab, Dr. Jess Rogers (Hans Conried — TCM was showing this as part of a day-long tribute to him that also included The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. “T” and The Twonky, the latter a guilty pleasure of mine even though its maker, writer-director Arch Oboler, took a marvelously sinister science-fiction story by the great Henry Kuttner and turned it into an appallingly unfunny so-called “comedy” — and here he overacted a good deal less than usual even though, as usual, he obstinately refused to appear on-screen with his hair combed), who figures out what the monster looks like from the residue it leaves on anything it walks on, which looks like a combination of marshmallow cream and semen but turns out to be radioactive.

Director Laven has quite a few things going for him, including a budget several ticks above what Roger Corman and the other American International directors had to work with in making a story like this, actors who can actually deliver a line with a simulacrum of reality instead of the almost porn-star incompetence of some of the people who made movies like this for the cheap companies, and a flair for shock cutting that actually makes the movie’s monster genuinely frightening in a couple of places. Mostly, though, this is a film that falls apart thanks to the risible appearance of the monster, who’s more credible than most of them in films of this era and type but still looks pretty silly — as if the writers couldn’t decide whether he was supposed to be an oversized snail, an oversized slug or an oversized crab, so they gave him aspects of all three and also made him amphibious, so he can move about either under water (and picturesquely strangle a sea diver who’s down there looking for him) or on land (where he stands upright — how? — and munches on people far away from the Salton Sea or any other body of water).

There are some interesting plot twists in the later reels as the monster starts sneaking into the canals that lead out of the Salton Sea and the scientists start worrying that it will start laying eggs (so I guess I should have used the female pronoun above!) and they will hatch and create such a large quantity of its species that they will literally threaten all life on earth. They drop a lot of depth charges into the sea at the points where they determine the monsters have their lairs, but in the meantime one monster egg they’ve had inside the lab hatches and briefly threatens Gail MacKenzie’s daughter Sandy (Mimi Gibson) before “Twill” and the other good guys regain control of the lab and dispatch it to monster heaven (or monster hell, take your pick). The Monster That Challenged the World is better than most of the examples of its genre but not so much better that we wouldn’t have wanted to see it get the full MST3K “treatment” — and when I started to nod off midway through Charles joked, “Of course it’s putting you to sleep — you don’t have the guy and two robots to keep it interesting!”It’s also worth noting that this morning’s Los Angeles Times ran an obituary for Joel McCrea’s son Jody, who is actually in The Monster That Challenged the World — he followed in his dad’s (and his mom’s, Frances Dee) footsteps as a movie actor but didn’t have anywhere near the career they did, with his most famous credits coming as the comic-relief sidekick to Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello in the Beach Party movies.