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Monster That Challenged the World, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Doesn't challenge the audience, but thee's been much worse."
3 stars

There's a tendency in 1950s monster movies toward trust in military and police authority, and while "The Monster That Challenged the World" is not exactly the most extreme case, it's one of the more anonymous. It's capable in most areas where these movies need to be, and the places where it stumbles are the ones where its best characters' charm can make up some ground. It's no classic, but deserves lighter mockery than many of ours genre and era.

In this film, the monster comes not from outer space but from under the water after an earthquake unseals a cave beneath California's Salton Sea. There's a Navy bar researching new parachute designs (among other things) nearby, and when both a paratrooper and the two-man retrieval team fail to check in, the base's chief investigator, John Twillinger (Tim Holt) goes looking. Finding bodies and a strange goop on the boat, he visits the lab, and the evidence suggests some sort of giant, semi-amphibious mollusk. Bad news, especially with it laying eggs and an underground river offering it a path to the canal system.

Fortunately, they are on a Navy research base, and between the sailors, scientists, and local constabulary, there are plenty of clean-shaven white men to get to the bottom of this. Okay, maybe broader representation would have made this movie about a prehistoric monster feel a bit less authentic in 1957, but it illustrates what kind of a bland cast of characters the film features. "Twill" is initially characterized as kind of impatient and implied to be more of a stickler than the previous officer to hold his position, but that doesn't really sick beyond Tim Holt giving him a crisp efficiency as the film goes on (not a complaint; even if this movie were inclined to have an official bottleneck character, Holt does a good guy who knows what he's doing). It's a film where the supporting cast is not actually interchangeable but can feel that way, with the exception of comic relief characters and people who just don't listen to the people in charge and this potentially screw things up.

The odd thing about being able to clearly see how dull a large chunk of the cast is that the folks in the center really aren't bad at all. Holt may have been given a pretty simple character in Twill, but he's better than a lot of the leads on these films at portraying the guy as capable without seemingly being unfazed by the ludicrous situation he's in, and he's got a nice chemistry with Audrey Dalton, who plays the pretty secretary (and single mother) in the lab. She's not bad herself, and watching them together is pleasant enough that is forgivable when the writers contrive to get them alone, even if that does involve a couple of the movie's dumber scenes.

And one of them doesn't even involve the monster. The creature stuff generally isn't terrible, although that's in part because the filmmakers tend to hold back and not send in the guy in a rubber suit unless there's really something to gain from his appearance. That sometimes leads to the feeling that they're holding back a bit too much, but there are some surprisingly good bits in there as well. The underwater photography isn't bad, for instance and there are a couple moments that may strike the audience as a bit more gross or intense than might be expected for an old B-movie.

It's finale is arguably modern in a surprising way, though I suspect few more recent movies would have a character ignore the fire axe hanging on the wall for quite so long: Where it seems most sci-fi movies of its era will maybe wait a minute or so to let a survivor make a solemn pronouncement of some sort, they generally put a big "THE END" up on screen while there's still smoke coming off the threat to all humanity. In this one, though, there's time for a smaller action piece, one that specifically involves the characters we're meant to identify with specifically. It works, mostly, although the importance of having a personal victory no matter what kind of larger carnage occurs would become comical in later decades.

I guess that may make "The Monster That Challenged the World" ahead of its time in a way. Not by much - it is still a fairly generic monster movie, if one that trips over its own feet less than many - but it's good enough to recommend even if you don't know why the guy won't just grab the freaking axe.

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originally posted: 11/07/15 14:23:37
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  30-Jun-1957 (G)
  DVD: 28-Aug-2001



Directed by
  Arnold Laven

Written by
  Pat Fielder

  Tim Holt
  Audrey Dalton
  Hans Conried
  Barbara Darrow
  Max Showalter

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