Mollusk-station Abuse

Nothing says “fun afternoon at the movies” more than a gargantuan 1950s dinosaur wreaking havoc on white Anglo Saxons. Thus, we owe a debt of gratitude to the Levy-Gardner-Laven producer/director team who beautifully fashioned 1957’s popcorn-compulsory THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD, now on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios, Inc.

No mere let’s-make-a-quick-buck piece of junk, MONSTER is, in fact, a carefully plotted, heavily market-researched project that craftily cherry-picked narrative snippets from the decade’s most successful sci-fi pics. Seamlessly stitching these elements together, the filmmakers then chose a sturdy cast of (mostly) supporting players, a fine composer and d.p. and a creative budget-friendly SFX crew. Buttressed by a plausible, quasi-intelligent screenplay, MONSTER’s course, charted by the United Artists, began its cross-country tour of nabes and drive-ins – where, supported by another interesting sci-fi/horror flick (The Vampire), it then ceded to the studio suits’ original objective:  to squeeze every nickel out of adolescent jeans from coast-to-coast (which it did).

The story is typical of the time and genre (and why not – since it glommed bits from proven Bijou blockbusters). Like a Harryhausen Jurassic reptile, the title characters (it is a plural invasion) emerge as a result of American dumb-dumb testing and nature meddling of the explosive kind (TNT or atomic, A or H bomb – your choice, they got ‘em all). These rather violent eruptions cause a fissure to open in the Salton Sea, releasing dormant (but still fertile) prehistoric mollusk eggs, which proceed to hatch with great rapidity. These aqua mollusks grow in varying length and height, none of them puny and all of them craving white meat.  Like Ray’s 20,000-fathomed beast and Golden Gate-humping octopus, they are essentially seafaring, yet entomological enough to sport THEM! pincers and genre prerequisite bug-eyes (ideal for puncturing with harpoon and/or oars).

But there’s another rather unpleasant touchy-feely aspect to the mollusks. “From the instant they’re born, they’re hungry,” assuredly states biological egghead and (apparently) giant mollusk expert, Dr. Jess Rogers (a major-costarring role for the great Hans Conried, best-known to squirt moviegoers as the sinister Terwilliker in the 1953 Dr. Seuss fantasy The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T). This was also an assessment my parents made concerning all my childhood friends, so that’s not so nasty. What constitutes an epic emergency is that they’re not only hungry, but horny. Their appetite is concurrently mange-and-merge, each gluttonous act simultaneously complementing the other. To seal the deal, their sexual arousal (prior to sucking out all human blood and bones) is visually brought forth by their spewing gooey white marshmallow fluffy fluids all over the remnants of the victims. “A simple marine secretion,” ventures the wily Dr. Conried, not wanting to face the ire of the Hays Office. But we savvy grindhouse patrons know mollusk spunk when we see it. And we see it. Like the cast of some John Hughes Harrad experiment gone haywire, the mollusks are virtually insatiable – their eating/breeding activities causing the laying of untold thousands of eggs. In almost no time at all, these slimy behemoths (did I say they resemble uncondomed leviathan penises?) not only challenge the world, they’re straddling it.

The story for the technical jargon-stuffed script by Pat Fielder was concocted by David Duncan, a master of this genre – scenarist of 1960’s The Time Machine and 1966’s Fantastic Voyage. On the flip side, he also gave us the American edition of Rodan (1956), 1957’s The Black Scorpion and 1958’s Monster on the Campus. This is one fun guy!

The tough-as-nails Salton Sea Naval base Commander “Twil” Twillinger is nicely essayed by a puffy, slightly bloated Tim Holt. He, too, has mollusk yearnings for Conried’s gorgeous assistant, a single-parent widow, played by beauteous Fifties starlet Audrey Dalton. Dalton’s precocious brat (Mimi Gibson) likewise is integral to the picture. When I first saw MONSTER (eons ago), I thought she was the same LTG (little THEM! girl), pint-sized Sandy Descher. No matter, Gibson goes one better by inadvertently doing to an incubating mollusk egg what crazy Dr. Carrington did on purpose to the space vegetable in The Thing. Accident or not, this only serves to embolden my adamant belief that children are nothing but tiny insane people.

Also on board for this monster ride are Gordon Jones as the local sheriff, Casey Adams as a frogman (not literally) and cadaverous Milton Parsons as a death-obsessed museum curator. As one might suspect, there’s room for a lot of gallows humor in a project of this sort, and MONSTER doesn’t scrimp there either. A visit to the morgue reveals an undertaker (Byron Kane) who keeps his lunch refrigerated by storing it with the corpses. His offering Holt and Conried (or Twillinger and Terwilliker, as I prefer to call them) some tuna is worth the price of admission alone. There’s also a crusty old disbelieving bastard (Ralph Moody) who guards the canal system, and ends up as a mollusk snack.

The “eewwww” shock shots of finding the remains of once living and breathing folks looking like Tom Brady footballs ain’t a pretty sight, and I’m fairly certain that glimpsing seaman Jody McCrea covered in semen isn’t exactly what the recruiting posters had in mind. Similarly disturbing is the discovery of a hottie (Barbara Darrow), coincidentally also named Jody (hey, even mollusks can have a fantasy name jones), who, like Susan Backlinie in the opening of Jaws (possibly inspired by this scene), gets sucked under during an evening swim.  I imagine it would just be a matter of time before curiosity would cause the Salton Sea area residents to wonder why beach babes are disappearing and/or turning up on shore, half-naked and covered in “simple marine secretion,” although in California that may not be such an unusual thing.

The aforementioned producers-director trio responsible for this carnivorous confection is the formidable triad of Jules Levy, Arthur Gardner and Arnold Laven. They all met at Camp Hal Roach during WWII, where they made propaganda films for the war effort. No doubt, that added the realistic technical military stuff that helps make THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD so groovy. Their first collaboration was a terrific film noir entitled Without Warning (1952). That was followed, in 1953, by the equally intriguing Down Three Dark Streets. Aside from MONSTER, Levy-Gardner-Laven coproduced the earlier discussed cofeature, The Vampire, dealing with the worst-case scenario of suburban substance abuse. The following year, Gardner and Levy produced the well-remembered horror thriller Return of Dracula (like The Vampire, also scripted by Fielder), another UA genre fave that went out on release with It! The Terror from Beyond Space.  All three men struck their nest-egg pay-dirt in TV, the highpoint for Levy-Gardner being the 1960s western The Big Valley.

THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD has surprisingly good special effects by Robert Crandall, Ted Haworth and Augie Lohman. While nowhere near the caliber of Harryhausen, it’s still 100,000 levels above the psychotic Muppet in The Giant Claw.

The reliable Lester White shot the movie and, at last, collectors can relish the slick monochrome feature in its original 1.85:1 widescreen dimensions, and in 1080p High Def no less! Suffice it to say, the Kino 35MM transfer is stunning. The wonderful Heinz Roemheld composed the spine-tingling score, which, dare I say, hits all the right notes.

The trailer to THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD is a jaw-dropping must, as it features a specially-shot teaser not in the final cut: a very graphic insert of a mollusk “sucking” a woman with enough gyrating frenzy to prefigure a 1980s Adrian Lyne-dance. It also contains an unintentionally hilarious composite of one the title stars looming over a modern metropolis. It’s false advertising at its best (or worst). That said, it’s also a testament to the actual movie, which admirably manages to survive the flim-flam ballyoo (and the inevitable shame of eidetic memory-endowed viewers having to resort to yelling out “Gyp!”).

THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD.  Black-and-White. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition].  2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino Lorber Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studio, Inc. CAT # K1733.  SRP:  $29.95.

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