The Monster That Challenged the World (1957) **
Director: Arnold Laven
Runtime: 1h 24m
Years of watching these movies have made me suspicious of any title that makes a lot of promises. Indeed, I can only think of two 50s sci-fi films whose title promises global conflict and whose contents actually deliver it: War of the Worlds (1953) and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956). All the rest, films like Earth vs. the Spider (1958) and It Conquered the World (1956) generally deal with local threats that effect, perhaps, an area as small as a single town. Heck, the monster in Earth vs. the Spider (1958) is put down by local authorities without even having to call in the National Guard. The Monster that Challenged the World (TMtCtW because there’s no way I’m writing that out every time I want to refer to the film.) keeps true to this tradition. Though, at least the giant sea slugs ravaging California’s Salton Sea could have become a global menace if they escaped into open waters.
The film opens with a lengthy prologue of voice over narration and stock footage explaining the US army base on the Salton Sea and the experimental and training work that they do there. Chief among these training exercises are aquatic parachuting jumps, where paratroopers jump from planes above the sea and float in the water until patrol boats retrieve them. The jump that happens today is just like any other, but when the patrol boat reaches the last known coordinates of the paratrooper they find nothing but open sea. A quick investigation of the surrounding waters reveals no trace of the missing soldier, but does turn up a gigantic, radioactive sea slug (I will confess that the excuse to write sentences like this is a big part of the reason why I choose to start reviewing films in the first place). Neither of the sailors in the patrol boat survives the encounter. As it turns out a recent seismic event has dislodged ancient sea slug eggs which, when exposed to radiation from an army experiment, hatched and mutated into the giant monsters now marauding across the Salton Sea. TMtCtW is thus a rare instance where the monster is both a radioactive mutant and a creature from a lost world.
The disappearance of three soldiers is obviously bad new, but this wouldn’t be the first time that a trio of men has gone AWOL only to turn up a week later in Las Vegas (which, incidentally is not all that far from the Salton Sea). Lt. Cmdr. John “Twill” Twillinger is the MP who handles these kinds of situations, so he takes a second boat out to investigate. They find the boat, apparently abandoned on open water, there’s no trace of the men but there is a strange coating of slime on the boat. Twill brings it back to the base’s laboratory and asks the head researcher, Dr. Rogers, to analyze it for him. He is also introduced to his love interest, the Doctor’s secretary Gail MacKenzie, and her daughter Sandy. Don’t worry, Gail is a widow, so our monster movie will not be burdened with a torrid love affair in which Gail debates whether to leave her distant husband for the dashing young lover only to come to a tragic end before tossing herself in front of an oncoming train (not that there's anything wrong with Anna Karenina, but I'm watching this film for some giant sea slugs). After a playful scene in which Twill discusses the ladybug that Sandy has caught, and thus established the fact that he’d be an excellent, doting father for the child, he departs to return to his investigation.
That night the sea slugs attack again, this time killing a young woman and her sailor boyfriend while they were out for a moonlight-swim. Twill’s investigation discovers more slime, alongside the discarded clothing of the boy and girl. If the two had just vanished one night it would probably have been assumed that they eloped; but the presence of all those discarded clothes suggests something happened to them in the water. By this time Dr. Rogers has finished analyzing the slime sample and discovered that it is significantly (though not dangerously) more radioactive than the waters of the Salton Sea. Twill heads out in a patrol boat with a pair of divers to comb the depths for any signs of the missing persons or any spikes of radioactivity. They find a massive, un-hatched sea slug egg, which their Geiger counters indicate is radioactive. Twill and the others raise the egg back to the patrol boat, but the divers are attacked by one of the giant sea slugs. The slug kills one of the divers but allows the other to beat a hasty retreat back to the boat.
After we have positive proof of the existence of the giant sea slugs the army springs into action. Rogers prepares the obligatory post-Them! (1954) nature documentary to stress how dangerous giant versions of tiny creatures can be and screens it for the base’s top brass. Naturally, the civilians living around the Salton Sea and the surrounding waterways are not informed of the danger they are all in. Instead the army keeps things quiet to prevent mass hysteria (another trope straight from Them!’s playbook). They begin to attack what nests of the sea slug eggs they’ve found, covering the attacks with the excuse that they are testing their depth charges. The attack is effective, but there is no way to be sure that all the sea slugs have been destroyed. Since they reproduce so fast, if even a small number of sea slugs were to escape from the Salton Sea it could be a disaster of un-matched proportions for the human race. The military goes on high alert, combing the Salton Sea with divers, patrolling its borders with armed soldiers, and keeping tourists from swimming at its beaches.
The cordon is a good idea, but it doesn’t work because of an almost forgotten underground waterway that connects the sea to a nearby irrigation canal. The sea slugs ravage the surrounding countryside, killing livestock and the surly old man who keeps watch on one for the canal’s locks. Fortunately, a local historian, who considers his lack of a proper record room to be the greatest injustice of the 20th century, digs up some information about the region’s topography that suggests the location of the underground waterway. The navy moves in and destroys every trace of the sea slugs and their eggs. Unfortunately, the climactic battle will take place almost entirely off-camera. Indeed, we will get very few battles with the sea slugs anywhere onscreen throughout TMtCtW. What a gyp!
Everything is right in the world, or at least it would be if the base’s lab practiced even the most rudimentary security. You see, Rogers decided to keep the sea slug egg the divers pulled from the Sea in suspended animation for future tests. Provided that the egg was kept at a constant temperature, it would remain dormant. Unfortunately, the lab personnel allow Sandy to not only run around the lab without supervision, but also tamper with the equipment. She increases the temperature of the egg on a childish whim, and naturally enough the monster hatches just as everyone is certain the sea slug menace has been neutralized. Sandy and Gail are alone in the lab, being pursued by the monster, while Twill heads back from what he believes to be the final battle with the slugs. He’s in a race against time; only trouble is that Twill doesn’t know it. Indeed, watching Twill slowly make his way back to the base, even pausing to debate whether he should grab a sandwich or not, is the most effectively suspenseful sequence in the movie. It’s such a perfect example of Hitchcock’s definition of suspense vs. surprise that I suspect the great director might have been thinking of it when he formulated his theory.
The giant sea slugs are really the only reason why anyone would want to watch this movie. Admittedly it’s one of the more impressive monsters that I’ve encountered in a 50s movie since I started reviewing these things. It looks hulking and grotesque, enough so that despite it’s obvious fakeness it still comes across as a credible menace. Watching it slice through a wooden door, while Gail and Sandy cower on the other side was genuinely frightening, and not just for the memory the scene evoked of the similar sequence in The Shining (1980). But, aside from a good monster TMtCtW doesn’t have all that much to offer. It’s slow, and padded to the point where even veterans of mid-century monster movies will be begging the filmmakers to pick up the pace. The biggest confrontations with the sea slugs take place off-screen and generous stock footage pads the film’s runtime. I suspect that TMtCtW would have been much more effective had it been limited to 70 minutes instead of trying for the full feature length.