If Moby-Dick is the biggest literary influence on Stephen Spielberg’s Jaws (apart from the novel on which it was based), its primary cinematic touchstone is Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). Jaws references Creature by recreating a number of shots from the underwater ballet sequence in the opening scene, and by strongly echoing the earlier film’s score in its own. All this being said, Jaws also has points in common with 1957’s The Monster That Challenged the World. I’m hesitant to posit a direct influence (though as we’ll see, there is at least one moment that is pretty strikingly similar). Rather, I’ll say that Monster taps into the same primal fear as Jaws and Creature, and does so quite effectively.
The Monster That Challenged the World opens at an air base beside the Sultan Sea in California. A minor earthquake causes no undue concern, but then a parachutist and the boat sent to pick him up go missing. The search (in a scene that has some later echoes in the discovery of Ben Gardner’s fishing boat and severed head in Jaws) finds the boat along with the weirdly desiccated corpse of the jumper and the body of another man who was scared to death. Tim Holt, the new CO of the base, heads up the investigations, ordering the beaches closed (and there’s no Murray Hamilton to object). After a few more disappearances, the threat is revealed to be giant molluscs, freed from their cave beneath the bottom of the Sultan Sea by the earthquake.
Yes, molluscs. Complete with shells. Our Expository Scientist (Hans Conreid) winds up designating them as “kraken” (yeah, right), but he also shows us a documentary film reel (obligatory in all 50s monster movies) that is all about snails. For once, though, this is a monster considerably more menacing to see than to read about.
The initial attempt to destroy the molluscs fails, and they make their way into the All-American Canal. The race is on to find them before they multiply and spread from the canal into the entire American water system, and from there to the rest of the world.
There’s a lot here that’s pretty familiar, and the film doesn’t deviate much from the template laid down by Them! in 1954: the initial mysterious deaths and investigations, the revelation of the monsters, the scientific explanations, the unsuccessful first attempts to deal with them, and finally the race to stop a threat that could destroy human civilization. Radiation even makes its obligatory cameo, though human responsibility for the catastrophe is much less prominent here than in Them!. There are also a few steps backward, in that unlike the take-charge scientists played by Joan Weldon in Them! and Faith Domergue in It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), poor Audrey Dalton has little to do except be a secretary, a love interest for Holt, and finally a damsel in distress in the (undeniably effective) climax.
But if The Monster That Challenged the World has its derivative and retrograde aspects, what it does well, it does very well. The “kraken” is a wonder to behold. The full-sized effect, like the ants in Them!, may not have the mobility of Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion creations, but it has a terrific physical reality, and is fully monstrous, a thing from the deeps that would have met with HP Lovecraft’s approval. The film makes terrific use of its monster, playing off both its unseen presence and its sudden eruptions into frame. Though some of the publicity stills weirdly (and in one case distastefully) play up a Beauty and the Beast angle, perhaps trading off audience’s recent memories of Creature, this aspect is entirely absent in the film itself.
At the height of the mystery, a young couple meets for a clandestine moonlight swim. As with Jaws, we have the romantic pursuit to water. Unlike the Spielberg film, the young man takes part in the swim, and is the first to die, playfully diving beneath the surface and never reappearing. Barbara Darrow then meets the same fate that awaited Susan Backlinie in 1975 as she is dragged beneath the dark waters. Here, as in Jaws and Creature from the Black Lagoon, all our fears of what might lurk beneath the surface of the water are expertly manipulated. Director Arnold Laven makes us acutely conscious of the dark, implacable vastness of the water. What we can see tells us nothing of what might just beyond our sight. The threat could strike from anywhere, at any moment.
The film’s most startling moment comes during the search for the molluscs once they have reached the canals. Even more than with the Sultan Sea, the landscape becomes eerie and menacing. The canals at night become an alien world of still, dangerous waters. A lock operator hears a noise, which a previous false alarm leads him to believe is kids playing in the water. He investigates. No kids. We hear a few more ambiguous sounds, with no sense of where they are coming from, and no score to let us know how close to an attack we might be. Our watchman, facing left, gives up his search. With the perfect timing of the nurse scene in The Exorcist III, the mollusc surges in from the right and seizes our poor victim. The effect is startling no matter how many times it is viewed, and the scene is terrifying to this very day.
The climax works too, even if perhaps it shouldn’t. Totter has had virtually no role to play in the action, and she and her daughter (Mimi Gibson) are menaced by the last mollusc simply because, it seems, this is what must happen to the female lead. Even so, the suspense is real as the kraken rampages through the air base’s lab, trapping Totter and Gibson in a small room and gradually breaking through the door in a moment uncannily prophetic of the bathroom scene in The Shining. The tension cranks up as we keep cutting back to Holt and Conreid, who, ignorant of Totter’s predicament, are casually making their way back to the lab, even thinking about stopping for pancakes. When they finally arrive on the scene in the nick of time (of course), Holt battles the monster with a hose spraying live steam, and his is the face of a man who is truly terrified.
It is this conviction, finally, that imbues every aspect of The Monster That Challenged the World and is key to why it works so well. The premise — giant killer snails — could so easily tip over into the ridiculous. But like Them!, like Creature from the Black Lagoon, and, indeed, like Jaws, The Monster That Challenged the World commits fully to its story. It takes place in a world where giant killer snails are terrifying, and it drags its audience beneath the ludicrous surface into a dark, deliciously nightmarish realm.
A huge thanks to Barry P. of Cinema Catharsis for inviting me to join in this Blogathon. Check out the rest of the fun!