A naval lieutenant performs a routine parachute jump into the Salton Sea in southern California, but vanishes without a trace. His retrieval team also fall victim to a monstrous shadow. Grumpy Lieutenant Commander John “Twill” Twillinger (Tim Holt) and navy scientist Dr. Jess Rodgers (Hans Conried) are soon on the case. Arriving at the scene they retrieve three shrivelled corpses from the deep and discover a strange slime. When the giant sea monster claims more unfortunate victims, Dr. Rodgers theorises an earthquake has somehow unleashed hordes of prehistoric molluscs into the open sea. Twill leads an attack on the creature and retrieves one of its eggs, but the beast escapes into the inland rivers to menace more unsuspecting citizens.
The Monster That Challenged the World (shouldn’t that be “monsters”?) belongs to the cycle of great Fifties “community versus the monster” movies that play like allegories for model, post-war behaviour. Arguably kick-started by producer Howard Hawks with his masterly The Thing from Another World (1951), the cycle encompassed highpoints like Them! (1954) but dwindled alongside the belief in conformity as a necessary component in functioning society, with unconvincing stragglers like The Navy vs. the Night Monsters (1965) and Night of the Lepus (1972). After George A. Romero tore up the rulebook with his revisionist Night of the Living Dead (1968), things reached full circle with John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing (1982) wherein the imperilled community responds with paranoia, panic and mistrust.
Here however, everybody bands together for the greater good and nobody thinks to question the military’s decision to keep the monster a secret from the public, lest there be widespread panic. Arnold Laven’s brisk, no-nonsense direction matches the pro-military tone, yet there is something almost subversive in how Pat Fielder’s screenplay repeatedly draws attention to cold, inhuman behaviour: Twill’s bullish, callous treatment of his colleagues; the mortician who scoffs sandwiches while examining a corpse; the scientist (Dennis McCarthy) so obsessed with his work he ignores his pregnant wife (Marjorie Stapp). The monster lurks on the peripheries waiting to deal tragedy to those who take relationships for granted. One affecting scene has teenager Jody (Barbara Darrow) patiently, rationally explain her reasons for wanting to date seaman Morty (Robert Benevides) to her nagging mom. When the shapely beauty strips down to a pristine white bathing suit we know she is doomed. Sure enough the lovers are sucked under the depths, in a sequence that may have influenced Jaws (1975). The monster itself, a sort of giant caterpillar with goggle eyes and scary mandibles is among the most splendid puppet creations of the Fifties creature features. There is a great sequence where it grabs a scuba diver’s head and sucks him dry. Eerily evocative black and white photography transforms the sparkling California seas into a nightmare realm of murky black waters.
Also interesting is the portrayal of the military man as a stuffed shirt while the scientist is a warm and caring guy. Note how while Rodgers comforts one monster victim’s widow, Twill is impatient to ship out in pursuit. Hans Conried played the title role in the cult children’s film The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953), but was perhaps best known for his prolific voiceover work in animation, including Captain Hook in Walt Disney’s Peter Pan (1953) and the original version of Horton Hears a Who (1970). He brings his quirkiness to the stock scientist role. Tim Holt’s career got off to a very strong start with roles in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948), but he soon found himself typecast in run-of-the-mill B westerns. His humourless hero is initially off-putting, but Twill is humanized by a well-drawn relationship with war widow Gail (Audrey Dalton) and her cute little daughter, Sandy (Mimi Gibson).
Hoping to keep a hutch full of rabbits cosy and warm, it is Sandy who innocently, if foolishly turns up the temperature on the water tank storing the monster’s egg. In his excellent book Millennium Movies: End of the World Cinema, author and film critic Kim Newman observes that the film equates reckless science with childish blundering. This leads to a very suspenseful and exciting finale where Gail protects her daughter before Twill and Rodgers reach the lab. By the end, Twill has learned enough about human behaviour to admit everyone is entitled to make a mistake.