The Monster That Challenged the World

This is a rare case of the monster in the poster looking like the monster in the movie

Growing up, all the kids in my neighborhood wanted to be Steve Garvey or Roger Staubach – except one.  Can you guess who that might be?  Rather than spending my weekends playing football out in the street, I preferred to hide in my room, watching black and white monster movies on my black and white TV.  For every one Bride of Frankenstein there are at least four B pictures.  That was reflected in the movies shown on any given Creature Feature or Million Dollar Movie show, which  ran on local independent TV stations all over the US.  I was fine with wading through the muck to find the gems.  Besides, not all B films are equal and I like muck.

I had started this with the idea of writing a quick review of The Monster That Challenged the World (1957) as way of both taking a break from the epic article I’m writing about Toho’s 1954 classic Gojira and getting something fun posted on the site.  Hahaha!  Instead I ended up slipping down the rabbit hole, and got caught up writing a large in-depth look at what was on the surface, a run-of-the-mill B monster film.

I confess that I’d not seen The Monster That Challenged the World since I was a kid, so I wasn’t aware of how incredibly odd this is under the surface.  I could have just taken it at face value, as I did when I was a wee nipper, glossing over the strange eddies of dialogue and the underlying currents of weird human behavior that seem beyond being just dated, badly written and out of place.  Instead I chose to dive in and explore, getting myself into more metaphorical water that I could drink myself out of.

The Monster that Challenged the World opens with an ariel view of the Salton Sea, which our narrator informs us,  is four hundred square miles of salt water situated in the Mojave desert.  He goes on to tell us that in the desert, close to the Salton Sea, the U.S. Navy has placed one of its most important research bases – that’s right – a Navy base in the desert.  What is the Navy up to  in the desert? The narrator tells us that the U.S. Navy is conducting atomic experiments under rigid security controls.  Meanwhile, at a nearby airfield, the Navy conducts high level parachuting into big, salty lake experiments, which also are kept under tight security.  After all, they just don’t let anyone wander around top secret atomic parachute research labs, right?

Anyway, the narrator continues on that there has been an earthquake with an epicenter some 300 feet below the Salton Sea.  Following the axiom of “show, don’t tell,” we see some sailors at a guard post wobble a bit as the sign that flatly states “U.S. Navy Laboratory” rocks back and forth slightly.  The movie cuts to a fissure opening underwater.  The narrator tells us that less than two hours after the quake, the base resumed normal operations.

We’re then introduced to a Lt. Hollister by the narrator, who tells us that Hollister is an awesome guy who has jumped out planes more than 300 times, often with a parachute.  The plane takes off. Flying over the sea, Hollister jumps from the plane and hits the silk. Meanwhile Crewmen Sanders and Johnson take a boat out to the spot in the sea where Hollister is going to land.  Finally the narrator stops talking.  He probably had to go voice-over an educational film about salmon breeding or maybe a Disney short film about a sad coyote lost in the big city.  I dunno for sure.  I’m just glad he’s gone.

So we’re all set, right? Lt. Hollister, the parachuting special forces guy is going to be the hero, we have an earthquake that has released a monster into the Salton Sea, and we have two guys, heading out on a boat, that will probably get killed a little later in the movie.  Nope. Sanders and Johnson find nothing of Hollister but a parachute floating on the surface.  Johnson dives into the water to save Hollister, but finding nothing there, he decides to swim around to the other side of the boat before vanishing himself.

Left alone, Sanders starts to get nervous, crying out “Johnson! Johnson!” Instead of a Johnson, something else rises from the water.  Sanders starts to scream.  We can tell from the shadow that falls upon him that whatever it is that has reared up from the briny not-so-deep is big and has massive clicking mandibles.

It’s now clear that Lt. Biff “300 Jumps” Hollister isn’t going to be the hero in this movie.  He’ll also never live to be nicknamed “400 Jumps.”  What is also clear is that we are only six minutes and change into the movie and judging from the EC comics-style super fright face that  Sanders was dishing out, every character we’ve met has become monster chow. That’s right, it’s three up and three down – the end of the inning.

It could be worse.  It could be Nancy Grace!

We need new victims!  Next we meet Commander Twillinger,  played by Tim Holt.  The Monster that Challenged the World ended up being one of Holt’s final film roles; previously he’d mostly made low budget westerns.  Holt, earlier in his career, played supporting roles in: John Huston’s Treasure of Sierra Madre, Orson Wells’ The Magnificent Ambersons and John Ford’s Stagecoach, giving strong performances in those films.

In this film, Holt is uneven, having two modes: folksy and yelling.  I don’t think that Holt was mailing it in,  so much as I think he might have been one of those actors who rises or falls to the level of the material and direction he’s given, as opposed to somebody like Vincent Price or Peter Cushing, two great actors that could make the Congressional Record entertaining. The dialogue and direction he’s given is difficult which leads to unintentionally funny scenes.

Holt’s performance and the character of Twillinger are a little atypical for this sort of a movie and bears closer examination.  For example, in B movies of the era, the hero is typically flat. By that I mean he starts out a hero and ends a hero.  Here, with Twillinger, we have something different. Do we see a bit of character development?  I’ll leave that to you.

When we meet Commander Twillinger, he on the phone yelling at some guy.  We learn that he’s the new investigator stationed in this desert paradise and doesn’t seem to think much of it.  He’s called on to investigate the disappearance of Hollister and the two sailors.  As Twillinger and his assistant Lt. Clemens leave the office, he snaps at Sally, his secretary to “wait until I call you.” Once they are out the door, Sally, who is on the phone with her mother tells her that it looks like she’ll be home late – again  –  due to “Iron Hide” working late – again.   He’s been there for something like five weeks and his secretary already has an unflattering nickname for him.  Nice.

Twillinger and Clemens take a boat out on the sea to investigate the strange disappearance.  Shortly before arriving at the scene Twillinger complains, “I don’t see why they weren’t covered for something like this.”  Clemens replies, “They jump close to twenty men every day, Twill.  It’s a good system . . . when nothing goes wrong.”  Twillinger spits back, “Somethin’ went wrong this time.”  Yeah!  Clemens, you knob!

I'm on boat!  I got my Twillinger and my monster snail.  It's as real as it gets!

Twillinger and Clemens find the missing boat adrift with Sanders dead on the floor and a pool of mayonnaise-like goop gobbed about.  Bobbing in the water nearby is Hollister’s desiccated corpse. They take the two bodies and a sample of the mayo back to the base for analysis.  This leads to a series of wonderfully awkward scenes.

Twillinger and Clemens return to the base and right after steeping off the boat, they question the radio operator who was in last contact with the missing men.  He tells them that he called Twillinger directly after losing contact.  Clemens follows up asking if everything seemed normal up the point where he lost communication.  The radio operator replies “Oh yes, sir, we was just kidding, you how you get talking on the phones . . . ”  Twillnger barks “That’s against regulations, sailor!”

“Oh, yes, sir,” agrees the radioman.

“Have a report in my office in the morning.”  Yeah!  That’s how we get the witness to open up!  Good job, Twillinger!

Twillinger gets directions to the lab from Clemens. He takes the mayonnaise sample and walks off.  The radioman asks Clemens if Twillinger is Clemens’ new boss.  Clemens says that he is.  The radioman comments that Twillinger is “one eager beaver” which I  translate as “one total douchebag.”  We then cut to see Twillinger speed walking across the parking lot toward the lab.  I think we’re supposed to see him as a man on a mission, walking purposefully and all that but I get the vibe that he just has a stick up his rearend.

Next, Twillinger steps into the reception area of  Dr. Rogers’ lab.  The lovely Gail MacKenzie (Audrey Dalton), who is a secretary at this top secret Navy research lab is typing and muttering something about having to deal with carbons (if you aren’t old enough to know what carbons are, have a look here.  We’ll wait).  Twillinger announces himself curtly and states that he is expected.  Gail looks at Twillinger the same way a three-year-old looks at a chocolate rabbit on Easter, like she’s going to rub it all over her face and get it all over her hands and fingers before letting it melt in her mouth. Twillinger totally doesn’t notice this.  I figure it’s because he’s still dealing with that painful stick I mentioned earlier.  Gail politely offers her condolences on the loss of the three men.  In return Twillinger barks at her, “Young lady, you’re not to discuss that with anyone! You understand!?”  Outstanding!  In one move he’s managed to be threatening, rude and condescending.

I'm gonna put you in my mouth and M'mmmmmm!

Dr. Rogers (Hans Conried) enters the scene, all smiles and glad introductions.  “Hi, I’m Doctor Rogers.”  Twillinger manages to grunt out, “Twillinger,” as he reluctantly shakes the good doctor’s hand.  Rogers says that Clemens informed him that Twillinger had something that needed analyzing. “Yeah. It’s in here,” says Twillinger handing the box of snot to Rogers.  Rogers looks at the box and invites him into the lab.

As Rogers gets to work, he asks Twillinger where the snot was found.  Twillinger tells him that it was found on the boat near one of the bodies.  Rogers offers him his condolences, not realizing that is a sore subject.  Fortunately for Rogers, Twillinger lets that one go.  It seems that he has bigger fish to fry.  Twillinger informs him that there might be as many as three men dead.  Rogers mentions that Clemens told him there was something strange about one of the bodies.  Twillinger says, “There was – it was shriveled  . . . ”  Rogers chocks that up to the effects of salt water.  Twillinger isn’t having it and tosses out the subject of radioactivity.  Rogers gives him the hard stare, just as if Twillinger stood there digging for nose gold and wiping his findings all over the table, before calming down and patiently explaining to Twillinger why that was  a stupid thing for him to say.  “Our experiments in the sea had nothing to do with what happened to your men or the condition of that body.”

“You might be wrong, Doctor,” says Twillinger with a hint of anger.  Rogers gives him the old “this isn’t science fiction” speech,  before telling Twillinger that he’ll have an answer for him in a few minutes. As Dr. Rogers moves to look into the microscope, Twillinger helpfully suggests that the doctor hurry it up.  Rogers looks up from the microscope,  shooting eye darts at his guest, stating that he’d be able to do this more quickly without interruption.  Twillinger glares back and says flatly, “I’ll wait outside.”

We’re thirteen minutes into the movie and Twillinger has alienated every person he’s encountered.  Well done!

Mad? ME? Bwahahahaha!

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