Monday, May 17, 2010

Crawling Up From The Depths

THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD, one of the better 1950s monster movies, stars 1940s cowboy star Tim Holt as Navy lieutenant John Twillinger, who battles giant prehistoric snails released from their Salton Sea slumber by an earthquake. Holt came out of retirement at age 39 to tackle the role, which is nothing special that John Agar or Richard Carlson couldn’t have played. He’s paunchy and looks well over forty, but handles the heroics well enough.

Laven (THE RACK), who also produced the film with his partners Jules Levy and Arthur Gardner at Gramercy Pictures, had more time and money than these pictures usually had, and uses them to create a good deal of suspense. Special effects man Augie Lohman built a full-size mollusk that’s surprisingly creepy considering what it is—a big snail puppet. Some of its victims are found shriveled up, due to being scared to death, and the skeletal makeup effects must have creeped out ‘50s audiences.

Pat Fielder (THE RETURN OF DRACULA) wrote the film from David Duncan’s story, and invests time in the supporting characters. When pretty Jody (Barbara Darrow, who looks quite fetching in her white swimsuit) has a brief argument with her mother, who disapproves of Jody’s sailor boyfriend, before going to the beach for a nighttime date, we know she’s going to be killed, but instead of just adding to the body count, her death means more to us because we’ve gotten to know her a bit. A stretch in the middle, especially a long scene where a scientist played by Hans Conried lectures middle-aged white guys about snails, drags, but Fielder’s script is intelligent and well structured.

Between monster fights, Twillinger romances secretary Gail McKenzie (Audrey Dalton), a widow and mother who still pines for her late husband, which engenders sympathy. Features Casey Adams, Harlan Warde, Jody McCrea, and one of the earliest examples I’ve seen of a Hollywood cliché that endures to this day: the nonchalant morgue attendant (Byron Kane) who eats lunch over the corpses in his care. Music by Heinz Roemheld. One of four Gramercy SF pictures written by Fielder and released by United Artists.

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