The movie opens with an attack on the sea, from a ferocious, unseen predator. The beaches are closed, much to the dismay of the local townsfolk. A parent is devastated to learn that their child is a victim of the creature. The body count rises as the intrepid heroes race to destroy the menace that is terrorizing this quiet seaside community. In the last act, there is one final confrontation, and the great beast is blown to smithereens.
Sound familiar? Sure, it does. But this is not Amity Island in the summer of 1975. This scenario took place eighteen years before Bruce the shark swam afoul of Chief Brody, way back in the black-and-white beauty of 1957. THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD is a bit of an oversell as titles go, since the monsters really only challenge about six miles of a Salton Sea suburb. However, this often overlooked little gem offers up some very effective — and sometimes gruesome — radiation-era scares.
When a couple of Navy divers are found sucked dry of their vital fluids, and another literally dies of fright, Commander Tim Holt and scientist Hans Conried are called in to investigate. They very quickly discover that an earthquake has awakened some massive mollusks from their prehistoric slumber. Just like the beloved mail order Sea Monkeys of yesteryear, a splash of salt water reconstitutes these elephantine escargot, and we are on the menu. While the plot is standard issue 1950’s sci-fi, THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD has some nice surprises up its seashell.
Director Arnold Laven makes a refreshing choice in casting doughy Tim Holt as the hero (who would typically be tall and square-jawed, like James Arness in THEM!). Holt is properly authoritative and heroic, even if his character’s name, “Twillinger,” sounds more like the name of a character Hans Conried would play in some other movie. Conried himself is spot-on as the “the science guy” who explains everything, and provides the time-honored sci-fi staple of showing a 16mm movie about the lifestyle of the animals that have now grown to gigantic proportions. Familiar character actor Milton Parsons makes a comical appearance as a creepy town historian. As the love interest, Audrey Dalton is so gorgeous she becomes the focal point of in any scene she’s in, and her romance with Holt is kept to an acceptable level for a giant snail movie.
Which brings us to the real stars of the show: the super-sized slugs that do all the titular challenging. These googly-eyed, mandible-mashing critters (which are full-size animatronic puppets) are very impressive as they chow down on the expendable cast members. The final showdown, in which the last remaining shell-spawn traps Dalton and her daughter in a lab closet, is as heart-pounding as any big bug film gets… and in an inspired moment that must be seen to be appreciated, director Laven heightens that suspense by having Holt and Conried discuss whether or not to have breakfast!
Almost two decades later and on the opposite coast, another oversized beast arrives to similarly threaten the lives and prosperity of a small seaside community. Were Stephen Spielberg and Carl Gottlieb influenced by THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD when they created JAWS? Probably not, but the two films do share more than a few little plot nuggets, and JAWS owes as much to MONSTER as it does to MOBY DICK.
While MONSTER was a modestly budgeted B-movie fit for the drive-in crowd, JAWS was a B-movie with an A-list budget. Beneath the bells and whistles, JAWS is a 1950s monster movie, from the attack on the unsuspecting Crissie to the big BOOM at the end. The script wisely discards the unsavory soap subplots of Benchley’s novel, focusing on the engaging scene-stealing between leads Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw.
But the smartest thing Spielberg does is put the audience in the driver’s seat: the first shot after Chrissie’s death is over Brody’s shoulder – his P.O.V. – looking out at the ominously quiet ocean. From that moment on we are Brody, so when the monster comes for him, he comes for us. It’s no accident that the last real shot of the movie is also looking over Brody’s shoulder — this time swimming back towards land. Despite one forgivable plot hole (the same one that gnarly head pops out of) and the infamous stories of on-set shark malfunction, JAWS remains the gold standard of sea-monster cinema.
In the end, MONSTER may be the poor country kraken to JAWS’ big city shark, but both rise to the challenge with vastly entertaining tales. They even wrap up with the same great news: It’s safe to go back in the water. For the moment, at least…