Release Date(s)1957 (August 11, 2015)
Studio(s)United Artists (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A+
A year before director Arnold Laven teamed up with then emerging screenwriter Sam Peckinpah to create The Rifleman, he and his producing partners created The Monster That Challenged the World (1957), an unremarkable but entertaining monster movie in the tradition of Them! (1954). Actually, “in the tradition” is a generous way of putting it – this story of Naval officers (led by B-Western stalwart Tim Holt) who discover a nest of prehistoric vampire snails uses the Them! structure as a virtual template, hitting many of the same beats to the point of near-plagiarism. Nevertheless, as knockoffs go it’s a pretty good one, with a few genuine scares and some flat-out spectacular underwater macrophotography that goes a long way toward making its monsters convincing and creepy.
The script is by Pat Fielder, a divorcee who came to work for Laven and producers Jules Levy and Arthur Gardner as a secretary but stayed on to write several of their horror films, along with multiple episodes of The Rifleman and other projects. Fielder was intent on giving women strong roles in her genre films, and while no one would refer to The Monster That Challenged the World as a feminist masterpiece, it is interesting in its reliance on a greater number of female characters than one might find in similar military vs. monster movies of the 1950s. It’s also got a number of witty behavioral touches, as in a scene where Tim Holt gets a call from the beautiful young Audrey Dalton asking him out to dinner and he pretends that he’s starving even as he’s stuffing his mouth with food.
The Monster That Challenged the World was one of several low-budget sci-fi/horror pictures that Levy-Gardner-Laven produced for United Artists before moving into larger scale Westerns and Burt Reynolds and John Wayne vehicles in the 1970s, and it boasts a certain level of professionalism that places it somewhere in between studio creature features like The Creature From the Black Lagoon and the more tattered output of Sam Arkoff and Edward Cahn. Laven always felt that directing it hurt his career – when he went up for more “respectable” studio pictures afterward, he was passed over out of fear that actors wouldn’t want to work with a guy known for making movies with foam rubber crustaceans. Don’t feel too bad for him though; in addition to his successes as part of the Levy-Gardner-Laven triumvirate, he went on to become a hugely successful television director in the 1970s and 1980s. The solid professionalism that he would bring to programs like Hill Street Blues and The Greatest American Hero is clearly evident on Monster, a routine programmer that’s nicely elevated by the craftsmanship of all involved. Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray edition of the picture boasts a lovely transfer with a crisp, clear presentation of veteran cinematographer Lester White’s black and white photography, presented here in its proper 1.85:1 aspect ratio after years of being improperly displayed on television. The source material itself leaves a bit to be desired at times, mostly at the beginning and end of reels, but the occasional scratches and other flaws aren’t particularly distracting.
Aside from an original theatrical trailer, there’s only one extra feature on the Blu-ray, but it singlehandedly justifies the purchase of the disc. Film historian Tom Weaver contributes an exemplary commentary track that is jam-packed with fascinating and useful information – it’s a model for what these kinds of scholarly commentaries should deliver. Smart, funny, and meticulously researched, it provides a wealth of background on the movie, its makers, and the genre; Weaver claims to have been studying The Monster That Challenged the World for over thirty years, a fairly believable claim given his achievement here. The Monster That Challenged the World isn’t exactly an all-time great horror film, but it has given us one of the all-time great audio commentary tracks.
- Jim Hemphill