Previously available on VHS, in two MGM Midnite Movies DVD editions (stand-alone in 2001 and double-billed with IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE in 2005), and, oddly enough, reissued by MGM as an MOD disc in 2015, perennial monster matinee favorite THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD now receives a well-deserved and beautifully transferred Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber Studio Classics.
After an earthquake opens a fissure under Southern California’s Salton Sea, nearby a top secret Naval Research Base where atomic experiments are being conducted, a parachute jumper is mysteriously lost over the water. Seamen Johnson (Jody McCrea, FORCE OF IMPULSE, FREE GRASS) and Sanders (William Swan, LADY IN A CAGE), sent to recover the body, meet a similarly inexplicable end, and tough, no-nonsense, “eager beaver” Naval Intelligence Lt. Cmdr. John “Twill” Twillinger (Tim Holt, THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, THIS STUFF’LL KILL YA!, too many westerns to name) is put on the case. The rescue boat is located, containing the shriveled corpse of Sanders and an unidentified residue of sticky white goop, and the parachutist’s desiccated body finally surfaces. Samples of the strange goop are taken to Dr. Rogers (Hans Conried, THE 5,000 FINGERS OF DR. T, FRACTURED FLICKERS) for analysis at his laboratory, where a romance begins to bloom between Twill and Dr. Rogers’s secretary, widowed single mom Gail MacKenzie (Audrey Dalton, THE GIRLS OF PLEASURE ISLAND, MR. SARDONICUS).
The Navy orders the local beaches closed, but despite this precaution rebellious local teenager Jody Simms (Barbara Darrow, QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE) and her boyfriend go missing from the beach, and later a young boy (Charles Herbert, THE FLY, THE SEVENTH COMMANDMENT) finds their clothes near a puddle of the mysterious white goo. Investigating the seamen’s deaths at the jump site, Dr. Tad Johns (Casey Adams [Max Showalter], INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN, BONNIE’S KIDS) discovers Jody’s body, and what appear to be large—and radioactive—egg sacs of some type of marine creature. One of the eggs is brought to the surface in a net, and, its parental instincts aroused, the lurking molluscan “kraken” attacks (an early title for the movie was The Kraken), killing Tad’s diving partner, then rising to the surface to menace Dr. Rogers and Twill, who gouges its eye out with a splintered boat hook, sending it roaring back beneath the waves.
Dr. Rogers shows the military brass a 16mm film about mollusks, a system is put in place to track the creatures through the complex system of locks and rivers in the area to prevent them from reaching open water and multiplying, and the recovered egg sac is installed in a large incubator, the temperature of which is carefully controlled to prevent the egg from hatching. Gail is working late at the lab when her daughter Sandy (Mimi Gibson, THE THREE FACES OF EVE) sneaks into the other room to play with the caged rabbits, and inadvertently adjusts the incubator temperature control to try to warm the room for the rabbits . . . .
While rarely mentioned in the same breath as such big guns of 1950s science fiction films as FORBIDDEN PLANET or WAR OF THE WORLDS, THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD is a solidly crafted and very entertaining B-verging-on-A picture that has unfortunately been rather neglected over the years. Produced by Jules V. Levy and Arthur Gardner’s Gramercy Pictures partnership, which also produced THE VAMPIRE, THE FLAME BARRIER, and THE RETURN OF DRACULA, MONSTER admittedly bears more than a passing resemblance to THEM! and other similar giant monster movies, but benefits from a competent and likable cast that plays everything straight, female characters that are more than screaming, fainting monster bait, some very effectively executed old-school animatronic monster effects, and several instances of early gore makeup and “goo” effects. While it has its flaws (the over-the-top histrionics of Sarah Selby [NO TIME TO BE YOUNG] as Jody’s mother, the unnecessary “comedy relief” of Milton Parsons [THE HAUNTED PALACE] as the ghoulish local museum director, and the “so old it has whiskers” gag of the morgue attendant eating lunch among the bodies), MONSTER remains one of the underrated gems of ’50s science fiction and probably Gramercy Pictures’ finest effort, easily as entertaining and exciting as, say, the much bigger-budgeted THIS ISLAND EARTH, if not more so.
Arnold Laven’s direction is generally workmanlike, though process and location photography are well blended, and he manages some pretty effective suspense sequences and a memorable (and perversely satisfying) jump-scare in the kraken’s attack on the grumpy old lock gatekeeper. Pat Fielder’s first-time screenplay, from a story by David Duncan (THE BLACK SCORPION, MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS), maintains a good balance of human drama and monster action, and is surprisingly well written considering she was hired as a typist just three years earlier and was simultaneously executing her duties as Gramercy’s secretary while writing the script.
Augie Lohman, special effects technician on dozens of movies from LOST CONTINENT to BARBARELLA, was the brains behind the mechanically and pneumatically controlled kraken, a nightmarish creation that, fortunately, receives just enough screen time to satisfy without overexposing it; similarly effective are the big mocked-up underwater mollusk shells. The underwater sequences were a collaboration between unit director Paul Stader (OUR MAN FLINT, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, dozens more credits) and Charles “Scotty” Welbourne, underwater cinematographer on CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON and MANFISH, among other titles, though the murkier Pacific waters are not as forgiving as crystal-clear Wakulla and Silver Springs, used for CREATURE and REVENGE OF THE CREATURE.
Kino Lorber presents THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD on Blu-ray as part of their Studio Classics line in an AVC 1920x1080p anamorphic transfer, matted to its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The previous Midnite Movies DVD was transferred open matte at 1.33:1, so the Blu-ray, as expected, shows a significant improvement in sharpness and detail, with clothing, hair, skin, and surface textures popping nicely. There is a very fine layer of grain providing a nice filmic look but remaining virtually imperceptible throughout. Contrast is fine, with deep blacks, bright whites, and rich, well-differentiated grayscale, and the overall image is much brighter than the DVD, which looks quite murky now in comparison. There is a bit of light speckling/spotting toward the beginning that subsides after a few minutes, and the rest of the movie is virtually immaculate; even the stock footage and process shots are significantly cleaner than on the DVD. There is no evidence of excessive DNR or other digital fiddling, and the soundtrack is crisp and clear, with no noticeable flaws. This transfer is basically a model for how terrific an older B&W B-movie can look on Blu-ray. Hopefully, we’ll see many more to come from the United Artists and AIP libraries.
Kino’s Blu-ray features another of Tom Weaver’s enormously informative, entertaining, and exhaustive audio commentaries, with Monstrous Movie Music’s David Schecter providing a few minutes on Heinz Roemheld’s score, and Weaver introducing some re-voiced quotations from his interview with Pat Fielder. Weaver relates a staggering amount of information about every aspect of the film, covering the background of the Levy-Gardner partnership, the genesis of the screenplay, comparisons between the different drafts, the numerous correspondences with THEM! and THE BLACK SCORPION (which he states is “more like THEM! than THEM!”), the shooting locations, biographical sketches of cast and crew, quotations from contemporary press interviews and reviews, the movie’s exhibition and distribution, and the ultimate disposition of the mechanical creature (which cost about $20,000 to build). He also compares the underwater scenes with those in the CREATURE movies, discusses Hans Conried’s excitement at finally getting a dramatic role, and reveals Tim Holt’s nickname for his animatronic co-star. Also included as an extra is the little-seen theatrical trailer (in 1080p), which reveals the monster and the climax, and includes a misleading composite still shot of a gigantic kraken looming over a city skyline. The Blu-ray case features attractive cover art of the kraken (again misleadingly shown towering over a city skyline) taken from the Italian one-panel theatrical poster (nicer than the rather crude U.S. one-sheet artwork). If you’re a fan of classic 1950s science fiction, this disc is a must-have for your collection. Highest recommendation. (Paul Tabili)
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