Posted by Richard Harland Smith on September 5, 2014
I’ve been grooving to the soundtrack to Arnold Laven’s THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD (1957) for about 24 hours now (there was some sleep jumbled up in there, but not a whole lot), which was released by Monstrous Movie Music back in 2011. (It should come as no surprise at this juncture that it takes me a while to get to around to new things.) Heinz Roemheld’s full-bodied cues (orchestrated by Herschel Burke Gilbert) for this mollusk-on-the-loose classic are reliably immortal, full of blood and thunder (and slime), and making pioneering use of backmasking ten years before The Beatles got all the girls for doing the same thing. There’s lots of choice misterioso in the mix and moody string work, some of which might remind the older Monsterkids among us of Roemheld’s score for THE MOLE PEOPLE (1956). Anyway, Monstrous Movie Music has done an incredible job of assembling all of Romheld’s cues and providing context for each of them, deconstructing the composition and execution to give the curious a fuller appreciation of the work that went into this project, which I first saw as an impressionable lad of, oh, 10 or 11 or 12, when it was shown at my local drive-in on a triple bill with THE VAMPIRE (1957) and THE RETURN OF DRACULA (1957)– all projected in green, so that they could be sold to us rubes as color movies. I love the track titles that disc producers David Schecter and Kathleen Mayne have provided for our enjoyment, such as “Death by Fright,” and “Mollusk Mood Music” and “Slime.” But one track in particular caught my eye: “Scarf Found.” And it got me to thinking. (Cue flashback music.)
There’s a bit in THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD where a pair of young lovers goes for an illicit moonlight swim (so much illicit swimming back then!) and are gobbled up by one of the giant mollucks. The setup is certainly familiar: after some playful splashing the guy disappears under the water, the girl thinks he is kidding, she calls out his name and is allowed to become frightened before she too gets pulled under with barely a chance to scream. The next morning, a young boy (Charles Herbert, later star of William Castle’s 13 GHOSTS) finds the lovers’ castoff clothes and the authorities arrive in the person of local sheriff Gordon Jones (Universal’s GREEN HORNET) and Navy officer Tim Holt, trailed by the girl’s worried mother, who recognizes her daughter’s scarf in the sand. Now, mother and daughter have by this point been given by screenwriter Pat Fielder (her first screenplay, in fact) a little bit of backstory. The Mom (Sarah Selby, oddly uncredited – she was then better known as Aunt Gertrude to TV’s THE HARDY BOYS) is etched as a sort of Mildred Pierce-style dreadnaught, a nose-to-the-grindstone working single mother who has to struggle to make ends meet, while her teenage child of the atom (Barbara Darrow, later in QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE) is capricious, over-reliant on her good looks, and perhaps as a result is bit insensitive to her mother’s sacrifice, being all together more interested in her hunky sailor boyfriend Morty (Robert Benevides, in real life Raymond Burr’s longtime lover) than in helping out at her mom’s seaside diner. The script gives us just enough backstory for these deaths to have a little weight but what happens next was, to me, wholly unexpected…
The missing-and-presumed-dead girl’s mother drops to her knees, cradling the scarf — all that she has left by which to remember her only child — and wails like Mexico’s pitiable La Llorona, her grief intensified by the memory of the bitter exchange the two had had the previous evening. Between sobs, the woman declares to the child she will never see again in this life “I could cut out my tongue for the things that I said to you!” What an incredible thing to say! What hollow point remorse that is! If you know horror movies, you’ve seen the scene of the grieving parent discovering the body of his or her dead child, or at least being given the news, and there are many indelible variations on this theme but, my God, I don’t know that I have ever heard a parent’s regret voiced in such overwhelming and lacerating tones… and here it is, smack dab in the middle of what some might call a cheesy monster movie.
The moment ends, for all intents and purposes, right here, though the discomfort of the menfolk at this woman’s bottomless mourning is nicely prolonged: while the boy lowers his head in a seeming show of respect and the Sheriff tends to this devastated survivor, Holt’s iron-hearted Navy careerist steps away… and, luckily for him, finds a clue that allows him to redirect his own discomfort with this display of emotion towards identifying the elusive sucker-downer of swimmers. These notes of palpable humanity are hardly random, as Fielder’s screenplay for THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD goes to great lengths to offer characters who neglect loving relationships by focusing too narrowly on duty and work. The arc of Holt’s character takes him from being an adamantine martinet to sensitive family man, requiring him to first care about widowed secretary Audrey Dalton and her young daughter (Mimi Gibson) and then to rescue them in the third act, an endeavor by which he also saves himself from a life of loneliness. These touches give THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD an enduring power that brings me back to the film nearly sixty years after it was made and a good four decades after I first saw it. It stays with me, lingers, and lives on in my heart long after such modern ironic “takes” on the giant monster-on-the-loose tale (shout out your own titles: RHINOCTOPUS? HIPPOCUDA? MEGASHRIMP?) have come and gone like so many lost scarves on the foam.
Click here to read a 2013 Movie Molocks post about THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD.
Click here to read my 2011 review of THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD.
Click here to purchase the MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD soundtrack from Monster Movie Music.
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