FANTASIA OBSCURA: Southern California’s Long-Gone Sea – Now With Radioactive Mollusks!

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, though, the really bad times can turn out to be the best days of your life…

The Monster That Challenged the World (1957)

(Dist.: United Artists; Dir.: Arnold Laven)

Most people are surprised when you tell them there’s an inland sea in southern California. The same way the average person’s concept of New York the state gets fuzzy with every mile you go north of Yonkers, so to do most folks’ concept of southern California softens as you head further east from Palm Springs. When you get to Indio for, say, the Coachella festival, and then you keep going south, you come to a 300-plus-square-mile body of water that your mind at first refuses to accept should be there.

The fact that the Salton Sea exists can be surprising to non-natives; the fact that one of the better giant monster movies from the 1950s is set entirely around the area, making it as place-specific to the plot as the Empire State Building is to King Kong, is a surprise to a much bigger group. An even bigger group, nearly everyone, would be surprised as to who brought the film to screen and how.

Arnold Laven was instructed in the art of film making by the United States Army Air Force’s First Motion Picture Unit, and after the war turned his attention to small-budget noir films such as Vice Squad and Down Three Dark Streets.  Wanting to expand beyond a single genre, Levin and his production partners got into genre films, taking advantage of the public’s appetite for radioactively enlarged creatures that were all the rage at the time and came up with a unique scenario to film.

The film focuses on the release of giant prehistoric (and, this being the 1950s, radioactive, of course) mollusks that are released from the bottom of the Salton Sea after an earthquake, which comes immediately to the attention of the US Navy when an air-dropped frogman during training and the skiff sent to retrieve him fall out of contact. The Naval Intelligence officer investigating the case, Lt. Cmdr. John Twillinger (Tim Holt) takes his no-nonsense, by-the-book investigative style right into the face of the monsters — literally. By the middle of the film, he’s using what he can on hand to go against these creatures in hand-to-hand combat.

Aided mainly by the naval station’s top scientist Dr. Jess Rogers (Hans Conreid) and lab assistant/widowed infatuation Gail MacKenzie (Audrey Dalton), “Twil” must get on top of the situation, saving the people who live and thrive at the shores of the Salton Sea, before enough of the snails can find their way through the irrigation canals in the Imperial Valley on to the Pacific, where they’ll multiply like crazy and then overwhelm everything in a major, human-threatening ecological disaster. One of two such ecological disasters to come, it turns out, and the only one he has a hope of stopping.

What warrants our attention to this film are, as noted, the two ecological disasters mentioned above. The first are the mollusks themselves; unlike other giant beasts, the creatures that suck humans dry and are ready to lay eggs everywhere like Cadbury every Easter are slightly larger than humans, putting them at a scale we can relate to. The fact that unlike other films, every shot was a life-size practical effect, requiring three people to manipulate the monster like a malevolent Muppet, makes them able to be processed by our minds; they also are the right scale to work in a story approached like a noir tale, playing to director Laven’s strengths.

The other disaster was more subtle, and was ready to slowly strangle the lake once the film wrapped and the production left the Salton Sea. (Laven would, after this and two vampire films, stick with television; while he shot this picture, he developed the series The Rifleman for ABC, and his later genre directing included episodes of Shazam!, Planet of the Apes, Isis, and The Six Million Dollar Man.) Soon after the wrap, the salinity of the Salton Sea from inflows of rivers feeding it water increased rapidly, exasperated by changing climate leading to the lake’s drying up. Within two decades, the body of water could no longer support most of the fish species that were alive when the film was made as the surface of the lake contracted, and many people who lived and worked on its now-exposed shores fled the communities portrayed in the film, which had to be abandoned as the Salton Sea started to disappear.

In addition to being a taut thriller that contains well-done giant monsters, the film is also a testament of a part of the country that no longer exists. When next the inland aquatic playground turned ruins would be used as the setting for a film, it would be decades later in The Salton Sea and Little Birds, which focused on the decay that set on the area; the only filmed record of the Salton Sea from a time when it was vibrant and living can be found in The Monster that Challenged the World.

Which is an amazing thing to consider. There’s so much life to celebrate before you, if you can just tune out the giant radioactive mollusks.

 

Before we tease the next film we’re going to look at, a small request:

When this column came about, there was some consternation that accompanied coming up with the title. For a set of pieces about lesser known genre films, what needed to be found was a way to describe these essays that was direct and to the point.

In terms of the title, to some extent it’s been a success. The category of “Fantasia” is pretty forgiving, and the fact that what constitutes a genre film from this time wears its credentials on its sleeve.  The minute you see the opening frames of a horror, SF and fantasy film from then, you know it to be of that ilk.

The hard part, however, is with the “Obscura” part of the title. The worry is that in the process of describing a film, that something might get said in passing that might not be as commonly known as assumed, and that a film that you the reader might not be aware of or recognize right away might be thrown at you without realizing that this too probably needed a few words at some point. (This became apparent when David Bowie passed away; an informal in-house discussion soon after that indicated that not as many people had seen The Man Who Fell to Earth as assumed, which necessitated the substitution that week.)

So we ask, we implore, that if a film gets thrown up here that you feel needs a few words, please let us know. For that matter, if there’s such a film no one else has brought up that you think needs a few words here, please mention it, and we’ll see about giving it the spotlight. You can reach us either in the comments section below this or any subsequent pieces in this series, or by dropping us a line in the comments section at REBEAT’s Facebook page.

 

NEXT TIME: “The devil made me do it,” you say?  Hey, then you got off better than these folks did…

About James Ryan 118 Articles
James Ryan is still out there on the loose. He’s responsible for the novels Raging Gail and Red Jenny and the Pirates of Buffalo, as well as the popular history The Pirates of New York. He has also been spotted associating with the publications Pyramid Online, Dragon, The Urbanite, The Dream Zone, Rational Magic, and Rooftop Sessions. He has been spotted too often in the vicinity of Kinja. Should you meet him, proceed with caution. He is to be considered disarming and slightly dangerous…