The Horrorthon charter requires me to inform you that the image above is not an accurate representation of the events of the movie, but I had to include it because the sight of those caterpillar legs fondling womanly curves is too eerily similar to the best scene in Galaxy of Terror.
Our tale takes place in The Salton Sea, a real-life inland California salt lake created in 1905 by a combo of heavy rainfall and human ineptitude. We're told about The Salton Sea and the important work done by the Navy research labs on the shore, courtesy of an opening voiceover common to monster films of the era. All you really learn is that hearing a guy say "The Salton Sea" too many times in five minutes will make you hate The Salton Sea.
Anyway, an underground earthquake opens a rift to a prehistoric cave and the (perfectly acceptable -- cough cough) levels of radiation produced by the Navy speed-grow some monsterous mollusks.
Despite having turned a couple of Navy parachutists into wooden dummies -- I mean dessicated floating corpses -- the monsters' world-challenging cred takes a severe hit when the first folks to see one and survive manage to kill it with a sharp stick to the eye.
This follows a perfect 50s sci-fi monster template: when it becomes clear that there is a nest of these monsters, it's up to a bunch of concerned white guys to concoct a thorough but boring plan to contain them. Much screen time is given to phoning the operators of canal locks and consulting the local Hall of Records. And of course science. There's a dude in a white coat who gathers all the military and police guys together and, using snail footage he had "specially sent from San Diego," make the case that large snails are something to worry about.
He shows them his fancy footage and pointedly asks "Can you imagine an army of these things descending on one of our cities?" Right away I thought "No," because both the "army" and "descending" ideas seem ridiculous once you see these things in action. Nevertheless I was totally on the side of Dr. Jess Rogers, because the actor playing him is Hans Conried, aka the voice of Snidely Whiplash and a million other things, including the title character in The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, the only good live-action Dr. Seuss movie ever made.
I only watched this because it was on the flip side of another movie I haven't reviewed yet, but it coincidentally falls into the dwindling category of "movies I saw as a kid and which I should tag and bag for Horrorthon." It has a lot of padding, but I find myself wanting to forgive it for this shortcoming and I'm not sure why. Maybe I just feel sorry for old-timey monster movies; they usually feature monsters too unwieldy or silly (or both) for too much screen time and they have to fill out eighty minutes somehow, right? Not everybody can be The Thing from Another World with it's great dialogue and unrelenting suspence.
The Monster the Challenged a Small Area in California does feature what could be called an egregious amount of padding. There's some falling back on overblown gag characters, like the switchboard operator who's always talking to her mother or the Snaggletooth-voiced weirdo who manages the Hall of Records and can't shut up about the bond measure to provide his office with more storage space (I even had to shake myself awake while typing that). But my favorite was veteran Cranky Old Man actor Ralph Moody as Watchman at Lock 57, or as I like to call him, Ole Snuffy.
As the movie ticked on, I didn't think I was going to give this three stars, but the final scene won me over. Lab-coated Dr. Seuss up there keeps a mollusk egg in his lab, going to great lengths to explain to the audience that it won't hatch as long as nobody messes with the prominently displayed thermostat dial. As usual, science doesn't count on the antics of rabbit-crazy little girls.
Little Sandy learns in a more roundabout way than usual that you shouldn't get close to lab animals. After a one-sided chat with her favorite rabbit about being cold, she cranks up the monster oven and sneaks out the door. The following day you get part two of one of my favorite Horrorthon before/after shots ever:
The resultant final battle is a lot of repetitive monster whoop-roars, females screaming, giant monster puppet fighting, fire extinguishers, and a Roger Daltry level of lab-trashing. I loved every second of it.
A good ending can be worth a lot, and in this case it's an overall three stars for what is mostly a two and a half star experience. The Monster the Challenged the World is one to watch when you're definitely in the mood for some good 50s B-monster fare. Watch it with friends and warn them it might be a little pokey.