This is one of those movies that practically any dedicated “monster movie” fan has seen photos/stills from, even if they’ve never seen the movie. Well, you can count me among those fans; I probably saw stills in FJA’s (Forrest J Ackerman’s) Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine when I was in high school, more than fifty years ago. And yet… and yet until this week, I’d never been able to catch that particular movie on TV or in a theatre! Both my wife, the Lovely and Talented Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk, and I are dedicated B-movie (especially genre B-movies) fans, and yet she’d never seen it either.
Figure 2 shows the publicity still that I think I saw way back then. Looks pretty much like the lobby card, doesn’t it? Not a terribly convincing monster, I thought back then. And why do all the descriptions say it’s a “mollusk”? I’ve eaten lots of mollusks, from snails to clams, mussels, and oysters, and not one of them has had little grasping arms or big facial claws and eyes like that? (We’ll get into that in a bit.) By the way, since this film’s older than many of Amazing’s readers, this review will be full of spoilers. Hey, you had your chance to watch it any time during the last 64 years!
I was surprised when the MGM logo preceding the film was in colour, because I thought I remembered it (the film) being in black and white—but when it started, it was in b/w, although I was pleasantly surprised that it was wide screen, not in that 1.33:1 ratio I expected from watching a lot of ‘50s b/w monster movies. It starts with a bit of narration about California’s Salton Sea, a large lake (a few hundred square miles) northeast of San Diego, that has a higher-than-normal salinity (though not as much as the Great Salt Lake). The announcer seemed surprised that this “salty inland sea” existed in a desert area, even though a cursory look at a map would tell you that a similar one (called Laguna Saldado, or Salty Lake) exists a few miles south of the US/Mexican border to the south. Anyway, the lake area was home to a US Naval installation used for atomic research, among other things—the other things including parachute testing, where the testee splashes down in the “sea,” and various water rescue drills.
Lt. Cmdr John Twillinger (Tim Holt) is apparently new to the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) at the Salton Sea Naval Station. [To us older folk, Holt is better known as the star of a bunch of ‘40s and ‘50s cowboy movies, and a number of non-cowboy roles, like the role of Bob Curtin (with Humphrey Bogart as Fred C. Dobbs) in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1947). At the time he made Monster, he’d been absent from the movies for about five years, having grown tired of being typecast as a cowboy.] “Twill,” as he’s called by his few friends, is a stick-up-the-butt, by-the-book Naval Officer who’s ready to put a seaman on report for chatting on the radio. (Later, he unbends a bit for the daughter of a civilian secretary in the laboratory where Dr. Rogers (Hans Conreid) works.) He arrives because an earthquake was detected in the Salton Sea, and he’s supposed to find out if anything was buggered up in the atomic research lab (I think… that part’s a bit unclear to me. But not worth going back to check.)
As I mentioned, parachute testing is one of the non-atomic research things going on there, and a couple of seamen go out in a power boat to pick up one of the testers, but all they find is his parachute, floating in the water. One of the seamen dives in to see if he can find the tester, but he doesn’t resurface. The other seaman is horrified to see something looming up, but all we see is the shadow (of figure 2) before we fade to black. Forty-five minutes later, someone notices the two seamen aren’t maintaining radio contact, and Twill and another officer take another boat out to find out what’s going on. They find the first boat, with the body of the second seaman, and some strange milky, glutinous substance coating the gunwale of the boat. Twill takes a sample of the substance back, in his cigarette case, to be analyzed at the lab. (Is it Alien slime? Meteor shit?) They also find the parachute tester with all the moisture sucked out of his body, and a couple of strange puncture wounds at the back of his neck.
Anyway, long story short, Twill meets Rogers’ secretary, Gail McKenzie (Audrey Dalton) (Figure 3) and her young daughter Sandy (Mimi Gibson), who’s fascinated by the lab’s rabbits (this will have a bearing later). Dr. Rogers declares the slime is some kind of marine animal residue. After it’s discovered that the slime is radioactive, and the non-desiccated sailor died of a stroke (induced by fear), Twill and Sheriff Peters (Gordon Jones, who I’ve seen in lots of old Western series, like Maverick, Cheyennne, Tales of Wells Fargo, etc.) decide to close all the local beaches—apparently the Salton Sea is really popular for swimmers. Probably the high salinity makes it easy for even novice swimmers to have a good time. So the daughter (and her sailor boyfriend) of a local woman goes missing while swimming (they didn’t know the beach was quarantined) and their clothes are found on the beach along with a great amount of this slime.
By now, all the viewers know what’s going on, but it’s time for the characters to discover the mollusks, so Twill and Dr. Rogers, along with a couple of Navy divers, head out to see what they can find; what they find is the fissure opened by the earthquake, along with a giant, translucent egg, and the body of the missing girl—likewise sucked clean of all moisture. The egg is put in a net, cut free from the bottom, and taken up to the boat, but one of the divers is killed by a mollusk, now revealed (Figure 2) to be looking kind of like a caterpillar. The other diver escapes but is followed up to the boat. They all—except for the one diver, who’s dead—drive it off by sticking a pole into its eye.
The egg is taken back to the lab, where it’s allowed to develop partway into a mollusk, but kept from fully developing by keeping its water at a temperature of 48 degrees. Dr. Rogers does this so they can study the beasties. Incidentally, the tank with the baby beastie is near the rabbits that Sandy—remember Sandy, the cute little girl with a rabbit fixation?—likes. Twill has been passing all this information about dead people, giant mollusks, radioactive slime, etc., up the ONI chain of command, and a bigwig comes from Washington to make sure this threat to the atomic installation first (and the world second) is taken care of. They decide to blow up the monsters and their eggs with blocks of (probably C-4); when the divers go underwater, we see for the first time that the molluscs have shells, so now we can legitimately call them molluscs. The blowing up proceeds on schedule, with only a few hitches—a recalcitrant pin resists pulling out of the explosive package, and one of the molluscs wakes up—and everyone thinks it’s all copacetic… but the Navy and the Sheriff’s Office set up regular patrols to make sure the threat is finished.
But it’s not: a couple of cops, taking a shortcut to the donut shop through the irrigation canal network, discover an empty convertible and a guy who says his girlfriend was taken by a monster. We find out that there may be an underground river linking the cavern where these prehistoric monsters were loosed with the irrigation network which covers a very large area, and if they have escaped to the irrigation network, the world could be in danger because they can breed in secret, lay hundreds of eggs—did I mention they can walk around on land like giant hungry-hungry hipp… er snails? So now the Sheriff has to make sure all the people manning the all the irrigation canal control stations are aware and watching out for monsters—and are armed. (This works okay up until one geezer—I use the word advisedly—thinks the monsters are “foolishness” and gets eaten… okay, sucked dry.)
There’s some nice byplay here where minor characters like the geezer and a museum guy who’s been asked about old maps that might show underground waterways are made more 3-dimensional than most “monster movie” secondary characters are. (He actually finds something that could help, except Twill and all the others are running around trying to find the pool where the mollusks are coming out into the irrigation canals. Meantime, while they’re all imitating headless chickens, Gail is fielding phone calls in the lab, and Sandy—remember Sandy?—discovers that the lab rabbits are “cold” and turns up the heat to make them warmer. That’s the heat that supposed to be at 48 degrees to keep the baby mollusk from developing.
Eventually, everyone (except Gail and Sandy) think all the mollusks are dead, and head off to their various destinations, satisfied with a job well done. Except that Gail and Sandy are barricaded in the closet of the lab because after the baby mollusk grew, it ate all the rabbits and then came looking for more food.
Of course you know that no ‘50s monster movie—unlike some more recent ones—will allow a kid to get eaten, so everything works out for the best. And there are hints that Twill and Gail will get together in the future. (I’m trying to keep from telling you everything in detail, so you’ll have something to look forward to.) I found this movie to be a cut above most of those “atomic radiation causes giant mutations” movies, simply because the main characters—unlike Gail (sorry, Gail, but you’re pretty much useless as a monster fighter)—set out to solve a problem and did so in short order, along with more character development in both primary and secondary characters (except for Conreid’s character, Dr. Rogers—he never really does anything outside the standard lab doctor trope). It’s a fairly literate script from David Duncan (no relation to Canada’s late Dave Duncan), who also wrote screenplays for genre movies like The Time Machine (yes, the original), The Black Scorpion, Fantastic Voyage, and others. (It wasn’t until after he died that I found out that Duncan, the author of Beyond Eden and Dark Dominion, lived in my home town! Missed opportunities, dang it.
Anyhow, bottom line is that we both enjoyed this movie. Oh, and the mollusks, don’t look as fake in the movie as they do in the stills; they’re actually pretty well done, in my opinion.
If you have any comments, I’d like to hear ‘em. You comment here, or on Facebook, or even by email (stevefah at hotmail dot com). So let me hear from you! My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories® or its owner, editor, publisher or other columnists. See you next time!
Dee-lightful review, Steve! Indeed, better than the movie itself, which I quickly found online. But I had to watch because of the Salton Sea setting…that strange place began life as an Army Corps of Engineers accident, was a happenin’ resort when the movie was filmed, and lies now in disgusting decay because of evaporation and agricultural runoff. For the remaining retirees still living in this now-toxic environment, it’s a horror movie without the monsters.