It's almost impossible these days to read online discussions about new and upcoming creature features without encountering some debate over the effectiveness of practical effects versus CGI. I personally think that a combination of both is the best option, although I've been told by someone who works in the industry that the major studios will often dump practical effects for CGI for the sake of cost-cutting and expediency. That's a disappointing development, but unfortunately that is how Hollywood seems to work these days.
Regardless, for those of you who appreciate practical special effects in your monster movies, you should check out the 50s-era "big bug" movie, The Monster That Challenged the World (1957). There are a few things that are misleading about the title--in particular, there is more than one monster in the movie, and the monsters never actually get around to challenging the entire world. Also, this film is technically not a big bug movie because the monsters are actually giant prehistoric mollusks; nevertheless, the film's plot uses conventions that are very similar to the big bug movies from that decade, particularly Them! (1954) and Black Scorpion (1957).
Where this film earns its place in the history of monster movies is in its special effects, where early animatronics technology was used to bring the titular monster to life. Before there was a mechanical shark in Jaws (1975) or a life-sized Alien Queen puppet in Aliens (1986), there was a giant mechanical mollusk in The Monster That Challenged the World. Read on for more details about this early attempt at using animatronics to put giant monsters in the same sets as their human co-stars.
For a film that was shot in 16 days for a budget of $200,000, the 10 foot tall fiberglass mollusk puppet that was featured in The Monster That Challenged the World is still very impressive to watch. It was designed by Augie Lohman so that the head could tilt in various directions and its mandible pincers could twitch menacingly. According to producer Arthur Gardner, the monster's movements were controlled by Lohman and two assistants through a series of air pressure valves. Gardner estimated that the monster cost around $15,000 to build, and that it weighed around 1,500 pounds. After production, the monster was sold to the Ocean Park Pier in Santa Monica, CA, where it was incorporated into one of the attractions. (Fun horror trivia: Ocean Park Pier was the setting of the 1961 cult classic thriller, Night Tide.)
The film never shows a monster in its entirety. At first, you only see its head and neck, which look like some kind of fanged caterpillar; in other shots, large shells are shown, suggesting that the mollusk monsters looked as a whole like giant snails. I suspect that the giant snail design choice was made for budgetary reasons: As you watch the movie, it becomes clear that only one mollusk puppet was made even though the script says that there are dozens of mollusk monsters lurking in the waters of the Salton Sea, waiting to escape to the Pacific Ocean through a series of water canals. Thus, the filmmakers used the single puppet for attack scenes, and then used several giant shell props (in which the mollusks retreat to rest when they are not on the move) to indicate that there is more than one monster present.
Unfortunately, such a production decision drains the narrative of much of its tension. Even though the mollusk puppet is more impressive than the puppets from Them!, the giant ant film has two things going for it that the giant mollusk movie did not: Them! had 1) a better script and direction and 2) it had more than one puppet. A film is more likely to scare audiences with the threat of a pending giant monster invasion when more than one moving monster appears on the screen. With only one mollusk puppet available, you can't get past the feeling that you're watching the same monster in every attack scene--because you are. In that sense, the movie's title is a Freudian slip: there was only one monster to challenge the world because there was only one monster on the set, no matter what the characters say. Then again, many of the scenes feel like they were scripted in a manner so that characters could talk around the fact that the audience would never see more than one attacking mollusk at a time.
Another shortcoming of the movie that didn't help the mechanical puppet was the monsters' aquatic origin. Even though several scenes in and around the Salton Sea will remind horror fans of Jaws, the mollusk puppet wasn't designed to function in the water. Thus, the water attack scenes were either shot on a set with a rear projection of the Salton Sea or on a set that was supposed to look like the bottom of the Salton Sea. Neither approach is very convincing and they ultimately detract from the puppet's effectiveness.
Don't let my criticisms keep you from watching The Monster That Challenged the World; it may not be an influential classic, but it actually is one of the better creature features from its decade. Watching this film will give you an idea of what it was like to include complex practical special effects in a movie with a low budget, particularly during a certain era of Hollywood history. If you need a break from CGI effects in your horror and sci-fi movies, then you might want to spend some time with The Monster That Challenged the World.
A resin model kit of The Monster That Challenged the World
(photo courtesy of The Doctor's Model Mansion site)