‘A Senseless Slaughter of Sea Snails’

The Rights of the Living Dead | Site unseen: “I understand we’re dealing in unrealities, and many things can be explained by twists of mutant biology.”

Vanity allows me to refer to myself, above, and I observe, on a related note, that many movie monsters are not monstrous at all. The giant, radioactive sea snails in the 1957 motion picture “The Monster That Challenged the World,” which was broadcast by TCM on May 21, are a case in point. These molluskan marvels are spawned by an underwater earthquake that jolts them out of a prehistoric cryptobiosis — a little like a packet of Sea Monkeysarriving in a mailbox.


Who can blame a lonely sea snail?

The ungainly plot of this film, directed by Arnold Laven, introduces our oozing antagonists lolling in California’s singular Salton Sea, where they are discovered after one of their number ill-advisedly makes a meal out of an unsuspecting sailor. The Navy reacts, perhaps predictably, with equal measures of curiosity and severity, snitching a sea snail egg for further study before apparently caving in the snail lair with depth charges. The snails, perhaps just as predictably, find a way out and are poised, we are led to believe, to turn all of Southern California into a sun-soaked, slime-dripping rock aquarium of doom.


A modern viewer is compelled to ask, can these creatures actually “challenge the world”? The snails themselves are slow-moving and massive, with pincers, caterpillerlike limbs and a grating habit of squirting foam everywhere they go. They appear less of a practical hazard to able, ambulatory humans and more a zoological curiosity, if not merely an unusual environmental pest. They are not even dangerously radioactive. In sum, they appear to be no more dangerous to a landbound spectator than a pod of killer whales, and these are regularly exhibited to tourists. Killer whales are known to attack their trainers, of course. But the snails in the film do most of their marauding only after harsh provocations, e.g. the kidnapping of the (impossibly large) egg, the depth-charge attack, etc. Most of the horror evinced by their appearance and actions would be ameliorated by familiarity or distance.


I could get behind the sea snail hysteria fostered in the movie by the Navy and the local sheriff’s office if I was truly afraid. But this is a case of snails being snails, protecting their young and trying to defend their homes with the same sense of community that the human protagonists appeal to in (spoiler!) snuffing them out. In the absence of some amplification of the overall threat (e.g. poisonous foam, bulletproof shells, superquick reflexes, etc.), I confess that my sympathies lie with the snails. And I am compelled to wonder, as a senseless slaughter of sea snails unfolds throughout the movie, what scientific advances would have been forthcoming from a careful and humane examination of their habits.


Others said:

“ ‘A giant snail’s attacking! Run!’ I mean…‘A giant snail’s attacking… WALK BRISKLY!’ ”
Cool Ass Cinema
“One of the best ever titles for a monster movie is also wholly deceptive. [stuff deleted] A shame none of that happens over the course of the movies 84 minute running time.”
1,000 Misspent Hours and Counting
“Now if there’s one thing I’ve learned from all the monster movies I’ve watched over the years, it’s that atomic power and earthquakes are a bad mix.”
“Members of the Navy should wear a fishing bobber tied to a hundred feet of line. That way, after a ship sinks, you could find the spot.”