The Monolith Monsters (1957)
Director: John Sherwood. Screenplay: Norman Jolley and Robert M. Fresco, from an original screen story by Fresco and Jack Arnold. Cast: Lola Albright, Grant Williams, Les Tremayne
Perhaps it is all because of Grant Williams. Williams was a B-film actor who was best known for his starring role in The Incredible Shrinking Man, a 1957 release that has been generally acknowledged as one of the most literate B sci-fi films of the 1950s. In watching the DVD of his other notable 1957 film, The Monolith Monsters, I was struck by how well written this other B sci-fi film was — even though Williams has a smaller role in this 77-minute black-and-white effort. But his mere presence, it seems, raises the bar for the other actors. In a sense, Grant Williams was a B-film version of Marlon Brando, who always seemed to elicit the best out of his A-film co-stars.
Another positive aspect of The Monolith Monsters is that, of all the 1950s horror/monsters-from-space films, it has what may well be the most plausible scenario — a sort of early version of The Andromeda Strain, save that instead of being microscopic and biological the monsters are huge, chemically reacting black crystal columns that have no agenda. They are neither aliens nor atomically irradiated mutants, just meteor debris that grows when it comes into contact with regular water (and that is destroyed by salt water). Even worse is that the rocks can turn people to stone, once the water has activated their mysterious otherworldly properties.
That is it, as far as setting up the story. The black rocks simply rise to great heights — thus, the monoliths of the title — topple over, under their own weight, and crush all beneath and in their way. Perhaps The Monolith Monsters is not as viscerally frightening as most sci-fi films of that era, but it is far more plausible in that some mere biological or chemical reaction would be behind an extraterrestrial threat to humanity — rather than having bug-eyed aliens out to enslave us.
As for the ’science’ of this film: When wet, the black rocks absorb silica, and this element’s loss is what petrifies its human victims. The rocks, however, are not living creatures, merely a brute force of extraterrestrial nature, a quality that emotionally short circuits the usual things filmgoers feels for the ’monsters.’ In other words, the monoliths don’t elicit fear like the vegetative fiend from The Thing from Another World; the don’t elicit awe like the robot Klaatu from The Day the Earth Stood Still, and they certainly don’t elicit affection like Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet.
Additionally, unlike the Forbidden Planet monster — the Monster of the Id — the monoliths are not some deep part of the human conundrum that can be analyzed. In short, in the paranoid realm of the 1950s anti-Communist tirades that usually infested and enveloped such films, the actual crystalline entities are symbolic of the ultimate ’other.’ One might even call them literal fifth columnists.
This tale is set in the mountains not far from Los Angeles, in a fictitious town called San Angelo — which is really the Universal Studios back lot, plus some matte paintings. Two people initially discover the rocks: Geologist Ben Gilbert (Phil Harvey), for the Department of the Interior, and a little girl named Ginny Simpson (Linda Scheley), on a school field trip. When an open window and windy night accidentally knock a beaker of distilled water onto Ben’s sample, it tears apart his office, and he is turned to stone by the next morning. When Jenny tries to wash her rock in a tub of water, her family’s home is ruined and her parents petrified.
She is in shock, and slowly petrifying herself. Enter Ben’s partner at the Interior Department, Dave Miller (Williams), and Jenny’s typically gorgeous blonde schoolteacher, Kathy Barrett (Lola Albright, best known for TV’s Peyton Place), who also seems to be sweet on both Ben and Dave, and quickly turns her affection from dead as a stone Ben to still breathing Dave with nary a tear. Two questions: Why was it that all single women in B films back then were drop-dead gorgeous blondes? And where did they go?
Of course, she is just one stock character that these sorts of films rely on, just as Dave — the hero — has to be a scientist with some connection to ’the government.’ Thankfully, aside from a brief smooch, the love story angle between Dave and Kathy goes nowhere. There is the requisite stand-in for the viewer; in this case a newspaperman named Martin Cochrane, played by the terrific veteran B actor Les Tremayne, who was in War of the Worlds, and did the voiceover that opens Forbidden Planet.
Of course, the heroes prevail in the end. Ben gets Ginny to a Los Angeles doctor, E. J. Reynolds (Richard H. Cutting), who cures her. He also catches up with his old college geology professor, Arthur Flanders (Trevor Bardette), who helps him defeat the monoliths. Those start growing after a thunderstorm, as Dave gets the local police chief, Dan Corey (William Flaherty), to do his bidding, in blowing up the $6 million dam in the mountains so that the water will swamp down onto the salt flats and the salt water will deactivate the alien crystals.
This is all without the permission of California’s governor — a mild attempt at suspense building. Incidentally, the man waiting for word from Dave Miller to blow up the dam, is an uncredited Troy Donahue, who would soon become a big 1960s B-film hunk and soap opera star.
But despite how simple and formulaic it seems, The Monolith Monsters works superbly well because of its above B-movie average acting, writing, and special effects (even if the water released from the dam is manifestly pouring over a small set, as water does not scale), and it does what all good films — be they "A" or "B" — in this vein do: It draws out its inevitable solution as long as possible. Also, despite some plot holes, the science found in The Monolith Monsters does not require a total suspension of disbelief of the sort needed for your typical giant-monster film.
The credit for the bulk of this film’s success, however, belongs less to its director, John Sherwood than to co-writer Jack Arnold, who also helmed two classics of 1950s sci-fi and horror films, The Creature from the Black Lagoon and This Island Earth.
There are the standard sci-fi absurdities, such as all the right folk are right where they are needed at exactly the right time, no one call the Feds or the National Guard, petrifying limbs would fall off with gangrene but don’t, and so on, but the wit found in the dialogue is first-rate — especially in a brief scene with veteran B-film actor William Schallert, as a discombobulated meteorologist trying to tell Dave Miller when the thunderstorm is expected to end.
Arnold’s co-writers on The Monolith Monsters were Robert Fresco and Norman Jolly, but the film has all the hallmarks of a classic Arnold film. He probably didn’t direct it because he was juggling many other film projects at the same time.
The Monolith Monsters also pulls off a rare feat: Its ominous opening voiceover monologue by Paul Frees, who forebodingly intoned the opening of many sci-fi films (and who happened to do one of the voices for The Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon a few years later). Frees’ booming voice was ripe for parody, and that he undercuts some of his own pomp shows how good an orator he was. He opens The Monolith Monsters with a monologue that both satirizes and pays homage to even worse monologues from far worse films. "From time immemorial, the Earth has been bombarded by objects from outer space," he says. "Bits and pieces of the universe, piercing our atmosphere, in an invasion that never ends,’ — and it gets even better (or worse) from there. (At that point we see the meteor crash, which is another version of the same scene from the earlier Arnold-directed Universal film, It Came from Outer Space.)
As a plus, The Monolith Monsters also succeeds with some fairly innovative low-budget special effects created by cinematographer Ellis W. Carter. The effects used for the monoliths, which grow in size and depth, were never revealed, though they were likely created via the optical illusion of forced perspective — by pushing the monoliths through the set, and then moving the camera toward them as it zooms outward. (A similar technique was used to great effect in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.)
The DVD is part of a five-film, three-DVD package called The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection. Well, not really, but The Monolith Monsters shares its DVD with Grant Williams’ other film of note, The Incredible Shrinking Man, directed by Arnold. The other three films in the set are Tarantula — another Arnold flick — The Mole People, and Monster on the Campus, which features Troy Donahue.
Despite the Ultimate in the pack’s title, the only extra feature The Monolith Monsters comes with is its original theatrical trailer. As Arnold and Williams are key 1950s sci-fi figures, an expert in that era’s genre films would have made for a potentially great audio commentary. But on the plus side, Universal did a superb job in restoring the film — the transfer, presented in the film’s original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, is stunning and almost wholly blemish free. Also of note is the effective film score by a young and uncredited Henry Mancini.
Though hardly a great film, The Monolith Monsters is a damned good B sci-fi film, leagues above the usual crap from that era — or any era. Because of both its hints of plausibility and the fact that it is played straight, it traverses that thin line between cheesiness and real drama, and tropes toward the better side. Let all things sway in that manner.
© Dan Schneider
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.