DVD Review Of The Monolith Monsters

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 6/10/07


  Perhaps it is all because of Grant Williams. Williams was a B film actor who was best known for his starring and titular role in The Incredible Shrinking Man, generally acknowledged as one of the most literate and high quality B sci fi films from the 1950s. In watching the DVD of his next noted film, The Monolith Monsters, I was struck by how well written a film that film is also, even as it is another B sci fi film. No, Williams’ role in the 77 minute black and white film, from 1957-as was The Incredible Shrinking Man, is not as important as his role in the prior film, but his mere presence, it seems, raises the bar for the other actors. In a sense, he was a B film version of Marlon Brando, who always seemed to elicit the best out of his A film co-stars.

  Another positive for the film is that, of all the 1950s horror/monsters from space films, The Monolith Monsters is likely among the most plausible scenarios to be explored- almost like an early version of The Andromeda Strain, save that the monsters are not microscopic and biological, but huge and chemically reacting black crystal columns that have no agenda. They are not aliens nor atomically irradiated mutants, just meteor debris that grows when it comes into contact with regular water, and is destroyed by salt water. The former property is shown early in the film when a rock gets some water accidentally poured on it when a car radiator overheats and its driver pours in 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 why they are called monoliths, 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 from that era nor since, but it is far more plausible, in that some mere biological or chemical reaction would be behind an extraterrestrial threat to humanity, rather than bug eyed aliens out to enslave us. After all, even the ultimate ‘bad aliens’ film from that era, War Of The Worlds, ended with the Martians being undone by the common human cold virus. 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. Yet, they are not living creatures, merely a brute force of extraterrestrial nature, and this only heightens their truly alien nature, which emotionally short circuits the usual things filmgoers would feel for the ‘monsters’. I.e.- one does not fear the monoliths like the vegetative fiend from The Thing From Another World, one is not in awe of them like the robot Klaatu from The Day The Earth Stood Still, nor does one feel affection for them like Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet. And unlike that film’s monster- the Monster Of The Id, the monoliths are not some deep part of the human conundrum that can be analyzed as part of the problem. In short, in the paranoid realm of the 1950s anti-Communist tirades that usually infested and enveloped such films, the actual crystalline entities are, and 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 fictive town called San Angelo- which is really the Universal Studios back lot and a matte painting. Two people initially discover the rocks, a geologist named 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 appearing on 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 the single women in B films back then were drop dead gorgeous blonds? 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. This film also has a voiceover narration to start the film, but it is not Tremayne doing it.

  Of course, the heroes prevail, in the end, as Ben gets Ginny to a Los Angeles doctor, E.J. Reynolds (Richard H. Cutting), who cures her, catches up with his old college geology professor, Arthur Flanders (Trevor Bardette), who helps him defeat the monoliths- which 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 almost formulaic, the film seems, it works superbly well because of better than B film level acting (and dialogue), better than B film 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 in this vein do (be they A or B), by not giving away its solution too early. Like most thriller films, it draws out its inevitable solution as long as possible. Also, despite some plot holes, and soft science, the science is not too soft, and it 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 with its director, John Sherwood, who was directing only his third low budget film, and more with the film’s co-writer- the science fiction writer and film director Jack Arnold, who also helmed two classics of 1950s sci fi and horror: The Creature From The Black Lagoon and This Island Earth. There are the standard sci fi inexplicabilities; such as all the right folk are right where they are needed at exactly the right time, no one calls the Feds, nor the National Guard, petrifying limbs would fall off with gangrene, etc., and other sorts of silly science, but the wit and dialogue (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) are first rate. Arnold’s co-writers on this film were Robert Fresco and Norman Jolly, but the film has all the hallmarks of a classic Arnold film. Why he did not direct it is probably only because he was juggling many other film projects at the same time.

  The film also pulls off a rare feat- its ominous opening voiceover monologue by Paul Frees, who forebodingly intoned the opening of many sci fi films, marveling over the wonders of ‘Science!’, and such, and was also a voice for The Rocky And Bullwinkle cartoon a few years later. His booming voice was ripe for parody, and that he undercuts some of his own pomp shows how good an orator he was, for he opens this film with a monologue that both satirizes and pays homage to even worse monologues from far worse films. It starts out, ‘From time immemorial, the Earth has been bombarded by objects from outer space; bits and pieces of the universe, piercing our atmosphere, in an invasion that never ends,’ and gets even better, or worse, from there. Then 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. But, the film also succeeds with some fairly innovative low budget special effects, from cinematographer Ellis W. Carter. The effect of the growing monoliths, which grow in size and depth, was never revealed, but likely done by the optical illusion of forced perspective, by pushing the monoliths through the set, for the upward height, and moving the camera toward them as the camera 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 featured 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. On the plus side, Universal did a superb job in restoring the film- the transfer is stunning and almost wholly blemish free, and in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Also, of note, is a quite effective film score by a young and uncredited Henry Mancini.

  The Monolith Monsters is not a great film, by any means, but it’s a damned good B sci fi film, leagues above the usual crap from that era, or any era, and because of its hints of plausibility, and being played straight, it traverses that thin line between cheesiness and real drama, and tropes toward the better side. Let all things sway in such a way.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]

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