The Monolith Monsters (1957)
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. Meteors, the shooting stars on which so many earthly wishes have been born - of the thousands that plummet toward us, the greater part are destroyed in a fiery flash as they strike the layers of air that encircle us. Only a small percentage survives. Most of these fall into the water which covers two-thirds of our world, but from time to time, from the beginning of time, a very few meteors have struck the crust of the Earth and formed craters - craters of all sizes, sought after and poured over by scientists of all nations for the priceless knowledge buried within them. In every moment of every day they come from planets belonging to stars whose dying light is too far away to be seen. From infinity they come. Meteors!
The familiar and scientific voice of Paul Frees sets the stage for what is, for all intents and purposes, a Jack Arnold film, even though Arnold is credited for only the story. Directing honors go to his contemporary, John Sherwood, one of only four movies he helmed. He also directed The Creature Walks Among Us, another connection to Arnold, who directed the first two movies in the Gill Man trilogy.
The credits get incestuous when you try to make connections. There are a lot of shared relationships, but not to everything in this era of Universal International, late 1950’s sci-fi. Producer William Alland is a common name among them, but he didn’t produce The Monolith Monsters. That credit belongs to Howard Christie, who uncharacteristically was not involved in any of the others.
You can create your own flowchart if you’re interested in the lineage of The Monolith Monsters. I’d prefer to write about what a surprisingly good movie it is. I never would have guessed a movie about rocks would be as entertaining and suspenseful as it is, just as I never would have guessed that rocks portrayed as monsters would be the slightest bit threatening. Well, the movie is and the rocks are.
The attack of this unlikely monster is two-pronged. The wonderful book I’ve owned since I was a child, Monsters Who’s Who, has an entry in its encyclopedia format for monolith monsters that explains the first prong:
Fragments of black rock from a meteorite are discovered in the desert and found to have the power to turn human beings to stone. The rock chips do this by absorbing all the silicon in their victims’ bodies. Silicon is the substance which keeps our flesh and skin supple.
This is secondary to me, though. Only a few people come in contact with the rocks and turn to stone. Granted, they’re the main characters that drive the story, but the greater threat is the rocks themselves as they grow to towering proportions and multiply, tumbling down the hill, domino style, toward the small desert town. Science is sometimes stretched in these movies, but it makes more sense in this one than in most any other.
The authenticity of the town and its inhabitants legitimize they story and add to its depth. In The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies, Phil Hardy notes:
…the film interestingly concentrates on creating the ethos of small-town life rather than on a few colourful (not to say cliched) characters. The result, with its strong storyline, is one of the more interesting of the realist American Science Fiction movies of the fifties. …a superior B movie, no more but certainly no less..
Solidifying The Monolith Monsters, like a rock that sucks the silicon out of a human being, is a great cast. Grant Williams (The Incredible Shrinking Man) leads and is joined by Les Tremayne (War of the Worlds), Phil Harvey (The Deadly Mantis), Richard Cutting (Attack of the Crab Monsters), and Steve Darrell (Tarantula.) With appearances by William Schallert and Troy Donahue, it really is a who’s who of Atomic Age genre greats.
From the response on Facebook when I posted that I was watching The Monolith Monsters on Svengoolie, it’s obvious that the movie is beloved in classic B-movie circles. It must be underrated, though, because I can find precious little information from my library to add to this review. All I do find is the occasional capsule review, like this one from Mike Mayo in The Horror Show Guide: The Ultimate Frightfest of Movies:
…the movie is kind of cool, not silly. From Paul Frees’ stentorian opening voice-over to the big finish, director John Sherwood tells the story economically with a fine score and effects that are interesting, even if they aren’t particularly frightening..
That sums it up pretty well. All I will add is that the “fine” score is more than fine. One of the first notes I made while watching was, “terrific score.” I don’t think I had stopped typing before I heard another staple from 1950s Universal sci-fi: the stinger from Creature from the Black Lagoon. Sure it’s used often in these movies, but here it reminds us that The Monolith Monsters carries some credibility.
Written by Norman Jolley and Robert M. Fresco
Story by Jack Arnold and Robert M. Fresco
Directed by John Sherwood
Starring Grant Williams, Lola Albright, Les Tremayne, Trevor Bardette, Phil Harvey
RT 77 min.
Release Date Dec. 18, 1957
Home Video Shout! Factory (Blu-ray)
Monsters Who's Who
1974, United States, Crescent Books
Phil Hardy, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies
1984, United States, Woodbury Press
Mike Mayo, The Horror Show Guide: The Ultimate Frightfest of Movies
2013, United States, Visible Ink Press