May 24, 2012
Once the vampire and werewolf movies of the 1930s had run their courses, Hollywood producers turned to science fiction to get their monsters into theaters, pumping out alien invasion and radioactive creature movies by the dozens in the 1950s. In 1957, the studio whose name is synonymous with monster movies, Universal, made a film called The Monolith Monsters that turned seemingly ordinary rocks into world-threatening invaders.
The Monolith Monsters begins with a science class movie-sounding monologue by Disney’s voiceover king Paul Frees about interstellar meteors and how they are constantly bombarding the Earth, the sequence ending with one hitting the desert near a California town. A scientist named Ben Gilbert (Universal stalwart Phil Harvey from The Deadly Mantis and Touch of Evil) stops to put water in his overheating car and finds several smooth-as-glass, black rock fragments scattered around on the ground. Being a geologist, the curious man grabs one for further examination back at his lab. As he drives away, water from his leaking radiator drips down onto one of the rocks, and it starts to smoke. He gets his sample back to the lab and notices that it is unlike any rock he has ever seen before, perfectly smooth and completely solid. That night, a heavy wind knocks a beaker of water onto the rock and, when fellow geologist Dave Miller (Grant Williams from The Incredible Shrinking Man) shows up at Ben’s lab the next day, he finds that the place in shambles, the black rock has multiplied and Ben has been turned to stone. Meanwhile, Dave’s girlfriend, schoolteacher Cathy Barrett (Lola Albright from “Peter Gunn”), takes her class to the desert for a field trip, and a little girl named Ginny Simpson (Linda Scheley) finds another one of the alien rocks and takes it home as a souvenir. Ginny decides to clean it up with water to make it as shiny as possible, and soon after the chunk is submerged, she and her home suffer the same fate that befell Ben and his lab. As soon as Dave realizes that it is the addition of water that makes the rocks unstable and causes them to multiply, the desert is hit with a huge rainstorm, causing the meteor pieces that are still there to grow and advance upon the town. It’s up to Dave and Cathy to find a way to stop the rocks and save their town.
Directed by John Sherwood (The Creature Walks Among Us), The Monolith Monsters is one of several sci-fi films pumped out in the fifties by Universal during a period when they were trying to stay fresh while still keeping their stranglehold on the monster movie market. As far as visitors-from-space movies go, The Monolith Monsters is definitely one of the more unique entries into the genre. The alien invaders aren’t aliens or invaders; just scraps of meteor that happen to multiply when they get wet. The meteor chunks are seemingly inanimate, with no thoughts or feelings of their own; if the humans in the film could control the rain, the rocks would pose no threat at all. Luckily for the movie and its audience, the humans can’t control the weather, so the film becomes a most unusual man vs. nature tale.
The script for The Monolith Monsters, written by Norman Jolley (“Wagon Train”) with Robert M. Fresco and Jack Arnold (the pair that were responsible for Tarantula!, another one of Universal’s fifties sci-fi/horror masterpieces), has its ups and downs. The story is unlike anything done before (and probably since), and the plotline is well-paced. However, the screenplay gets a little wordy at times, with the characters trying hard to explain what’s happening instead of showing the action. In addition, one does not have to be a geologist to realize that the science behind the meteors is questionable at best. However, the far-fetched theories are what make The Monolith Monsters, like many of its contemporaries, a science FICTION film.
The director of photography for The Monolith Monsters is none other than Ellis W. Carter, the legendary cinematographer who brought Universal sci-fi classics like The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Deadly Mantis and The Mole People to the screen (among dozens of others). Ellis uses his experienced eye to make the rocks look threatening through clever use of miniature sets and carved rocks, a technique that exaggerates the growth of the meteors to almost comic proportions. The special effects shots are not particularly convincing, but not completely laughable, either. Ellis’ work on The Monolith Monsters is indicative of many of the 1950s science fiction/horror films, falling somewhere between Ed Wood and James Cameron; too good to look like a student film, but not slick enough to look like it cost millions.
The music in The Monolith Monsters is also stereotypical of the era and genre, and with good reason; like many of the 1950s Universal sci-fi films, stock music was used, most of it written by composers such as Henry Mancini and Irving Gertz. This method of film scoring is a double edged sword because, on the one hand, the music is perfect, but on the other hand, it sounds like every other Universal film produced around the same time. Interestingly enough, Universal also used footage from It Came from Outer Space, produced by them four years earlier, in the opening sequence of The Monolith Monsters (crediting cinematographer Clifford Stine with “special photography”). Between the stock music, recycled footage and incestuous cast and crews, the Universal productions of the fifties end up looking very familiar to loyal viewers; if it seems like the Universal space operas all look and sound the same at times, it’s because they are.
As corny as the idea of advancing rocks may sound, The Monolith Monsters is a fun science fiction/horror film. It’s an excellent diversion for anyone who may be tired of the same old makeup and fang monsters or giant insect invaders. It may not inspire many sleepless nights, but it may make a viewer think twice about taking any strange rocks home from the desert.