Detour: The Monolith Monsters


1957

Director:  John Sherwood

Cast:  Lola Albright, Grant Williams, Les Tremayne, Trevor Bardette

Introduction
Plot Summary
Impressions
Wrap-up

My rating:  Class F (2/7, very hot blue-white star).  It’s not quite what the title implies, but rather a science mystery, where the threat comes from very natural processes instead of alien beings.  Workman-like performances, nifty though not spectacular special effects, and a genuinely threatening application of the laws of chemistry (fortunately not over-explained) round out a fun and light-hearted 1950s black and white film.

Introduction

If there were an Academy Award for the most misleading title in a film, the 1957 Oscar goes to The Monolith Monsters.  There aren’t any monsters.  There are rocks which grow, but they’re rocks.  They aren’t leaping out of dark alleys eating people or blasting them with disintegrator beams or stealing bodies or marrying our women.  They aren’t even here to fix their spaceship.  They’re just rocks.

That said, this is a neat film, and a fine example of the scientific mystery film with elements of a thriller thrown in.  We’ve seen one example of this in the Top Fifty films list, courtesy of Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain.  This may actually be a better film, though it’s equally possible that the lens of nostalgia is distorting my vision, as I watched and loved this movie as a child (not a child in the fifties, mind you)…

As The Monolith Monsters opens, a meteorite tears through the sky and lands in the desert in a terrific explosion (for once, there are actually flames in a meteorite impact, though as it turns out, it’s really for twice, as this is the same footage that launches It Came From Outer Space).  A geologist comes across some unusual black crystalline rocks from the blast.  When the rock is exposed to water, it grows—and it extracts all the silicaceous material from anything it touches, which has the effect of turning humans to stone.  All in all, not a terribly frightening threat; they’re just rocks, and they don’t chase people, and all anyone has to do is just…not drop them in water.  Then it starts to rain.  The crystalline rocks grow into mighty monoliths until they fall and shatter, each fragment beginning the cycle again.  Can the frantic medical researchers save the life of young Ginny, a girl exposed to the rock and slowly petrifying?  Can the scientists think of a way to stop the march of the mighty monolith monsters?

The film boasts decent performances from a number of “that guy” actors, an unusual scientific threat which affects both an entire town and a sweet little girl, and nifty if not spectacular special effects.

Plot (Contains Spoilers)
(Jump ahead to impressions and avoid some of the spoilers)
(Jump ahead to the wrap-up and avoid all spoilers)

Short summary:  There’s no boy-meets-girl here.  It’s a science mystery-thriller.  Instead, a meteorite crashes into the California desert (alrighty, if you insist: meteorite meets California desert.  Meteorite is shattered by Desert’s rejection.)  Ahem…anyway…it emerges that the rocks start growing if exposed to water, and draw the silicaceous material out of anything they get near to fuel their growth.  That includes people, which petrifies and kills them.

At first this is a pretty limited threat:  the only people at risk are the ones who get the rocks wet.  One does so by accident when a flask of water falls on his rock, while another, a little girl, washes one of the rocks off because her mother said she’s not letting her take a dirty rock into the house.  Of course the viewer knows that the threat is a lot bigger than it seems, because Earth is a wet planet, with two-thirds of its surface covered with water and a robust hydrological system—in other words, it rains on planet Earth.

When the rain starts, the entire town is in trouble: the rocks grow into towering monoliths which eventually fall and shatter, starting the entire process over.  They’re being channeled by a canyon straight towards town.  In the meantime, little Ginny, the girl who washed off a souvenir from a field trip to the desert, is being sustained on an iron lung and slowly petrifying.

The science guys figure out that the crystalline growth is stopped by salt water, so a simple saline drip suffices to save Ginny’s live.  And there’s a salt flat just below the dam, and the water from the dam will run over the salt flats and straight to the base of the canyon with the big monoliths.  There’s a problem, of course, in that the governor won’t let the scientists blow up the dam until he comes and checks it out, but fortunately the scientists say “to hell with that” and blow up the dam.  The day is saved!

Impressions

First off, the visuals:  there’s not much to the special effects, but the film makes the most of the ones it has.  The meteorite fragments are black and glassy, and look like obsidian, so they’re not just plain rocks.  When the fragments are exposed to water, they bubble and smoke just a bit, and foam boils out of them at the base while they grow straight up.  The big crystals had to have been models, but they look both real and big; I’m not sure how the effect was achieved (green screen, maybe?).

The climactic flood is nicely done, too, and if it was done with scale models, it’s one of the most amazing water effects I’ve ever seen, as well as an astounding realistic model of mountain-meets-desert.

The performances in the movie are solid.  Few stand out, though a lot of the actors are recognizable from an astounding number of fifties films.  Lola Albright (probably best known for her role in Champion which starred Kirk Douglas), as Cathy Barrett, the school teacher, actually functions as something other than a damsel in distress, helping to personalize the danger by her interactions with Ginny before disaster strikes and after by displaying believable emotion about her favorite student.  Lindsay Scheley, as young Ginny, doesn’t get to do much as she’s being turned to stone, but her scene with her teacher where she displays insight and caring makes her both she and Cathy Barrett likeable, human individuals.  In fact, it’s one of the standout scenes in the movie (maybe my long dormant paternal instincts are coming alive).

Grant Williams (from The Incredible Shrinking Man, though I didn’t recognize him until I looked at the cast list) plays the leading man, geologist Dave Miller.  He does a convincing job in the role, though it is not a standout performance.  Less Tremayne (an Englishman who played General Mann in The War of the Worlds, and who has been in everything ever filmed, from Smurfs movies to One Life to Live and General Hospital to Bonanza and The Virginian to The Gray Ghost to North by Northwest) does a wonderful job as the reporter who’s from the beginning, and is more worried about saving lives than getting the story.  Many of the other performers seem familiar, which probably means they’re seasoned character actors, but even after poring over the cast list I’m having trouble matching names to performances in this film…

The story is rather well put together.  One of the key problems with a mystery thriller like this one is the need to establish a danger that seems real and concrete, while nevertheless being of sufficiently large scale to be a little scary.  The Monolith Monsters accomplishes this feat by being both a large scale threat—the town, and then later the entire planet, are at risk if the monoliths are not stopped—and a small scale threat—in the person of young Ginny, who is being slowly petrified and clinging to life by a thread.  The medical doctors and geologists are working at different ends of the same problem, so the parallel investigations actually work nicely.

The science in this film is…well, it’s better than in The Incredible Shrinking Man, though not by much.  I don’t know a whole lot about minerals, but basically the meteorite is composed of silicaceous compounds (that is, compounds with the element silicon in them).  Actually, to be more accurate, the meteorite is a silicaceous meteorite, which is a real thing, and generally has a nickel-iron core and a crust of olivine (a mineral group containing iron, magnesium, silicon, and oxygen; gem quality olivine is peridot).  No one in the film uses the word catalyst, but I’m guessing that the general idea is that the unknown space mineral’s growth reaction was catalyzed by water, and drew on all the silicon, magnesium, iron and oxygen it could get.

It takes some doing to make a mindless chemical reaction the subject of a monster movie.

If there’s a metaphor in The Monolith Monsters, I don’t know what it is.  The most that can be said of it, message-wise, is that Nature is full of surprises, and some of those surprises are unpleasant.  But since you don’t have to go to outer space to learn that one (all you have to do is see or hear about an earthquake, a tsunami, a wildfire, a tornado, a flood, a hurricane, a solar flare…well, you get the idea), I’ll just go with the idea that this film is supposed to be entertaining.  And on that level it succeeds admirably.

Wrap-up

Even if you know exactly what’s going on, this film is an enjoyable one which does a good job of creating tension about a simple physical process.  The threat may not seem very realistic, but it’s a great deal of fun, and even when the scientist-heroes have found “the answer” it’s not clear that it will work.  The film keeps an edge of danger going right up to the very end.  It’s also nice to see so many recognizable actors doing their thing.  To me, this may be a better film than The Andromeda Strain, even with the black-and-white thing, and if you enjoy old B movies or science fiction, this one should go on your list.

Other posts about The Monolith Monsters
A Film Rumination: The Monolith Monsters:
  I think he liked the movie as much as I did.
Obscure Screen Gems: The Monolith Monsters:  Lots of screen captures, a detailed synopsis, a better understanding of film scores than I’ll ever have…

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4 Responses to “Detour: The Monolith Monsters”

  1. One of my favorite unabashedly B sci-fi films of the 50s despite the manifold and manifest silliness. I thought the effects were pretty good for the 50s….

  2. Mark of the Wretched Excess Crew here. Aside from an engaging cast of characters, what made this film work for me was the sheer inexorable progress of the crystals. There’s no malice in their growth, no evil master plan, just implacable (and seemingly unstoppable) natural growth that imperils all life on Earth. The tension ratchets up almost effortlessly, and makes what sounds like a boring monster into a really exciting movie experience.

    Also: Holy crap! Les Tremayne played Edward Quartermain, didn’t he?! As many films as I’ve seen him in, I never connected him to my high school fascination with General Hospital.

    • I think you nailed the cast part, Mark, and in light of Mars Attacks! I can say it’s almost a precursor to the ensemble cast of the disaster film. I hadn’t thought about the inexorable nature of the crystal growth, but you’re right there, too: the very fact that it’s a completely natural process is part of what makes it scary and horrible. It can’t be reasoned with or convinced to stop, it just is. Finally…I didn’t quite go so far as to identify who Les Tremayne played on GH until you mentioned it. Turns out you’re right, he was a replacement actor who did Edward Quartermain for a while; on One Life to Live, he played the evil daughter-molesting Victor Lord in the storyline where Vicki—of multiple personality fame, which was of course caused by the aforementioned molestation—dies and spends time in Purgatory, meeting all of her dead in the process. Frighteningly enough, he was also Mentor in the Saturday morning show Shazam.

  3. You just blew my mind.

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