When it comes to monsters Hollywood has churned out an endless variety of creatures to fill our nightmares, from vampires and werewolves to bug-eyed alien invaders from outer space and the gamut of beasties has been practically unending, but in 1957 Universal-International brought to the big screen something so staggeringly unbelievable in a film unparalleled by anything that had come before or since, a monstrous threat that left audiences completely dumbstruck, and that something was really, really large rocks.
In the 1950s threats from outer space were normally depicted as invading aliens hellbent on conquering Earth, like George Pal’s 1953 classic The War of the Worlds, but in 1957 movie producer Howard Christie and director by John Sherwood brought to the screen a rather unique extraterrestrial menace in the form of fragments of a large meteorite that when applied with moisture would become towering pinnacles of rock that would continue to grow until they’d reached a great height and topple over, where they would then shatter and start the whole process over again. What makes the threat in The Monolith Monsters distinctive from other monsters, alien or terrestrial, is that there was no malice behind their actions, in fact, there was no emotion of any kind because, you know, there just rocks.
The alien rocks in this movie have no hidden agenda and the filmmakers weren’t trying for any political metaphors in this outing – there are no pod people of Invasion of the Body Snatchers to hang any McCarthy-era subtext on or Cold War allegories to fuel fear of the Russians – and the heroes of this film are just average Americans who hang their hopes on science and not religion, which makes this a pretty solid science fiction movie, but as many bonus points we can award Christie and Sherwood for their original concept here it does have one major problem which arises from the fact that large rocks growing, fragmenting and growing again is not all that suspenseful. If someone was to tell you that your backyard rock garden was going to eventually increase in size and destroy your home you would most likely become very concerned, but what you be gripped by a mind-numbing fear?
The problem with The Monolith Monsters stems right from the film’s pompous opening narration explaining to us about “Meteors! Another strange calling card from the limitless regions of space – its substance unknown, its secrets unexplored. The meteor lies dormant in the night, waiting!” made all the worse by the fact that this narration is about the most exciting part in the movie. We see a fiery meteorite across the sky and explode as it impacts the Earth but after that thrilling moment, the film mostly deals with our protagonists trying to figure out what is going on and why these strange black rock fragments are killing people. And exactly how are space rocks killing people? Well, it’s not simply due to the fact that they grow really big and collapse on your home, seriously, if you die from that it’s because you are an unobservant idiot and I hold no blame on the rocks, the real threat comes from simple contact with these rocks as this will cause absorption of silicon that begins to petrify the human body.
The threat kicks off when Federal geologist Ben Gilbert (Phil Harvey) find a bunch of these space rocks lying around the desert and they bring one of these fragments to his office, only to have a strong wind blow over a full water container of water onto the black rock, and thus starting its deadly chemical reaction. Dave Miller (Grant Williams), the head of San Angelo’s district geological office and the film’s hero, returns from a business trip to find Ben’s corpse in this rock-hard, petrified state and with the office’s lab damaged by large rock fragments strewn all around the room, it’s a true mystery as to what is going on. Later Dave’s girlfriend and local teacher, Cathy Barrett (Lola Albright), takes her students on a desert field trip of DEATH! Well, not quite “of death” but a young girl named Ginny Simpson (Linda Scheley) pockets a piece of the black meteorite rock and she takes it home and thus dooms her whole family. The little girl survives the rock menace, which somehow killed her parents and left her in a catatonic state, and she also suffers from the same petrification processes that killed Ben.
Unfortunately, what follows isn’t all that exciting, we get Dave and his old university professor Arthur Flanders (Trevor Bardette) – he’s the one to come to the conclusion that the rock is meteorite without having any evidence other than “I’ve never seen its like before” – and with the help of a local doctor E. J. Reynolds (Richard H. Cutting) the two manage to stop the petrification process that was killing Ginny and through that, they eventually come up with a solution to stop the oncoming avalanche of giant rocks. I should point out that this film could have worked if it had been handled as a disaster film, with the town being obliterated by the crashing monoliths, but all we get to see is one destroyed farmhouse and without any proper “showcase” of property destruction to keep us awake, all we have to focus on is the occasional gooey look of love that Cathy throws Dave’s way. And sure, having a love story in your monster movie is all well and good but you’ve also got to deliver the monster stuff and in that area, the film drops the ball big time. Someone should have told them that a lame love story subplot will not bolster your film if you don’t have a compelling story to back it up.
• The meteor crash is footage that opens this film is of the spaceship crash from It Came from Outer Space (1953).
• The local newspaper publisher complains about the lack of anything to write about in this dried-up small town, which falls into the category of “Be careful what you wish for.”
• When Dave finds Ben petrified he lets his friend’s body fall face-first to the floor, without even trying to catch it, what a dick.
• Cathy Barrett takes her class on a desert field and gives this wonderful piece of advice “I want you to remember not to touch that you don’t recognize” which is something any character in a monster movie should take to heart.
• When the chief of police is told of the oncoming danger to the town his panic reaction of “Evacuate? The entire town?” is rather humorous considering the town’s small population could be evacuated in about ten minutes.
• The rocks multiply after the application of water, so could that mean they come from the same planet as Joe Dante’s Gremlins?
I’ll give the filmmakers credits for thinking outside the box when they came up with The Monolith Monsters but having a geological threat from outer space will only get you so far and when this film reached its startling conclusion – which was only suspenseful because we don’t know if the Governor is going to fire Dave’s ass for blowing up a dam to save the town – and even if the special effects to create these rocky menaces was pretty good it never reaches beyond a mild curiosity and is never thrilling or scary. Basically, if you want to check out an example of one of the more original space oddities out there, you could do a lot worse than The Monolith Monsters but just keep your expectations low.
The Monolith Monsters (1957)
Movie Rank - 5.5/10
Producer Howard Christie and director by John Sherwood had a promising idea with The Monolith Monsters but even its impressive production design and a stalwart cast couldn’t prop up what was a fairly passive plot that surrounded, you know, rocks.