Originally I was thinking of discussing a Western, or perhaps even (gasp! choke!) a contemporary film. But a friend of mine brought up the subject of "The Monolith Monsters" and I just flat couldn't resist. I---
Yes, smarties, I do have friends. I cast a rather wide net. I know a film critic with friends is something of an oxymoron, but that's the way it is for me.
Now don't interrupt. Not only did this friend mention "The Monolith Monsters", but it was on television last night and---
What the heck do you mean you didn't watch it? Are you freakin' kidding me? I remember the television schedule from last night, and I'm willing to sign a statement declaring that there was absolutely nothing better than "The Monolith Monsters" on at that time period. Putting it another way: if there was anything better to watch than a 1950s Universal Studios monster movie then by all means please let me know. Or are you one of those people who's idea of entertaining television is watching yet another parade of media whores and Snookitrash march across your Philco?
And if you are, then why the heck are you here?
Anyway . . .
"The Monolith Monsters".
When it was born, Universal Studios obviously got visited by the Good Monster Movie Fairy. Consider: starting in the 1930s the studio brought us "Frankenstein", "Dracula", "The Invisible Man", "The Mummy" . . . now someone tell me the Studio System didn't work.
Along came the 1940s and people sort of had their attentions focused elsewhere for several years. But when that was over, Universal once again picked up the ball and ran that play. Back in the Thirties the guys who took the ball over the goal line was James Whale and Karl Freund. In the Fifties it was Jack Arnold. Just as Whale and Freund left their personal stamps on the films they made, Arnold pretty much defined the Universal monster genre in the postwar years. Lovely sharp black-and-white cinematography, scripts that occasionally made sense and were written for full-fledged characters, and a nice scoop of Drama thrown in for good measure (shlockmeisters at the SyFy Channel please take note).
Speaking of writing, Arnold also did his fair share of contributing (and maybe a bit more). Which brings us to 1957 and "The Monolith Monsters". All my notes tell me the movie was directed by John Sherwood, one of three directing credits he racked up (along with "The Creature Walks Among Us" and "Raw Deal"). Sherwood was better known as an assistant director on films such as "The Pride of the Yankees", "The Glenn Miller Story", "The Far Country" and "Pillow Talk" (from which he caught a case of pneumonia that unfortunately proved to be fatal).
Sherwood seemed to be a better assistant director than the man in overall charge, which sort of makes me poke my tongue into my cheek because, even though it's Sherwood's name on the directing credit, "The Monolith Monsters" runs like pure Arnold from beginning to end. Or maybe Sherwood was just an apt pupil who knew when to follow a decent script (such as the one Arnold turned in, aided by Robert Fresco and Norman Jolley).
On paper "The Monolith Monsters" couldn't have been the easiest story in the world to turn into a film. I mean let's face it: we're talking about deadly rocks here. That's deadly . . . rocks. As in stones. As in imagining an old couple sitting in their living room late one evening, and the wife turns to her husband and goes: "Henry! I hear a rock out there on the front lawn!"
(Of course, things could've been worse. At the same time "The Monolith Monsters" came out, United Artists released "From Hell It Came" featuring a monster tree. I swear I'm not making this up. If I had been on the promotional department at UA back then I would've become an alcoholic.)
And I give Universal credit for having the stones (oh la! Such wit!) to go ahead with a title like "The Monolith Monsters". That doubtless had a few people scratching their heads as they tried to figure out what they'd see if someone ran down a street screaming "The Monoliths are gonna get me!"
"The Monolith Monsters" followed the tried and true formula for such films from that period (hey! If it wasn't broken, then . . .). The film opens with a narration by Paul Frees (talk about your benedictions) concerning the fact that Earth is regularly bombarded by meteorites. Right on cue, the sequence ends with a meteorite crashing into the desert (actually footage swiped from "It Came From Outer Space").
Cut to yet another ordinary day in a sleepy desert town (not down 'round San Antone, but yet another redress of Universal Studios familiar Courthouse Square set surrounded by desert footage. See "Tarantula" and "It Came From Outer Space" for similar uses). A representative from the U.S. Department of the Interior is driving about on his morning rounds ("one dune . . . two dunes . . . yep! They're all there.") when he suddenly comes across some acreage covered with shiny black rocks. Curious as to what it might be he picks one up and takes it back to the laboratory in his office (these small town Interior Department offices are really equipped). As he examines the rock he exchanges banter with the editor of the local newspaper; the sort of person O Henry used to describe as a "whiskerando". This role is filled by veteran character actor Les Tremayne, playing it so curmudgeonly and crochety that he ought to be either practicing medicine in Dodge City, or working as a Starfleet medical officer. As it is he whines and moans about how nothing newsworthy ever goes on in town. The technical term for this is foreshadowing.
Well, during the evening the town is visited by a major thunderstorm, and things get knocked around inside the lab, awakening our sacrificial lamb---I mean, the guy from the Interior Department. Next stop is the next day, when Dave Miller, the boss of the office, returns from a trip. Another reason I'm enjoying writing this is because, while re-watching the film, I was suddenly struck by an epiphany. A lot of these movies had the central character either going to or coming back from somewhere. In "Invasion of the Body Snatchers", Kevin McCarthy is returning to the town of Santa Mira. In "Tarantula", John Agar is flying in from out of town. Same with Jeff Morrow in "This Island Earth. During the 1950s, as in no other period, Motion was the American Ethic.
Dave Miller was played by stalwart, square-jawed Grant Williams. In terms of SF history, 1957 was a banner year for the actor. Not only did he star in "The Monolith Monsters", but Jack Arnold put him to good use in the title role of "The Incredible Shrinking Man". Of course Williams had work before and after '57, but this was the year that firmly planted his dependable heroic frame in the pantheon of science-fiction.
Now recall that, when we last saw the laboratory, a storm wind was blowing through an open window, and our friend the Single Solitary Shiny Black Rock was all by itself on a work table. So, needless to say, Williams (not to mention the audience) is rather put out when he steps into the lab to find it totally wrecked and FILLED TO THE BRIM WITH SHINY BLACK ROCK! Not only that, but he finds his assistant standing in a doorway, and the man has been TURNED TO STONE! A neat trick to depict, by the way, considering that the movie was filmed in black-and-white. But here we learn that coming into contact with the stone causes human flesh to lose its flexibility.
Well, naturally both Williams and the local doctor (played by Richard H. Cutting: "South Pacific", "Attack of the Crab Monsters", etc.) have absolutely no idea in the world what the heck is going on (while Tremayne's hovering ghoulishly about, visions of major headlines dancing in his skull). But the trouble doesn't stop there. Oh no, not by any means. Enter the local schoolteacher, played by Lola Albright. Right now you're thinking "I know that name from somewhere", and you'd be right. Having retired (possibly from exhaustion), Albright spent quite a lot of time in front of both movie and television cameras. She didn't do a "Star Trek", "Twilight Zone" or "Outer Limits", but she did do an Elvis movie, plus she was in "Lord Love a Duck" so she rates points.
In any case, Teacher Albright has her kids out in the desert on a field trip, and a little blonde moppet happens to naturally pick up one of the Shiny Black Stones. Oh dear! Bad enough to do that. Even worse, she takes it home to show Mommy and Mommy immediately orders her to throw that nasty, dirty, filthy thing outside.
(She lives in the frickin' desert and gets worried about dirt. Go figure.)
Well the moppet reluctantly tosses the stone into a nearby barrel of water. Hold onto the thought. One stone. That's one shiny black stone. Hand sized. This is important because later on, when we go back to the house, we find that it's been burst wide open and is FILLED WITH SHINY BLACK ROCK!
(How's that housekeeping working now, Mom?)
But all this is part of the successful formula for a monster movie. You don't want to show the monster too soon, but you've got to throw a bone to the audience and tease them with signs of obvious mayhem. In "Them" it's a smashed store, in "The Black Scorpion" it's a ruined house and wrecked police car, and in "War of the Colossal Beast" it's an overturned and wrecked grocery delivery truck. Such things are usually accompanied by the discovery of a gun with all its ammunition having been fired. "What could've taken so many shots?" "Durned if I know, Ed." Such a practice is also economical as, if you do your job right, you can keep the Monster under wraps for at least the entire first reel.
Well, the good news is that the little blonde moppet survived whatever happened to the house. The bad news is that she's in shock (cue Sandy Descher from "Them!") and is slowly turning to stone. Not too surprisingly everyone is going ape and, while Williams travels hither and yon in search of answers, Teacher Albright rushes the little girl to a hospital where she's fitted into an iron lung. Among other things, "The Monolith Monsters" provides an interesting historical look at an iron lung in action, And fortunately it is indeed historical. Before the polio vaccine came into being, iron lungs were tragically an exclamation point in the lives of many America.
As the previous paragraph implied, there's a lot of dialogue in "The Monolith Monsters", up to and including the obligatory scene where A Renowned Authority is consulted. In this case: Williams' old geology professor (played by Trevor Bardette, like Albright another television and movie veteran). Interestingly enough such scenes are seldom described as boring or overly pedantic. For openers: a Jack Arnold film would usually make such characters deliver their knowledge laced with enough potentially eerie dialogue to hold a viewer's interest ("The appearance of such an eggplant, Gentleman, could well signal the End of the World!").
Another key element in such films is the music. For "The Monolith Monsters" we have three composers who received no onscreen credit. Two of them were Arnold soundtrack stalwarts Irving Gertz and Herman Stein. The third name belongs to, believe it or not, Henry Mancini. Although not too well known a fact, Mancini contributed quite a bit to the monster movie soundtrack genre back before people began humming the theme to "Peter Gunn". Listening to the music in "The Monolith Monsters" . . . complete with staccato piano cues . . . it's easy to see where Mancini learned how to musically put motion into television noir.
But one can talk and pontificate all one wants for only so long. Eventually the Monster has to make an appearance, and it's here where Sherwood, Arnold and the rest of the production team pull off a solid gold knockout. It starts with a scene where Williams and Bardette are trying to figure out what makes the Shiny Black Rocks grow. They suddenly stumble upon the fact that the key is exposure to water (and someone timed this well because we get dangerously close to the point where the audience would be forgiven for shouting "IT'S WATER!" at the screen). Then they realize that it's raining cats and dogs outside . . . and the audience collectively goes "Uh Oh!" A brilliantly realized moment. Then the icing on the cake arrives as Williams and Bardette quickly drive out to the meteor crater where the majority of the black stones are located. There they discover the once small stones growing into towering columns of rock; rising higher and higher until they fall over, beginning the cycle all over again. The entire scene is chillingly effective, and credit can be laid fully at the feet of Clifford Stine. One of the usually unsung heroes of genre cinema, Stine got his start as a camerman on the original "King Kong". From there he worked on practically everything from "Gunga Din" to "It Came From Outer Space", "Spartacus", "Operation Petticoat", "Patton" and points inbetween. To Stine there were no small films, only small people, and for "The Monolith Monsters" he gave his usual 200%, creating one of cinema's most unique and dramatic monsters. Many of the best moments in the film involve the inexorable march of the titular monoliths: seemingly unstoppable and totally destructive. An army of collapsing skyscrapers slowly heading straight for you. Add to this the yeoman work of Leslie Carey's sound department (providing the monoliths with a constant crushing tone) and there's little to top it in monster cinema.
Being a production touched by Arnold's presence, the remainder of the film isn't entirely carried by footage of the monsters, but continues to involve the characters in heated debates over how to deal with the threat. When the monoliths manage to interrupt the town's telephone service the newspaper editor decides to alert the population by printing a special notice and having it passed out by the local delivery boys. Apparently someone in the production staff . . . either Sherwood, Arnold or one of the other writers . . . shared my overall opinion of children in movies. A delivery boy essentially goes: "Yeah, we'll pass out the warning to the town. But are we gonna get paid for this?" Tremayne gives the boy a stern talking-to. Me, I would've backhanded the little bottom feeder and had him thrown to the monoliths.
(And I'm willing to bet the brats still tried to shake down the people in town while delivering the notices.)
I don't want to get too much into spoilers here, but the film ends with something of an ethical dilemma as the only certain way to stop the monoliths is to perform a rather extensive act of sabotage. A lot of buck passing ensues, and no one can reach the Governor (those who live by California laws die by . . .). The rumbling nearness of the approaching monoliths keep this scene from being bogged down, providing a very large goad into immediate action. With Stine still handling the special effects, the climax lives up to all the preparation, and the audience sighs in utter relief.
Despite the apocalyptic feel of the film, "The Monolith Monsters" is actually rather intimate in scope. As usual the idea of setting the action in a small town not only keeps costs down, but helps to reduce the drama to a few faces the audience can quickly identify with. We easily accept the idea that a small California desert community is perhaps the only bulwark between humanity and a viciously unstoppable threat. The American Monster Movie has become something of a lost art (films such as "Predator", "Alien" and "Tremors" being the only positive blips in a wasteland that used to thunder to the tread of giants). But the films of people such as Arnold, Gordon Douglas, Nathan Juran and others remain as blueprints showing to any and all interested parties how it should be done. "The Monolith Monsters" followed the blueprint to diamond perfection, and no one claiming familiarity with the genre should be ignorant of this production.