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Monolith Masters

In the 1950s, science fiction cinema underwent a revitalization that has continued almost unabated for fifty years. Science fiction cinema, for the most part, has sprung from the realm of low-budget, independent studios. Freed of the need to attain huge profits or enhance the reputation of "name" actors, filmmakers could, and did, concentrate on making the movies they wanted to make.

A common thread in all these films is the "other". The "other" may represent science gone mad, as in Tarantula (1955), in which science breeds guinea pigs the size of donkeys. It could be the fear of atomic weapons, and the effects such weapons could have on the environment, as in Godzilla (1953). Given the Cold War hysteria of the '50s, it's not hard to interpret the "other" as a stand-in for the perceived threat of communism

One of the forgotten films of this era, The Monolith Monsters (1957), reflects its own "others" in a peculiar way. Instead of the standard mutated monster, or aliens bent on conquest, Monolith Monsters has giant silicon-based crystals utilizing an unusual set of circumstances and growing uncontrollably, thus threatening the entire North American continent.

The Monolith Monsters is a dark film. Set in the brooding silence of the desert, it feeds on the hysteria provoked by the unknown. In an age before global positioning and mobile phones, people could, and did, disappear in the desert, never to be found again. Who knows what horrors overtook them "out there".

The film was written by Robert Fresco and Norman Jolly, from an idea put forward by director Jack Arnold, a man whose reputation was growing after the success of Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954) and the haunting final sequences of This Island Earth (1955). This was one of the last science fiction films Arnold was involved in before moving into an extensive career as a director of television series such as Gilligan's Island and The Love Boat.

Arnold's intention had been to make the film himself; however, he was offered the big-budget The Incredible Shrinking Man by Universal Studios. As a consequence, he handed the directorial reins over to John Sherwood, another veteran with over 50 film credits, who had previously worked for Arnold on the third Creature From The Black Lagoon film, The Creature Walks Among Us (1955). Sadly, The Monolith Monsters was Sherwood's last film before his death in early 1959.

It's often been claimed that Arnold's ghost directed The Monolith Monsters. However, it becomes obvious from watching Sherwood's other films, that, unlike Arnold, he had no distinctive directing style. It seems reasonable to assume that, due to their earlier collaborations, Sherwood knew what "look" Arnold wanted for the film. He would have worked very hard to get the film as stylistically close to Arnold's vision as possible.

The story begins with a view of the Earth from space. The Narrator (Paul Frees) delivers a monologue about the source and potential threat meteors pose, letting the audience know what a dangerous and uncaring place the universe is. His voice may seem familiar; his voice can be heard, often as a narrator, in well over three hundred films and cartoons. He may be best remembered as the voice of Boris in The Rocky And Bullwinkle Show.

Recycling footage from They Came From Outer Space (1953), the film cuts to a meteor crashing into a darkened desert. Reusing old film was a common practice during the era; Roger Corman even managed to glean three complete films from the Russian Planet Of Storms (1959). A quick travelogue then follows, with scenes from a dam, a salt mine, and the small community of San Angelo. Each of these scenes will play their part in the ensuing drama.

A fragment of the meteor is found by geologist Ben Gilbert (played by the spectacularly untalented Phil Harvey) who, on returning to his laboratory, suffers the grisly fate of being turned to stone. The next morning, Gilbert's colleague, Dave Miller (Grant Williams), discovers Gilbert's petrified body. The town doctor and police are called in. Neither Miller nor the police seem to notice the vast amounts of dark rocky material strewn around the lab. They decided to send the body (statue?) to Los Angeles for analysis.

Meanwhile Miller's love interest, local schoolteacher Cathy Barret (Lola Albright) takes a group of children into the desert for a field trip. One of the children finds a meteor fragment and takes it home, barely escaping with her life after her parents are killed and their home is destroyed.

If the monoliths symbolize the Soviet Union, then these fragments can be seen as representing hidden fifth columnists, just waiting for the right chance to strike. In the McCarthyist climate of the mid-'50s, Americans were led to believe that Soviet spies lurked in every corner of the U.S. Congress took a particular interest in the film industry, and there were few in the industry who had not experienced the effects of the blacklist on themselves or their friends.

Miller and Barret take the child, whose right arm has turned to stone to her elbow, to L.A. for treatment. While there, Miller meets up with his old geology professor, Arthur Flanders (Trevor Bardette). With amazing speed, Flanders deduces that the child has been affected by remnants of a meteor that has transmuted during its descent through the atmosphere. This is a major weakness of the film. The technobabble is delivered in sincere, believable tones, but no real effort is made to explain how Flanders came up with his deduction. Later he repeats his this sage-like effort by proclaiming that the fragments seek, and then subduct, silicon atoms into their crystalline structure, thus creating the enormous monoliths to come.

The trio, minus the child, head back to town to investigate further the strange happenings. They are pleased to learn that the child is recovering, as the doctor treating her has discovered that returning silicon to the child's body has restored her arm to normal. Fortuitously, they discover that water is the key catalyst in the fragments' growth process. Amusingly, this takes place as a raging rainstorm lashes the desert. The pace of the film quickens as the producers decide it's time to reveal the eponymous monsters.

This is one of the most atmospheric moments of the film. As Flanders and Miller return to the impact site, they are greeted with views of dark, foreboding pillars of crystal rearing into the sky. Miller and Barret have to shout to each other to be heard over the rumble of the expanding rock, seen in the half-light of night through rain and blanketing steam. The film takes on an almost Gothic charm as the characters wonder what to do.

This scene, the true centerpiece of the film, was created by the incredible Clifford Stine. Stine's career extended nearly fifty years, from the sequel to the original King Kong (1933), Son Of Kong, (1935) up through the awful Concord: Airport 1980. His best remembered films are the award-winning Earthquake (1974) and Hindenburg (1975).

No one is exactly sure how Stine created the effects for the film. Watching the monoliths closely, you can see they expand in both depth and width as they grow higher. The best guess is that he used the optical illusion of forced perspective. Pushing the model upward to create height, he slowly moved the camera towards the model, while gently zooming outwards. This keeps the whole model set in the shot, while increasing the level and definition of the actual models.

The town begins to fill with refugees from outlying farms as the threat increases. It's quickly realized the monoliths are following the natural slope of a valley and are mere hours away from the town. The horrified looks of the townspeople as they catch their first glimpse of the monoliths crashing out of the nearby valley reflects American society's concern over the relentless march of communism across the planet. The monoliths are the Soviet empire: slow, ponderous, sucking the life from everything they touch. No other film of the era displays this concept so darkly.

Professor Flanders discovers that salt will inhibit, and possibly even destroy, the monoliths. And it just so happens that the town has a conveniently located dam and salt mine (remember those opening scenes?). A plan is formulated to blow the dam so that the outpouring of water will wash across the salt deposits, then onto the "nest" of the monoliths.

Artificial tension is added to the obvious outcome when it turns out that the dam is privately owned, and the town needs the Governor's permission to destroy the structure. Predictably, the Governor cannot be contacted. With the monsters in sight of the town and the governor still out of reach, the decision is made to go ahead with the plan.

Of course, the plan works -- the monoliths are stopped, the town saved. But at what cost? The destroyed salt mine was San Angelo's only industry. The citrus farms on the other side of the valley were the nearest other employment, but with the dam gone, those farmers are ruined. Finally, a message comes through from the governor: "Don't blow the dam." The townspeople look horrified. "Unless you think it is absolutely necessary." Everyone bursts into a round of forced laughter.

Yes, the premise is flimsy and the science highly dubious, but this film really works. The actors, many of them veterans, work hard to deliver a believable, gripping film. Given a slightly bigger budget, and quality male and female leads, this film could have easily been a true classic. Sadly this was not to be. Phil Hardy summed it up well in his critically-acclaimed book, The Aurum Film Encyclopedia Vol II: "Monolith Monsters is a superior B movie, no more, but certainly no less."

Warner Home Videos released the film on video in 1994. Running a little over 77 minutes, The Monolith Monsters is a fun and nostalgic look back on at a not-so-typical creature feature movie.


Reader Comments

From Sydney, Australia, Glen R. Chapman is the proud father of four daughters, and has one very supportive wife. A number of his critical articles on science fiction films have appeared in various small press publications. He is currently involved in a couple of anthologies of original Australian science fiction, hopefully to be published at the end of this year.

Full cast and credits for The Monolith Monsters.

Bio to come.
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