THE MONOLITH MONSTERS 1957
From Outer Space they Came! Now these amazing Monolith Monsters reveal Powers… Shocking beyond belief! The most startling Science-Fiction concept ever brought to the screen! Stranger than anything science had ever discovered as THRILL CROWDS UPON THRILL…”The Monolith Monsters”
The film starts out with the constellation of stars and planets. The vast universe in the scope of the night sky. The narrator in typical 50s vox populi style not unlike the control voice from the original The Outer Limits yet more cornball, warns us, setting up the prologue as the “explaining” portion of the film’s story. The origin of the phenomena that will soon hold a small desert town hostage with sheer panic and terror.
The earth comes into central focus on the screen surrounded by tiny lights of stars and darting flames like arrows pelting the strata that we see as long distant spectators.
From time immemorial the earth has been bombarded by objects from outer space…bits and pieces of the universe piercing our atmosphere in an invasion that never ends. Meteors, the shooting starts on which upon so many earthly wishes have been born. Of the thousands that plummet toward us, the greater part are destroyed in a fiery flash as they strike the layers of air that circle us, only a small percentage survived. Most of these fall into the water which covers two thirds of our world. But from time to time.
Now we are looking closer at a gaping crater in the earth’s crusty surface.
A very few meteors have struck the crust of the earth and formed craters. Craters of all sizes, sought after and poured over by scientists of all nations for the priceless knowledge buried within them.
Back to the universal blackness of space lit by the infinite expanse of dying planets and stars.
In every moment of everyday they come from planets belonging to stars whose dying light is too far away to be seen. From infinity, they come, meteors…another calling card from the limitless reaches of space, it’s substance unknown, it’s secrets unexplored. The meteor lies dormant in the night…waiting…!
A gong is struck and reverberates as the titles emerge Universal-International Presents THE MONOLITH MONSTERS. Starring Grant Williams (Incredible Shrinking Man 1957) Lola Albright (great episode of Season 6 Columbo where she is blackmailing William Shatner – Original Air Date—10 October 1976 Fade Into Murder )
And Les Tremayne (The War Of The Worlds 1953, Angry Red Planet 1959 and The Monster From Piedras Blancas 1959).
Screenplay by Norman Jolley and Robert M. Fresco based on a story by none other than:
JACK ARNOLD and Robert M Fresco. Bud Westmore did the fabulous make up that created the effect of people having turned to stone. (Remember my post about Face of Marble where the people looked more like Faces of Pallor).Produced by Howard Christie and Directed by John Sherwood.
What also works really well in this taut 50s fear of invasion film is the original music which is the combined uncredited effort of Henry Mancini, Irving Gertz and Herman Stein, under the musical direction of Joseph Gershenson.
The music is ominous, an impending overture to something cataclysmic A hurling ball of gaseous light setting off sparks until the impact explodes on the screen into hellish flames of destruction. Clouds of burning debris, the horns of destruction underscoring this super-naturally propelled inferno that has cracked the earth’s surface right before our eyes leaving us in awe , the mysteries of the yet unknown universe, leaving a scorched and charred landscape. A shiny black crystalline rock is scattered amidst the fallout. A monotonous 3 chord organ pad teeters back and forth to let us know that the story has just begun. These strange black rocks are not of this earth, and will soon wreak havoc on yet another small desert sleepy town, somewhere U.S.A.
At first a Phil Harvey as Ben Gilbert from the Department of The Interior pulls over using one of the rocks behind his tire to keep the car from rolling back. The wood paneled station wagon is overheating so he stops to put water in the radiator. We can see the over drip of the water as it leaks from underneath the carriage of the car onto the strange rocks. He picks one of them up and looks at it. The camera pulls back and we see the land is littered with black gems. He throws that rock in the back of the car. The wet rock on the ground begins to smoke.
Ben arrives in a small town, at his laboratory and pulls out the rock sample, placing it on the counter near a sink. It’s a hot day, he opens windows and pours himself a drink of water. Now Les Tremayne (Martin Cochrane) walks into the front part of Ben’s office. He’s looking for Dave who had to go to Bakersfield. Cochrane picks up the curious rock. Ben sees him handling the rock and says “Weird isn’t it?” “what’s it called?” Ben answers “Beats me, I haven’t even figured out what the stuff is” Cochrane asks “Where’d it come from?” “The old San Angelo road, there’s a whole flock of it out there” He takes a rock hammer and breaks a piece off to look with his magnifying glass. “Lava maybe?” “No, it’s a solid…you can see strata if you look closely” he hands it to Cochrane. Ben laughs “they must have skipped this one in college” Cochrane jokes back “or you slept through one class too many.” They both chuckle.
Ben imagines that it’s just something simple, not cataloged yet, “still somehow it doesn’t seem to belong” Cochrane shakes his head “The deserts filled with things that don’t belong.” Cochrane goes on to talk about the ocean beds and salt mines and how without that process of evolution there probably wouldn’t even be a town out there now.
Then Cochrane adds himself “then there’s me, I don’t belong here either…I never did, San Angelo needs a newspaper, like that desert out there needs another bucket of sand…now I ask you what good is a newspaper man when there’s nothing ever happens here worth writing about?” Tremayne is so good at being an everyman character, likable but not truly successful enough to feel good about himself or his place in the life. Cochrane says “Maybe I oughta be a Geologist like you and Dave…I’ve been stuck here among rocks so long, all I’d need is a refresher course and I admit I’d be alright” Ben laughs “no you stick to your newspaper, who knows maybe I just discovered something new here” He points to the black rock in Cochrane’s hand. “And you can write a world shattering article about it.”
The music becomes subtly portentous again the camera closes in on the little shiny black substance on the table. “I doubt if there’s really anything new here” Ben contradicts himself. “maybe a few things we haven’t understood yet, but nothing that’s really new.” We know that somethings new, and horrifying. The little black alien rock sits there quietly waiting to reveal it’s true nature, and the suspense is slowly building now.
Cross fade it is night time and there is a terrific storm, complete with wind and rain, it breaks a window in the lab. Ben hears a sizzling noise, and notices that the rock has come in contact with water. The rock is transforming, as it smokes and changes, we see a quick flash of Ben’s face and the screen turns black.
It’s the next day. Dave Miller (Grant Williams) arrives home from Bakersfield. He calls out for Ben. He makes a quick call to Cathy his girl who has taken her class on a field trip out to the hot desert. He walks back into the lab, for several moments we only see from his perspective the condition of the lab. Now the camera scans the lab, the black mass of rocks have transmogrified into crystalline mounds. Some larger, some smaller, recklessly strewn about, having smashed into the furniture and taking over the room like amorphous obelisks, the lab looking like wreckage.
Dave sees Ben from behind leaning against the wall, still in his pajamas, he slowly walks over, a stunned look on his face, we now see that Ben’s face looks like that of marble or stone. Again, remember Face of Marble? Well Westmore truly managed to give him the appearance of having literally a stone like skin and complexion. As the fear builds up in Dave, he mumbles to himself “oh my god” the music is menacing, Dave grabs onto Ben saying his name “Ben!” and in a very horrific moment Ben falls to the ground, as solid as a statue that has been knocked over, the scene cuts away before he hits the floor.
There is a shock cut, away from that scene, we are now with Cathy and the children on their day trip out to the desert. The children fly out of the car like birds from a tree, excited about the day trip. Cathy reminds them not to touch anything they don’t recognize and not to wander too far from the car.
Cathy goes over to a solitary child, Jenny who is very gentle and sweet. Jenny compares two lizards who like each other to Miss Barrett and Dave. They must love each other if they like to hang out together like that. From off screen another child calls Miss Barrett, and once Cathy walks away, Jenny picks up one of the black stones and holds it. The music breaks the casual scene between Cathy and Jenny and abruptly turns ominous, as now Jenny has put herself in danger. After a full day of fresh air, we see the car traveling up to a farm with the sign, Simpson on it. A woman comes out smiling.
Cathy is in the car with the happy, laughing children. It’s Jenny’s home, the children all say goodbye to her, Jenny says a special goodbye to Miss Barrett. She tells her mom all about the day, she saw some lizards but before Jenny starts to go into the house, her mother notices the rock and says “woh there, what’s this?”Jenny tells her mom that she found it out in the desert
“That’s where it stays…outside” but Jenny pleads ” Mom, it’s a souvenir” “I can live without dirty old souvenirs messing up my clean house.” She tells her to hurry up supper’s on the table. Jenny seems so dejected. Sitting on the stoop next to a bucket under the water spout. She gets the idea and puts the rock in the water cleaning it off, then leaving it to soak as her mother comes out to yank her into the house. The music that has now become the motif for the transformation scenes for the rocks starts playing. We see the smallish size rock now twice it’s size as it starts to morph inside the water bucket, the bubbles rising to the surface.
Cross fade to an office where Dave and Cathy and Cochrane are all sitting. They are waiting for the results of an autopsy on Ben. The doctor comes out. He can’t tell what has happened to Ben so he’s shipping him to the medical institute. At first he thought it was Scleroderma an extreme hardening of the skin.
“But his entire body, organs, skin, muscle tissue, everything has been welded into a solid mass” Dave tells the doc that he must have found something that might have led him to the cause, but the doc tells him that there’s nothing to go on. Cochrane says that Ben was his friend too but he wants to print something, because this is news.
The doc says what can you say about it “Local geologist turns to rock, autopsy fails to turn up reason!…you’d have the whole town turning out in a panic thinking some horrible disease is running loose” Then Cochrane becomes more mild with a tinge of irony ” It’s a funny thing, last time I saw Ben he was kiddin’ about making a new discovery…so I’d have somethin’ to print” He grits his teeth he is angry with himself now, as if this were his fault for wishing such a thing.
“Well he came up with a story alright, but if I print it I get run out of town for inciting a riot” he stares at the sheriff. “or for writing a crack pot yarn nobody would believe anyway” Dave who has been sitting quietly says ” I think there’s more to this than just Ben…the condition the lab was in” Cochrane asks ” what d’ya mean?” “Something tore it to pieces almost wrecked it” the sheriff interjects “An explosion, wasn’t it?” Now the doc chimes in. It didn’t have anything to do with Ben’s death, there weren’t any flash burns on the body. No signs of exposure to a blast of any kind. Dave doesn’t think it was an explosion.
Cochrane wants to know what Dave is getting at. He pulls a small sample of the rock out of his pocket and tells them that this stuff was all over the wreckage. Cochrane tells him that’s the rock Ben brought in yesterday. But Dave says ” you told us one piece” now the sheriff joins in. The lab was covered with it, there must be hundred of pounds, how did it get there? Now Cathy asks to see it and tells them that today out in the desert, one of her children (Jenny) pick up one of these rocks on the field trip. She brought it into the car with her ” I remember thinking how strange it looked.”
Dave deduces that if the rock and Ben’s death had something to do with each other, that now the little girl has some too. The sheriff says it might not even be the same rock at all and Dave says ” I hope it isn’t.”
They drive out to the Simpson house. It’s late at night. The car pulls along the fence, we see the farm land slowly exposed until at first the scattered debris of rocks and then the revelation of the smashed house completed obliterated. What remains is a heap of crushed timber and black shiny mounds that glisten from the car lights.
What’s just as frightening and well developed about the narrative is not just the invasion of an alien life form that is so mysterious to us, in the form of an unknown element that resembles something familiar like an ordinary rock, it’s properties are at this point precarious and menacing. It’s the total annihilation that it causes, of first Ben, and then the nice little Simpson family living on their humble farm, now completely taken out of existence and what remains of the family bares the terrifying fruit.
There is also the degree of credibility to the story. We aren’t beset upon by giant green cucumbers with claw like pincers or 3 sets of eyes and rubber fangs. The use of science as a tool for the narrative makes the story more compelling. The prologue reminds me a bit of the cautionary tales of The Outer Limits, warning us that the universe holds vast secrets that one day might be visited upon us.
The sheriff and Dave and Cathy step out of the car. They are witnessing the complete destruction to the Simpson’s farmhouse. The rubble of the house looks like a giant jewel box has been smashed open, strewing black gems of all sizes and proportions around the grounds. Cathy goes looking for Jenny. From out of the shadows, in a very noir-esque moment, Jenny walks slowly, stiffly out into a shard of light. She looks tattered and in shock. At first Cathy is so happy to find Jenny alive, but she speaks the child’s name and yet Jenny is non responsive. She waves her hands across the child’s eyes, but she is in fact catatonic.The sheriff and Dave suddenly discover Jenny’s parents buried under some debris. When they go to touch them Dave says ” just like Ben..their bodies have turned to stone” Cathy hugs Jenny close to her.Dave carries Jenny to the car and they leave the Simpson Farm and head back to town. The unspoken truth that Jenny will soon be turning to stone herself.
The Monolith Monsters is one of those rare intelligent films of the 50’s that maintains it’s compelling narrative even today. The film works towards it climactic conclusion as time is ticking away while they try to figure out the mystery of these black rocks that have fallen out of the sky and crashed in the desert town of San Angelo, threatening not only this little town, but threatens to literally expand and smash it’s way outward decimating the entire earth. These monsters, rocky fragments that litter the countryside, crashing, and regenerating with each new cycle, is quite a frightening concept. Not unlike a plague, although this has a substance, a strange and imposing form we can see. And the results, are even more chilling as the thought of becoming a fused piece of fossilized matter instead of flesh and bone, is quite horrific. The film utilizes this story line creating a suspenseful atmosphere of plausibility. The idea that the simplest thing as water could be the catalyst that triggers these alien rocks to multiply and stretch across a wider range putting anyone and everyone at risk of destruction.
The monolith’s themselves are fascinating to watch grow, rear up like towering black crystal bogymen. The sound effects are spectacular as they add another element of formidable uneasiness as we hear the rocks compressing and expanding as they morph into coal black sky scrapers. The process of their life cycle, from the grand collapsing and shattering to the regeneration propels the film into a tense wave of panic, as the monoliths push their way out of San Angelo toward the rest of the countryside and inevitably the world.
Ultimately Monolith Monsters taps into the paranoia of the 50s where, Tremayne’s character Cochrane sums it up by saying “tourists picking it up and carrying it to every other part of the country” tells us that we should be afraid of what is unknown, the translation being , communism and that it could spread like a contagion. The horrific thought of our bodies turning into stone, and losing oneself goes along with the sentiment of the 50s scare of anything foreign consuming our individualism, and ultimately our identities.
I remember watching this film as a kid, and feeling quite riveted by the scenes of the crashing monoliths. That’s why it’s one of those great unsung sci fi films that have stayed with me all these years, and while there are more popular sci fi films of the 50s that are talked about, I think that Monolith Monsters is a forgotten little jewel that works so well as a simple tale of Keep Watching The Skies, and Beware of the Enemy Without, blending real science, solid acting and the authentic anxiety of that period making the film a great obscure scream gem.
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