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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Monolith Monsters

Universal International had been producing some quality B sci-fi in the 50s. They gave us The Creature From The Black Lagoon trilogy, This Island Earth and The Incredible Shrinking Man. Their 1957 venture, Monolith Monsters (MM) is similar in production value, though far less known than their classics. The movie's almost-unique distinguishing characteristic is casting a mineral as the "monster." The movie is reasonably well done, considering an inanimate mineral is the villain.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A meteor crashes in the California desert. A state geologist brings one of the strange shiny black rocks to his office. They are made up an odd mix of silicates. A mishap spills water on the rock, which begins to grow. The next day, his fellow geologist, Dave, finds the office in shambles, black rocks everywhere, and Ben turned to stone. A little girl, Jenny, brings home one of the black rocks from a school field trip. Her farm house is destroyed, her parents turned to stone. Jenny's arm is turning to stone because she touched the growing rocks. She's rushed to the big city for intensive care. Rain comes to the desert and the rocks grow into 100' monoliths which fall and break. The fragments grow and fall too, beginning a destructive march down the valley. Nothing stops them. The doctor figures out that Jenny is lacking silicone. He fashions a cure. Dave and his college professor try the cure on the black rocks. They stumble upon saline as the key. Salt water halts the growth cycle. The monoliths will break out of the valley if they're not stopped. Destruction will be widespread. Dave thinks the only solution is to blow up a local irrigation dam in order to flood a salt flats and lay a moat of saline in front of the monoliths. They blow the dam. Water floods through the salt works and in front of the monoliths. It works. The town, and the world, is saved. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The production values and effects are good enough to not hinder the story. Director Sherman does a good job pacing the story. After a steady diet of aliens, creatures and mutants, it's fun to see lifeless black rocks as the monsters.

Cold War Angle
One could see in the monoliths, a metaphor for something which dehumanizes and destroys civilization. This could apply to materialism or modernism almost better than communism.

Notes
Rock On! -- Most movie monsters are humanoid or at least animal-like in some sense. They're usually presumed to have some intelligence, even if only enough to have malice. Rocks, however, have no feelings, no malice. They simply exist. MM is one of only three movies (thus far) in which an inanimate mineral is the "monster" of the story. The first was Magnetic Monster ('53), in which a freak isotope was doubling in size every 11 hours, threatening to unbalance planet earth. The second was Night The World Exploded, ('57), in which a rare mineral from deep in the earth was reacting with ground water to generate great heat, swell up, and explode, thereby causing massive earthquakes. In MM, the mineral also reacts with water, but destroys simply by growing so large that it crushes whatever is nearby.

Double Trouble -- The silicon-leeching quality of the monoliths is a second level of menace. This is a second story-within-a-story which keeps the movie moving. Like a stony Midas curse, whoever touches the growing monoliths eventually turns to stone. It becomes a race against time to halt the petrification of poor Jenny before it kills her (and several other hapless towns folk). The cure for Jenny becomes the key to stopping the monoliths themselves.

Double-Duty -- The dam model used in MM is the same one used in Night The World Exploded. The town was on Universal Studios' back lot. It was also featured in It Came From Outer Space ('53) and Tarantula ('55). A quick-eyed viewer might also spot that the meteor falling to earth was a repeat of the fireball-like "ship" landing scene from Universal's It Came From Outer Space. A quick-ear will hear the Creature's three note theme from Creature From The Black Lagoon as the meteor falls.

Star Watch -- Geologist Dave is Grant Williams who was the Incredible Shrinking Man. Les Tremayne who plays the old newspaperman, was General Mann in War of the Worlds. --- Paul Frees narrates the opening. William Schallert is uncredited as the double-talking meteorologist.

Hot Wheels -- Dave's car is actually a bit of a rare 50s "star", so worth noting. It's a 1956 De Soto Fireflite convertible. Only a hundred or so were made. One was used as the Indy Pace Car that year. It was a pretty hot full sized car. The '56 Fireflite line was very popular. In fact, it marked the pinnacle of the DeSoto company. The '57 model had an all-new body with bold styling, but production quality in the new line was poor. DeSoto never shook off the bad reputation it developed from the '57 models. The recession of '58 hastened the slide. Chrysler dropped the brand in 1960. Dave's hot convertible in MM captures the moment when DeSoto was at its zenith.

Bottom line? MM is a good 50s sci-fi movie worth watching for its rare "monsters". It's unthinking, unfeeling antagonist has left it poorly remembered and under appreciated. MM is a well paced and fairly well acted drama with two races against time to keep the hero hopping.

5 comments:

Blaze said...

I'd have to see it again, but distant memory tells me this is one of the most thoroughly plausible SCIENCE fiction movies of all time. It's a remorseless natural force. An eco-disaster that'll destroy the Western Hemisphere (maybe just North America...one can assume they'll widen the Panama Canal thoroughly before the monoliths arrive)

As you say, a double helping of suspense. The people being petrified and the rather impressively huge monoliths toppling over with a thunderous crash.

Nightowl said...

Hi Blaze, MM is definitely worth seeing again. You're quite right about the relentless force of nature thing. Unusual in a sci-fi (chock full of aliens or mad scientists).

Check out Magnetic Monster, 1953, for a similar theme. There, it's an isotope which keeps growing, threatening to overpower the earth.

Anonymous said...

I picked this up a few years back in a set with Tarantula, The Mole People and Monster on the Campus. It and Kronos are two films I'd like to see remade.

Randall Landers said...

I don't want to see these films remade. I want to enjoy them for what they are, not for how they'd be butchered by Tim Burton or any other auteur director of today.

This is a great film, as Night Owl points out, because there's no villain. There's an emotionless, non-living threat, and it's a tremendously chilling one. Don't miss it!

Nightowl said...

Randall,
I agree about remakes. Most of the time, the remake imparts the ethos of its own time, which differs from the original movie's time and ethos. This usually changes the recipe too much.

The remake of TDESS is a classic case. The swapping of nuclear danger for environmentalism just changed things too much.

Monolith Monsters would be tough for Hollywood today. None of the contemporary stock elements fit. Where would the torrents of blood or zombies fit in? Where would the partial (or full?) nudity fit? The monsters wouldn't have lots of sharp slobbery teeth. Where would the fireball explosion in slow-motion go?