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The Monolith Monsters

     "Each one that shatters will make a hundred more. And when that hundred shatters, there'll be ten thousand of them. The third cycle will create a million... And unless we stop them, they'll spread over the whole countryside!"

-- Professor Flanders on how screwed we really are.    




Gonzoid Cinema










... Rocks?!


Watch it!



Sights &

It Came from
the '50s...
The Films of
Jack Arnold &
William Alland.

The Monolith Monsters

This Island Earth

The Creature Walks Among Us

The Mole People

The Land Unknown

The Space Children

Monster on the Campus


Our month-long tribute to Monsters and their Movies continues as this week's film topples out of the blocks with Paul Frees waxing a nice planetarium speech about meteors. And according to him, while most of these space rocks burn up upon entry into the atmosphere, some of the tougher ones make it through and create some pretty big potholes on impact. Most are harmless, he continues, and prove a treasure for scientific study, but, as his speech needles toward ominous, some might prove deadly -- just as a huge flaming meteor augers itself into the earth (-- that looks suspiciously like the spaceship crash-landing from It Came from Outer Space). And as the smoke and dust settles over the smoldering impact crater, the credits roll.

The next day, we pan over the same desert and spy an oncoming car. (And a quick glance at the credits confirms weíre in Jack Arnold country.) Behind the wheel, Ben Gilbert (Phil Harvey), a geologist working for the state of California, has to stop when the radiator overheats. And while Gilbert refills it, we notice along with him that the large amount of jet-black rocks littering the valley floor don't look like they really belong there. Curious, he picks one of them up and moves on. (Your tax dollars at work people.) As he drives away, we zoom back to where he slopped some water onto the ground and see one of those oddball black rocks sitting in the middle of the puddle have a violent, phosphorous-like reaction to the liquid. (That canít be good.) Upon returning to his office in San Angelo, Gilbertís joined by Cochran (Les Tremayne), the local newspaperman, who grumps over how this quiet little town has no need for him or his newspaper. To cheer him up, Gilbert shows off the mysterious black rock but Cochran doesnít think finding a rock in the middle of the desert is really earth-shattering news.

But later that night, in one of those disastrous chain of events (-- that always seems to trigger one of these nature gone wrong films), a beaker of water is accidentally spilled on the black rock, and just like its brethren, it reacts violently. When Gilbert discovers this phenomenon, as he comes in for a closer look, the music turns ominous and we fade to black. (Nice knowing you, Ben.) The next day, when Gilbertís partner, Dave Miller (Grant Williams), returns to the office, he finds it all a shamble and more of those black rocks scattered everywhere. Calling out to his friend, Miller spots Gilbert standing in the hall -- but strangely, he doesnít answer. When Miller approaches, he discovers that Gilbert is dead; petrified -- seemingly turned to solid stone!

Meanwhile, out on the desert, Kathy Barret (Lola Albright) finishes her field trip by turning her rabid grade school class loose to look for souvenirs. ("Look! I found a gila monster. Oww!" Ritalin obviously hadnít been invented yet.) And after young Ginny Simpson (Linda Scheley) finds one of the deadly black rocks for her souvenir, the little girl asks Kathy if she and Dave are ever going to get married like the lizards theyíre watching. (Yes, itís as funny as it sounds.) This plot-specific field trip also establishes the existence of a salt mine and a large irrigation dam located close to San Angelo. (I wonder if thatís pertinent? Nah...) With all of that out of the way, and the field trip concluded, Kathy drops Ginny off at her home, where Ginny's mom wonít let her bring the dirty old rock inside unless she washes it first. (Uh-oh.) And as Ginny turns on the spigot, her mom calls her in for dinner, causing the girl to abandon the rock in a washtub filled to the brim with water, triggering another round of the same ominous music as the water starts to boil and bubble...

Later, Kathy joins Miller, Cochran and Sheriff Corey (William Flaherty) to hear the report on Gilbertís autopsy. Alas, the local doctor is stumped and plans to send the body on to Los Angeles and have a specialist look at it. When Cochran asks what he can print, Corey advises him to sit on the story to prevent a panic until they can piece together what happened. Since Cochran was the last person to see Gilbert alive, he mentions the strange black rock the dead man found. Miller is puzzled by this use of a singular, because there was definitely more than one rock in the demolished lab; and when he describes it, Kathy is frightened because it sounds exactly like the same kind of weird rock Ginny found ... Heading out to the Simpson farm, Corey, Miller and Kathy find it completely demolished and covered with the same black rocks -- only they're a lot bigger this time. Suddenly, they hear something moving amongst the wreckage. Turns out it's Ginny, barely alive and succumbing to shock -- and like Gilbert, it appears her extremities have turned to stone. Digging further, they also find the completely petrified bodies of her parents.

Rushing Ginny to Los Angeles for the best medical care, but, it turns out theyíre experts are just as stumped as the San Angelo doctor. All they can do is put Ginny in an iron lung to stabilize her while they run more tests. Meanwhile, Miller runs his own tests on the mystery rocks, but finds they're nothing more than an ordinary amalgam of silicates. (It does have a negative cleavage though. I wonder what that means?) Stumped, he turns to his old college professor, Arthur Flanders (Trevor Bardette), who agrees with his analysis; it appears to be an ordinary rock, but due to itís mysterious duplicative properties, he conjectures further, which means maybe itís not from the Earth at all. (He typed ominously...)

While Kathy stays at the hospital with Ginny, who only has an estimated 8-hours to live before she completely succumbs to the petrification, Miller and Flanders hightail it back to San Angelo to look for more clues on how to fight this progressive malady. Heading to the Simpson ranch first, Flanders notices the immediate soil around the black rocks is a different color. After a quick analysis, they conclude all the silica has been removed from the sand. Assuming, then, that the rocks are somehow absorbing all the silica, this has to be what killed all the people; since silicon is what gives our moving parts and skin their elasticity; and if all the silicon were removed, the body would turn rock solid. (Okay, having flunked anatomy, Iíll buy that.) When they pass this theory on to Ginnyís doctor, he gives her a silicon booster shot and waits to see if it has any effect.

Meanwhile, Miller and Flanders keep poking around and eventually find the original meteor and take a sample of it back to the lab for analysis. Something had to trigger the deadly reaction, since just handling it doesnít cause the same effect, so they try heat and electricity and several chemicals but nothing works. Outside, it starts to thunder, and soon, itís raining cats and dogs. (Better catch up quick fellas, or youíre going to be up to your nether regions in black rocks PDQ.) Then the much needed eureka moment comes when Miller accidentally spills some coffee on a sample. And as they apply more water onto it, the rock grows, expanding upwards, into a mini-crystalline obelisk that soon collapses under its own weight and shatters ... With that, all the pieces of the puzzle quickly fall into place, but the happy moment is brief when they realize how hard itís raining: if a small dose of water made the rock grow to over three feet high, what will all the rocks out in the desert do under this deluge?

Jumping into the car, they head back to the impact crater to see how bad it is. Still several miles away, Miller hits the brakes as a gargantuan, black monolith rises into view, and keeps on rising until it eventually collapses and shatters, and then all the broken pieces immediately start to grow again. And as this process keeps repeating, Miller dreadfully points out that the monoliths will follow the natural slope of the valley -- right into San Angelo!

Rounding up the Sheriff, it doesn't take long to convince him of the exponentially growing danger. And as he makes plans to evacuate the town, they do receive some good news: Millerís theory proved correct and Ginny is expected to make a full recovery. And with that confirmed, Miller decides to use a little reverse-engineering and thinks maybe something in Ginnyís booster-shot might short-circuit the monolith's growth cycle. 

He gets the formula -- a little bit of this, and little bit of that, suspended in normal saline solution. (Salt water? Wait a second. Irrigation dam? Salt mine? Nah...) Meanwhile, the rain has stopped but the monoliths continue their destructive advance down the valley, wiping out everything in their path. (Thanks to all the rain, the ground is saturated, and thatís enough to keep the ball rolling.) Knocking out both the phone and power lines, Corey turns to Cochran and his legion of newsies to spread the word of the emergency evacuation. But it may already be too late for some as several, desperate people rush into town, barely escaping the onslaught, who are slowly succumbing to the loss of silicon. Thankfully, Kathy returns with several medics from LA to help out these victims. She also finds Miller and Flanders in the lab trying every combination of chemicals off the list, but nothing works until Miller realizes they havenít tried the saline solution yet. And when he dumps some sodium on the rock, it stops the reaction dead in its tracks!

With that, Miller thinks they can stop the monoliths with a simple salt barrier, but Flanders points out they donít have enough time. Consulting a map, Millerís wheels keep on spinning until he comes up with a plan: blow up the dam and flood the salt mine, creating a river of salt water between the rocks and the town. (Itís so crazy blah blah blah.) But they canít blow up the dam without permission from the governor, and while waiting for the word, the explosives are set, the town is evacuated, and the monoliths come crashing into view. And if they donít stop them there, at the bottle-necked end of the valley, then there are no more natural barriers and the monoliths will *gasp* take over flatten the entire world! And so, while the falling and regenerating spires advance ever closer, word comes that the governor is en route to personally assess the situation and take in the damage. But Flanders says if they wait for him it will be too late, so Miller gives the order to blow the dam.

It goes off with a bang, and as the cascading water sweeps over the salt mine and torrents down the old riverbed between the monoliths and the town, Miller asks Flanders if there will be enough salt to do the job. The professor quickly calculates it out, crosses his fingers, and replies it'll be real close. (So we'll all cross our fingers.) And as the lead spires tumble into the water, the rest follow suit and all quickly fizzle out. *whew*

The world is saved. Well -- at least until it starts raining again.

Cue ominous music and fade to...

The End

Make no mistake about it, as a film production entity, Universal International was in deep trouble by 1950. All the studios lost their theater chains as part of an anti-trust settlement, audiences were staying home to watch TV, and as their theaters closed down, the company teetered toward bankruptcy.

Enter two men who would be credited with saving the company. One was Arthur Lupin and his Francis the Talking Mule pictures. (No, Iím not kidding.) The second was Jack Arnold, who, along with producer William Alland, was instrumental in generating Universalís second wave of monster movies in the 1950's. Back in the '30s it was the gothic horrors of The Wolfman, Frankenstein and Dracula. But the '50s was the atomic age, so most horrors were caused by science gone awry, alien invaders, or atomic mutations running amok. A strange combination of all the above, The Monolith Monsters is a novel film filled with novel ideas, and itís amazing how you can take the idea of falling rocks and make it interesting -- let alone menacing and entertaining. Again, The Monolith Monsters manages all of the above.

These dreaded monoliths are the fulcrum but the mystery of their deadly life-cycle is the lever that moves the plot along. Some of the best sci-fi movies, like THEM!, don't show their hand too early, and that it takes a while for our heroes to unravel this mystery is what really endears this movie to me. Also, some thought process went into the science behind it, too; and to me, of all the monster movies I've seen, this one seems the most plausible. Itís not based entirely in scientific fact but it doesnít take a quantum leap in the suspension of disbelief to buy it. Usually, my suspension of disbelief is overtaxed and broken down by the end of these films. But not this time. Arnold had a hand in the story, here, but John Sherwood did the directing. On the surface, its plot is the same as any other sci-fi movie of its strata, but there are some subtle differences: the hero doesnít know everything and turns to someone with greater knowledge when he needs it. Williams does make a likeable hero, but Albright is remarkably absent as the heroine. And the film manages a real sense of urgency because the normal route of calling in the army and bombing the hell out of the monoliths is out of the question. These things can't be reasoned with, and are truly unstoppable, making them one of the greatest sci-fi menaces to ever menace.

Unfortunately, The Monolith Monsters was one of the last serious sci-fi films of this type produced by Universal International as its focus shifted to even cheaper and more juvenile sci-fi, with things like Monster on the Campus, and spent most of its time distributing other, smaller companies sci-fi films instead of making their own. Following suit, Jack Arnold eventually moved on to TV and directed episodes of Rawhide and Gilliganís Island. And he stayed in the medium and eventually directed episodes of The Love Boat and The Fall Guy. And I recall reading, somewhere, that John Carpenter had the option of remaking either The Thing or The Creature from the Black Lagoon back in 1983. And I also remember reading that if he had chose the ladder, he wanted to get Arnold involved in the production somehow. Am I crazy? Am I the only one who remembers this?

The Monolith Monsters (1957) Universal International Pictures / P: Howard Christie / D: John Sherwood / W: Jack Arnold, Norman Jolley, Robert Fresco / C: Ellis W. Carter / E: Patrick McCormack / M: Irving Gertz, Henry Mancini, Herman Stein / S: Grant Williams, Lola Albright, Les Tremayne, Trevor Bardette, Phil Harvey, Linda Scheley

Originally Posted: 10/13/01 :: Rehashed: 05/13/09

Knuckled-out by Chad Plambeck: misspeller of words, butcher of all things grammatical, and king of the run on sentence. Copy and paste at your own legal risk. Questions? Comments? Shoot us an e-mail.
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