Sunday, July 12, 2009
The Monolith Monsters
[This is a contribution to the Spirit Of Ed Wood Blog-a-Thon currently running at Cinema Styles from July 6 to July 12. Greg at Cinema Styles has opened up this week-long event to posts about legendary B-movie maker Ed Wood, as well as any likeminded examples of low-budget sci-fi and horror filmmaking. I'll be following his lead this week with a series of posts about 50s sci-fi.]
They're coming. Slowly, insistently, they're creeping closer, leaving a wake of destruction in their path, an unstoppable force inching towards a desert town, killing and destroying anything that gets in their way. They came from outer space, and once on Earth they're deadly and terrifying. Worse still, they're multiplying at a fantastic rate. They're... a whole bunch of rocks. From outer space. They're made of silicates and they're angry. Okay, not exactly angry, because they have no emotions at all: they're just rocks, after all. That's right, the "monster" in The Monolith Monsters is a rock, a black silicate that landed in the California desert in a meteor. It takes a special kind of sci-fi thriller to eke out all its scares and drama from chemical reactions involving a strange mineral deposit, but despite its inert villain — and the unfulfilled promise of monsters hinted at by the title — The Monolith Monsters manages to provide a few thrills before descending into a deadly dull waiting game.
The rocks in the desert start spreading their destruction whenever they come in contact with water. This kicks off a chemical reaction that causes the rocks to begin expanding and multiplying, sucking off needed chemicals from whatever they come in contact with, whether it's the desert sand, a wooden structure, or living creatures. Director John Sherwood gets as much tension as he can from this set-up, particularly during the early stretches of the film, when it's not quite clear yet what's going on, only that the rocks are reacting to water and that afterward everything is destroyed and people are virtually turned to stone, their bodies petrified and hardened by whatever the rocks are doing to them. It's a creepy premise, and Sherwood gets a lot of mileage out of eerie shots of the rocks sitting in the desert, strewn across the landscape, black and shiny, looking very much out of place in these ordinary settings.
But the film is sabotaged by its own title to some degree. The Monolith Monsters conjures up images of lumbering rock creatures in the classic mold of the Hollywood B-movie creature feature — alien rock monsters unleashed from a meteor to destroy everything they touch. The film's set-up only prolongs this impression, utilizing the usual tropes of the monster movie, with creepy suspense set pieces in which the actual attack happens offscreen, and only the dead bodies and destruction left behind suggest something terrible happening. One suspects, watching this, that Sherwood is doing what these films always did, keeping the monster offscreen for as long as possible, building up to its revelation. But no, the "monster" is just a rock, and the suspense in the film centers around the rocks' inexorable progress towards a tiny desert town after a rainstorm sets off a chain reaction.
Sherwood milks this premise (partially supplied by a story from sci-fi great Jack Arnold) for as much as it's worth, but he can't manage to overcome the fact that his "monster" is a mineral made active by chemical reactions. These rocks aren't a good sci-fi threat for the same reason that a really big avalanche wouldn't be a good one — it's hard to make compelling drama out of the geological research and chemical experimentation that the film's characters engage in to stop the rocks' growth. The resulting film is more of a disaster movie than a sci-fi thriller, and a rather dull disaster movie at that. The bulk of the action centers around geologist Dave Miller (Grant Williams) and his schoolteacher girlfriend Cathy (Lola Albright) as they try to figure out what's going on and how to stop the rocks from multiplying and overtaking the town. They enlist a string of doctors, journalists, police and professors in the task, but nobody in the cast has much more personality or verve than the rocks themselves, and the script is so generic that the characters are barely differentiated from one another.
All in all, The Monolith Monsters is just a big disappointment, a film that offers up little to even talk about, good or bad. There are a few compelling suspense sequences before the nature of the threat is revealed, and then the film becomes a static, anti-dramatic snoozefest. It's faintly hilarious to see Sherwood desperately trying to wring some tension out of the progress of the rocks, but they move so slowly that everyone in town finally has time to pack up all their things and leave before the rocks get even remotely close. Movie monsters are often notoriously slow and ungainly, lumbering after victims who can only be caught by falling multiple times, but this film manages to go even further by positing a sci-fi threat that creeps along so slowly that its potential victims are in the next state before it's even advanced a few feet.