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.


Greg said...

Ed, sorry to hear the last movie was such a bore. I've never seen this one either but I imagine the easiest way out as a screenwriter is to simply make the rocks grow at an alarmingly fast rate so that they are crashing through the ground in and around people, much like being in the middle of an earthquake. I'm not sure why they didn't just do that, just speed up the growth of the rocks. It's already a ridiculous premise anyway why not go full-tilt?

Oh well. I've already said this a few times Ed but thank you again for being the most prolific contributor to this blogathon with your insightful well-written reviews of classic and not-so classic sci-fi flicks of yesteryear. I appreciate all you did. Thanks.

Mykal Banta said...

Ed: I see you got yourself The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection Vol.1 and 2! It's a fine set. When will you get around to The Incredible Shrinking Man?

Can't agree with you on Monolith Monsters, though. I thought the film-makers deserved credit for attempting a non-humanoid monster, which took some originality. Also, I found the premise much more exciting than you did, far more un-nerving that just a "bunch of rocks." I think it was the transformation of flesh into rock that really cought my imagination. All in all, an unusual and throught-provoking film. What might alien life be like if not humanoid? I found myself giving the creatures emotions, imagining their lives and feelings - a very interesting experience.

Great post! If you are going to explore atomic age "B" sci-fi beyond the Wood Blogathon (which is unlikely, I suspect) may I humbly suggest the Sam Katzman, Icons of Horror Collection from Sony/Columbia Pictures. Now that's some classic space age B excellence! The Creature With the Atom Brain and Werewolf alone are worth, as the saying goes, the price of admission.

Thanks for writing about this interesting movie! -- Mykal

Richard Bellamy said...

I'm sorry I missed this one back in Creature Feature days - because I like the premise. I can see how it gets tedious, but there's a lot of potential in the inexorable advance of a natural force. The Day of the Triffids does a good job of maintaining the suspense with this kind of scenario.

Joel Bocko said...

Ed, I have put up a master list incorporating your book choices for "Reading the Movies":

Again, thanks for participating & for keeping it going!

Ed Howard said...

Greg, yeah, this was another of those movies where the idea on paper is probably better than the actual movie -- I can easily imagine an engaging movie made from something like this, but this ain't it.

Mykal, indeed, I have been watching lots of films from that great box set, some better than others but certainly I'm glad I have it. I've already written about The Incredible Shrinking Man here. It's definitely the best of the films in this set by some distance, though I was also especially fond of The Leech Woman and several others.

As for more sci-fi, I'm sure I'll continue checking in with the genre from time to time, even if it isn't one of my favorites. I like the double feature template I started using for a lot of these films during this blogathon, and I think that type of post is going to appear sporadically from here on in, whenever I'm tempted to check out some more trashy B movies. I'll look into your recommendations, too.

Hokahey, thanks for stopping by, and I agree there's potential in doing this type of film. I only dimly remember Day of the Trifids from childhood, myself, so I'll probably have to revisit it one of these days.

Mykal Banta said...

Ed: Forgot your previous post on Incredible Srhinking Man. I started to read it via your link, then realized I already had. I had, in fact, commented on it at the time. Do consider the Sam Katzman set - Werewolf in particular, for a great performance from completely unkown Steven Ritch. -- Mykal

Unknown said...

The execution of the film may be routine (not incompetent, just flat) but the underlying concept -credited to Jack Arnold - of a mineral menace is fantastic, and I love all the scenes that actually show the rocks (as in the great image you selected for the top of this post). I suspect this film was one of the primary inspirations for J.G. Ballard's The Crystal World.

Mykal Banta said...

C. Jerry Kutner:

I agree about the mineral menace. I didn't think the film was flat simply because of the power of the concept: like being in one of those rooms where the walls are moving in to crush you; or turn your flesh to rock - all very overpowering and grindingly claustrophobic. That certainly sounds like Jack Arnold.

I love your Richard Powers web site, by the way. I have been hooked on Powers' illustrations since I was a kid; that is, since the first issue of Gold Key's Dr. Solar. -- Mykal

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Thanks, Mykal! Speaking of Jack Arnold, I should have mentioned that The Monolith Monsters is a film that literalizes Arnold's recurring man vs. environment theme. The environment literally rises up and crushes people.

Mykal Banta said...

C. Jerry Kutner:

That's the very thing I love about Arnold - his ability, as in Monolith Monsters and other films (Tarantula, Incredible Shrinking Man, Space Children), to take normal elements of an everyday environment and present them in shades of horror or desperation. Arnold had the ability to see things with fresh eyes. Just look at the surreal menace in the screen shot that Ed provides at the beginning of his post. It is stark, terrifying, and very beautiful. -- Mykal

Flu-Bird said...

I saw this movie a a kid on a weekday 2:00 time i can remember the kid putting the rock into a rain barrel and the effects the things had oh people and animals