Criminally undervalued by many people when discussing science fiction and horror cinema produced by Universal Studios throughout the 1950s, The Monolith Monsters (1957) would have to rate as one of the true eclectic genre gems from that wondrous decade. True, it may not quite reach the heights of some other Universal classics from that period (such as Jack Arnold’s trilogy of The Creature from the Black Lagoon , Tarantula  and The Incredible Shrinking Man ), but it has a frisson and originality to it that is quite unique and impossible to resist.
Based on a story by Jack Arnold and Robert M. Fresco, The Monolith Monsters takes place in fictional San Angelo, one of those wonderful, small Southern Californian desert towns which only seems to exist in fifties’ fantasy cinema. The rich, dramatic and somber voice-over of Paul Frees gives us a quick, pre-credits lesson in meteorites. The unknown properties which many of them contain, as we witness a particularly large specimen plummet to the ground on the outskirts of town, scatter hundreds of black fragments across the surrounding desert landscape. A Federal geologist and a young school girl soon discover in separate incidents these unearthly pieces of rock contain a very strange atomic makeup. The makeup is likely exacerbated by eons spent hot-rodding around the galaxy and the intense heat generated by Earth’s atmospheric friction.
Much like the titular creatures in Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984), exposure to normal H2O causes these meteor fragments to do some pretty cool but rather terrifying things. Water makes the rocks grow rapidly into black, crystal-like stalagmites. Once these monoliths grow to a humongous size, they topple over from their weight, not only crushing anything that happens to be in its way, but breaking-up into hundreds of smaller pieces. Each one of which proceeds to grow into a full-grown monolith of its own, repeating the cycle exponentially.
Though the local doctor, newspaperman and police chief are stumped, it doesn’t take long for Dave Miller (Grant Williams), the head of the local district geological office, and his old college professor, Arthur Flanders (Trevor Bardette) to suspect that the mysterious rock fragments found out in the desert are somehow connected with the strange events that are starting to occur in town. Apart from flattening anything they happen to collapse upon, the meteor fragments also drain and absorb silicon from everything they touch from the desert sand to pet dogs and human beings. Those exposed to it for too long are turned into a solid, stone-like mass (much like the victims of the infamous, mythical gorgon). Naturally, the Main Street of San Angelo is directly in the irrevocable path of the multiplying monoliths. A torrential downpour triggers a growth spurt that guarantees the destruction of the whole town and, once the monoliths make it out of the desert valley, potentially the whole world.
With time running precariously short, Miller and Flanders have mere hours to try and unlock the mysteries of the alien rock and concoct a formula to combat it. Will they succeed? Well, this is a 1950s Universal genre flick, so no prizes for guessing that the town and most of the main characters in it survive; the solution to the advancing enemy is found in the combination of a dry salt lake bed and a huge nearby dam built to water surrounding citrus farms.
One of the truly great aspects of The Monolith Monsters is that it doesn’t feature any monsters as such, yet its inanimate, towering villains are much more terrifying than most rubber-suited creatures of the day. Its strange science seems almost plausible, and there’s something unsettling in the way the monoliths duplicate and spread almost like a malignant tumor. They don’t seem intrinsically evil. They are just doing what they do when their strange chemistry mixes with ours. And this makes them even more imposing and unsettling, as they are beyond any kind of reasoning or sudden change of mind or direction.
Considering its budget, the special effects in The Monolith Monsters are remarkably well-realized and impressive. There’s a combination of miniatures, matte paintings and superimpositions that really suit the atmosphere and tone of the film. The sequence with the small chunk of crystal suddenly growing in the laboratory sink, before smashing to pieces against the rim, looks remarkable. The effects keep you in the film, but also make you smile and nod approvingly at the skill on display achieved with just a few basic materials and not much money. But there is plenty of ingenuity, imagination and artistry.
Like most of the other Universal Monster and sci-fi classics from this period, the black & white cinematography (by Ellis W. Carter) really helps lend an atmosphere of menace and mystery to the film. And there’s a terrific, taut score composed by Henry Mancini, Irving Getz and Herman Stein. Sound effects are also very important in this film, as they add much dramatic weight to certain shots. On such shot is the oncoming storm ominously brewing through the deserted nights streets of San Angelo, and the loud cracking sounds which the monoliths make as they grow and topple.
As he did so well in The Incredible Shrinking Man, Grant Williams turns in a fine lead performance as Dave Miller. Like his character Scott Carey in Shrinking Man, Miller is handsome, charismatic and strong, but has a slight off-center quality about him which makes him so interesting and enjoyable to watch. It’s a pity he didn’t do more genre films at the time (by 1972, he had reached the Al Adamson stage of his career, appearing in Al’s no-budget wonder Brain of Blood).
Grant gets good support here from Lola Albright as Cathy, Miller’s requisite love interest and the local grade school teacher. He especially gets support from Les Tremayne as Martin Cochrane, the jaded local newspaperman wondering what he’s still doing hanging around San Angelo where ‘the big story’ is never likely to happen. Tremayne excelled at these type of roles, and his performance here is up there with those in War of the Worlds (1953), The Angry Red Planet (1959) and The Monster of Piedras Blancas (1959). Familiar face and fan fave William Schallert also turns in a fun little cameo appearance as a weather bureau man.
Director John Sherwood worked primarily as a second unit or assistant director, particularly on a lot of 1950s westerns. He only has three feature films to his credit: The Monolith Monsters, The Creature Walks Among Us (1956) and the 1956 western Raw Edge, with Rory Calhoun, Mara Corday and Yvonne De Carlo. On the strength of his two genre films (I talked about The Creature Walks Among Us in a previous Diabolique article), I am keen to see what he brought to the western table. Unfortunately, Raw Edge does not seem to be commercially available at the moment, other than on the grey-area collector’s market.
Who knows what other treats Sherwood might have given us if he hadn’t died at the young age of 56, only two years after The Monolith Monsters was released. But what little he did give monster movie fans were terrific contributions to what was a heavily-saturated genre at the time.