With It Came From Outer Space, Creature From the Black Lagoon, This Island Earth and Tarantula already under his belt, by the mid-’50s director Jack Arnold had solidly established himself as Universal’s reigning king of intelligent, even philosophical science fiction.
His films were gorgeously photographed, crisply edited, and marked by above-average special effects and unexpectedly smart scripts. After the 1956 release of his masterpiece, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Arnold began moving away from sci-fi, edging more into less maligned genres like Westerns, mystery thrillers and comedies, as well as diving headlong into series television. Apart from Gilligan’s Island, his post-sci-fi work has all but been forgotten today.
But considering how much money his weirdies had made for the studio, and perhaps sensing he was itching to do other things, Universal was desperate to keep the Arnold ball rolling somehow.
In 1957 they pulled out an unproduced story written by Arnold and his Tarantula co-writer Robert Fressco and handed it to John Sherwood to direct. Now, Sherwood was a prolific second-unit director who’d worked on the likes of Pride of the Yankees and The Glen Miller Story, but who’d only directed two features at that point. As luck would have it, the second of the two was The Creature Walks Among Us, the final sequel to Arnold’s Creature From the Black Lagoon, as well as the franchise’s strangest and most tragic entry. He seemed just the man to direct what would turn out to be perhaps the era’s weirdest and most delightfully head-scratching science fiction film.
Up to this point postwar sci-fi had dealt primarily with alien invasions, what deadly mysteries may await us on other planets, and the monstrous side effects of radiation. The Monolith Monsters, while still dealing with something from outer space, took a very different turn.
Following a bit of introductory narration about meteors read by the inescapable Paul Frees, we meet bored newspaperman Dave Miller (Arnold alum Grant Williams from The Incredible Shrinking Man), who’s been cursed to run a little community weekly in a far-flung and half-dead California desert town. Desperate to find anything to put in that week’s issue, he pays a visit to a local (and equally bored) geologist. The young geologist was doing what he could to analyze a strange new kind of rock he’d suddenly found scattered everywhere just off the highway in a nearby valley. They just seemed to appear out of nowhere, and for some reason it never occurs to the scientist the mysterious rocks might have come from a meteor. In the first of several telegraphic bits of dialogue which pepper the film, the two commiserate over how there’s nothing interesting happening around that dusty little burg. Meanwhile, a young girl on a class field trip to a barren stretch of desert wasteland finds a similar rock and brings it home.
Well, come the next morning the geologist’s lab has been demolished and is half-buried under a ton of the same kind of rocks. And the geologist himself is quite dead, his skin, bones, muscles and organs having been somehow fused into a single, solid mass, almost as if he’d been turned to stone himself.
The home of the little girl who’d picked up the similar rock has likewise been destroyed in the same way, and though she’s not dead yet she does seem to be suffering from some kind of creeping paralysis that baffles both the local doctor and a specialist in LA.
Interspersed with the above, we get quick close ups of the rocks that link the two cases, accompanied by a bombastic sting of dramatic and ominous music. Sherwood went to great lengths to make sure the audience remained several steps ahead of the characters on the screen, both in terms of knowing who the culprit was and how it got there.
The same year The Monolith Monsters was released, Hammer Films released Val Guest’s feature version of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass 2. It was likewise an alien invasion film involving a barrage of small meteorites, though the story remained much more traditional than in Monolith Monsters. In the case of Quatermass, the meteors were actually vehicles housing a gaseous form of alien life that possessed the bodies and controlled the minds of whoever inhaled them. It all boiled down to an insidious invasion plot.
The Monolith Monsters in question here are the very rocks themselves, basic, solid, seemingly ordinary rocks that simply don’t act much like ordinary terrestrial rocks. It is never hinted or implied the rocks are in any way sentient or that they are on Earth with some sort of conscious plan for world conquest. Quite the opposite (and in fact quite scientific)—they are simply rocks from some other part of the universe, where rocks behave differently.
So okay, it takes awhile, but another more experienced geologist eventually reaches the conclusion the sinister forces responsible for one death, one serious illness, and two demolished properties are somehow tied into those funny-looking rocks. Having reached that conclusion he quickly jumps eight steps ahead to another conclusion that seems hardly justified this early in the film.
After the reporter admits he has no idea how to write about any of it without either being labeled a crackpot or sparking mass hysteria, the geologist replies, “At the rate these things seem to spread destruction, by the time you’re story runs there may not be anyone left to read it.” Again, it seems a fairly wild and apocalyptic conclusion to reach considering there was only one dead and one girl with an unknown disease at that point, but it was par for the course for Universal’s sci-fi scientists of the era. They always, bless them, seemed eager to foresee the End of the World very early in the game. Keeps audiences on their toes.
Monolith Monsters remains one of the most science and pseudoscience heavy science fiction films of the day, with long technical discussions of not only geology, but chemistry, medicine, and meteorology as well. When another, still older geologist enters the scene, he finally sees what’s going on here. These strange rocks, see, are bits of a much larger meteor which, though just rocks still contain certain unknown otherworldly properties. For one thing, they seem to suck the silicon—an element they lack—out of whatever they come in contact with—sand, furniture, or people—and when they do, they multiply. And whatever it sucks the silicon from becomes, in turn, stone itself. This conclusion provides the doctors working on the little girl with just the clue they needed to save her life.
That would all be fine and good if the threat ended at that point, though it would have been a less than exciting film. No, there was one other little property yet to be revealed, and one once again telegraphed by the dialogue in a scene that may or may not have been intentionally funny.
The meteorites, see, remain dormant when they’re in the desert and under most other conditions, but when they get wet they grow into towering monoliths which topple over and smash, only to have all the resulting pieces likewise grow into monoliths before they too topple and smash, and so forth. It’s a bit like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, except in this case as the fast-multiplying and growing meteorites topple, they essentially march across the landscape, crushing everything in their path. When it rains, this becomes a problem.
Now, when I was a kid we had these things called Moon Rocks. Not a toy so much as just these things, little colored crystals which were pretty boring on their own, but when you put them in a goldfish bowl filled with water they grew into brightly colored spires. No one ever explained what they were exactly, or why they did this, but I suppose they were kinda neat there for awhile. I do wonder if they might have inspired Arnold’s original story idea, but that’s all wild speculation on my part.
The film becomes a unique hybrid of Alien Menace and Natural Disaster movie, with a Medical Thriller subplot. Despite being extraterrestrial in origin, there is no intentionality, nothing maleficent in what the monoliths are doing. They are simply a force of nature, like a tornado or hurricane or landslide, but a force of nature yet to be experienced here on earth. In the case of a tornado or hurricane, we are helpless to stop them, the only recourse being to try and stay out of their way until they pass, knowing they will eventually peter out and stop.
The difference here is that the monoliths will not stop—they will continue to spread and grow in strength over time. The other important difference being the involved scientists are convinced there must be a way, unlike those earthly natural disasters, to stop their progress. Unlike the giant insects and lizards offered by so many other of the era’s science fiction films, what conceivable means could be used to stop the monoliths is not at all immediately apparent.
By film’s end, the swirl of science, pseudoscience, psychobabble, and half-baked explanations becomes dizzying. Fascinating and impressive, but dizzying, and the final theory put into action in order to stop the inexorable march of the monoliths really makes very little sense if you think about it too hard. But therein lies the fast disappearing magic of disbelief suspension. Accept it, and the world is safe yet again from one of the most unlikely alien threats it’s ever faced. Refuse to accept it, and you simply become just one more smug, smirking hipster asshole who’s no fun to be around.
Irvin S. Yeaworth ’s The Blob was released the following year. The two films shared a number of themes in common, but in the end audiences found it much easier to wrap their heads around an at least somewhat sentient glob of alien goo as compared with rocs behaving badly, and The Blob was therefore a much bigger hit.
Arnold returned briefly to science fiction in 1958 with both Monster on the Campus and The Space Children before moving on to Peter Gunn and Gilligan’s Island, but Sherwood would never direct another film. Two years later while in New York shooting some second-unit material for Pillow Talk, he contracted pneumonia and died.