Thursday, 29 March 2012

The Monolith Monsters [1957]

An unusually serious-minded addition to the monster movie subgenre, THE MONOLITH MONSTERS was directed by John Sherwood and released by Universal in December 1957.  It stars Grant Williams (best known as THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN) as a geologist in a small town which is threatened by strange space rocks which 'reproduce' on contact with water.  To make matters worse, any prolonged contact with the rock causes it to turn that person to stone.


A daft premise, one might say, but it's made credible by a literate script which contains enough scientific jargon to sucker in those willing to be taken in.  I couldn't tell you what they were on about (something to do with silicates) but it sounded plausible enough and added an extra dimension to a subgenre that, frankly, can be just plain silly at times.  Besides, who can begrudge a geologist his 90 minutes of glory?  Heroes in movies are almost always detectives, soldiers, pirates, cowboys, journalists (ahem), astronauts and so on; it's much less often that you  get a scientist and less often still a specific type of scientist.  So hurrah for the specialist!  In fact, I might start a list of unusual occupations for movie heroes, starting with Grant Williams in this and Samuel Le Bihan as the botanist in Christophe Gans' utterly brilliant LE PACTE DES LOUPS.

Grant Williams with his trusty microscope
I mentioned a few reviews ago the theme of 'scientific meddling' which is common to a lot of monster movies.  Usually it's a hubristic scientist going too far in one of his experiments in pursuit of glory or, worse, forbidden knowledge.  What you often find is that the resulting mess has to be sorted out by the military, who rock up in the nick of time and blast whatever it is to kingdom come.  Now I'm no scientist but such depictions strike me as a rather reactionary attitude towards science or, more broadly, knowledge and learning.  The scientist in Howard Hawks' otherwise admirable THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD is a good example.  He's played by Robert Cornthwaite who is got up to look like a commie and is swiftly identified as the chief villain simply because he wants to communicate with the thing and study it.

A lump of harmless looking space rock ...
Anyway, I digress.  My point is that THE MONOLITH MONSTERS is refreshing because it's the scientists who, through diligent and methodical research, save the day by figuring out a way to stop the monster.  In fact, the military and their immense firepower don't even feature in this movie precisely because their methods are counter-productive.  There aren't enough examples of this type of movie, probably because film-makers don't regard the scientific process as sufficiently cinematic.  Well, all I would say in response to that is to defy anyone to not be utterly enthralled by Robert Wise's THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN or indeed this excellent film.

... but this is what happens when it gets wet.

Film anorak notes:
Director John Sherwood was mainly a second-unit or assistant director and only got the chance to helm two other pictures - a Rory Calhoun western and THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG, which was the second sequel to the classic THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON.  Sadly, THE MONOLITH MONSTERS was Sherwood's last film; he died of pneumonia in 1959 at the age of 55.

Fifties heartthrob Troy Donahue appears uncredited as Hank Jackson.

Another uncredited player is William Schallert, who plays the verbose man at the weather station.  Schallert, who is still going strong at the age of 89, is a prolific character actor who to date has racked up a mind-boggling 361 film appearances including dozens of delirious movies.  Good luck to any William Schallert completists out there!

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