The Bad Movie Report

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Back in the 50's, it seems, Universal churned out a movie like this every week or so. You're probably familiar with the more famous ones: The Creature From the Black Lagoon, This Island Earth (okay, that one supposedly took two years), The Mole People, Tarantula. But there are a bunch of more obscure titles, too (that MST3K hasn't gotten to yet), like Monster on the Campus, Curse of the Undead, and this week's B-position thriller, The Monolith Monsters.

After a short narrative prologue by Paul Frees (whose voice alone is always worth the price of admission), a meteorite crashes near the tiny California desert community of San Angelo (Universal SF meister director Jack Arnold had a hand in the story, so the tiny California desert community is a given*). Sometime later, Ben (Phil Harvey), a Doomed Geologist for the Department of the Interior, stops to water his overheated car near the impact site and notices all these cool pieces of a black, glassy, obsidian-like rock lying around. He appropriates a chunk and heads into town, not noticing that another chunk of rock upon which he spilled water is beginning to smoke ominously. This is also accompanied by that Universal library stock monster music that you've heard in a dozen movies, so we know that this is significant.

That night, a desert windstorm and an open window conspire to knock a beaker of water over onto the sample rock. Ben witnesses the rock begin to grow into an obsidian obelisk, that stock monster music plays, and we fade to black.

The next morning, Dave (Grant Williams), another DI geologist (but not doomed, because he is Alright.  "Everybody must get stoned."  There.  I said it.the hero) arrives and finds the office a wreck: there are pieces of black rock everywhere, and worst of all, his pal Ben has been turned to stone. The authorities, as ever, are baffled. Meantime, Dave's squeeze, the local schoolmarm Cathy (Lola Albright), is taking a bunch of kids into the desert for a field trip. As San Angelo has no museums or industries other than a salt mine, field trips apparently consist of turning the children loose in the desert. One of the children, Ginny (Linda Scheley), finds a piece of the black rock and takes it home. As her mother will not let her bring the "dirty thing" inside the house, Jenny washes it. MONSTER MUSIC! MONSTER MUSIC! MONSTER MUSIC!

Dave, being the hero, makes an inductive leap that the mysterious multiplying rock and his pal's death are connected, and goes out to Ginny's house to examine the rock. You guessed it, the house is now a rock garden, the parents are statues, Ginny is in shock... and her arm is turning to stone.

Dave and Cathy drive the petrifying Ginny to a specialist in LA and Dave rousts his old geology instructor, Professor Flanders (Trevor Bardette), who immediately surmises that the rock is a fragment off a meteorite (well, he is a professor, after all). The two men return to San Angelo, and Stranger than anything science had ever discovered!Flanders once again proves his superiority by noticing that the soil around the rock fragments is a different color. Examination proves that the soil - indeed, anything the black rock has touched while multiplying - has been sucked dry of all silicates. Silicon, the local doctor helpfully informs us, theoretically allows skin to be flexible - hence the petrification process. The helpful LA doctor whomps up a silicone formula that saves Ginny's life.

Dave and Flanders, meantime, accidentally discover what we've known all along: water makes the rocks grow (in the spirit of true scientific discoveries, they find this out by spilling coffee on the rock). Unfortunately, they discover this in the middle of a huge thunderstorm.

Energized by the rain, the rocks begin growing into crystalline spires hundreds of feet tall that And there goes another perfectly good miniature.eventually collapse and shatter under their own weight, with each fragment then growing into a spire, etc., etc., etc., and what this means, of course, is gloom and doom for everyone, especially if the rocks manage to march to a sizable source of water. Dave and Flanders try feverishly to isolate what part of the LA doctor's formula will stop the rocks, and it turns out to be the delivery agent - saline solution. Yep, table salt. Dave dynamites a nearby dam, flooding the salt flats, immersing the deadly magic crystals in salt water, and the world is saved. The end.

There's a lot to recommend The Monolith Monsters, outside it's admittedly one-of-a-kind premise. Looking back on it from these conspiracy-laden '90s, it's actually kinda refreshing to see everybody - cops, scientists, schoolmarms - pitching in and working together in that perfect Post-War fashion. At a spare 76 minutes, the story seems to take just as much time as it needs and no longer. The acting is all capable, the direction is crisp and clean, and the monolith FX are more than adequate. And dammit, I really love that Universal Monster Music.

Yes, there are flaws. Some of the opening exposition, meant to be painless, will cause a twinge or two as actors have to say lines that would never, ever be uttered in normal conversation (especially poor Les Tremayne, as the local newspaper editor/writer/publisher). And, okay, I can see why, following the film's internal logic, if you touched one of the rocks while it was active, all the silicon in your hand would be leached away, leaving it inflexible and stone-like - but why, when the affected characters are taken away from the rock's presence, does the condition continue to spread? Where is the silicon going? Ah, well....

But hey. I really like Les Tremayne. Grant Williams gives us a strong, take-charge square- "What?  Yes, my refrigerator's running."chinned by-God-American hero that doesn't come off like a junior league fascist. And William Schallert makes a welcome cameo appearance as a weatherman who, when Dave brushes aside all his meteorological buzzwords, is forced to look out the window to determine that the rain will end "sometime this morning". And everyone's so polite. It may not be the Mercury Theater, but "Over there!  In the matte painting!"these folks were nice to be around for an hour and a half, and in the land of Bad Movies, that is a welcome change of pace.

The Monolith Monsters, formulaic as it is, benefits greatly from the title characters, if you can call an inorganic substance a character. Outside of the rogue isotope in Magnetic Monster, the Monoliths stand unique in film history - an interesting, offbeat menace that's like a breath of fresh mint to this jaded cinephile's palate.


Borders on actual science fiction!!!

- May 24, 1998