Everyone loves a good old-fashioned black-and-white 1950s American monster movie. Everyone. When they’re good – Them!, Tarantula, Beast From 20,000 Fathoms – they’re the stuff of a million memories, charming and naive reminders of more innocent times, when nuclear weapons were just bound to cause long-dormant monsters to awaken from their slumbers or insects or arachnids to swell up to enormous proportions, before rampaging around middle America chased by soldiers. Even when they’re bad, there’s still plenty of entertainment to be had wincing at naff special effects and stiff-as-a-board acting. The Monolith Monsters, from 1957, has emerged from nowhere onto DVD and falls squarely somewhere between the two stools; the characters are little more than bland ciphers and there are no Oscar-winning performances, but there are some good ideas here and there, not least in the central conceit of an alien threat which actually isn’t malevolent or especially sentient, just something which has come to Earth and is behaving instinctually and without malice.
A huge meteorite crashes into the desert outside Los Angeles and instantly explodes, scattering hundreds of tiny black crystalline fragments across the arid landscape. Shortly afterwards, ill-advised locals including a Federal geologist (Harvey) and a schoolgirl on a field trip (Scheley), pick up some fragments which, when exposed to water, demonstrate disturbing – not to say terrifying – properties. Boffins and cops discover that the rocks absorb silicon from human bodies (turning them into stone) and that contact with water causes the rock to expand into towering ebony blocks – monolith monsters, if you will. A rainstorm leads to the fragments in the desert expanding before toppling and shattering into millions of new fragments which in turn, grow and expand, leading to a relentless tide of monoliths advancing on the nearby town and which, if unchecked, could threaten all life on Earth.
Marvellously unstarry – the only name genre fans are likely to recognise here in Grant (Incredible Shrinking Man) Williams - Monolith Monsters is an unexpected and refreshingly lowbrow treat. The monoliths themselves are an uncharacteristic threat to the human race – they’re not, despite the film’s title, monsters at all, just a non-sentient extra-terrestrial phenomenon, which reacts to its circumstances on Earth and recreates itself unthinkingly. It’s just doing what it does. This alone makes it a more palpable and believable threat than any number of alien invasion fleets or giant underwater behemoths, and the effects work isn’t at all bad and for a film of this vintage, especially in those scenes where the massive monoliths loom out of the darkness as they ‘march’ remorselessly across the desert. The resolution is beautifully apt, simple and pleasingly Wellsian and the whole thing’s done and dusted in around seventy-five minutes.
Happily you’re unlikely to feel you’ve wasted your time. It might have neither the reputation nor the familiarity of the classics of its era but The Monolith Monsters is a long-forgotten gem, which deserves its long-overdue excavation and is guaranteed to delight fans of the big, black-and-white, wide-eyed days of sci-fi cinema.
THE MONOLITH MONSTERS (1957) / CERT: 12 / DIRECTOR: JOHN SHERWOOD / SCREENPLAY: NORMAN JOLLEY, ROBERT M FRESCO / STARRING: GRANT WILLIAMS, LOLA ALBRIGHT, LES TREMAYNE, LINDA SCHELEY/ RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW