Column: The Vault of Secrets: The Monolith Monsters (1957)

The Monolith Monsters (1957). Directed by: John Sherwood. Starring: Grant Williams, Lola Albright, Les Tremayne.

Welcome back to the Vault of Secrets, where we’ll be unearthing another classic (or not-so-classic) vintage horror film for your delectation. Tonight’s film was recommended by my friend Marlyse Comte, who remembered it from her childhood, where it terrified her. Upon watching it, I can actually see why. Its boilerplate 50s sci-fi paranoia exterior houses some surprisingly effective moments, and some truly unique “monsters.”

The Monolith Monsters has the distinction of being the only movie I’ve ever seen (and probably one of the only movies that exist) to feature monsters that are literally inanimate. The titular monoliths are meteors that fall from space. They’re just fragments of black rock that litter the desert landscape, until they get wet in a heavy rainstorm, at which time they grow into the towering monoliths of the name. Once they get too tall, they fall over and shatter. Each new piece grows into another monolith, and so on, for as long as they keep getting wet.

This makes the inanimate “monsters” a remarkably ominous and inexorable enemy, a feature that’s helped along by the weird sound of them growing and breaking, a constant rumble that plays under almost all the scenes near the end of the film.

The special effects of the growing rocks were created by Clifford Stine, who got his start on King Kong and did “special photography” for a ton of other 1950s sci-fi films, including most of the other films in the Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection. While I couldn’t find a source on exactly how the monolith effects were created, watching them grow and shatter and grow again is almost hypnotic, and the effect remains impressive even today.

The Monolith Monsters was part of a slew of sci-fi monster films released by Universal in the 50s (It uses recycled footage from It Came from Outer Space and was released on a double-bill with the evocatively-titled Love Slaves of the Amazons). Like many of them, it was a partial brainchild of Jack Arnold, who had originally intended to direct it before scheduling conflicts necessitated his handing it off to John Sherwood, a prolific second-unit director whose three sole directorial credits also include The Creature Walks Among Us.

All the earmarks of the 50s sci-fi monster film are here, from the voiceover science lesson that opens the film to the earnestly-delivered monologues of incredibly poor science explaining just what’s going on to the extremely bland, extremely white leading man. Of course the movie takes place in an isolated desert town and people even make cryptic remarks about the desert around them. (“The desert is full of things that don’t belong.”) Unfortunately, the uniform packaging prevents the movie’s very real charms from doing much more than making it an above-average example of its subgenre.

The monoliths themselves can be read as metaphors for just about anything you’d like. The group I was with read in them every manner of paranoia conceivable, constantly throwing out different interpretations throughout the film. Many online sources perceive the monoliths as symbols of Communism, which can be said of just about every monster in every movie from the 50s. (If horror films really are a reflection of the fears of their era, then people in the 50s were afraid of atomic bombs and Communists and not much else.) As Glen R. Chapman writes in a thoughtful review of The Monolith Monsters for Strange Horizons, “The monoliths are the Soviet empire: slow, ponderous, sucking the life from everything they touch.”

Regardless of how you interpret the monoliths, though, the movie itself is a surprisingly effective and largely forgotten gem of 1950s monster movie paranoia, boasting some of the most unique monsters ever put on film. That’s enough to give it my seal of approval, anyway!

That’s it for tonight’s program, but be sure to join us again next month, when we check out a very odd Japanese Gothic thriller.

Orrin Grey

About Orrin Grey

Orrin Grey is a skeleton who likes monsters. His stories of ghosts, monsters, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters have appeared in dozens of anthologies and been collected in Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings and Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts. He can be found online at orringrey.com.

Orrin GreyColumn: The Vault of Secrets: The Monolith Monsters (1957)