The Monolith Monsters is reviewed from Anolis Entertainment’s region B-locked Blu-ray, released on March 28 of this year. The disc is limited to 999 copies and can be found at Amazon.de and elsewhere.
1957 seems to have been a good year to be a dangerous rock in cinema. In June Columbia unleashed The Night the World Exploded, a shoestring Sam Katzman / Fred F. Sears thriller that found the Earth in mortal danger from the sudden appearance of a dangerously unstable element buried within its own crust. Interesting in concept (particularly in its overtones of ecological awareness) but bland in its execution, Night would be outdone at practically every level by competitor Universal International’s The Monolith Monsters, released in December of the same year. Easily the most Arnoldian of the Universal shockers not directed by him (Jack Arnold does receive a story credit), long time second unit man John Sherwood’s picture finds one of Universal’s many stock desert communities beset by one of the more bizarre among the decade’s otherworldly menaces – an extraterrestrial crystal growing kit of immense proportions.
A quintessential example of the ’50s monster mystery movie, and about as by-the-books as they come, credit is due to writers Norman Jolley (I’ve Lived Before) and Robert M. Fresco (Tarantula!) for working up a better screenplay than a production like The Monolith Monsters really called for. The narrative centers around the town of San Angelo, a rural patch of civilization with little but a salt mine, a one-page daily rag, and a few hundred decent and law-abiding all-Americans to its name. Just beneath the postcard surface something sinister is brewing. A local geologist with the Department of the Interior is killed, seemingly turned to stone, and his office all but destroyed. A farmhouse is found crushed, its two adult occupants in the same state as the geologist while their child, wandering and catatonic, is found to be slowly petrifying from the hand up. The only clue comes in the form of rocks, slick black and strangely alien, tons of which have mysteriously appeared at each scene.
Geologist Dave Miller (Grant Williams, The Incredible Shrinking Man) and his old professor Flanders (Trevor Bardette, Gun Crazy) investigate, and make a startling discovery. The strange rock that litters the scenes of destruction is indeed alien, borne to Earth on a meteorite, and possessed of a remarkable ability – when it comes into contact with water it grows (to towering height where quantities are sufficient). In the process it absorbs the silica from everything it touches, turning human beings to stone and leaving its surroundings desolate and lifeless. With her disease progressing the young girl (in the care of lovely school teacher Lola Albright, Kid Galahad) is rushed to a research hospital, where the race is on to find a cure. Meanwhile San Angelo is beset by torrential rain. In the desert the extraterrestrial monoliths begin to grow, tumble, shatter, and multiply, making slow yet irresistible progress through a winding canyon, threatening to bury San Angelo and all that lies beyond it under a mountain of petrifying stone!
While one could hardly call The Monolith Monsters the most original of ’50s sci-fi thrillers in so far as its narrative is concerned (this is rooted firmly in the tradition of Warner’s Them! and Universal’s earlier Tarantula!), it remains a more than capable representative of its type. Jolley and Fresco’s screenplay keeps the action moving at a healthy clip and with almost no waste – if a seemingly minor trapping is introduced, you can bet it figures into the film’s conclusion somehow. With no villains to clutter up the proceedings the characters are all a likable lot, and intelligibly written besides. Some of the peripheral players are more interesting than the main cast, including the late, great Les Tremayne (War of the Worlds) as the editor, proprietor, and sole reporter for San Angelo’s daily paper and William Schallert (The Man From Planet X) as a slightly neurotic scene-stealing weatherman. Attention is even paid to legitimate scientific process, a rarity in sci-fi, with Dave and Prof. Flanders methodically going about the task of uncovering the monoliths’ mysteries. The pair chip away at samples, test, re-test, and (gasp!) even do math. It’s a refreshing change of pace for a genre too fond of leaving even the softest of hard science on the cutting room floor.
The meteoric menace is itself one of the decade’s highlights, and brought to memorable geologic life by Universal’s accomplished effects department (including ace effects photographer Clifford Stine and Earthquake‘s Frank Brendel). The revelation of the rocks’ titanic potential is handled with good suspense and style to spare, with Dave and Prof. Flanders rushing to a rain-drenched crater after accidentally growing a mini-monolith in their lab sink – there, battered by torrential rainfall, they see the rocks eerily growing in silhouette. The special effects are limited to a few brief scenes, but are generally very well handled. The monoliths sprout from the ground, angular and weird, and then collapse, taking a few neat miniatures and plenty of desert with them. While others will doubtless disagree I always found them quite imposing and even a little frightening, a thoughtless, unmotivated natural process rumbling destructively through the countryside. It’s an aspect that connects The Monolith Monsters with the earthquakes, tidal waves, super-storms and volcanoes that would clutter up cinemas during the disaster craze of the ’70s, though none of those distinctly Earth-bound events have an ounce of the out-there appeal of this film’s monoliths.
The Monolith Monsters isn’t a perfect film by any means, and those repulsed by plot holes may find the inevitable feel-good conclusion too convenient by miles, but it remains one of the better of its type and time and easily bests most of the Universal sci-fi horrors to come (lovable as Monster on the Campus, The Thing that Couldn’t Die and the rest may be). This is damned fine stuff as far as I’m concerned, and the eponymous monsters well worth the cost of admission.
Anolis Entertainment, who have been responsible for a host of groovy German genre releases over the years (including some world’s best tokusatsu special editions), have granted The Monolith Monsters an unlikely high definition debut with this limited edition Blu-ray, and while I couldn’t be happier I must admit it’s not for everyone. The disc is locked to Region B and carries a hefty price tag – a little over $30 from Amazon.de, and slightly less from some other outlets. Anolis released a comparatively loaded DVD edition as part of their Galerie des Grauens series, but much of that supplemental content (including a pair of audio commentaries and a full-frame German kino-version) has not been ported over to the new issue. The Blu-ray arrives with a pair of trailers (American and faux-German – the film did not have a theatrical release in Germany, but was something of a television staple in the ’70s), a neat HD gallery of stills and advertising material, and a cool HD copy of the US pressbook (put together in such a way that you can actually read the thing if you want, which is a hoot).
The feature presentation, courtesy of an HD master provided by Universal Studios, will be a bone of contention for some. The new master improves quite drastically over Universal’s own domestic DVD edition, with broader contrast, significantly boosted detail (Tremayne’s suit!), and a lovely undisturbed grain structure. Largely unrestored with some occasional instability, flicker, and light damage (dust, specs, and scratches here and there), this edition of The Monolith Monsters nevertheless looks very strong in playback, and the comparison shots below should make the improvements obvious. The disc is only single-layer, but that’s more than sufficient for this 77 minute feature. The encode is quite robust – Mpeg-4 AVC at an average bitrate of 34.1 Mbps – and artifacting is not an issue.
Visual improvements aside the release has courted some controversy due to it’s aspect ratio – 2.00:1, which is as Universal’s master presented it. The Monolith Monsters was filmed flat and protected for both theatrical matting and later open-matte television presentations, but just how wide it was intended to be projected theatrically is beyond me. 2.00:1 was one of Universal’s in-house ratios at the time, and the placement of the film’s credits (quite tight, and pushed slightly towards the top in the frame) suggest that cropping to such a wide ratio may indeed have been expected. In practice this will all be a matter of taste, I expect. The new master shows considerably more information at the sides of the frame, particularly the left. The opening credits appear to be a bit squashed vertically, but this does not appear to effect the rest of the film. All in all I don’t think the material suffers in the least from the wider framing, but others will surely disagree. Those who prefer the old open-matte presentation will have to hang on to their VHS / Laserdisc / DVD (alas, I once had all three!).
Audio is presented in two flavors of 2.0 monophonic DTS-HD MA – original English and German dubbed. The former sounds very good, and while I was expecting the kind of flatness that marred Universal’s King Kong vs. Godzilla blu-ray it never really materialized. The mix is surprisingly vibrant nearly 60 years after the fact, and those classic Universal genre cues expand beautifully. The German dub sounds quite strange in comparison, with significantly flatter background music – the new dubbed dialogue and sound effects seem almost as though they’re floating over the older material. Optional subtitles are povided in German only.
There will be some gnashing of teeth over this disc’s aspect ratio, and still more with regards to the price. Despite some reservations with regards to each I still made the jump, and was pleasantly surprised by the end results. It turns out The Monolith Monsters plays just fine at 2.00:1 (who knew?), and the blu-ray improves so dramatically over what’s come before that yeah, I think the lofty price point was worth it. I’m so happy in fact that I’ve already ordered Anolis’ second limited Universal sci-fi blu-ray – The Mole People shipped yesterday, and should arrive in a couple of weeks. With no sign of these films reaching domestic blu-ray anytime soon I’m glad I picked them up, and those considering the same are encouraged to do so sooner rather than later. While a swift sellout is exceedingly unlikely, those 999 copies aren’t going to last forever.
The comparison DVD shots below were captured as uncompressed .png in VLC media player, blown up in Gimp (to 1440×1080 and 1920×1080 respectively, to simulate upscaling the DVD in both cropped and uncropped ratios), and compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 93%. Blu-ray shots were taken as uncompressed .png in Totem and compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 93% using the ImageMagick command line tool.
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