Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, October 11, 2013

Halloween 2013: October 11

The Monolith Monsters (1957)

I think somebody at Universal had a fairly loose definition of the word “monsters.” Beginning with a short narration provided by the instantly recognizable Paul Frees and some stock-footage from “It Came from Outer Space,” “The Monolith Monsters” focus on the town of San Angelo, tucked in an obscure corner of the California desert. The local geologist, which I guess is something every small town needs, while out for a drive discovers a strange black rock. He brings it back to his lab, chats with the local reporter, before leaving the rock in his lab. The next morning, the geologist is discovered, turned to stone, the lab overwhelmed by the growing black rocks. Soon enough, the black stones spring up all over San Angelo, destroying a home and turning innocent people into solid rock. The motley crew of heroes, including the town sheriff and his school teacher love interest, realizes that when the meteor fragments are exposed to water, they grow uncontrollably, adsorbing the silicon out of anything near-by, including people. Yes, dear readers, “The Monolith Monsters” is a film in which the world is threatened… By rocks. As I said, probably not anyone’s idea of a proper monster.

Why was the isolated desert town the setting for so many of these fifties sci-fi flicks? Because they were all filmed on studio back lots? Because it’s cheaper to show aliens/monsters/big bugs/insidious space rocks attacking a small town then a big city? Or did “It Came from Outer Space” really just set that much of a precedence? Whatever the reason, the small town setting is what’s most likable about “The Monolith Monsters.” San Angelo is a sleepy place, seemingly inhabited by about twenty people. The newspaper man complains about there not being any thing worth writing about. Still, there’s something undeniably cozy about the place, a bit like Mayberry, out in the desert and threatened by deadly space crystals. The film quickly establishes a scene of place, making the audience like San Angelo, allowing us to take the incoming threat more seriously.

Of course, it’s not just the places but the people in them. Former incredible shrinking man Grant Williams stars as the sheriff. This is a much more typical hero role for Williams. Like most fifties B-movie protagonist, he is a handsome, strong, quick-thinking guy who is also smart enough to know what silica is. Williams brings the same empathetic nature to this part as he did in “Shrinking Man.” The look on his face when the news of the man turned to stone is told speaks volumes. Lola Albright stands out as well as the school teacher. Early on, one of her students sees her obvious attraction to the town sheriff, a cute, charming scene. Albright’s character is similarly motivated by her concern for her fellow townsfolk. When the little girl gets sick with the rock disease, she stays by her side in the hospital.

Doomsday rock debris sounds like a silly threat on paper. However, the titular threat of “The Monolith Monsters” wind up being weirdly credible. The towering black monoliths, shiny and translucent, surely make for a memorable visual. There’s something subtly unnerving about buildings and homes overwhelmed by the protruding, dark shapes. In the second half, prompted by a thunderstorm, the crystals grow to enormous size. They reach towards the heaven, shatter under their own weight, crash to the ground, and start to grow again. Slowly, they expanded through the desert, crushing homes in their path, threatening to destroy the town. There’s something captivating about watching the monoliths grow, like shinier versions of those snake fireworks. Censorship rules of the time prevent us from getting a good look at the people turned to stone. That is, after all, a rather horrific fate. The plight of the little girl, at least, interests the audience in the condition. Overall, the Monolith Monsters come off as far more dangerous then you’d expect a bunch of space stones to be. Not until the Rock Lords would fiction work this hard again to make rocks threatening.

The film’s biggest problem is an issue many science fiction stories of this era fall into: It takes the characters longer to figure out what’s happening then it does the audience. The camera lingers on the original crystals bubbling in water, signaling the change, from the get-go, robbing the mystery of quite a bit of suspense. It’s a good thing the cast is likable because they spend a lot of time standing around, talking about silica. The traumatized little girl, once again, reminds me of “Them!” Reportedly, Jack Arnold thought up the idea and was originally going to direct before handing the job over to John Sherwood, whose direction is comparatively flat. “The Monolith Monsters” is undeniably a minor entry into the Universal Sci-Fi Cannon but a likable one nevertheless. It is, weirdly, not the only horror movie about killer rocks. [7/10]

Tales from the Crypt: “For Cryin’ Out Loud

How much you enjoy “For Cryin’ Out Loud” is probably depended on your tolerance for Sam Kinison. The former Pentecostal preacher turned shout-y comedian was probably well cast as an inner voice of reason. Certainly, having Kinison’s voice in your head would likely drive anyone to commit murder. Anyway, in this rock(though not the same kind of rock as "The Monolith Monsters")-infused episode, a sweaty promoter is ready to run off with a million dollars from a benefit concert before being stopped by his banker. He murders the woman, hides the body, but the screaming, vindictive voice in his head slowly tears down his resolve.

Lee Arenberg, an actor who has rarely been given a chance to shine, is fantastic in the lead role. Despite his clearly comfortable life-style, his self-pitying excuse to commit robbery are simultaneously aggravating and hilarious, a good balance for “Tales.” There’s a great extended bit where Arenberg wanders through the packed auditorium, sweating profusely, Kinison screaming inside his head. Others stare at him and he becomes increasingly paranoid that people can hear his blaring conscious. The reveal concerning that is probably the episode’s best surprise.

Katey Segal plays the murder victim and seems to have fun balancing rock n’ roll seductress and scheming penny-pincher. A good gag involves Danny Osmond’s drum kit and a rock-hating cop. Iggy Pop puts in a foul-mouthed cameo as himself, backed by a band called the Leather Weasals, an accurate description of Pop’s appearance if I’ve ever heard one. (Though I’m not sure people would still be moshing at an Iggy Pop concert in 1990.) Few people but me will find this amusing but Lee Tergesen, better known as “Terry” from “Wayne’s World,” has a bit part as a sound technician and he looks exactly the same. Anyway, “For Cryin’ Out Loud” is a fun episode, even if Kinison’s disembodied shoutery is just as likely to annoy as it is amuse. [7/10]

So Weird: “Tulpa

“Tulpa” had the potential to be one of the creepier episodes of “So Weird” but is hamstrung by awkward presentation. On the road, in a random town, Fiona, Jack, and Clu run into a kid on the playground. When Fiona nearly gets run over by an oncoming car, James the new kid seems to toss her clear of the vehicle. Even though James is kind of a little prick, Fiona continues to show an interest in him, convinced he might have psychic powers. Instead, James’ powers are rooted in an all-together different phenomena.

The James character is definitely the episode’s biggest problem. We learn why eventually, the kid is far too abrasive to be sympathetic at first. He's not a strong enough actor to sell his prickly behavior as a defense mechanism. You just end up not liking the kid. The direction is oddly melodramatic. The scene of Fiona getting tossed clear of the car involves slow-motion, flashing lights, and stilted photography. The episode returns to that tactic during the climax as well. The effect is more confusing then thrilling. A more subtle approach is more effective. When Fiona is convincing James to undo his imaginary friend, we see a swing set start to move in the background. It’s a nice, creepy moment and one the episode needed more of.

It’s not a total wash. David “Squatch” Ward, an always welcomed but underused actor on this show, has a good moment discussing his past as a bouncer in a biker club. There’s callback to previous episode “Angel,” which is appreciated. Back in 1999, a tulpa was a more obscure concept, before various internet nutjobs made it wider discussed, and the episode builds some okay suspense from that obscurity. If DeviantArt and Tumblr existed back when this episode aired, I bet crazy fans would have shipped Fi and James, which I definitely wouldn’t approve of. (Of course, knowing crazy fans, they’d probably ship Fi and Jack too. Because the internet is gross.) [6/10]

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