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The Monster of Piedras Blancas

by Glenn Erickson Sep 09, 2016


Glurg garrgle gurgle raaaaw!  It’s the razor-clawed reptile-man that scared the bejesus out of little kids, way back when. Jack Kevan’s basic monster mash drags its feet a bit, but technically it’s as slick as they come. Plus, the encoding is perfect. And did I mention the scary parts? This one inspired plenty of gory nightmares.

The Monster of Piedras Blancas
Olive Films

1959 / B&W / 1:78 widescreen / 71 min. / Street Date September 13, 2016 / available through the Olive Films website / 29.98
Starring Les Tremayne, Forrest Lewis, John Harmon, Frank Arvidson, Jeanne Carmen, Don Sullivan, Pete Dunn, Joseph La Cava, Wayne Berwick.
Philip Lathrop
Film Editor George Gittens
Assistant Director Joseph C. Cavalier
Written by H. Haile Chace
Produced by Jack Kevan
Directed by Irvin Berwick

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

We ‘fifties kids love our monster movie memories. I was glued to the set every weekend to see what Science Fiction Theater had to offer, and even though we didn’t receive channel eleven, I’d tune into the Saturday night Chiller to see if a movie would materialize through the broadcast static. Meanwhile, eighty miles away in Los Angeles, my future spouse and her sister were watching the Chiller broadcasts in the apartment of the Italian lady upstairs, hugging each other in excited fear at the monsters while being served milk and fresh cookies. Strictly speaking our backgrounds had little in common, but after hearing that story it was clear that I had to marry her.     Well, there were other considerations too.

Back in the 1950s all was not happy at Universal, especially not in the makeup bungalow, where talented craftsmen and artists produced miracles on tight budgets, in an oppressive environment where the department chief claimed most of the screen credit. Makeup artists that attracted too much attention or publicity were gotten rid of, if the department head felt threatened. When the business thinned out in 1957, ace sculptor and latex monster-maker Jack Kevan either left Universal or was let go. The artisan-technician had begun his career on The Wizard of Oz, and was instrumental in creating most of Uni’s 1950s fantasy and Science Fiction films. Yet he accumulated almost no screen credits.

Kevan went into partnership with fellow Uni employee Irv Berwick. The micro-budgeted monster flick they made became so commercial that it was played theatrically as a second or third feature long after it had become a staple on TV monster shows. The script and acting of The Monster of Piedras Blancas lack polish, but it definitely had an impact on fans of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, which displayed great photos of its terrific rubber-suited monster. Kevan’s critter is uglier and more ferocious than The Creature from the Black Lagoon, with a face that’s a cross between a lizard and a wart hog. Those of us too young to see this bruiser in theaters heard our older brothers’ descriptions of impossibly gory scenes of the scaly monster carrying a decapitated head. We couldn’t wait to see it in action. I remember imagining my own non-existent gruesome scenes, long before I saw the movie.

Horrifying decapitation murders shock a coastal town near the lighthouse maintained by old man Sturges (John Harmon). Sheriff Matson (Forrest Lewis) can’t stop the immigrant storekeeper Kolchek (Frank Arvidson) from spreading panicky rumors. Local doctor Sam Jorgenson (Les Tremayne) is stymied by the condition of the corpses. The heads are cleanly severed, and all blood has been drained, sucked out through the jugular vein. Young Lucille Sturges (Jeanne Carmen of The Devil’s Hand) is trying to get her stubborn father to accept her boyfriend, marine biologist Fred (Don Sullivan of The Giant Gila Monster). Fred in turn pressures Sturges to explain why he’s so adamant that nobody explore the caves in the rocks below the lighthouse. Could Sturges be violating city ordinance 24, ‘aiding and abetting ferocious scaly vampire monsters’?

Is The Monster of Piedras Blancas any good? Kids my age are going to like it no matter what, but new fans may need some guidance through the rules of cheapo monster pix of the late ‘fifites. A turnip like The Giant Gila Monster alternates fun nonsense with padding in the form of pitiful songs designed to make Don Sullivan into a teen idol. The not-bad The Killer Shrews has a jeopardy-suspense thing going for it that’s actually quite progressive, but the cheap production and silly shrew monsters mitigate against anyone taking it seriously.

Like those movies, Piedras Blancas is a garden-variety Monster Flick for the drive-ins, not a cultured horror item or a Science Fiction tale with ideas. It is more thoughtful than those other movies, and certainly looks and sounds better than they do, but it has its own slow patches, mainly in dialogue scenes that come off as padding. The principals blather on about prehistoric ‘diplovertebrons,’ and the domestic scenes in the Sturges’ lighthouse are equally unrewarding. Nobody bothered to give the lighthouse keeper a sensible character. He’s a despondent widower who has befriended a ‘thing’ in the rocks, a ‘private monster pet.’ He adores his daughter, but seemingly can’t make a choice between the two? People are being slaughtered left and right, including a little girl, and this otherwise sensitive guy doesn’t realize he’s responsible? The script doesn’t realize that these things don’t add up.

Spoofs like Joe Dante’s Matinee and John Landis’ Schlock poke fun at low-budget monster movies made with more enthusiasm than logic. Piedras Blancas’ characters are in dire jeopardy, yet they behave as if mildly inconvenienced. Headless corpses are piling up in the freezer back of the fish market, and the jug-eared Sheriff never bothers to call in outside law enforcement help, and instead expresses concern about people over-reacting. The monster crashes out of a general store in front of a score of witnesses, but nobody sees where it went. Sturges and Lucille are told to lock their door, as if a stray dog hadn’t been accounted for.

Instead of being bored, we’re tickled by the unintended deadpan comedy. Doctor Sam has a habit of meandering off into unnecessary medical details for thirty seconds at a clip. When Lucille becomes upset, the Doc’s reaction is to immediately give her a powerful tranquilizer, reminding us that these are the 1950s, when female emotionalism needed to be carefully controlled. But Doc Sam seems to be on the la-la pills himself. It’s time to call in the National Guard, and he’s still giving out with reassuring smiles and insipid observations:“If we were living in the 19th Century, I’d say these were victims of the guillotine.” Standing above a decapitated corpse we can’t see, Sam and the sheriff carry on a patently absurd casual conversation. The scene is perhaps the only one in the movie illogically blocked — the two men appear to be pacing back and forth in the space where the corpse should be.

The professional cast members were surely Berwick and Kevan’s personal friends, and good old Les Tremayne is obviously trying to give his Doc character some dimension beyond his expositional function. The lumpy screenplay has some pacing issues in the final act. When Sturges and Lucille are in dire jeopardy at the lighthouse, the movie loses tension with a long cutaway to the other characters sitting around and talking. Fred decides to call Lucille but can’t get through. They talk some more before finally deciding to rush down to see what’s going on. A smart script would be accelerating the pace at this point, not slowing down; the scene should be reduced to Fred hanging up the receiver and saying, “They don’t answer, I’ve got to get down there.” The problem is that trimming the movie tightly would easily reduce it to less than feature length. A more modern suspense movie would stretch jeopardy scenes out into set pieces, distending time and upping the tension. Of course, that requires more time spent on more carefully organized camera angles, etc.

But hey – a scaly monster is ripping off heads? That’s an un-killable story hook.

The Monster of Piedras Blancas knows its market and delivers the goods. People want to see the nasty title critter, and when it shows up it’s quite a shock. The first sight of the thing’s head is a quick cut as it howls and gushes water from its mouth. The one quick cut of it carrying a severed head was many a fan’s first brush with gore. Kevan’s pasty prop noggin does not look like something made of paper mache, and it even looks like the character it’s supposed to be. I’d bet that that the monster’s guttural voice track was smuggled out of the Universal sound department — indeed, I can imagine Kevan’s wildcat crew ‘borrowing’ Uni facilities and tools left and right.

The monster is quite a construction, a full Gill Man- like rubber body suit with an excellent ugly-mug head, outfitted with hands and feet borrowed from (Kevan’s?) Mole Man and Metaluna Mutant. Did Jack Kevan construct his Monster right in the Universal makeup shop? It seems likely. I wonder what that arrangement might have been. I like to think that Kevan just knocked it out when the department head was on vacation; the full story is surely in some old issue of Filmfax magazine. The beast is great until we see the whole thing and can no longer stay in denial about how unlikely it is. The design doesn’t have the elegance of the Gill Man, but is far better than what was cobbled together for Edward L. Cahn’s It! – The Terror from Beyond Space. It rates a solid B+.

I like The Monster of Piedras Blancas and I’m pretty sure that audiences were more than satisfied. Jack Kevan’s competitive edge was surely his group of studio friends and contacts eager to help out. Irv Berwick was a busy dialogue director. Cameraman Philip Lathrop gives the picture a high polish, taking advantage of the attractive locations on the California coast. Between Lathrop and assistant director Jospeh C. Cavalier — who later assisted Don Siegel on his Uni pictures — the choice of shots and flow of action is clean and direct. Audio experts Joe Lapis and James V. Swartz did all the big Universal pictures, even Alfred Hitchcock’s. Piedras Blancas has exceedingly clear production sound recorded in difficult locations, such as the echo-y interior of a lighthouse tower.

‘Vanwick’ hedged their bets in more ways than one by hiring actress / Hollywood party girl Jeanne Carmen to play Lucille, the college-educated small town girl who still goes to her room when her daddy orders her to do so. Carmen takes a supposed nude moonlight swim, but the character is chaste. We little kids imagined gorier scenes for Piedras Blancas, but judging by the selection of pin-up photos at Ms. Carmen’s IMDB page, older males were likely fantasizing other scenarios.

As I mentioned in a review last month, I saw one of the actors in The Monster of Piedras Blancas just about exactly twenty years later. To recap, editor friend Steve Nielson invited me to hang out on the set of the latest horror opus he was editing, Microwave Massacre. The director Wayne Berwick breezed by at one point and I noticed his pronounced limp. I learned only much later that he had polio as a child. Just as promised, little Wayne Berwick’s name pops up in the main credits. Wayne shows up for two nicely acted scenes, and is indeed wearing a leg brace. When he spots a dead body he must hop-run for help, and it’s not played for a laugh. Way to go, Wayne — the rest of us Monster Kids are jealous of you. I’ve got stupid kid pictures of myself at Disneyland with ice cream on my face, while you will forever be the bleeping star of a bona fide monster epic.

Olive Films’ Blu-ray of The Monster of Piedras Blancas is a dazzler. The widescreen B&W image is in perfect condition, and the HD scan likely makes Philip Lathrop’s razor sharp images look better than they did in 1959. TV broadcasts were nothing like this: the picture is so clear we can read the flyers taped to the general store window, including a local theater ad for Selznick’s A Farewell to Arms. The sound mix appears to use needle-drop library cues, but all the dialogue is beautifully recorded, often out on the windy cliffs and beach. The show may not be sophisticated or cinema art in any standard sense. But for a monster show it’s a gem, a pleasure to watch and a real treat. Olive offers no extras, but has generously provided English subs, an extra plus for folks old enough to have seen the movie when it was new.

Back around 1998 my editorial colleague Todd Stribich took a motorcycle trip up the coast in search of locations for this show, and brought back photos. He found most everything but not where he expected it to be. The actual Piedras Blancas lighthouse is much different, and the one in the film is actually the Point Conception Lighthouse, in Lompoc. Main street was apparently filmed in the little town Cayucos By the Sea — on this interactive web page one can pan around a view of Cayucos’ main street. The storefronts we see could very well be the old sets for Piedras Blancas.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Monster of Piedras Blancas Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 7, 2016

Here’s Joe Dante’s TFH commentary on The Monster of Piedras Blancas

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.