The Monster of Piedras Blancas directed by Irvin Berwick
It is truly remarkable how a cinematic image can make a lasting imprint on a young and impressionable mind. Take, for example, the 3-year-old me, who witnessed, in a movie theatre, the image of a man falling on a dynamite plunger and causing a bridge to blow up, resulting in a devastating train wreck. It is an image that I have never forgotten, despite all these intervening decades; one of the final scenes, of course, from the great David Lean film The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), which I have since verified my folks did take me to see, although why my parents deemed a 2 ½-hour war movie appropriate fare for such a young child is another matter. Flash forward five years or so, and we have another lasting cinematic image from my childhood, this one of a bit more grisly nature: a hideous monster advancing toward the camera, clutching in its mitt the dangling head of its latest victim. For an 8-year-old kid, such a proceeding might be truly unforgettable, as it would indeed turn out to be for me and all my fellow baby boomers who thrilled to the film in question, the 1959 wonder known as The Monster of Piedras Blancas. Back in the early to mid-‘60s, this film was shown quite often here in NYC on the wonderful program known as Chiller Theatre, although it would eventually become virtually impossible to see. But the memory of it has persisted over the decades for this viewer— at least, that one scene has, as well as the memory of a lighthouse of some kind — and I have wanted to refresh my memory of it ever since. Happily, in this modern digital era, the movie is now a snap to experience, thanks to Olive Films’ fine-looking DVDs of it, in both standard and Blu-ray editions. Originally released in April 1959 as part of a double bill, along with the long-forgotten Okefenokee, the film reveals itself to be, all these decades later, a surprisingly decent entertainment, if with some problematic elements. Still, I had a blast watching it for the first time in 50-something years, just the other night.
In the film, a rash of killings has broken out in the quaint California coastal town of Piedras Blancas. Two fishermen, the Rinaldi brothers, have been found, their necks ripped apart, and the local grocer, Kochek (Frank Arvidson), blames the murders on the legend of a local monster. The town’s lighthouse keeper, Sturges (John Harmon, an actor whose name you might not recognize despite his 287 IMDb credits!), pooh-poohs such claims, despite the fact that we viewers have already seen him suspiciously leaving dishes of fish near the coastal caves for … something. When Kockek himself is found dead, his head completely torn off, the town’s doctor, Sam Jorgenson (Les Tremayne, perhaps the biggest “name” in this film, who had previously appeared in 1953’s The War of the Worlds and 1957’s The Monolith Monsters, and who would go on to appear in 1963’s, uh, The Slime People), and the local constable, George Matson (Forrest Lewis, who had just appeared in 1958’s The Thing That Couldn’t Die), do a little sleuthing around, and find the scale of a strange whatzit in the grocer’s store. Aided by young Fred, a budding scientist (and played by Don Sullivan, who that same year would appear in The Giant Gila Monster AND Teenage Zombies), the team discovers that the scale belongs to a creature known as a “diplovertebron,” a prehistoric amphibious reptile that had supposedly gone extinct over 300 million years ago! As the killings continue, including the murder of a little girl, the town’s crisis comes to a head, until the monster itself appears to the viewer, a full 50+ minutes into this scant 71-minute affair, when Sturges’ daughter Lucy, who has recently been dating Fred (and played by Jeanne Carmen, a former model, pin-up girl, trick-shot golfer, and, supposedly, best friend of Marilyn Monroe), opens the door of her lighthouse home and sees the horrible creature goggling at her in the rubbery flesh….
Though only produced with a budget of under $30,000, The Monster of Piedras Blancas looks just fine, and makes good use of its outdoor seaside locales, well shot here in B&W by cinematographer Philip Lathrop. Strangely enough, the town of Cayucos, CA stood in for the town of Piedras Blancas here, and the Point Conception Lighthouse was used in the film, not the Piedras Blancas Light Station itself; don’t ask me why. Director Irvin Berwick and producer Jack Kevan, both of whom had worked at Universal Studios, make every dollar pay off here in this, their self-made first of two independent efforts. As for the creature costume itself, reportedly, Kevan salvaged the feet of the Metalunan mutant from the sci-fi wonder This Island Earth (1955), as well as the never-used hands for The Mole People (1956). The net result is a monster that is somewhat suggestive of Millicent Patrick’s legendary Creature From the Black Lagoon, as well as the monstrosities in The She-Creature (1956), It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958) and The Hideous Sun Demon (1959). The fearsome mug of the Piedras Blancas monster is indeed a nasty one, although the head part of its costume looks somewhat detached from its body … appropriately enough, I suppose, considering that all of its victims soon wind up in a similar state! Pete Dunn, the man in the monster costume here, lumbers about and beats his chest in ferocious gorilla fashion, making for still another great ‘50s sci-fi creation.
The Monster of Piedras Blancas features a number of truly gripping scenes, including the one in which Lucy opens that door and sees our creature in close-up, with seawater gurgling from its gaping maw, and the one in which Sturges combats the monster high up in the lighthouse. The film offers up some pleasing bits of grossness (at least, they seemed gross when I was a kiddy), including that unforgettable shot of the dangling head, and that same head found in a cave later on, a crab scurrying about on top of it. And it gives us one of the enduring tropes of ‘50s sci-fi: the sequence in which the monster carries away a screaming young woman (Lucy, in this case), although what it intends to do with her is anybody’s guess. The film is, surprisingly, decently acted by its small cast, moves along briskly, and keeps its moments of unintentional risibility to a minimum. It even manages to throw in an homage of sorts to the great 1953 classic From Here to Eternity, as Fred and Lucy lay in the surf and make out as the waves crash over them. And speaking of Lucy, it is interesting that Jeanne Carmen, who was such a glamour girl in the ‘50s, is presented in this film as a realistically average-looking character. Lucy is an attractive woman, yes, but her outfits here are surely nothing to draw special notice, and the character strikes the viewer as something of a plain Jane. Granted, she is shown stripping down to do a little nighttime skinny-dipping in the surf, and is later seen standing at her window wearing a brassiere, but for a sexpot performer of Carmen’s fame, her character here is surprisingly tame. Carmen, by the way, has a very interesting history/biography that I urge you to look into, and her online comments vis-à-vis Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedys, and her exploits with them, will surely fascinate. Anyway, so yes, the film does have many positive aspects that might surprise a modern-day viewer. Still, as might be expected, there remain some problems to be had.
For one thing, the film’s script, by one H. Haile Chace, is a lazy one, and fails to explain just where the monster originated to begin with, and why the monster in question loves to rip the heads off of its victims. Okay, the monster has been draining away the blood from its kills, but still, the head ripping strikes one as being a bit … gratuitous. For that matter, why does the monster not eat its victims whole, as it has been shown to have a liking for the fish and meat scraps that Sturges had been feeding it, sight unseen, over the years? And then there is that conclusion to the film. Can we assume that the monster has been killed or not? And oh … it appears that the diploverterbron is an actual extinct species, but one that only existed in the swamps of what is now the Czech Republic in central Europe. So how did this one wind up in central California, of all places? But these are minor matters, of course. The Monster of Piedras Blancas still remains a nice little entertainment — one of the capper films coming at the tail end of a classic decade for science fiction on the big screen — and one that is of course perfect fare to watch with your favorite 8-year-old. He or she might be grossed out a little by the proceedings therein, but trust me, if my experience with the film is any indication, your little one will never forget it!