Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Monster of Piedras Blancas (1959) review


Les Tremayne (Dr. Sam Jorgenson), Don Sullivan (Fred), Jeanne Carmen (Lucy), John Harmon (Sturges), Forrest Lewis (Constable George Matson)

Directed by Irvin Berwick

The Short Version: Inspired by the BLACK LAGOON's most famous resident, this similar, yet cheaper looking beast roams the California coast in and around the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse (filmed at the Point Conception Lighthouse and in Cayucos) seeking human flesh. A shocking instance of gore, a memorable monster that isn't shy about the age range of its victims, and a spectacularly silly finale where a dummy does cartwheels off the top of the lighthouse compensate for a sluggish pace and logic-lapsed script. Much better than you'd expect from a flick costing $29,000; if it weren't for the delightfully derivative (but effective), head-ripping monster, Berwick's movie wouldn't be the pseudo-celebrated obscurity it is today. 

Local physicians believe something not human is lurking around a small, seaside village off the California coast after a string of headless corpses begin turning up. Unknown to the townsfolk, Sturges, the Lighthouse Keeper, has been quietly feeding fish and meat scraps to a legendary creature living in a nearby cave.... the Monster of Piedras Blancas.

The success of THEM! (1954) gave many producers hope that other bugs and creepy critters would result in box office receipts of gigantic proportions. Strangely, despite its popularity, there wasn't a slew of CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) knock-offs. One of them that wasn't a remake (like OCTAMAN), but followed the same template was Irvin Berwick's THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS from 1959--appearing in theaters three years after the Gill Man's last adventure, THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956).

Written by Berwick with little attention paid to logic, the huge gaps in the narrative will leave viewers scratching their heads if the bland performances don't put them to sleep first. As is, THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS isn't that bad, but it isn't particularly good, either. Obviously, its best asset is the monster.... if only we saw more of it.

Jack Kevan, who helped shape the look of the Gill-Man, was a producer on this picture--as well as creating, and wrangling the parts for the monster suit. If the monster's hands and feet look familiar, that's because they were borrowed from the Metaluna Mutant (from 1955s THIS ISLAND EARTH) and The Mole People (from the 1956 film of the same name) respectively. 

Dubbed a Diplovertebron by the pseudo-scientific jargon written for the scientists to deliver, the beast's reveal is quite an entrance. Coming into close-up with about a pint of drool rolling out of its carnivorous kisser, it does what any red-blooded American monster would do--it grabs the girl and carries her off to its inevitable oblivion. 

Berwick keeps the monster mostly hidden till the last ten minutes; normally this would be a great suspense-builder if there was a solid foundation to keep the tension properly mounted....

There are times where a slow build is a benefit to a picture; for MONSTER, it's a detriment. It would've been nice if that slow build had more shadowy appearances and clawed arms claiming a few more victims in the interim. Moreover, the molasses-like pacing wouldn't be so bad if the characters given us were more palatable; and some of their motivations been less vague.

At 71 minutes, the film feels more like 91. The characters are standard for this type of SciFi-Horror, if only cardboard cut-outs of those of much better movies. The script doesn't improve them, riddled with silly dialog and a ridiculous reasoning for the monster having what amounts to a foster father....

Sturges, the old man who runs the lighthouse, is the creature's caretaker--feeding it over the years and taking care of it like a pet; it's only when Kocheck refused to give him the required meat scraps that the toothy critter take a liking to human-sized morsels. During his bizarre explanation for his years-long actions, Sturges bewilderingly blurts out, "I had a protective feeling, like it was my own... I was very lonely....; in a moment of self-awareness, Sturges continues with, "I know it's stupid..." 

Les Tremayne's stock scientist is the best performer of the bunch. A radio actor with an unmistakable voice, Tremayne (above in middle) and his pipes are recognizable in greats like WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953), FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956) and THE MONOLITH MONSTERS (1958). THE ANGRY RED PLANET (1959) and THE SLIME PEOPLE (1963) are among his lesser works. Japanese monster fans will naturally know his voice work from the US version of KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962).

In spite of the deficiencies, Tremayne and the monster are among the film's strongest assets. One other area Berwick's movie stands out is an unexpectedly nasty scene of gore where the monster emerges from a freezer carrying the severed head of one of its victims. This nipped noggin shows up again a short time later being gnoshed on by a large crab.

Berwick's son, little Wayne Berwick, is in the movie as a crippled kid who discovers a headless corpse. He would grow up to direct an obscure exploitation picture of his own, the heat-it-up horror that is MICROWAVE MASSACRE (1983).

Elsewhere, pin-up model and B movie queen Jeanne Carmen goes swimming topless, emerging from the surf in a wide shot, but photographed in silhouette. According to Jeanne Carmen in a 2008 interview, she objected to doing nudity so a stand-in did the skinny-dipping in her place. Intended to be serious, this sequence comes complete with unintended snickers when the monster--off camera--reveals himself to be a heavy breather. The late Ms. Carmen lived quite a life, rubbing elbows with many of Hollywood's top personalities and had her own E! TRUE HOLLYWOOD STORY that aired in 1998. Of her numerous film roles, MONSTER is the best-loved of the bunch.

The main audience for THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS (1959) are those with an appreciation for the monster movies of that era--especially those shot in glorious B/W. If you're a fan of Jack Arnold's CREATURE, you'll certainly want to see this cheaper variant. It's not a patch on the Gill-Man's escapades, but for a production with a $29,000 budget, you could do far worse. It's recent release on bluray (and it looks fantastic), saved from relative obscurity by Olive Films, adds an enormous amount of appeal for fans--old and new--to either revisit, or discover, this minor league gem from the Fabulous 50s.

This review is representative of the Olive Films Bluray. Specs and Extras: 1080p 1.78:1 aspect ratio; optional English subtitles; running time: 01:11:12

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Best of Tales From the Darkside Season 3

Season Two of TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE was another late-night success ensuring a 3rd season would creep up on ya' the next year. The DARKSIDE was so popular, the financiers ordered not one, but two seasons worth of programming; so 42 episodes were produced--24 for season three and 18 for season four. While the style and variety of the series remained largely unchanged, the opening title font was altered from a blood-dripping text to one with a Gothic appeal.

The Circus (originally aired September 28th, 1986)

Brash newspaper reporter Mr. Bragg takes his job seriously; so seriously that he receives great joy in exposing various sideshow charlatans for his paper. On one particularly dark and stormy night, a car accident brings him to Dr. Nis's Exhibition of Wonder, a carnival he's diligently pursued for review for a long time. Run by the sinister Dr. Nis, Bragg quickly learns there's nothing fake about Nis's grotesque attractions.

George Romero's second teleplay for his popular 80s horror series is one of the most FX-heavy, and certainly darkest, of the entire run. Every season opener up to now piled on the ghouls and 'The Circus' keeps with that tradition. Directed by Michael Gornick (season two's 'The Devil's Advocate'), it is unique in that it's a mini-Universal Monster Mash. There's a vampire, a werewolf, a reanimated Frankenstein-style monster, and a mummy. One shot is a surprisingly gruesome homage to Stuart Gordon's zombie classic, RE-ANIMATOR (1985).

William Hickey (before he was the PUPPET MASTER in 1989) is fantastic as Mr. Nis (pronounced 'Neese'). Ed French, who played the vampire and the reanimated creature, did the makeup FX with James Chai (FRANKENHOOKER [1990]) assisting. Hope Perello's HOWLING VI: THE FREAKS (1991) expanded on the idea of a monster-filled freakshow. 'The Circus' is a ghoulish attraction, and a great opening act for season three.

The Geezenstacks (originally aired October 26th, 1986)

"...I think there's something odd about Audrey's dolls."

A relative of the Hummel family, a real estate agent, gives their daughter Audrey a large dollhouse left behind by residents of an empty home. Almost immediately, strange things begin to occur. Sam Hummel finds that whatever imaginary activities Audrey entertains with the dolls spills over into reality.

A macabre spin on the killer doll theme, Bill Travis (his second of four episodes) directs with such precision, this could've easily been stretched out to feature length. Subtle tension and an unusually good, melancholic music score creep the show along to its shock finish. The doll designers redefine sinister by giving the Geezenstacks a supernatural quality with their blank, evil faces. Craig Wasson (NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS [1986]) is the family bread winner who quickly notices something seriously wrong with their daughter's new toys. A modern day fairy tale of the darkest kind.

Black Widows (originally aired November 2nd, 1986)

"I feel like I just swallowed a horse... without chewing." 

Mildred Webster and her daughter Audrey live in a California trailer park. Audrey's mother seems to have a negative view of men, bearing a dim view of her daughter being engaged to a very thin man. What Audrey doesn't yet know is that the women in her family are literal black widows, embroiled in a web of murder.

Quirky from beginning to end, 'Black Widows' subverts adolescence, puberty, and sex into a darkly comical coming-of-age horror story. A young spider woman who hasn't yet realized she's a genuine man-eater, grows into maturity while growing a culinary taste for the opposite sex. The mother and daughter discuss "boys" in a way totally unlike mothers explaining to their daughters about womanhood and where babies come from. 

Since they're arachnids who occasionally occupy human bodies, we never see a full-sized spider, but FX man Bryan Moore manages some spider claws and a corpse drained of its fluids.

Baker's Dozen (originally aired November 23rd, 1986)

Advertiser Henry Hogan wants to move up in the world and desires to know the secret ingredient in Ruby Cuzzins's cookies. Upon learning she's a bayou voodoo priestess, Hogan uses a Baker's Dozen of accursed cookies to eliminate obstacles keeping him from the top of the ad agency ladder. When Ruby discovers what Hogan has done, she plots a sweet tasting revenge... yet receives her own just desserts in the end.

George Romero's fourth and last writing credit for this series is as good as his previous three. All four are uniformly dark, but varied in plot. Much like Savini's exceptional skill as a director on TALES, it's a shame Romero didn't contribute more stories... a Romero zombie segment would've been fantastic. His exposition is extraordinarily strong in 'Baker's Dozen'; it's so robust, the episode could've been stretched to feature-length what with the mini-arcs of Hogan's perceived infidelity and Cuzzins's hatred for her father, who works as her janitor.

None of the characters are free of guilt; Larry Manetti (of MAGNUM P.I. fame), seen previously in season 2's 'Printer's Devil', is sympathy-free as Hogan. Ruby Cuzzins is one of DARKSIDEs prime villainess's. Mabel King (GANJA AND HESS; THE WIZ; THE GONG SHOW MOVIE) is utterly terrifying as the proprietor of the black magic bakery. The double twist ending is a gory highlight even if comeuppance of the two antagonists (there's no real protagonist) isn't shown in graphic detail.

Seasons of Belief (originally aired December 29th, 1986)

"The only people who have ever seen The Grither, are the people he's eaten up."

Impatiently sitting around the fireplace on Christmas Eve, two children wish to hear a story so their father spins the sordid tale of The Grither, a nasty monster that lives in the Arctic. The father warns his kids should they utter his name, The Grither will come for them. The young son, Jimbo and his sister Stefa scoff at the notion of The Grither being real; but as the wind howls louder and strange sounds are heard in the night, an unlikely visitor makes believers out of them.

Outside of Romero, Michael McDowell was arguably the best writer on DARKSIDE--not counting novelists like Robert Bloch who contributed to the series. McDowell's work graces 11 episodes; most of which are on these lists. A really good entry, he both wrote (adapted from a story by Michael Bishop) and directed--this being his only directing credit. Foreshadowing future Christmas horror like KRAMPUS (2015), 'Seasons of Belief' quietly builds its menace till exploding in a monstrously violent, shock finish.

E.G. Marshall, Mr. Pratt from the memorable 5th segment of CREEPSHOW (1982), plays the father with an all-too real imagination.

My Ghostwriter, the Vampire (originally aired February 1st, 1987)

Struggling horror writer Peter Prentice receives an unusual proposition from a vampire... 900 years of bloodsucker stories in exchange for "living quarters" within his apartment.

One of the best of the humorous TALES has a darker edge to it than some of the outright lighter toned segments. Frank De Palma (in his 7th of 8 shows he helmed) moves everything along at a fair clip. The actors' delivery are key to this episode's success. For example, Jeff Conaway's Peter Prentice is woefully unlikable but the teleplay and his performance make him likable.

Roy Dotrice is especially good as Count Draco, a French jugular drainer who quickly grasps the American Way once he realizes Prentice is making big bucks off his toothy tales. A great bit has Prentice's apartment containing a hidden room; the way to access it is via a dummy noggin with an axe buried in its forehead! Essentially, this is a modified version of season 2's 'Printer's Devil'.

The Swap (originally aired March 3rd, 1987) 

Bubba, a disease-riddled millionaire, is married to a beautiful younger woman who has the hots for Claude the hunky handyman. The son of a Louisiana bayou sorceress, Bubba is tinkering around with the 'Transmigration of the Spirits' spell, but one of the key ingredients is faded in his momma's old magic book. Demanding his wife Annabelle "play house" with him every night if she wants his millions once he kicks the bucket, both Annabelle and Claude conspire to speed the process along.

DARKSIDE carved out its own identity but certain segments often felt like they'd fit comfortably within the framework of the THE TWILIGHT ZONE; or the award winning TALES FROM THE CRYPT cable series adapted from the old Tales From the Crypt comic books. In the case of 'The Swap', it feels exactly like the sort of story presented in the latter. Similar to the Crypt tale from issue #45 from 1954, 'The Switch', this Richard Benner penned story is knee-deep in greed and bodily desire. One of the more uncomfortable episodes, the grody appearance of Bubba with his pus-infused sores, humpback, and Acromegaly of the hands and feet are suitably grotesque. Ed French (assisted by James Chai) once more created the unpleasant makeup FX.

Tales of Missed Opportunities: Thieving is believing

Heretic (originally aired November 9th, 1986)

A thieving art dealer named Harte gets his hands on a priceless 16th century painting excavated from the ruins of a Spanish monastery. Visited one evening by a mysterious monk to return the items, he refuses, suddenly finding himself before an inquisitor demanding he repent for his crimes lest he suffer for eternity.

A morality tale about the 'greedy vs. the needy', Edith Swensen's 6th of 10 TALES begins strong but confesses its sin of failing to finish on a satisfying note. One of the more abrupt endings, it's as if Ms. Swensen hadn't the time to properly end the segment. The shooting schedules were reportedly so tight, they'd be filming while the next set was being constructed. Regardless, despite the eerie painting being a major plot point, the story doesn't quite end the way you might be thinking.

The melding of St. Bartholomew with a Spanish Inquisition angle makes for interesting storytelling, if only the ending could convince a jury of viewers. Roberts Blossom, Ezra Cobb of DERANGED (1974), is the Inquisitor.

Tales of Missed Opportunities: Black Magic Women

Auld Acquaintances (originally aired March 1st, 1987)

Two witches make a pact they will share a powerful, demonic talisman for an entire year before passing it on to the other. Three hundred years later, they meet as usual only one of them is impatient to wait two more weeks for the stars to be properly aligned for the transfer.

Arguably the wittiest script from Edithe Swensen, this was her 9th of 10 DARKSIDE jobs. Easily one of the best 'single-set' episodes, the entirety of the 21+ minutes is the two ladies bickering between centuries over the talisman. The banter between them is good; the disparities between them well drawn. Mary Hobbs, the more homely of the two, is content being the pop culture witch while Elizabeth Eaton uses her powers for an easy lifestyle and success. with nods to the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. The show moves along at a quick pace, taking advantage of the limited resources. It's played for mild laughs but never outright farcical as is the case with so many entries in this series. Still, it's such a basic premise with nothing overly fantastical, nor visually disturbing that most won't find much of interest.

The third season of horror has come to an end. Fantastic creatures and supernatural shenanigans are soon to return for the fourth and final season.... until next time, try to enjoy the daylight!

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