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

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