Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Monster of Piedras Blancas (Vanwick, made 1958, released 1959)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

This morning I also watched the 1958 horror film The Monster of Piedras Blancas, a knock-off of The Creature from the Black Lagoon produced independently in New England and directed by Irvin Berwick, who had designed the original “Creature” makeup, felt he hadn’t got either the recognition or the money he deserved, and so decided to concoct his own story of an aquatic monster. It’s a quirky movie, with blatant visual quotes not only from Creature but from the original Frankenstein as well (the monster abducts the heroine from her bedroom, and later throws her father from the lighthouse tower the way Henry Frankenstein fell from the burning windmill during his fight to the death with his Monster), unusually well photographed for an independent production from the late 1950’s (though there’s an oddly Ed Woodian clip of a stock shot of two men running from the shore inserted into a chase scene out of the usual laziness of B-movie producers of this era, which stands out only because the rest of the film has a tightly-lit, well-photographed “studio” look to it, courtesy of Universal, who since they were near financial collapse when this film was made, were only too happy to loan out contract players and technical people to this independent production merely to keep them employed at someone else’s expense).

Berwick is perhaps a little too reticent about showing the monster — we see its hand in a pre-credits sequence, then its shadow about 40 minutes later, then its midriff and arm (holding the severed head of one of its victims!) and not until the last 15 minutes of the film do we see it full-figure — and though his actors were several cuts above Ed Wood’s, they have to do interminable dialogue scenes in which we’re given narrative flashbacks encompassing key plot points (actual filmed flashbacks would have been better, but would have blown the budget). The Monster of Piedras Blancas is one of those movies that is so tightly conceived within the bounds of its genre that it’s utterly predictable in structure and plot development — which has a certain appeal, actually; its makers acknowledged that their only intent was to scare audiences, and it probably worked back then. I’d wanted to see this movie ever since my childhood, when I read about it in a Famous Monsters of Filmland back issue from the time it was made — and again when Filmfax magazine gave a full account of its making a few years ago, and put the titular monster on its cover (in a much more brightly-lit still than anything we see in the movie itself!). My brother and I used to take turns enacting the part of the “Monster of Pious Blancas” (that was as close as he could come at the time to pronouncing the title!) and its latest victim — it’s an example of how tight a genre film this is that we could pretend to be in a movie we hadn’t seen! — and when Filmfax wrote it up, and now that American Movie Classics has actually shown it and I’ve videotaped it, it’s like I’ve finally completed an unfinished bit of my childhood. — 8/24/96


Charles and I managed to squeeze in a movie last night: The Monster of Piedras Blancas, a 1958 production from a short-lived independent company called Vanwick, after the two partners who founded it, producer Jack Kevan and director Irvin Berwick. I remember reading years ago in an article in Filmfax that this film was shot on location in Massachusetts (it was actually in California, but where in California the sources on’s message boards disagree: either the fairly well known Point Concepcion lighthouse or the lesser-known one in Cayucos, just north of Morro Bay, where the “white rocks” of the title actually do exist) and that the people involved in it had just been laid off from Universal-International (the studio was in the process of being sold to MCA and the new owners were cleaning out what they thought would be deadwood) and decided to do a film on their own that would aim at the Universal horror market, or what was left of it by 1958. It helped that Jack Kevan had actually designed the costume for the Gill-Man in Creature from the Black Lagoon and its two sequels, and so he made a similar costume for the title character of this one and actually played the monster himself. I first heard of this movie in one of the few copies of the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland I ever owned, which profiled this film extensively when it was still new; my brother and I got hold of a copy several years later and pretended we were being chased by the “Monster of Pious Blancas” (the closest my brother could come to pronouncing the title) — which the last time Charles and I watched this together (over a decade ago, from a tape I recorded from AMC back when it still was a classic-movie channel) I noted was an indication of how solidly grounded a genre piece this was that my brother and I could pretend to be in a movie neither of us had actually seen. Anyway, the movie holds up pretty well — we were watching a Sinister Cinema DVD and some of it was awfully dark-looking, and I wasn’t sure whether the darkness was intended by director Berwick and cinematographer Philip Lathrop or was an artefact of the print we were watching and/or our rapidly fading old-fashioned pre-digital TV set.

It’s clearly a monster-movie formula picture, and a bit slow — we’re 45 minutes into its 71-minute running time before we finally see the monster full-figure (though the original trailer showed it, which I can’t help thinking was a mistake: I’ve always thought the best promotion for a horror movie was one which “teased” you with a bit of the monster without showing it all; instead you’ll have to pay for a ticket to see the whole thing!), and the exposition moves at the speed of a drugged camel as we learn that the village lighthouse keeper, Sturges (John Harmon), was happy and relatively normal until his wife died. Then he became an embittered recluse, hiding out in the lighthouse with only three beings for company: his daughter Lucille (Jeanne Carmen); his dog Ring; and the Monster of Piedras Blancas, the last surviving representative of a water-dwelling reptile called a Diplovertubron, previously thought to be extinct. The idea of a lonely old lighthouse keeper, embittered by the death of his wife, should turn to a man-eating monster for companionship is weird enough as it is, but he also gets into hissy-fits with the owner of the local store, Kochek (Frank Arvidson), when Kochek sells to someone else the “meat scraps” with which he feeds the monster and thereby keeps it from eating humans … not that that always works, since we soon learn from the local police constable, George Matson (Forrest Lewis), that there have been mysterious deaths off the coast before, besides the one he’s currently investigating in which two brothers who ran a fishing boat were found with their heads sliced off their bodies and every drop of blood drained out of them.

Eventually Dr. Sam Jorgensen (Les Tremayne, top-billed) and his assistant Fred (Don Sullivan), who’s also Lucille Sturges’ boyfriend, figure out what the monster is and what a challenge it will be either to kill it or take it alive, which Jorgensen and Fred want to do because a living specimen of a Diplovertubron or something similar will tell us a lot we need to know about evolution. Director Berwick clearly learned something from Jack Arnold’s and John Sherwood’s work on the Gill-Man movies, and though he’s not much for suspense or pace there are times when he shows an interesting eye (notably in the shots of old man Sturges glimpsed through the distorting lenses by which the lighthouse works) and he’s quite good at coming up with horrific images and not keeping them on the screen so long they become merely disgusting instead of scary. The most famous scene in the film is the one in which the Monster makes its first full-figure appearance carrying the head of its latest victim — and though just about everyone who’s seen this film remembers it, Berwick keeps it on the screen only for a few seconds, just long enough for us to register it without parading the gore in our faces. The ending is a bit disappointing — for a monster whose skin is so tough it broke off part of a meat cleaver, it’s hard to believe it could be killed merely by throwing it off the top of a lighthouse (it lands in the water, its natural element, which made me wonder whether Kevan, Berwick and writer H. Haile Chase were setting us up for a sequel) — and it utterly lacks the shards of pathos of the Gill-Man movies, but it’s still a fun film in a limited genre even though one could also readily imagine it as Mystery Science Theatre 3000 fodder! — 10/17/12