The Monster of Piedras Blancas (1959) Blu-ray Review: Beheading Your Way

Generally, motion pictures which owe their entire existence to the success of an entirely different (and more popular) feature have very little to offer the overall history of cinema itself other than its ‒ sometimes blatant ‒ connection to its source of inspiration. It’s even harder to have an affect on the world of film when your movie happens to be an obvious “rip-off” of a horror film, especially if it was made during a time when horror movies provided audiences little more than an excuse for teenagers to make out at the drive-in. Or terrorize the really small, impressionable children said teenagers left to their own devices in the drive-in playground (or perhaps on the hood or in the front seat of the strangely rocking vehicle, should the former option have not been available).

Then there’s The Monster of Piedras Blancas. Released three years after Universal-International’s short-lived Gill-Man franchise ‒ which began in ’54 with The Creature from the Black Lagoon ‒ ended in 1956 with its third and final outing, The Creature Walks Among Us, this indie feature from 1959 proved even an imitator could offer up some serious competition. Universal’s monster ‒ while creepy in his own right ‒ was essentially an awkward, misunderstood, pubescent teenager with a profound lack of social skills. The Monster of Piedras Blancas, on the other hand, was something straight out of the bowels of Hell itself: a devilish-looking beastie who was just as inclined to kill children and animals as he was with humans.

Unmistakably an amateur effort all the way through, The Monster of Piedras Blancas was actually the brainchild of two gentlemen who had previously been employed at Universal ‒ including one man who had worked on the Gill-Man series itself! Irvin Berwick, who later helmed the sleazy ’70s exploitation goodie Hitch-Hike to Hell, made his directorial debut here, showing he may have had perhaps more talent in the chair than his decidedly short résumé indicates today ‒ as opposed to his many (mostly uncredited) gigs as a dialogue coach. Another former (and also rarely credited) dialogue coach from Universal, H. Haile Chace, enjoyed their only non-exploitation screenwriting outing here as the credited author of this late ’50s creature feature.

But it was producer Jack Kevan who had the most interesting connection to Universal and the Gill-Man series. Starting out in the industry a good 20 years before as assistant makeup man on The Wizard of Oz, Kevan later worked on ’50s sci-fi classics such as It Came from Outer Space and The Incredible Shrinking Man, as well as the genesis of the entire subgenre itself, The Creature from the Black Lagoon. After moving up the ranks to regular monster maker at the studio, Kevan later designed the beasts which highlighted Monster on the Campus and the final two installments of the Gill-Man trilogy (Revenge of the Creature and the aforementioned The Creature Walks Among Us). Much like the movie’s low-budget, Kevan’s learned trait (and touch) is unmistakable in his own solo creation.

In a way, The Monster of Piedras Blancas seems like a frustrated attempt to show the people at Universal what he was not only capable of, but perhaps also what the series should have done. (Although the reality of the situation was more of a case where people laid off by Universal due to financial restraints decided to form their own production company.) The fact his titular Monster ‒ which he himself designed ‒ murders a little girl and dog (offscreen) reduces the “innocence” factor considerably; 16 years later, Universal’s own Steven Spielberg would do the same ‒ albeit in a far less subtle (and far more controversial) fashion ‒ in another fishy monster tale, Jaws, which would cement the latter in history like a concrete pier block.

The Monster of Piedras Blancas also benefits from several shocking, “graphic” moments which predated the low-budget gore flicks of H.G. Lewis ‒ most notably a fairly convincing (for the day) severed head. Severed heads weren’t genuinely new to the silver screen: The Monster of Piedras Blancas was released the same year that the ironically iconic The Brain That Wouldn’t Die had wrapped production (under its original title, The Black Door), and a year after Universal-International’s similarly-named The Thing That Couldn’t Die ‒ for which director Irvin Berwick worked as an uncredited dialogue coach ‒ was released. In this instance, however, the torn neck muscles and various other (probably anatomically incorrect) innards are noticeable.

Offsetting its still rather shocking moments (I can only imagine how those unattended children who saw it at the drive-in or later on late-night television must have soiled themselves), The Monster of Piedras Blancas features some pretty amateurish acting courtesy untrained Santa Barbara/San Luis Obispo County locals who were cast as co-stars due to the film’s low budget: the construction of Kevan’s Monster no doubt consumed most of the minuscule $29,000 budget, though it still manages to be a far more effective film than Phil Tucker’s legendarily catastrophic 1953 turkey Robot Monster ‒ featuring a portly man clad in a gorilla suit and plastic diving helmet (!) ‒ which was made for somewhere between $16,000 to $50,000.

And yet, even with its supporting cast of non-actors (Frank Arvidson, who plays the town shopkeeper, stands out from the more seasoned castmates much like he was wearing a gorilla suit and plastic diving helmet), and a few professional performers who are all but phoning it in, it still works. Voice actor Les Tremayne, who was seen (or at least heard) in many ’50s science fiction films, gets top-billing here as the town’s physician, who also fills in for a the missing religious figure during a funeral for some reason (is this where the characters from The Wicker Man retired to or something?). Bit player and TV regular Forrest Lewis gets perhaps his biggest role here as the local constable, who can’t figure out why good people are popping up decapitated.

The cause for the mysterious bloody deaths, of course, is the eponymous assassin, whose very existence is only briefly guessed at by a supporting character. The Monster begins to roam the coastline and local town of Piedras Blancas (represented by small Southern Californian towns Lompoc and Cayucos) for food after the reclusive local lighthouse keeper ‒ played by another great bit player, John Harmon ‒ is unable to provide the creature with scraps from the local store (damn that stupid gossiping storekeeper and his community theater acting abilities!). In many ways, this is John Harmon’s film. He is essentially the main character, who has all-but adopted the monster (after years of isolation and loneliness ‒ something many of us can sympathetically relate to.

Also starring in The Monster of Piedras Blancas is the dynamic duo of platinum-haired sexpot/pinup gal Jeanne Carmen and the great Don Sullivan, who represent the film’s “teenaged” culture (this is a ’50s movie, after all!). Miss Carmen, cast as Harmon’s voluptuous daughter no one can refuse a cup of readily-made coffee from, also appeared in several Mamie Van Doren features. Mr. Sullivan, doubling as the film’s closest facsimile to a scientist character (the very same one who briefly takes a stab at explaining why the kill-crazy critter exists in the first place), also appeared as the hotrodding hero of Mystery Science Theater 3000 favorite The Giant Gila Monster and the boatnik lead of Jerry Warren’s godawful Teenage Zombies.

Pete Dunn (Invaders from Mars) plays the monster, and can also be seen without his suit on as the bartender. Irvin Berwick’s son Wayne has a memorable moment as the clubfooted boy who discovers a headless corpse. Many cast and crew re-united for 1983’s Microwave Massacre (which was also released to Blu-ray recently, courtesy Arrow Video) and again in the 2005 send-up of ’50s horror movies, The Naked Monster (directed by Wayne Berwick and Ted Newsom). Parts of the monster, molded from several different Universal-International creations, were recycled for a Flipper episode directed by Ricou Browning ‒ who donned the Gill-Man costume in all three of Universal’s Creature from the Black Lagoon movies, believe it or not. How’s that for coming full circle?

Long unavailable on home video since its two videocassette releases in 1985 (where it was paired with Mesa of Lost Women for one of Rhino Home Video’s Saturday Night Shockers ‒ thank you, Johnny Legend) and again in 1990 (this time flying solo under the Republic Pictures Home Video banner), The Monster of Piedras Blancas ‒ currently part of the Paramount Pictures library ‒ makes a triumphant return to video via Olive Films, who present the cult classic in a 1.85:1 transfer with mono audio. And the wait has been well worth it, especially since Olive’s transfer is a huge improvement when compared to the VHS which kept me entertained so much as an awkward, misunderstood, pubescent teenager with a profound lack of social skills in the early ’90s.

Olive Film’s gorgeous new HD transfer really brings out the best from the noir-like cinematography by a still green-behind-the-gills (heh) Philip H. Lathrop, who would go on to photograph everything from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to several of Universal’s biggest disaster movies from the 1970s (receiving his second and last Oscar nomination for Earthquake). Contrast is strong in most scenes (some scenes are grainier than others, but this was a low-budget movie, kids), and the image is crisp enough to read Don Sullivan’s shoulder tattoo (and barely discern busty young Miss Carmen isn’t really nude during her skinny dipping sequence). Like the video, the mono audio comes through clear as day without any distractions. English (SDH) subtitles are included.

Sadly, the new Blu-ray release of this title which once fetched a pretty penny on eBay is presented with nary a special feature under the surface. Not even the film’s original theatrical trailer, which can easily be found on the Interwebs. Plenty has been researched and written on the film in question by classic B horror/sci-fi movie lovers (I certainly didn’t hide my affection for it in this article, as I’m sure you may have noticed), but apparently no one was invited to participate for this offering. But then, this is a catalogue title being released by a party other than the current copyright owners ‒ and frankly, if it wasn’t for Olive Films, we wouldn’t even have this, so I very happily accept this beautiful barebones release for what it is: something I have waited many, many years for.

Highly recommended.

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Luigi Bastardo

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