This is an obscure scream gem. The monster really freaked me out when I was a kid. Not only was he purely merciless, but the ripping off heads thing, really scared the crap out of me back when I was young and they aired the movie frequently on Saturday afternoons. I usually really love monsters, except for that nasty bastardly brain Gor, in The Brain From Planet Arous 1957. The Giant Sea Mollusk in Monster that Challenged the World 1957, and perhaps that outre nasty stowaway alien in Edward L Cahn’s It, the Terror from beyond space 1958
NOTE THE SIMILARITY: PAUL BLAISDELL’S FRIGHTENINGLY IMPOSING ALIEN
I loved the giant ants in Them 1954 although they did kill Gramps Johnson. I love ants in general and the Grasshoppers in The Beginning of The End and The Praying Mantis and I didn’t blame the Tarantula that much. These are creatures that act from a nervous system that is set in stone, with no other mission but to procreate, eat to survive and to procreate, did I already say that! I didn’t like the Killer Shrews because they killed the horses. Hhm, maybe I should make a post some day about sympathetic monsters vs bad bad monsters. The reasons why we identity with some and can’t wait to see others be blasted to pieces by the local police, military or savvy reporter or scientist, usually male who has a beautiful girlfriend. I love the blog pants monsters, so what could I call this comparative study of Ugly Evil Mess vs. Cheesy Likability? Well that’s something to ponder later on.
The Monster From Piedras Blancas stars Les Tremayne as Dr. Sam Jorgensen, Forrest Lewis (the lovable hard of hearing trombone player in The Mayberry Band episode of The Andy Griffith Show) as Constable George Matson, John Harmon as Sturges, the lighthouse keeper, Jeanne Carmen as Lucy Sturges. Interesting note is when the credits roll, the characters are made impersonal by giving them titles instead of their actual names, like Lewis The Doctor, Sturges is The Lighthouse Keeper, and Jeanne Carmen as Lucy is The Girl , Frank Arvidson is The Storekeeper and Don Sullivan who plays Fred is The Boy.
The dreamy DON SULLIVAN IN THE GIANT GILA MONSTER
Produced by Jack Kevan and Directed by Irvin Berwick and screenplay by C. Haile Chace.
Producer Jack Kevan was actually responsible for creating such fantastical figures from The Wizard of Oz 1939 from his time at MGM. He did the make up for Spencer Tracy in his version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 1941 and of very cool note, he created the decomposing features of Hurd Hatfield’s Dorian Gray 1945 Kevan was already making a name for himself in Hollywood with his special make up effects when he signed onto Universal. It was actually Bud Westmore head of the department at that time that got the notoriety.There was also a monster designer named Millicent Patrick who was also bathed in anonymity. She managed to become recognized not as a designer but for a few acting roles, as she was a sensual beauty as well. Beauty over brains I guess. But I always love to see women working and showcased in the fields of engineering , technology , science and art design when it is almost always assumed that the men held the reins in that department and in particular in the Horror and Sci Fi Genres. Women didn’t just design gowns like Edith Head, Norma Koch and Theoni V. Aldredge.
So when you consider the notable names of make-up designers from that period, Bud Westmore is one of the first people who come to mind. Creating The Gil Man character which needed to not only look compelling, it needed to be functional as Ben Chapman and Ricou Browning needed to be filmed underwater for many of the The Creature From The Black Lagoon’s sequences. Westmore having come from a famous line of Westmore artists elevated him to administrative status in the industry.
Once at Universal Kevan became friends with Irvin Berwick, who was actually a dialogue coach for such stars as Rock Hudson Tony Curtis and John Saxon. There was also a technical adviser for racing films there named C Haile Chace. Universal went through a period where they had massive budget cut backs and lay offs ensued. So in 1958 Kevan and Berwick founded VanWyck Productions. The first film was supposed to arc off the Gil Man craze at Universal and they wanted a movie that would be equal to or more shocking than Creature From The Black Lagoon. Filming began in the small town of Cayucos in California, and partially at Point Conception. Pierdras Blancas literally means White Rocks in Spanish.
NOTE: I apologize for the less than stellar quality of my photos in this post, the copy of the film I have isn’t the greatest. I’ll try and replace the more blurry ones, later on, I just couldn’t wait to share the film. MG.
The film opens in the early morning, at the Point Piedras Blancas Lighthouse. The beacon has just been shut down. There is a view of a rugged crag, on the rocky part of the cliffs, a scaly tusk like claw grabs at an empty tin plate. We do not see this creature, but we watch as it pulls the plate out of view and then thrusts it back onto the rocks. The scene is stark and abrupt.
John Harmon who plays Sturges The Lighthouse Keeper runs the tower as a way to remain isolated from society. He is ready to do his daily routine of going into town for provisions. He spots two fishermen getting too close to the rocks and warns them off in his usual cantankerous manner.
Once Sturges gets to the small fishing town on his bicycle, we see a crowd of people surrounding a battered rowboat on the beach. Inside the boat are two headless bodies of the Rinaldi brothers.
At the site of the Rinaldi brother’s crime scene one of the town’s people says~”Never seen anything like it in my life, head’s ripped clean off.” Then he asks the Constable Matson what he makes of it “I don’t know what to think, they’re as white as sheets they don’t look like they have a drop of blood left in em.”
“I bet old Sturges knows more than he’ll tell.” The towns people clearly have a mistrust of Sturges. “I still think Sturges oughta tell us what he knows”… “Maybe he don’t know nothing”, “you wanna bet!” Matson says, “okay quit your grumbling.”
Sturges arrives at Kochek’s store on his bicycle. He starts to put in his weekly order. Kochek talks about the Rinaldi killings, “I didn’t pay attention til it drifted toward the pier then I seen them… like slaughtered steer.” He makes a gesture with his finger as if to cut his throat. “Throats cut clean, not much blood around. You wanna know what I think, it aint rocks and it aint squalls. It’s something living that did it.”
Sturges tells Kochek that he talks too much. But Kochek says that’s what they said about the couple 2 years ago from the east when their boat washed ashore but they weren’t found. “We should pay more attention to these legends it would explain a lot many things that have happened over the last 3o years.” Sturges leers at him, “Kochek you’re a lot bigger fool than I thought.”
When Kochek tells him that he gave his meat scraps away to Burt for his hogs. “You idiot you’ll be sorry for this.” Kochek argues with him that Burt got them for his hogs, when Sturges didn’t come in yesterday, besides he paid for them, and he’s getting tired of giving him his weekly meat scraps for free. It’s curious that Sturges gets so riled about a bunch of meat scraps.
Constable George Matson sends the bodies over to Kochek’s general store, where they can be preserved in the cold meat locker. Kochek tells Sturges that he saw the boat drifting in the water when he was tending to his lobster traps. Kochek continues to claim that the “accident” was actually caused by “The Monster” of Piedras Blancas which is a local legend that has been circulating in this small fishing village for over 3 decades.
Once the bodies are in cold storage Dr Sam Jorgensen can do a proper autopsy on the 2 bodies and figure out what really caused both men to lose their heads. Could a Squall do this kind of damage?
Matson the Constable also owns the Wings Cafe, where Sturges daughter Lucy happens to work as a waitress, in between college semesters. She has a marine biologist boyfriend named Fred, who comes in to the Wing Cafe to see her often. Matson questions the irascible Sturges about whether he might have noticed something unusual during the squall. He tells Matson that around midnight, he blasted the foghorn but the sailors never listen. Some day they’ll learn. And If he knew something he’d tell him.
After Matson questions Sturges, he accidentally says in front of Lucy “He is the most unfriendly man I ever knew.” Then he apologizes to Lucy and she says “that’s alright Mr. Matson, I know that the town isn’t very fond of dad.”
Lucy and boyfriend Fred decide to have a picnic at the cove by the lighthouse. This way Fred can collect some marine samples and get in a few smooches in the sand at the same time.
Meanwhile Dr. Jorgensen has now finished the autopsies on both Rinaldi brothers. Their decapitations do not bare the marks of jagged rocks sheering their heads from their necks. Again, the superstitious Kockek invokes the legend of the monster of Piedres Blancas.
“The jugular veins the arteries, the esophagus the trachea were cut straight across, there was a complete transection of the spinal chord…in short the heads were severed from the trunks, death was instantaneous. I don’t know George, if we were living in the 19th century I’d say they were victims of the guillotine.” Matson says “You mean they were murdered?” Doc replies “That’s your department not mine.”
George says he hasn’t anything to go on “except 2 mangled corpses and a busted up boat.” He doesn’t think it’s an accident. Something doesn’t add up. “You know there was something I didn’t mention to you in front of Kochek” Jorgensen continues to tell Matson.
“Do you remember when I told you that the heads were severed from the trunks almost as if by a surgeons scalpel, it appeared as if something were attached to pump out the blood. Generally when a person dies the heart stops pumping almost immediately there is always some blood left in the body” In this case he says “Essentially no blood.” “Sam you don’t think we’ve got a monster on our hands do you?” Eddie who works at the diner is listening intently but keeps sweeping. “No, no I just think that there’s a logical explanation that we just haven’t found yet.”
Lucy and Fred roll around on the sand, hardly doing a From Here To Eternity scene, while Sturges dwells on Lucy’s working late hours, troubled by his daughter working nights.
The fact that Kockek keeps talking about this strange monster irritates both Sturges and Matson who threatens to put Kockek in jail for riling up the towns people and inciting a riot.
When Fred drives Lucy back, she explains to Fred that her father was a different person years ago, when her mom was still alive before she became ill during the night of a storm. Her father had tried to get a doctor to come out to the house, in the bad weather but he refused to come and help the women. Sturges had to stay with the lighthouse he used to work at, to help guide a ship that was in trouble. That night his wife died and ever since then he’s been a bitter angry man. He moved to Piedras Blancas and Lucy spent most of her life since then in boarding school.
Once Fred leaves, Lucy decides to take a moonlit swim, even after her father has warned her to stay away from that part of the cove. We see the monsters scaly iron like arm reach out for Lucy’s clothes as her father calls for her.
As Lucy starts to put her clothes back on she begins to hear a strange breathing. She returns to the lighthouse. Sturges becomes alarmed when Lucy mentions the breathing and he becomes enraged, telling her to go to bed, then storms out.
In town, Kochek is at his store working late. He is sitting at his office desk. We the see the skulking shadow of the monster enter through the open door of the store. As Kochek looks up from his work he’s terrified as the large claw comes striking at his face.
The Rinaldi brother’s funeral
During the funeral for the Rinaldi brothers we see a crippled boy named Jimmy whittling a piece of wood on the curb. He finds a quarter on the ground. As he enters Kochek’s store to buy some candy, he sees Kockek’s body lying on the floor. Dr Jorgensen is doing the eulogy at the funeral for the brothers. Jimmy hurries through the town as he hobbles, dragging his lame leg along to the cemetery crying out “murder, murder!” The towns people huddle around Jimmy while he tells them the horrific thing he just saw.
Poor Eddie getting sick after seeing Kochek’s headless body in the meat locker.
Back at Kocheks murder scene Jorgensen says “same thing surgical precision, and pumped dry, and poor Jimmy had to see it.” They find what looks like the fish gill but it’s too big to be from a fish.
They take it over to docs office to look at it under the microscope it’s a larger version of the Diplovertebron a prehistoric amphibious reptile thought to be extinct, and this sample is living tissue. “Living tissue I thought you said they’re extinct?” Jorgensen says “this is not the scale of one, I simply said they were similar.”
Eddie is chosen to stand watch, while Kochek’s body is in the icy meat locker
Suddenly they are interrupted by a panicked Lucy who tells them that her father has fallen from the cliff.
Matson, Fred and Jorgensen help Sturges into the lighthouse, Sturge’s dog Ring is now missing and Lucy goes out to the cove looking for him. Once Sturges is attended to, they set him up in bed to rest.
Fred stays behind to talk to Sturges, who tells him he took the lantern down by the cove because Lucy had heard the heavy breathing and felt like she was being watched so he went down to see what he could find, that’s when he must have fallen. Fred tells him there’s been another murder, Kochek, that’s when Sturges just shakes his head and says, “he talked too much.” Fred asks him what he knows about the legend.
“The coastal currents off this point are very treacherous the rocks on the seaward side are covered white in gull droppings in bad weather they’re almost impossible to see.many a ship was lost on those rocks before this light was built there’s not a record of any survivors.” Fred agrees that with a coast line like that it’s not surprising but Sturges continues, “No but people would rather start a legend, some of the earlier settlers claimed a monster lived in the rocks below this point.”
Once they are back in town Jorgensen and Matson see a very traumatized man carrying the body of his little girl. Her mother had sent her to Kochek’s store. Now another victim of the monster. She is covered up in a blanket.
The scene with the father carrying the daughter with a parade of villagers walking somberly behind him is reminiscent of the old Gothic Universal horror films. It’s like a modern displacement of the villagers from Frankenstein, or the Dracula theme, where the privately superstitious villagers would lead a silent procession to show their reverence for the loss of one of their own. The father lays the little girl on one of the diner tables, and Doc Jorgensen lifts the blanket to look at her. Instead of showing any emotion, the father just looks forward as if catatonic. It’s seems more powerful than if he were to become hysterical and in the mood for a lynching. He just stares quietly. It’s quite a stark moment for a B movie.
Lucy tells Fred that once her father caught her playing in a cave he became furious with her and that’s when he started sending her away to boarding school, refusing to let her come home even during vacations. Fred being a scientist, curiosity holds sway over Sturges’ forbidding and he goes to investigate the cave anyway.
Now in the cold storage room of the store Matson calls out to Eddie to relieve him of his watch. A loud horrific wail is heard as Matson screams, injured Matson stumbles out of the store behind him the monster emerges holding Eddie’s head, frightening the spectating town folk, as they watch in horror.
A bystander , one of the townspeople takes a swing at the monster with a meat cleaver but he is smashed to the ground and the monster escapes. On the blade of the meat cleaver is another gill. Matson tells Lucy to stay inside the lighthouse, and then joins Fred at the opening of the notorious cave.
Matson and Fred organize a group of men, They trace the monster’s prints back to the cave. As Matson shines his flashlight in the cave, the beam illuminates a small crab crawling around Eddie’s head. 3 signal shots are heard, the monster has killed again. One deputy killed and another is seriously wounded.
Now Lucy herself confronts her father as to why he staunchly guards that cave.
“Daddy the last person killed was a child, a little girl.” Sturges weakly grumbles, “maybe I’m responsible I don’t know.”
He tells her the story about how soon after he arrived there,when he took his long walks he chose a particular cave at low tide and waded out into the opening. Just as he got back to the entrance he realized the tide had closed him in. “Suddenly I had the strangest feeling that I was being watched and I heard sounds like heavy breathing, I dove through the opening and swam out.”
He had left some fish, and when he went back the next day it was gone.
Sturges continues to explain to his daughter Lucy of how after her leaving he became even more lonely.
“Strange I got to worrying about that poor creature in that cave. I fished everyday and left my catch…finally I just couldn’t catch enough so I got meat scraps, it wasn’t long before the fish was refused and I had to get more meat ” So you see if there is a monster, maybe in a way I am responsible.”
“Don’t say that dad you had no way of knowing.” “But I should have guessed I should have guessed and told the sheriff but somehow I had a protective feeling LIKE IT WAS MY OWN, after you left I was lonesome and I seemed less lonesome knowing that there was some living creature near by, I know it’s stupid but I never got along with the townspeople and it was something to hang on to.” Lucy tells him that she understands.
Sturges being lonely and embittered sees that the monster as an ally and something he can control. “Like it was my own”
But once he realized that it had grown tired of the fish he was leaving and when Kochek sold the batch of meat scraps that sends the creature into a rampage seeking out more food, Sturges should have sought help. He is not a sympathetic character. We never see the grief building from his wife’s death, so the transition from friendly man to bitter misanthrope is not there for us to cling to for empathy.
Out of his alienation he adopts the monster as his secret friend. Although this creature had evolved from something prehistoric and assumed extinct, you would think that it could hunt at least for prey that evolution would have provided his instincts for survival, even living off birds, turtles, crabs and getting his own fish. But then he wouldn’t have been dependent on Sturges and then we wouldn’t have severed heads swinging in the bright light of a sunny California day.
The monster is a prehistoric mutation in the reptile family know as the Diplovertebron. Yet he seems to possess a higher intelligence, at least an animal instinct for self preservation. It’s uncanny how he somehow knew that there was a relationship between the meat locker at Kochek’s store, remaining behind as if thinking he would eventually get fed.
Fred suggests luring the monster with a side of beef so that they can capture him and send him to the university for scientific study. Scientists always want to study their discovery even while it is running amok ripping people’s heads off.
Matson is concerned about the welfare of the town’s people, and agrees with Jorgensen and Fred that trapping him with a net might be the safest way to deal with the monster. Sturges has to fix the beacon light, imploring Lucy to help him up the spiraling stairs to the tower. While back at Jake’s garage they are securing a large net.
Up by the lighthouse, the monster stalks Lucy, prowling outside her bedroom while she is undressing. Apparently it has other animal instincts as well. He breaks in but Lucy thinks its her father who has come back downstairs so she opens her door and comes face to face with the armor plated reptilian fiend.
Lucy has a voyeur outside her bedroom window.
Sturges hears his daughter scream and collapses on the balcony of the lighthouse tower. Matson notices that the beacon light is off and tells Fred which he proceeds to try and call the lighthouse.
Fred and Jorgensen rush, while Matson goes to round up more help. From the tower Sturges sees the monster carrying Lucy off near the cliffs.
Sturges manages to distract the monster by throwing an oil can, this propels the monster to drop Lucy and head toward the tower again, ascending the stairs toward Sturges. Lucy comes to and stumbles upon the dead remains of the poor dog Ring. Now on the tower stairs Sturges fights with the monster. Lucy runs away and meets up with Jorgensen and Fred.
Now Matson and his men arrive. Fred throws a rope up to Sturges but the monster comes crashing through the barricaded steel balcony doors. Sturges runs around the tower as the monster clings to the beacon windows and jumps down hurling sturges over the balcony to his death.
Fred fights the monster armed with a shotgun. Jake shines a flashlight into it’s eyes. Fred tells Lucy to turn on the beacon light. With the butt end of the shotgun he shoves the blinded monster over the railing and it plunges head first into the sea. Does it actually die, we do not know this.
The Monster of Piedras Blancas has an interesting casual, pacing like that of snippet of a small town story that would appear as a soap opera with the various characters and their quirks. Lensed with a certain naturalistic vérité using ordinary people in a small village where something alien comes in momentarily violating, invading it’s peaceful stride.
What’s interesting about the film, is that the monster itself was the catalyst for underlying aggression and alienation on the part of the character Sturges , not only toward the locals but from his own daughter. The crisis of the monster’s violent rampage, brings Sturges emotional turbulence to a head, exposing just how damaged he was by the loss of his wife. In that way Sturges too, can be considered a monster for facilitating the rampage of the reptilian head thrasher, by enabling it to exist in this quiet community.
Perhaps the monster can be considered symbolic of Sturges id, as he unwittingly unleashes it at the very people he resents. The outside world who has let him down, by allowing his wife to die that fatal night.
He sought the isolation of the sea because there he could be alone, but “no matter where you go there you are” as they say. He encounters this virile primordial monster that can only be controlled by “feeding it” what does that say about the human psyche , repression and unchecked human need.
I like this film because it isn’t trying to be an epic cautionary tale, like other great hybrid sci-fi/horror films of that time. It is it’s quiet understated terror, it’s simplistic story telling that sort of emerges as very chilling. An archaic boogeyman that dwells in the light of day, wielding the spoils of it’s hunt by waving the severed heads of it’s fresh kill. That is quite shocking when you think that it takes place in the bright realm of daylight in front of crowds of people, quite unsentimental.
Now, I’ve always said that I’m a huge proponent of “what you don’t see” but in this particular instance as let say Carnival of Souls 1962 where much of the disturbance occurs in the bright light of day, in these cases it adds an element of shocking destructive realism. The monster of Piedras Blancas is more savage than the spectral auguries who haunt Candice in Carnival of Souls
Carnival of Souls shocks the senses being more of a sunlit phantasmagorical.
Also interesting is Sturges’ embrace of the monster, as he does come across as controlling, the monster being something yet again he assumes he can control. His world begins to fall apart once, the monster starts to evolve out of it’s primal urge to merely eat. The monster starts to desire more blood once he has tasted of it. His primal sexual urges are unleashed as he discovers the female Lucy and fixes his gaze on her physicality. As he ramps up his aggression, Sturges can no longer control the creature. No more than he can suppress his repressed anger and misanthropic mind set. Once the monster becomes a reality and not just the legend that Kochek rants about scaring the people in town, Sturges’ walls come down and he no longer is in control.
The pivotal moment when Sturges realizes that he’s been harboring something beyond an ethical/acquired relationship to it, is when the monster threatens his daughter Lucy and Sturges becomes a father again.
The monster also never came near the actual light house tower before, this tower symbolizing Sturges fortress that he hides away from society in, where he can brood alone. The monster breaks the unspoken pact, and invades his protective space. So on screen we see the rapid evolution of a situation spiraling out of control.Ultimately Sturges destroys himself, the monster merely facilitating his demise as it is always the “thing” the antagonist creates that will be their won downfall.
It’s obvious that Kevan and Berwick were not interested in creating a creature that we can empathize with, has layers of emotion and intellect at it’s core, and seems more human in terms of what it exudes. It is literally a reactionary destructive figure. As I said in the beginning , this monster is not one I’ve ever felt bad about falling into the sea. I saw it as a killing machine, with no other thought process than that of getting fed, not unlike zombies which is why they scare the bloody hell out of me.
Because of it’s small budget $30,000, it gave the movie the appearance of a documentary style feel to it. The locations really worked well for this film adding the atmosphere of realism.
What was striking was the opening sequence that vividly galvanizes the relationship between Sturges and the monster. The stark bright light of early morning, the view of the lighthouse, our view from the hill tops, then quick cut to the scaly claw grabbing at the plate.
You can consider that the close up shot of the claw is very reminiscent of the Claw scene in Creature From the Black Lagoon.
Shots of the monster’s magnified silhouette like that of the lurking alien in It ,the terror from Beyond Space was striking and sinister as it was set against the stark white walls.
I think the scene where the man is carrying his daughter might be considered an homage to Frankenstein 1931, where little Maria is carried away, after she is thrown into the water, to see if she’ll float like the flower. Unlike the Frankenstein monster who was curious and childlike, innocent in his killing of the little girl, here the monster was purposefully indiscriminate and deadly. The scene with the father holding his little girl wrapped in a blanket added a touch of realism that was delicately brutal.
Apparently there was some censored footage where Matson sees the body of Eddie hanging from a meat hook. But the monster holding Eddies head, seems to be a more of an effective shocker than the more gratuitous shot of his headless body dangling from a hook. The censorship created a happy accident of delivering more of an impact by way of omission.
Harmon’s acting was pretty mundane as a man harboring resentment and displaced rage. A man desperate and lonely. Of particular pulp note, the actress who played Lucy Jeanne Carmen was a model who did cheesecake photos
She had an affair with Frank Sinatra and Jeanne became pregnant. With help from actresss Diana Darrin, Jeanne decided to have an abortion. Jeanne’s best friend was Marilyn Monroe, who actually phoned Jeanne Carmen on the night of her death.
Berwick went on to make several exploitation films many with John Harmon. He eventually went back to Universal as a dialogue director and in later years taught cinema at USC.
BERWICK’S FILM STRANGE COMPULSION 1964
HITCH HIKE TO HELL ANOTHER BERWICK EXPLOITATION FILM
If you have some time on a Saturday or Sunday morning, you should totally sit with this film and see if it doesn’t tickle your nostalgic fancy. I consider it an obscure scream gem. A film that sits within the canon of the late 50s drive in fare.