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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Monster of Piedras Blancas

Before moving on to 1960... This first offering in Digression Week, was not an easy film to find. I had passed over it much earlier (when I had a chance for a viewing) on the understanding that it was pure monster, not sci-fi. Well, I was pretty-much right, but a friend suggested it had some shred of sci-fi to it. He was right too. In the gray zone of sci-fi/horror, The Monster of Piedras Blancas (MPB) is much more monster movie than sci-fi. By a slender thread, does MPB cling to the outer edges of sci-fi. Fred is a biologist and hero of the tale. He looks in a microscope and talks of the monster being a missing link for evolution. Remove those bits, and the film would still stand as pure monster movie. MPB is a low-budget echo of Creature from the Black Lagoon. Don Sullivan, who starred in The Giant Gila Monster ('59) is the hero of this story too.

Quick Plot Synopsis
At a remote coastal town, mysterious murders have people in a worried buzz. There is an old legend of a monster, but not taken seriously until grocery store owner Kochek is found decapitated in his store. Fred, a local biochemist and the local doctor examine a scale found at the scene. They decide that the monster is a deep sea amphibian (?). Lucy rushes in. Her father is hurt. They find him at the base of a sea cliff, badly bruised. They take him to the lighthouse to recover. Meanwhile, another local named Eddie is missing. Several searchers are injured when a 7' tall man-monster rushes out of the meat cooler at Kochek's store, carrying Eddie's head. Another scale at that scene proves who killed the others too. Lucy's father recovers enough to tell how, years ago, he sensed something living on one of the sea caves and left fish for it to eat. Over the lonely years, he kept leaving fish, but switched to meat. He stopped feeding it. Accustomed now to red meat, the monster took to hunting people. Armed men search the caves but don't find the monster. That night, the monster comes to the lighthouse. Lucy swoons in her nightgown and the monster carries her out. Her father throws a lantern at the monster. He puts Lucy down and goes after her father. He shoots the monster several times and barricades himself at the top. Lucy summons help. The monster breaks out and throws the father off. Fred faces the monster alone. He notices that the monster doesn't like a flashlight in his eyes. He tells Lucy to turn on the lighthouse light. The monster is blinded, so Fred rifle butts it over the railing, into the raging rocky surf below. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Beyond the obvious shock techniques and gore, is an intriguing, almost Freudian/Faustian tale. A lonely man feeds a hidden beast. When that beast is not appeased as it had become accustomed to, it rampages, eventually killing the man too. It might be a stretch to say that the monster was (metaphorically) Sturges's own Id in rebellion, but MPB has some entertaining thought potential.

Cold War Angle
As primarily a monster-horror film, MPB draws more from the fears in human nature than fears of communist invasion.

Son of a Creature -- It is no coincidence that the aquatic man-monster bears a resemblance to the creature from the black lagoon. Jack Kevan, who wrote the story and produced the film, was one of the make-up artists who worked on Black Lagoon. To save money, the big claw hands from The Mole People ('56) were used. Also re-used, were the feet of the Metaluna insectoid mutant from This Island Earth ('55). A bipedal burrowing, reptilian insectoid made him a bit of a platypus of a monster.

Location Location -- There is a lighthouse on the central California coast called Piedras Blancas. It was not the site of filming, however. The lighthouse in the film is the Point Conception lighthouse, on the Santa Barbara channel. It is still there. The double doors which the monster bursts through, are still there, even though the lower platform has since been removed. The town used for filming, Cayucos, is 30 miles south of the real Piedras Blancas, not Lompoc, which is the small town near Point Conception.

Evolution Monkey Wrench -- Fred, the biochemist, insists that they try to capture the monster, not kill it. He calls it an important "missing link" for evolutionists to study. A sentient bipedal amphibian! What havoc it would have wreaked on popular post-Dawinian monkeys-to-man theory. Perhaps this why Fred decides not to try to capture it in the end and just kill it. The monster was a most inconvenient truth.

They ARE After Our Women -- MPB has the iconic abduction scene of the monster carrying off the beautiful young woman. As per custom, she is vulnerably clad and swooned. Since the monster has heretofore decapitated everyone he came across, this abduction is highly noteworthy. A lonely monster looking for love only bolsters a semi-Freudian interpretation.

Bottom line? MPB is classic late-50s monster fare. It's light on the science. Yet, it can be entertaining enough. It may not, however, be too easy to find.


Mike Scott said...

It's too bad they didn't use the monster more in this movie. It has one of the better monster suits of the '50s (patchwork though it is), but most of the scenes of the monster's exploits (i.e. killings) are only described, after the fact.

Love the "Famous Monsters of Filmland Shock Award Winner" on all the posters! LOL

Nightowl said...

Hey Mike, Thanks for recommending MPB for this collection. Yes, the monster didn't get much screen time, but they might have felt he wouldn't hold up well with extended visibility -- rather like "Tommy" the mutant didn't in Day the World Ended.
Maybe they didn't have the budget for action-killing scenes, brief as they would have been. Or, perhaps that was over-the-top for the gore meter.

Yes, the poster 'award' was interesting. Wonder when it was awarded. Perhaps that's a later re-release poster. ??

Mike Scott said...

Quote: Perhaps that's a later re-release poster. ??

No, those are the original release posters. Just one of Jim Warren's stunts to get some free publicity for FM.

Unknown said...

Howdy Movie Mavens,

When I saw this as a kid it really scared me.

As an adult I see this as a very good, though somewhat obscure, movie.

The plot line was okay.

The acting was excellent.

Don Sullivan was fine, like the roll he played in the "The Giant Gila Monster."

Jeanne Carmen................a real doll.

The scene where the little kid finds the dead shopkeeper and runs to the funeral to tell his mom would be politically incorrect today.

I doubt if anyone felt bad about the mouthy shopkeeper getting his.

The mood of the movie is really good.

All in all, well worth watching.

Have fun at the movies,


By the way, don't go swimming by any lighthouses on the California coast.

You never know if a scaly Missing Link is nearby.

thingmaker said...

"Evolution Monkey Wrench -- Fred, the biochemist, insists that they try to capture the monster, not kill it. He calls it an important "missing link" for evolutionists to study. A sentient bipedal amphibian! What havoc it would have wreaked on popular post-Dawinian monkeys-to-man theory. Perhaps this why Fred decides not to try to capture it in the end and just kill it. The monster was a most inconvenient truth."

I'm not sure what you mean by this... I'm reminded of the blindingly goofy quote from Larry King to a prominent scientist who was on to debate a creationist. The host asked the scientist, in all seriousness, "If man is descended from monkeys; why are there still monkeys?" A question that, coming from a, presumably, educated adult, indicts the level of basic science education in our country. The simple, simple answer is that mankind is descended from critters that don't exist anymore. So are monkeys. So are all the contemporary apes.
In the context of this film, the (whatever-nonsensical-pseudoscientific-name-they-called-it) monster is, presumably, the end of another branch of evolution from some or other primordial amphibian. It's a silly mistake to assume that all of evolution has been focused on the development of mankind. The simple fact is that evolution simply happens. It does not appear to have any direction or goal.
If you really want to justify it's manlike characteristics, you have to invoke "convergent evolution", which caused dolphins (mammal), sharks (fish) and ichthiosaurs (long extinct reptile) to have such generally similar physiognomies owing to the simple tendency of form to follow function.
That said, I have always enjoyed this film. In large part that is a "monster kid" thing. Growing up in the '60s, I was exposed to relatively few of these films but when images of something as staggeringly cool as - the monster of Piedras Blancas holding aloft a dripping severed human head - appeared in the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland... Well, it became a favorite before I even saw it. Since then, it appeared on our local Creature Features and now, after forty more years, decent copies are available and it's still kinda fun.