The first movie to cash in on the “gillman” concept from Universal’s 1954 CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, and sometimes cited as one of the seminal “gore” films, THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS has been on 1950s science fiction fans’ digital wants lists since the dawn of the DVD format, previously available legitimately only on Republic Pictures Home Video VHS. Thanks to Olive Films, it’s time to ditch those fuzzy tapes and crappy bootleg discs as THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS finally makes its digital debut—simultaneously on Blu-ray and DVD—sporting a surprisingly fine-looking transfer, especially for a low budget indie SF/horror movie of the period.
A couple of local fishermen have been found dead, with their corpses sucked dry of blood and their heads lopped off with “guillotine-like precision,” along the rocky coast of Piedras Blancas, California (actually Point Conception standing in). When loudmouthed grocer Kochek (Frank Arvidson, THE SEVENTH COMMANDMENT) starts spreading rumors that a legendary local monster is responsible for the gruesome killings, Constable Matson (Forrest Lewis, RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP) warns him to shut his mouth and stop riling up the townspeople. Lucille Sturges (Jeanne Carmen, UNTAMED YOUTH, THE DEVIL’S HAND), whose mother died mysteriously during a violent storm when she was nine, slings hash at the local Wings Café and flirts with steady boyfriend Don Sullivan (TEENAGE ZOMBIES, THE REBEL SET) over the lunch counter. Her father, the local lighthouse keeper (John Harmon, THE UNHOLY ROLLERS, HITCH HIKE TO HELL), has fallen into a melancholic state since his wife’s death, and appears to be harboring a dark secret. While swimming near the rocky shore, Lucille senses a menacing presence—actually the horny, heavy-breathing monster, who later invades Kochek’s general store and beheads the trouble-making blowhard.
Clubfooted Little Jimmy (Wayne Berwick, Irvin’s son, who grew up to direct MICROWAVE MASSACRE and THE NAKED MONSTER) finds Kochek’s headless body, hysterically interrupting the fishermen brothers’ funerals with the shocking news. The amphibious creature next kills a young girl, and returns to the general store to decapitate the man left to guard Kochek’s corpse, exiting the store carrying his bloody head in his scaly claws. Sturges is later mysteriously found injured on the oceanside rocks, the family dog goes missing, and a scale found near one of the victims leads Fred and Doc Jorgenson (Les Tremayne, WAR OF THE WORLDS, THE SLIME PEOPLE) to conclude that the monster is a mutant variation of the Diplovertebron family (an actual prehistoric genus that actually looked nothing like the title creature). Lucille confesses her love for Fred to her father, and Sturges demands that she not see him anymore, also revealing that he has known about the monster all along and has been feeding and protecting it. The amorous monster continues to stalk Lucille, gaping at her through a window as she undresses, then smashes into her room, scooping her up in his arms and heading for the ocean . . . .
Black Lagoon Creature costume technician Jack Kevan, credited here only as producer, and Irvin Berwick, a child prodigy concert pianist and dialogue coach at Universal—who also helmed the low-budget nudie STRANGE COMPULSION and 1970s exploiters HITCH HIKE TO HELL and MALIBU HIGH—formed Vanwick Productions to produce PIEDRAS BLANCAS, explicitly designed to coat-tail on Universal’s popular CREATURE trilogy. The generally impressive monster suit is probably the best of the Creature knock-offs, similar in appearance except for its feet and clawed hands—“borrowed” from THIS ISLAND EARTH’S Metaluna mutant and the THE MOLE PEOPLE, respectively—and a snarling, demonic face that actually one-ups the Creature for sheer grotesquerie. Its roar also sounds suspiciously like the Creature’s distinctive bellow, while at other times more akin to a drunken hillbilly whooping it up. Second-string 1950s “blonde bombshell” Jeanne Carmen—dancer, pin-up model, trick-shot golf hustler, friend of Marilyn Monroe, and paramour of gangster Johnny Roselli—shows some leg in the beach scenes but otherwise stays pretty well covered up except for a brief cheesecake shot in her bra and half slip. Mild-mannered Don Sullivan, familiar to B-movie fans from half a dozen low-budget epics, including the cult classic THE GIANT GILA MONSTER, provides some beefcake lite by taking his shirt off at the beach, and science fiction stalwart Les Tremayne lends some welcome gravitas and naturalistic acting as Doc Jorgenson.
In the right hands, PIEDRAS BLANCAS could have been a crackling little thriller like IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE, but outside of the brief monster attack scenes, it’s a bit on the dry side, laden with dialogue and dragging a bit even at only 71 minutes. In contrast to THE CREATURE’s exotic locale and stirring action scenes, PIEDRAS BLANCAS has a low-key, small-town feel—partly due to the presence of Forrest Lewis, who appeared on "The Andy Griffith Show" six times in a variety of roles—and is sometimes a bit hokey due to some amateurish acting and the obvious “spooky” music cues that hit you over the head. Also problematic is John Harmon as Sturges the lighthouse keeper, who has little screen charisma and a tendency to overact in an essentially unsympathetic role. What reputation this movie has rests mainly on the well-designed Diplovertebron suit and the brief gore shots of the decapitated heads, but the leisurely, deliberate reveal of the monster (a claw, a shadow, a partial glimpse) generates as much frustration as suspense. The movie’s infamous “money shot” of the monster lugging the decapitated head (the reason for its professed “proto-gore” status) occurs at 46 minutes in, and another “shock” scene of a crab crawling over a body-less head is seen at 50 minutes, but we don’t get to see the full monster costume until the final eight minutes of the movie, and then mostly in somewhat murky day-for-night shots. The stingy use of the monster is puzzling as CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON didn’t suffer a bit from the gillman’s comparatively frequent appearances.
In addition to these flaws, Irvin Berwick is no Jack Arnold, and Pete Dunn, the actor in the monster suit, is no Ben Chapman or Ricou Browning. Dunn occasionally appears ungainly in the suit, and resorts to waving his arms in order to project menace (really making you appreciate the subtlety of Arnold’s less-is-more direction and Chapman and Browning’s convincing and often graceful performances). The monster suit also suffers at times from careless presentation: its outlandish headpiece looks great head-on, but resembles a chubby Conehead with a Bob Hope ski-nose from the side, and there are several shots where the seam between the back of the head and the shoulder sections is visible. MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS would probably be more acclaimed if there were a bit more action and the monster’s appearances weren’t so tantalizingly brief, but, even with its flaws, PIEDRAS BLANCAS is fondly remembered from adolescent viewings by numerous 1960s/70s Monster Kids. It’s a fun watch for undemanding fans of 1950s SF and a canonical must-have for Golden Age science fiction film completists. Much as ANGRY RED PLANET’s bat/rat/spider/crab was immortalized on the cover of The Misfits’ Walk Among Us LP, the Angry Samoans’ Back from Samoa LP featured one of the infamous publicity stills of the Piedras Blancas monster holding a decapitated head in its mitts (a shot not actually seen in the film).
While PIEDRAS BLANCAS arrives late to the digital format, it was worth the wait; if you’re familiar with this movie from open matte TV viewings or the Republic videotape, Olive Films’ transfer will bring tears to your eyes. Presented in an AVC 1080p 1.78:1 widescreen encode with DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono audio, the movie looks better than one would ever have imagined, with deep, rich blacks, bright, clean highlights, solid, well gradated grayscale, and perceptible but tight and organic grain structure. There is a minimum of very light speckling and spotting, but no print damage, lining, reel change marks, or other problems, and audio is clear with no perceptible issues. The image is also plenty sharp, with finely resolved hair, skin, and clothing textures revealing some occasional sweater fuzz and a tiny scar on Don Sullivan’s right cheek, and Les Tremayne’s polka-dot bowtie and herringbone jacket pop nicely. The main menu screen features a nice full-figure shot of the monster holding the decapitated head on a coral-colored background, but, as we’ve come to expect from Olive, the only “special feature” is English subtitles, though the lack of extras is mitigated considerably by the outstanding transfer. For completists, the MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS trailer is available on Synapse’s 42nd Street Forever Vol. 2 compilation DVD. (Paul Tabili)
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