Sunday, April 12, 2020

How Do You Handle a Hungry Man-Fish?

By Hank Parmer

The Monster of Piedras Blancas (1959)

When The Creature from the Black Lagoon premiered in 1954, it spawned not just two sequels, but an entire sub-genre of amphibious man-monsters (along with the token She-Creature) coming up from the depths to terrorize unwary land-dwellers. And, typically, to lust after the wimmins, a theme that reached its nasty apotheosis with 1980's Humanoids from the Deep* -- but the less said about that one, the better.

The real heyday of this genre's popularity was the mid-Fifties to the mid-Sixties, an era which at its tail-end brought us such timeless classics as Del "I Eat Your Skin" Tenney's The Horror of Party Beach (1964) and the straightforwardly titled The Beach Girls and the Monster (1965).

As for The Monster of Piedras Blancas, it falls somewhere between those and the original Creature, both chronologically and in terms of production values. Producer Jack Kevan, director Irvin Berwick and cinematographer Phillip Lathan were contract workers at Universal-International, which was experiencing a major money crunch at the time. So the studio was willing to look the other way while its people did some freelancing, even going so far as allowing the producer to borrow equipment as well as bits and pieces of U-I's monster suits.

Because of this, the titular critter looks unusually convincing for a low-budget film and Lathan's cinematography -- while nothing to write home about -- was a cut above what what you typically encounter in this sort of outing. I just wish I could say the same about Berwick's screenplay and direction.

The Monster opens with an establishing shot of the scenic Point Conception lighthouse, followed by a quick dissolve to a close-up of a battered tin pan, chained to a stake driven into the rock. An inhuman, claw-tipped hand reaches up from behind the rocks, snatches the pan out of sight. But it's instantly tossed back.

Someone's impatient for their din-dins.

Cut to curmudgeonly loner, lighthouse keeper Sturges (John Harmon). He yells at a couple of teenagers who're hiking along the edge of the cliff to keep away from his light, then hops on his bicycle for a grocery run down to the sleepy coastal community of Piedras Blancas. (Spanish for "White Rocks".)

Down at the beach, Constable George Matson stares glumly at the off-screen corpses of two fishermen, the Rinaldi brothers. According to the guy standing next to the constable, the brothers' heads have been "ripped clean off". Matson remarks their skin is oddly pale, as if there's not a drop of blood left in their bodies.

When the lighthouse keeper pedals past, Joe Exposition mutters to the constable he's convinced old Sturges knows more than he's telling. Matson orders a couple of the men to take the brothers to Kochek's store, so their corpses can be kept on ice until the coroner arrives. (What with the Rinaldis' hemoglobin deficit, Kochek can probably just stack them right on top of the Swanson's.)

At Kochek's meat and grocery market, the proprietor is a garrulous soul, eager to impart the grisly details while he fills Sturges' order. He was the one who discovered the bodies, after all. Although Kochek claims the Rinaldis had their throats cut from ear to ear, not that they were decapitated.

I suppose, technically speaking, if your head's been removed your throat has to have been been cut at some point in the process, but still...

The shopkeeper scoffs at Constable George's theory that the Rinaldis were swept into the rocks by last night's storm. Their boat should have been smashed to pieces, yet when he saw it floating near the pier it was battered but still intact and their bodies were inside the boat. But here's the screwy bit: there wasn't a trace of blood!

Turns out this is just the latest in a long string of disappearances and mysterious deaths in the vicinity. Local historian and town gossip Kochek is convinced it has to be the work of (title drop in 3 ... 2 ... 1) the legendary Monster of Piedras Blancas.

Sturges listens to all this without comment, though he becomes a trifle antsy when Kochek starts in about the monster. When he asks about his meat scraps, Kochek replies that he gave them to another customer. The lighthouse keeper blows his top.

Kochek doesn't understand what all the fuss is about. They were just scraps for Sturges' dog, and besides, he was late coming in for his supplies, so what did he expect the guy to do? Sturges angrily promises Kochek, "You'll be sorry!" -- which is our first clue to the character's... shall we say... peculiar priorities.

Because by this point it should be blindingly obvious the lighthouse keeper is feeding the thing, and if it doesn't get its nummies in a timely manner it's going to start looking for a two-legged nosh. In light of the fact his tardiness in fetching those scraps has likely already resulted in the horrific deaths of two locals, couldn't Sturges have sprung for a few cans of tuna this time, or splurged on a couple of pounds of hamburger or a pot roast? It's not like the critter would be accustomed to filet mignon.

Still grumbling to himself, Sturges grabs his parcel of groceries and pushes past the just-arrived cadaver-haulers and their handcart with the Rinaldis piled on top -- at least the guys covered them with a tarp. On his way out, the shopkeeper reminds Sturges the brothers' burial service will be tomorrow morning. (They plant 'em quick in these parts.)

"It should be a first-class funeral -- better not miss it!" Kochek calls after him, with frankly ghoulish anticipation.

Sturges walks his bike a few doors down to drop in on his daughter Lucille, a waitress at The Wings Cafe. (Jeanne Carmen, whose biography I encourage you to look up. She had quite the interesting life.) Grumpy Dad is seriously displeased when Lucille tells him she has to work late tonight. Not to worry, she reassures Sturges, Fred can escort her home.

Fred is played by Don Sullivan, an actor familiar to all Grade-Z movie aficionados as "Chase", from The Giant Gila Monster -- which makes two leading roles in this thespian's slim filmography with "Monster" in the title. (Not to mention he had the rare honor of having not one but two of his flicks skewered by MST3K.) Thankfully for all concerned, this time around he's not called upon to sing whenever he sings.

Constable George slurps down the last dregs of his cup of java, then interrupts the lighthouse keeper's tirade to question him about last night. Sturges heatedly denies knowing anything about what happened to the Rinaldis; he warned them time and again not to fish out by the point this time of year, when squalls can blow up without warning.

After Sturges stomps out, the constable meets up with the coroner over at Kochek's. Doc Jorgenson (ubiquitous Fifties character actor Les Tremayne) is baffled by the brothers' injuries. I know I get a bit obsessive about these minor details, but he gives us a third version of the condition of the Rinaldis' remains. According to the medical expert, their heads were severed -- not "ripped clean off" -- as neatly as if it had been done by a guillotine.

Look, script, would you at least try to get your story straight?

Given the afternoon off by considerate Constable George, who in addition to his law enforcement gig also owns the cafe, Lucille packs a picnic and accompanies Fred out to the point, where the handsome young marine biologist intends to collect some specimens. He's certainly itching to check out one specimen's biology, though I only mention this bit because of the way it concludes, by blatantly steal -- er, copying the iconic kiss-in-the-surf scene from From Here to Eternity.

As we'll see, director Berwick really likes to reference other films. Though to be fair, for a romantic interlude in a low-budget creature feature, it was handled more-or-less competently. I know I wouldn't have turned down a chance to make out with Ms. Carmen, even if it meant getting sand in my crack and salt water up my nose.

Meanwhile, back at the cafe, Jorgenson confides one more tidbit to the constable that he didn't care to mention in front of that blabbermouth Kochek: In addition to their heads being severed, the veins and arteries in the Rinaldi brothers' necks were distended, as if some kind of powerful suction had been applied. Which explains their bloodless state. Of course, both Doc and the constable poo-poo the idea it's the work of a monster.

An ax-wielding vampire squid... maybe.

After they part company, the constable returns to the market. Kochek is advising a customer to keep her lights out and doors and windows locked at night, what with the monster prowling about. After she exits, Matson warns Kochek he'd better stop spreading these ridiculous rumors, or he'll get tossed in the slammer for inciting a riot.

Incurious George sure is setting himself up to look like an utter jackass, isn't he?

Up at the lighthouse, Sturges kvetches to his mutt while he polishes the lantern's Fresnel lens. Yeah, yeah, what happened to the Rinaldis was their own fault; he warned them to keep away from the point -- that's what the light is there for, dummy. Why won't people just leave us alone?

Although if you ask me the more pertinent question he should be posing himself is: "Why am I feeding a head-hunting, blood-hoovering hell-beast?"

Later that evening, Fred drops Lucy -- I mean, Lucille off at the lighthouse. She invites him for a moonlight swim, but Fred, alas, hears those specimens he collected earlier calling to him. (Idiot!)

So Lucille skinny-dips solo. (This movie is determined to make the most of Ms. Carmen's fame as a pin-up girl, although, sadly, the day-for-night effect is so dark all we ever see is her silhouette.) While she's bathing au naturel, something investigates her discarded garments. Wait... maybe this was just Old Man Grogan, the Panty-Sniffer of Piedras Blancas. And it's been a while since he trimmed his nails.

When Lucille returns to the lighthouse, Sturges notices her hair is damp and instantly deduces she's been for a dip. His daughter offhandedly mentions she had the feeling she was being watched, but didn't see anyone. Sturges hits the roof, threatens to ship her straight back to "that fine school of yours before vacation is over" if she ever goes swimming down there again by herself at night.

Um, script, this actor is clearly no ingenue; she was actually in her late 20s at the time. (Maybe she's a slow learner.) And considering his critter just offed two guys at one whack, it's difficult to see how the buddy system is going to make swimming there any safer.

Puzzled by the vehemence of her father's reaction, Lucille puts it down to yet another of his quirks. She promises not to swim by herself again. After she goes off to bed, Sturges looks thoughtful for a minute, then dons a jacket, picks up a lantern and exits the lighthouse.

The movie tantalizes us with a shadowy outline on the storefronts, as the creature shuffles down the town's deserted main street.

"Me, and my shaaadow..."

Kochek is working late at his store. In an ironic twist, he didn't take his own advice about keeping the door locked, and becomes the creature's next victim.

Next morning, the Rinaldi brothers' funeral is interrupted by little Jimmy, who went into the store to buy some candy and found Kochek's body. Which, the tyke informs the adults, was minus the head. Could be there's a pattern here...

Fred joins Doc Jorgenson and the constable in giving the murder scene a quick once-over. Although they don't seem to put all that much effort into finding the guy's head, the keen-eyed medico discovers what appears to be a fish scale in the puddle of ink spilled on Kochek's ledger.

The constable details Deputy Eddie to stash Kochek's body in the freezer and keep an eye on the place. Then the trio repair to Doc's digs to see if they can identify the scale.

While the constable pecks idly at the piano keys -- instead of, like, oh, trying to locate the rest of Kochek, or search for any other clues to the identity of this killer -- Doc and Fred determine the scale they found is similar to that of a prehistoric amphibian, the Diplovertebron. But this one is from a living creature! And, ominously, it's much larger than a Diplovertebron scale.

Lucille bursts in, frantic because she found her father lying unconscious at the bottom of the cliff below the lighthouse and was afraid to try moving him by herself. Doctor Feelgood swings into action and gives her a pill to calm her down. (Ah, that fabulous Fifties pharmacopeia!) Then they race out to the lighthouse in Fred's jeep.

Finding Sturges still sprawled where Lucille discovered him, the men help him to his feet -- evidently spinal injuries weren't a thing in the 1950s, right Doc? They half-carry/half-walk the woozy keeper up to his lighthouse. Fortunately, Doc's examination reveals Sturges' hurts are nowhere near as serious as they could have been.

Lucille notices the dog, "Ring" -- honest, unless our heroine has a problem with her "R"s and "K"s -- normally Sturges' inseparable companion, is missing. Fred suggests the pooch is probably just out on the moors chasing rabbits. He volunteers to stay with Lucille and help her look after Dad; Doc and the constable take the jeep back to town.

Sturges wakes up. He's not pleased (big surprise, huh?) to see Fred there, but is somewhat mollified when Lucille points out her boyfriend helped lug his cantankerous carcass up from the beach. While daughter fixes Grumpy Dad some broth, Fred informs him of Kochek's gruesome murder. Sturges responds to the news by going all shifty-eyed and muttering, "He always talked too much."

A finer epitaph than this, no man could ask. (That'll sure teach him not to give away a customer's meat scraps, right?)

Fred queries the lighthouse keeper about the legend of the monster, who's rumored to inhabit one of the caves below the light. Sturges tries to blow it off as treacherous currents and the fact that the White Rocks got their name because they're usually covered with bird guano, making them very hard to see in certain conditions.

One thing is for sure, there's a liberal coating of guano being applied here. Which again causes me to wonder what kind of hold the critter has on Sturges. The guy could have simply said he was too tired to talk anymore, yet here he is once again trying to explain away the attacks -- when the most recent one happened on dry land, nowhere near the rocks.

When Fred asks permission to check out the caves below the light, Sturges won't hear of it. The young biologist's suspicions are aroused. (That ought to give one part of him a break, anyway.)

While Sturges snoozes, Lucille supplies some back story: They came to Piedras Blancas shortly after her mother died. One day, only a couple of months after they'd moved into the lighthouse, she was briefly trapped by the tide while exploring one of the caves; Sturges was even more furious than usual and immediately packed her off to boarding school.

Fred mentions her father's reaction to his plan to scope out the caves. Strangely, she also forbids him to go poking around down there. (In the caves, that is.) Fred insists, and Lucille ends up telling him to get out, they're through, since he won't obey his future father-in-law.

What is it with this family, besides the hair-trigger hissy-fits? Fred wants to trespass on government property, and it's going to annoy her perpetually peeved parent. But with three unexplained murders in the last 24 hours and no clue to the perpetrator, it doesn't seem that terrible a transgression.

Doc and the constable arrive back in town just in time to witness the director borrowing from another classic Universal film: A crowd of townspeople trail along behind a man who's cradling in his arms the limp, blanket-shrouded corpse of a little girl.

(Like they say, if you're gonna steal, steal from the best. And hope James Whale's vengeful spirit doesn't suddenly appear and whack you upside the head with a two-by-four.)

After the girl's father lays her body on the counter at Kochek's, Doc and the lawman sneak a peek under the blanket. From their expressions, you can tell there's no head on this one, either.

All they can learn from her near-catatonic dad was that she was on her way to the store. The constable belatedly realizes that Eddie, the guy he left to guard Kochek's, is missing in action. Constable George investigates the freezer. Uh-oh: As soon as the door closes behind him, we hear a roar... a thud... and the screaming starts!

The ice room door flies open and the constable staggers out, groaning and clutching at his side. He slumps against the wall. The creature emerges from the cooler, with Eddie's head dangling from its claws.
"I just wanted to give everybody a heads-up..."

Which, in 1959, the audience might have found pretty shocking. Although the movie continues to tease by just showing the creature's arms, legs and torso.

If what you can see of the monster looks vaguely familiar, there's a good reason for that: The producer was involved in the manufacture of the Creature from the Black Lagoon suit, and also worked on costumes for The Mole People. Which is no doubt how the beast's claw-hands got nicked from a Mole Person.

Isn't it just adorable, though, how it wants to keep the head?

But seriously, this raises yet another question: Sturges has been feeding it meat scraps (and, as we'll find out later, fish he'd catch) yet the monster prefers to decapitate its victims and suck their blood out, not devour them. I'm not sure what's up with this holding-on-to-the-head bit -- maybe it's saving the brains for a snack -- but why did it suddenly decide to change not merely its diet, but its entire mode of feeding?

The store is hastily vacated. Except for Doc, who rushes to help the constable, and one of the men, who's courageous (or stupid) enough to take a whack at the beast with a handy meat cleaver. He manages to wound the monster before he's batted aside. Then it departs, still clutching Eddie's severed noggin.

Constable George comes off surprisingly well, as in not even a scratch, from his up-close-and-personal encounter with the monster. Good thing it went for a kidney-punch this time, instead of using its (supposedly) razor-sharp, one-swipe-and-your-head's off claws. Doc tends to the other guy, while Matson goes to fetch Fred.

Arriving at the lighthouse, the constable is met by Lucille. He warns her to stay inside and lock the doors and windows, there's a "seven-foot-tall monster with tremendous strength" on the loose.

Cut to Fred, who's all set to explore the caves on his own, unarmed. (Like I said, this boy's not the sharpest knife in the drawer.) He's interrupted by a fake-scare -- but it's only Constable George. The two return to town. After retrieving his arsenal from behind the counter at the cafe (you never want to try a dine-and-dash at this establishment) Matson finally gets his ineffectual butt in gear and assembles a posse from a handful of townsmen milling around outside The Wings.

At the seaside near the point, the constable orders the men to search on top of the bluff, while he covers the beach along with Fred. He warns the guys not to try tackling the monster by themselves, but to fire three shots as a signal.

You'd think the fact of their shooting at the thing would be signal enough. Frankly, if I were in their place, I don't think I'd stop at three but empty every bullet I had into the creature, rather than wait for whatever dubious expertise Matson would bring to the rumble. But I guess that's just me.

Fred and the constable soon discover a weird footprint outside a cave. (If like me you're an insufferable -- er, incurable '50s sci-fi geek, you might recognize that print, or rather, the foot that must have made it, because it originally belonged to the Metalunan Mutant from This Island Earth.)

The constable clues us all in to the fact some of these passages have exits up above the cliff. Matson shines his flashlight into the cave. The first thing it illuminates is Eddie's head, and the large crab crawling over it.
"What? I was just giving him a trim!"

This ghastly sight gives Fred and the constable an excellent reason to hesitate before charging into the beast's subterranean lair. Lucky for them, the choice is taken out of their hands when they hear three gunshots ring out up above. They leg it to the top of the bluff and find two of the posse stretched out on the ground, one of them injured and the other dead, with the monster nowhere in sight. Constable George decides he should call off the search until morning.

Back at the lighthouse, Grumpy Dad is feeling better, but he's not at all happy when Lucille tells him she's in love with Fred. Sturges is still dead-set against her boyfriend exploring the caves, though, because they're "dangerous".

Lucille finally calls bullshit on her dad's evasions, and the whole story comes out: Back when they first moved to the lighthouse, Sturges took long walks to keep from brooding over his wife's death. One day, while loitering on the beach below the light at low tide, he heard heavy breathing from inside a cave. That's why he got so bent of shape and sent Lucille away after that time the tide trapped her.

But you see, he was lonely, and never did get along with the townsfolk. So he started leaving the fish he'd catch for whatever it was.

C'mon now, give Sturges a break. For all he knew, it might have been an asthmatic hermit. Or maybe a guy looking for a little privacy.

Lately, though, he's been supplementing the creature's diet with meat scraps from Kochek's. Now he feels he might bear some responsibility for its recent rampage.

Ya think?

I can truthfully declare that never, not in a million years, would it have occurred to me to do a remake of  The Yearling, with a ravenous bloodsucking gill-man in place of a cute, timid faun. I mean damn, buddy, you already have -- or had, anyway -- a faithful dog for companionship. Or is your relationship with the thing a bit more complicated than you're letting on?

Though she tries to argue him out of it, Sturges insists on tending the light himself; his daughter reluctantly helps him limp up to the lantern room. He then sends her back downstairs.

Let's see: Wander off by yourself when there's a hideous, literally bloodthirsty monster still lurking about? Something tells me Miss Lucille should be expecting a caller.

Since the next scene at Doc's place is clearly meant to do nothing more than bring everything to a screeching halt while they pad this thing's running time to an hour and change, we can dispose of it in short order: Fred and Jorgenson convince the constable they should try to capture the monster for scientific study instead of killing it. So they're off to locate nets while Matson rounds up some more townsfolk for a monster-trawling party.

Outside the lighthouse, we get another shadow shot of the creature; the movie gives us one last meager slice of cheesecake through Lucille's bedroom window as she strips down to her slip and bra before donning her dressing gown.

When she hears the monster force the latch on the front door, her face lights up. She clearly believes it's Fred -- and he didn't even knock, first! He's so masterful...

The monster shuffles toward the staircase, but when Lucille calls out, "Fred, I'll be ready in just a minute!" it hesitates... and turns back toward the bedroom door.

Any thrill of anticipation for some passionate make-up sex is rudely dispelled when Lucille finishes primping and opens the door. You have to feel kind of sorry for the monster, though, because he immediately blows that all-important first impression by regurgitating a bucketful of water. (At least, I hope that's just sea water.)
"Oooh, why do I always do this when I meet girls?"

Lucille shrieks and faints dead away. Sturges is outside on the lighthouse balcony. He hears her scream, but trips over his own feet, falls and knocks himself out.

Back in town, Constable George notices the lighthouse is still dark, though it's well past sunset. Fred tries to phone up Lucille, but there's no answer. Fred and Doc Jorgenson jump in the Jeep, while Matson promises he'll get some of the guys together and follow them post haste.

Sturges revives in time to see the monster carrying his daughter away from the lighthouse. Thinking quickly, he chucks a bucket down at the beast with unbelievable accuracy, scoring a direct hit.

The creature drops Lucille, turns, glares up at the lighthouse keeper and screeches like a jilted lover. (Like I said, I think there's more to this relationship than Sturges is letting on. Like that tell-tale fishy odor he just can't seem to get rid of...) The monster returns to the lighthouse and begins to ascend the stairway.

Lucille wakes up and follows the creature into the lighthouse and up the spiral staircase. Grumpy Dad grabs his Winchester, which I suspect he keeps up in the lantern room so he can take potshots at trespassers. He puts several rounds into the monster at point-blank range, apparently without effect, then yells to his daughter to run for help.

Lucille beats cheeks down the road and soon meets up with Fred and Doc; Constable George joins them with a carload of deputies. Meanwhile, Sturges has been trapped on the lighthouse balcony, with only a steel double door -- which he somehow managed to bolt from the inside -- between him and the creature.

While everyone stands around outside the lighthouse, instead of oh... you know... going inside and plugging or at least trying to distract the thing with their shootin' irons, Sturges comes up with the bright idea of rigging a breeches buoy to get him down from there. So Fred throws him a line.

But sadly, time has run out for our plucky nitwit. The monster breaks through the doors, chases Sturges around the balcony, and finally confronts his erstwhile benefactor. The keeper screams, the monster screeches right back. The audience gets a bonus Frankenstein reference as it hoists the lighthouse keeper over its head and tosses an obvious Sturges-dummy down from the height.

With suspiciously convenient timing, Fred reaches the top of the lighthouse too late to help Grumpy Dad. He's carrying a rifle, but doesn't even attempt to shoot the monster. A flashlight held by one of the bystanders down on the ground blinds the beast. (Funny how, earlier, it didn't seem at all incommoded by that bright interior lighting.) Fred yells for Lucille to turn on the lighthouse lantern. She runs up the staircase and throws the switch. Fred uses his rifle butt to push the dazzled critter over the railing into the sea far below.

Lucille joins her lover for the obligatory embrace. At least they didn't fade out with the big question mark.

Prior to actually watching this movie, it had a certain cachet for me; it was one of the few sci-fi/horror flicks from that era that didn't show up on my local TV when I was a kid. Probably because of the decapitations and the scenes with Eddie's head. (It was the early '60s, after all.)

But the reality is that The Monster of Piedras Blancas only looks good in comparison to others of its low-budget ilk. Besides his by-the-numbers plot, the main problem is that even though the director was clearly inspired by both The Creature from the Black Lagoon and 1931's Frankenstein, his story lacks an essential ingredient that made both those movies classics: At least on some level, their monsters evoke the audience's sympathy.

Which the director completely precluded when his creature decapitated a little girl. Sure, Whale's monster also killed a little girl in that 1931 film, but in his case it was unintentional, and because of that, pitiful.

Then again, the argument could be made that the true "monster" of Piedras Blancas was Sturges. Yet far from making his lonely widower sympathetic, evidently the director never realized that "misanthrope" is not a synonym for "sociopath".

For starters, Sturges sent Lucille away because he rightly thought whatever he'd been feeding could be dangerous, but he sure didn't seem to have worried all that much about any other kids meeting up with the critter. I guess his inexplicable attachment to the thing explains his refusal to accept his pet's part in the Rinaldi brothers' deaths, but once it added Kochek to its tally he had to have strongly suspected the creature was the culprit.

I can even imagine that at this point Sturges might have been concerned about the townspeople's reaction to the news he's been nurturing the beast for all these years. Yet by keeping silent he endangered everyone, including his precious daughter. And let's not even go into why Lucille, once she knew about the critter and her dad's little hobby, didn't insist on ringing up the constable and passing along the location of its hangout. Along with the quick temper and rock-stupid, a light regard for the lives of others runs in this family.

It practically gallops. (Hey now: If the director can do it, so can I!)

*But plenty said about it in the "Weird Sex" chapter of Better Living Through Bad Movies.


Carl said...

What if the two mens' necks were perforated? Then they could be ripped off but *look* like they were guillotined.

Scott said...

DIRECTIONS: "Please Cut Along Dotted Line..."
MONSTER: "I HATE these damn IKEA diagrams!"

Anonymous said...

speaking of Weird Sex, that reminds me of a joke from college-

Q:What comes between Brooke Shields and her Jordache jeans?

A: The Creature From the Blue Lagoon


Hank said...

"Rinaldi Bros (tm) Humans -- Now with the new pop-top head!"