Monster of Piedras Blancas

Since I've spent most of my life near the ocean, I've developed a love/hate relationship with the beach. Mom and Dad would drag me out into the sunlight every day during the long, hot, un-air-conditioned summers, days when I would be anxious to get back home in time for Monster Week on the 4:30 movie, or the Creature Double Feature each Saturday on Channel 48. No matter how much I whined to go back to my beloved black-and-white television, they'd always insist that I get out into the fresh air, get some exercise and build my character. Their well-intentioned attempts have produced results you might expect: though I remain in the area, I have not visited the beach at all in many years, except perhaps to gawk at an oncoming hurricane. I have not immersed myself in any natural body of water since before the turn of the millennium. I have not so much as dunked my toe in the Atlantic off the New Jersey coast in over a decade. On the other hand, my horror movie collection now numbers in the thousands. I think there is a lesson here.

My first job, when I became old enough to get my working papers, was picking up garbage on the beach. This was back in the early 1980's, when lots of things that are now forbidden were still legal, or at least tolerated, at the shore... Also, sewage and medical waste used to wash up a lot in those days, and the usual color of the sea was dingy brown.

A bunch of us kids would jump into the back of a Township pickup truck at seven in the morning, and we'd be driven out to a stretch of beach; we'd jump out of the truck with burlap sacks, and the truck would drive off a mile or two south to wait for us. Our team would then spread out across the sand, from the edge of the dunes (beyond which no one was allowed to walk) to the tide line, and we'd walk until we reached the truck again. Along the way, we'd pick up anything we found in our path that didn't belong there... used tampon applicators, old diapers, cigarette packages, empty lighters, newspapers, syringes, empty beer bottles (and the occasional full one, which almost made the job worth while), all sorts of vile trash in various states of filth. Once we got to the truck, we'd empty our sacks into the back, climb back up into the truck bed with the garbage, and be driven off to the next stretch of beach.

After that experience, my view of the beach changed just a bit. Other people saw sun and sand and surf; I saw tampon applicators. And every year, there were more and more people roasting their flesh on the beach like stuffed pigs at a luau; every year more of the area's charm, more of the historic sites, and more of the open space disappeared; every year it got more expensive and less enjoyable to live there. For twenty years my parents contemplated moving elsewhere, and once I came back from my college years, I too thought about getting out. But where was there to go? The simple fact remained that we still loved the area and its climate, and we still felt we belonged to an older community which was in danger of disappearing in the shadow of the Money Machine the local economy had become.

I got the hell out in 1996. I moved across the bridge to the overlooked little community that everybody drove through to get to their vacations. It was a surprisingly difficult decision to make, leaving the beach, even though it was no longer a place I recognized or really cared to recognize. Now I won't go back unless I absolutely need to. My parents escaped in 2004, so I have even less reason than desire to go back. Unfortunately, the area has built up to such as hideous degree that the sprawl and inflation have spilled over onto the mainland, so that my present community is facing the same sort of grotesque changes the old one faced. But there are fewer tampon applicators now.

So when the idea of a Beach Party-themed round table was suggested, my first reaction was to reach for my copy of The Abominable Snowman: no beach, no party, no summer, no vacation, none of the things to which I'd developed such an allergic reaction after a life at the shore. But then my fellow B-masters pointed out that I was being grumpy, and I realized the error of my ways. After all, if I can be accused of mere grumpiness, then I'm obviously not living up to my full potential as a misanthrope. Rifling through my collection, I was very happy to come across a movie that was grim, grisly and brutal for its time; a movie that managed to make the beach in mid-summer look like an uninvitingly cold, grey, hostile place. The Monster of Piedras Blancas not only matched my mood perfectly, it really was one of the movies that used to beckon me away from sun, sea and sand in those summer days of my childhood.

The movie takes place in the summer — though you'd hardly guess from the grimy black and white look of the film — in a little coastal town in central California. We open in the kind of grey, indeterminate light that could be either day or night, on the hills overlooking a little lighthouse. Down on the cliffs below, a scaly claw reaches up and grabs a bowl chained to the rocks. When the thing attached to the claw realizes the bowl is empty, it gives a howl of frustration and hurls the bowl back up the cliffs.

Meanwhile, the lighthouse keeper steps out of his house, where he sees two men running furtively along the shore. He hails them from a distance and warns them testily to stay away from the area. Thinking of what we've seen in the opening shots, perhaps the two men would be better off heeding the lighthouse keeper's warning...

A few minutes into The Monster of Piedras Blancas, we know exactly where we stand. We know the movie knows it, too: the opening credits list the cast, and their characters aren't even dignified with names. They're simply listed as: "The Boy". "The Girl". "The Doctor". "The Lighthouse Keeper". And, of course, "The Monster of Piedras Blancas". We know these types, and where they fit, and what we expect of them. We note that "The Doctor" is played by Les Tremayne, and we smile: here is a movie that truly understands its genre, and is comfortable there. We also know that this kind of unpretentious self-awareness, like the confidence of an experienced jazzman launching into a standard, can lead to some interesting and even surprising results.

After the credits, we find out that the two men have failed to heed sound advice. A group has gathered on the beach, where a boat has been found with two headless bodies in it. The lighthouse keeper passes by, walking his bicycle; he eyes the group as uneasily as they regard him. As he leaves, feigning disinterest, the group on the beach mutters their suspicions about the old man.

The lighthouse keeper (whose name, by the way, is Sturges) goes into town to Kochek's general store, to pick up his weekly supplies. Kochek is the town's pseudo-ethnic comic relief; I was going to say that actor Frank Arvidson gives the worst attempt at a central European accent I've ever heard on film, except that I refuse to dignify it with the word "attempt". It was Kochek who found the body, and being a Superstitious Foreigner®, he regales the increasingly uneasy Sturges with his theory of what decapitated the men on the beach. He claims it's the Monster: the Monster of Piedras Blancas!

Piedras Blancas means "white rocks", and the reason those piedras are so blancas is because they're full of bird shit. Sturges essentially tells Kochek that his theory matches the rocks. Naturally, this makes Kochek mad, and when Sturges asks him for his customary meat scraps, the shopkeeper takes a certain delight in informing him that there won't be any this week. Sturges was late coming for them, so he sold them. Sturges is upset by the news, and we suddenly get the feeling those scraps may not have been intended for his dog.

While Sturges and Kochek are having their little argument, the men from the beach arrive with the two men's bodies in a wheelbarrow. Without even changing the tone of his voice, Kochek instructs them to leave the bodies in the meat locker. Sturges, for his part, pays them little attention. The men dispose of the bodies with the same stolidity they might have displayed delivering a side of beef. There's something almost brutal in the casual way these people seem to react to violent death, even though a couple of decapitations can't be a common occurence.

Sturges walks down the street, to a decrepit little restaurant called "The Wings" that seems to be the town's only eatery. Sturges's daughter Lucy ("The Girl") tends bar and waits tables at The Wings. Lucy is every bit as friendly and good-natured as her father is sour. There hasn't been much time for her father's mean temperament to rub off on her: she's been away at a boarding school for the last several years.

Sturges drops by to see her at work, and is most displeased when she informs him she has to work late that night. Lucy tells him not to worry; Fred (that's "The Boy") will bring her home. Sturges makes a face as though the Monster might be less of a risk, but drops the subject. The local constable tries to get Sturges to reveal anything he might know about the two deaths, but Sturges's mood is obviously worse than usual.

After the old man has left, the policeman sits down for a quiet conversation with the town doctor, who is also by necessity the town coroner. Dr. Jorgenson describes the condition of the bodies, noting that the heads were removed with surgical precision and that there was surprisingly little blood. Later on, he notes that the major arteries in the neck were stretched out, a description which paints a cheery little picture of someone or something sucking the blood out of the men as though they were human juice boxes. (Of course, if someone or something did knock the men's heads off and drink all their blood, how did he, she or it manage to drink from both men without spilling too much blood? Did one of the men just wait around until his brother was empty before allowing himself to be decapitated?)

Lucy goes off to the beach with Fred during her lunch break. Fred is a marine biologist, so his excuse for the beach junket is to collect some specimens. The real reason is so that the lovebirds can remind us that From Here to Eternity, with its iconic surf kiss, was a recent movie in 1959. Once again, the indeterminate quality of the light in this dark-grey film makes their remarks about what a lovely day it is seem oddly out of place.

True to his word, Fred does drive Lucy home that night. Lucy apologizes for not being able to invite him in — Dad wouldn't approve. As they talk about Sturges, Lucy tells the story of her Mother's death, and how it contributed to his reclusiveness. To brighten things a little, Lucy suggests they go for a late-night walk on the beach, but Fred proves he really was interested in thse specimens by putting their welfare first. As he drives away, Lucy impulsively slips off to the beach for a quick skinny-dip (Fred, you idiot! Look what you're missing!). While she paddles in the surf, a dark, panting shape reaches out of the shadows and starts pawing through her discarded clothes. We get the feeling it isn't Fred.

Sturges, who heard Fred's car drive up a good long time ago, is livid when he finds out his daughter has gone for a swim alone at night. He's even more upset when Lucy admits she had the feeling she was being watched. It's a good thing she didn't tell him her panties were missing...

Meanwhile, the thing which isn't Fred shambles into town. As fate would have it, Kochek — who's been frightening the neighbors with his insistence they lock their doors against the Monster — is up doing his accounting, with the store doors wide open against the heat. Kochek may have been right about his theory, but as an enormous claw descends on him he doesn't seem particularly pleased.

And now, just like the delivery of the bodies to Kochek's store, we have another one of those moments that are strangely, delightfully off. It's the next morning, and almost the whole town has gathered for the funeral of the two men killed on the beach. As the crowd follows the coffins to the cemetery, one little boy, a kid named Jimmy with a lame leg, is told by his mother that he doesn't need to walk with them all the way to the graveyard. He waits alone outside Kochek's store, whittling — remember when playing with a pocketknife was considered a fine pastime for a very small boy? Those were the days... All at once, the little boy finds something much more interesting than a carved stick: a quarter in the street. He runs into the store with his windfall, hoping to get some candy. Instead, he finds the decapited body of the shopkeeper. Imagine the surprise of the people at the funeral when, in the middle of a prayer, little Jimmy comes limping down the road as fast as his game leg will allow him, shouting about murder...

The Doctor, the Constable and the Boy... er, sorry, Fred... start looking around Kochek's store for clues. Fred is just about to check the meat locker (also known as the town morgue) when Doc Jorgenson calls him over. They've found a single, enormous scale, like a fish or reptile scale, only much larger. The three men go off to investigate the find, leaving a local named Eddie to carry Kochek's body into the meat locker while they're away.

The scale turns out (at least according to Fred) to be remarkably similar to the scales of a prehistoric creature called the Diplovertebron. Well... that's reasonable, considering what we've seen: Diplovertebron was an amphibian, and it did have a five-fingered front claw. And it was a primitive amphibian, so it may have still had scaly skin, unlike today's amphibia.

Before Fred has much chance to offer more speculation, a local woman rushes in looking for Doc Jorgenson. She's just seen Old Man Sturges lying in a heap at the foot of the rocks below the lighthouse. Forgetting all about the scale, and about having left Eddie behind all alone at Kochek's store, the men rush out to the cliffs.

Sturges is hurt, but alive. As they bring him back to the light, Lucy goes to do what the ingenue in a monster movie always does in a crisis: she makes coffee for the men. Sturges remins tight-lipped about what happened to him out on the rocks. Fred and Lucy notice that Sturges's faithful dog is nowhere to be seen... funny how Sturges hasn't even mentioned this.

Fred insists, in spite of Sturges's objections, that he needs to investigate the network of caves at the base of the cliffs. He has a pointless argument about the issue with Lucy, who becomes so upset she tells him not to come back. We know better than to take the argument seriously: it's he obligatory tiff between the Boy and the Girl that will be made up at the end of the movie...

Back in town, the Doc and the Constable are confronted with more tragedy: a local man brings in the headless body of his little daughter. She had merely been going to the store... The two men rush back to Kochek's store looking for Eddie. The man is nowhere to be found. Jorgenson goes to check the back room; the Constable goes to look in the meat locker.

Suddenly, the Constable gives a terrible scream. He comes stumbling ut of the meat locker, clutching his gut. Out from behind him comes... The Monster of Piedras Blancas! This time, we get a better look at the beast: we see it up to its neck. It's clutching Eddie's bloody head in its claw. One of the bystanders attempts to hit the monster with Kochek's meat cleaver, but aside from peeling off a nice fresh scale for Fred to study later, the cleaver does little damage. The creature stumbles away — would you try to stop it? — leaving the Doctor and the injured Constable to make excuses for each other why they aren't giving chase.

A hastily-arranged posse goes to search the caves. Groups split up to search high and low. The first thing they find is Eddie's severed head, now food for a hungry crab (this scene had an enormous impact on me when I was little. I had a terror of severed heads, and this one is rather well done). Shots and cries from the top of the cliff announce the monster's been located, but when the men arrive they find one man dead and one badly injured. The monster has disappeared again.

In spite of her argument with Fred, Lucy is beginning to have suspicions that her father knows more than he is letting on. At last, when she confronts him with the news that one of the latest victims was a little girl, Sturges opens up. The lonely old man had stumbled across something in the caves may years ago; and though he'd never actually seen it in the open, he took to leaving fish for it to eat. He'd sent Lucy away because he didn't trust the thing around a young girl, but once Lucy was gone, his loneliness bound him even more to his unseen creature. Before long, he couldn't catch enough fish to feed it, so he'd switched to meat scraps. Thus the Monster acquired a taste for raw red meat, to the point where he would refuse fish. And then, one day, Kochek gave away his meat scraps...

While Lucy is helping the injured and remoreful Sturges back to his post atop the beacon, the men-folk are back in town putting their Big Plan into effect. For a monster movie Big Plan, this one is surprisingly sensible. They've seen that the weapons they have to hand — small firearms and a few sharp tools — are pretty much useless against the creature's tough skin, so they decide the best course of action is to trap the beast alive. They'll lure it out with a side of beef, then trap it in heavy-duty fishing nets. The idea is to keep everybody as safe as possible (!), while at the same time preserving the creature for its value to the study of evolution (!!). Unfortunately, this plan is going to take a lot of preparation. They're going to have to come up with a net sturdy enough to hold an angry Monster, and that's going to entail a few nights of work... enough time for the Monster to get hungry again, and decide to pay a little visit to the lighthouse.

This is the point at which the movie starts to slip a bit, in my opinion. We all know it's only a matter of time before Old Man Sturges gets punished for his transgressions by the very monster he helped unleash. 50's horror movies are as rigid in their judgment as the Old Testament, and more predictable. However, just as the beast is about to climb the stairs leading up to the beacon, where the old man is alone and practically helpless, he's distracted by Lucy. Lucy, for her part, thinks the shambling, gasping thing on the stairs is her father (which reflects rather poorly on Sturges's home behavior)... Lucy is also strangely unconcerned that her father should be coming back down the long spiral stairway — he seemed badly-injured enough to need her assistance every step of the way up. Anyway, the Monster, who's been a very no-nonsense Monster for most of the film so far — except for the panty incident — suddenly goes into its "menace the helpless girl" mode. Forgetting about his instinct to turn on his benefactor, his instinct to mate with a shapely female mammal comes raging to the fore...

The movie has been very careful about building to the Big Reveal of the monster. First, we saw the clawed hand; next, a shadow; then we saw his feet and the lower part of his body. Now we get to see the rest of him, and it's not a pretty sight. How can we best describe the beast? Imagine the love-child of Nikita Krushchev and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. No; that doesn't quite do it. Think of a cross between a crab, a linebacker and a big, drooly dog... no; again, that's just not adequate. Hmmm. How about Don Rickles dressed up like Auld Clootie in a suit of armor?

Or, to be more precise about it, we could describe it as the feet of a Mutant from This Island Earth, the body of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and the hands of a Mole Man — since the suit-maker, Jack Kevan, had worked on all three costumes and had access to their parts — topped by a brand-new head from hell. Now that we finally get a look at the top part of its body, we can see that it's been worth the wait: the monster has an enormous maw, from which sea water dribbles, and a dome-like forehead from which two rudimentary antennae protrude. His upper torso is beefier than the Creature's, and is topped by two armored plates over the shoulders. His small, expressionless eyes are hooded by ridges of shell. He lacks the fishy grace of the Creature, and seems to combine some of the most repellent traits of crustacean, reptile and man.

He also has wide, flaring nostrils. I'm at a loss to figure out why an amphibian like this would have any nose at all, let alone a very large one. Perhaps it's not really a nose at all, but a nose-like apparatus? In any case, it gives him a particularly ugly expression.

(Actually, to tell the truth, its features look an awful lot like me. I knew there was a reason I liked this movie so much!)

When you stop to think about it, there are some other problems with the monster design (aside from the useless nose) that make it seem a little improbable. For example, its aversion to light and its heavy armoring somehow suggest it is a creature from the lightless depths of the ocean. But even assuming an amphibian creature could adjust to the enormous differences in pressure between the depths and the surface (which isn't really difficult to imagine), there's little reason why the creature would have evolved into a biped with forward-pointing eyes. I can't think of any evolutionary advantage to walking erect under water — one of the reason people are attacked by sharks is that even the most graceful human swimmer moves through the water like a badly injured fish. Bipeds like us simply aren't suited to getting around in the water. However, if we look at the Monster of Piedras Blancas not as a viable undersea life form, but as a horrifying gargoyle from your worst nightmares, meant to keep impressionable movie-goers awake at night... especially if they're little boys who live by the ocean... then he's just right.

UPDATE: Reader David Lee Ingersoll was also impressed by the monster in his formative years, and he's managed to come up with a splendid and far more evolutionarily (is that a word?) plausible version of the Monster. Wait until you see THIS... Note to all those Hollywood types who are running out of ideas to recycle: Call our agents! We've got a great idea for you!

The Monster's fearsome appearance and generally ferocious behavior actually work against him when the time comes for him to pick up Lucy and make off with her. When the Creature from the Black Lagoon did it, there was a sense of pathos about the act. For all his general fishiness, there was something poignant about the graceful gill-man, swimming beneath the beautiful woman... aching to reach out and touch her but unable to bring himself to do so. Who in the audience hasn't fel the same about someone or something? The Monster from Piedras Blancas, by contrast, is all raging primal appetite. We suspect he's carrying off Lucy either because the script told him to, or because he's looking for a nice private place to tear off her head and feast.

Sturges looks out from the top of the lighthouse and manages to get a clear glimpse of the Monster and Lucy... in spite of the fact that it's supposed to be night-time, and the beacon is unlit. Again, it's impossible to tell what time of day it is: we're told it's night, but everybody can see as clearly as though... oh, I don't know... as though they were filming in the day-time with filters. And by "filters", I mean an old, grimy sweat sock.

So now we have a dark-adapted monster; and a lighthouse (a tall lighthouse) whose beacon hasn't been switched on yet; a girl in distress; a character in need of comeuppance and/or redemption; and a movie willing to adjust its timeline for the Good Guys to get their act together in a ridiculously short time. If you're guessing that a dummy and an empty rubber suit are going to end up falling from great height, you're absolutely right. But there's no need to feel smug about it: the movie knows you know what's going to happen. And along the way it gives us the unforgettable image of the Monster shrieking and bellowing as it charges up to the lighthouse. Even though I know that the Monster is a man in a costume1, the beast's appearance still unnerves me.

The Monster of Piedras Blancas wasn't shot in Piedras Blancas, California. It was crucial to the screenplay that there be a photogenic lighthouse as a loaction, and the Piedras Blancas light — ironically enough — was decapitated in 1949, after a storm damaged the upper portion of the structure. The building that appears in the film is the Point Conception light, one of California's most remote and atmospheric lighthouses. I suppose, since the title creature was described on the posters as "the fiend that stalked Lovers' Beach", The Monster from Point Conception might have given the impression more was going on at "Lovers' Beach" than the film intended to show.

There are so many things about Monster that make it special. At the top of the list is a frightening monster, which is almost if not quite plausible. But the movie also stands out as being particularly graphic and grisly for its time: we see blood in this movie, and dripping severed heads. A child gets killed... in a nasty way, too. Even scenes which are common in films of this sort — the discovery of a body, for instance, or our first good look at the monster — are filmed with a particular verve, and a strong sense of detail (the wheelbarrow, the limping boy, the crab, the monster's slobber...). What's more, the heroes come up with an intelligent plan to deal with the monster, and the plan involves capturing the creature, not just killing it. Only the actions of the monster — and the fact that it takes a realistically long time to prepare the countermeasures — make the plan unfeasible.

Of all the fish-man films that followed in the wake of The Creature from the Black Lagoon — everything from Horror of Party Beach to Spawn of the Slithis to all the various incarnations of Humanoids from the DeepMonster of Piedras Blancas is one of the best. It has a look, and a feeling, and a nasty fishy aftertaste that are all its own. If Universal's Creature... was its last "classic monster", little Vanwick Productions' film pointed the way forward with a more modern, visceral approach to its horror.

And yet... in spite of Monster of Piedras Blancas's interesting position between old and new styles of horror, and in spite of later films' closer resemblance to it than to Creature..., look what the IMDB told me would be a good follow-up film:

IMDB recommends... CURSE OF BIGFOOT??

Curse of Bigfoot?!

They want me to follow one of the best low-budget monster flicks of the 50's with that textbook example of how not to make a film? The words "recommend" and "Curse of Bigfoot" should never be used together, unless it's to say "I recommend you stay far, far away from Curse of Bigfoot". Clearly the IMDB has lost its ANSI-compliant relational mind.

Still, a challenge like this can't be taken lightly. That's why I've prepared a totally unrelated, totally unwanted Bonus Review that has nothing to do with the Roundtable subject! Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to inflict upon you suffering beyond your wildest imaginings...

Curse of Bigfoot

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1. Apparently the guy in the suit was the same actor who played the unfortunate Eddie. This adds a level of enjoyment to the classic publicity stills for the picture, which showed the monster clutching the prosthetic Eddie-head. I know that directors sometimes hand the actors their heads, but...

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