Tuesday, October 18, 2016

HubrisWeen 2016, Day 13: The Monster of Piedras Blancas (1959)

While in many ways it's painfully a product of its time, there's no question that Creature From The Black Lagoon is an amazing and influential film even to this day. Apart from its great (albeit not totally original) plot, the film delivered an incredible and believable monster that was so graceful in the water it seemed to actually belong there. Nobody has ever quite been able to replicate the amazing creature of its title, even in its official sequels.

Of course, that's never been an obstacle for imitators and people have been trying to ride that gill man's aquatic coat tails ever since. It's even continued right unto the 2010s with movies like Hypothermia and the upcoming short film Shallow Water. There's just something oddly compelling about a gill man, whether it wants to mate with human women or just wants to eat them alongside men.

While I have certainly not seen every gill man flick in existence, I have always been drawn to them and one I particularly lamented never getting to see was today's film, The Monster of Piedras Blancas. I could never find it on VHS and it never made the jump to DVD--until this very year when it came out on Blu-ray and apparently massively outsold the distributor's expectations because I failed to pre-order it and it was back-ordered everywhere when I decided to go ahead and buy it a day after its release date.

However, Olive Films was soon able to print more discs sufficient to satisfy the demand and I was able to finally find out if the film would live up to my expectations of it.

Well, it certainly lives up to the first thing I knew about the film by word of mouth: it does not waste time. After a quick establishing shot of some seaside cliffs, we see a clawed and scaly (and okay, rubbery) hand pawing at a metal bowl chained to the rocks. Whatever was in the dented bowl doesn't seem to appease the owner of the wicked claws and it is roughly tossed aside.

"Ugh! Garçon, take this away!"
Meanwhile, a man named Sturges (John Harmon) exits the lighthouse he tends at the top of the cliff. He sees two young men walking with a dog and a fishing pole and angrily tells them that he was serious when he warned them away before because the area is not safe. Given that the camera pans down to the waves crashing on the rocks below the cliff and the title appears over them, I think he knows a little something about that strange hand.

Side note, I love that the opening credits list the monster at the end of the cast as though it were playing itself.

Well, the boys should have listened to the old man. For as Sturges heads into town on his bike some time later, he rides past a crime scene on the beach. He almost deliberately ignores the commotion as Constable George Matson (Forrest Lewis) is examining two bodies under a sheet that were found in a drifting boat. The heads are missing and appear to have been severed with frightening precision, yet there's not a drop of blood in the boat they were found in.

Sturges arrives at the local general sore, run by the oddly accented Kochek (Frank Arvidson), who takes rather macabre delight in telling Sturges that he found the bodies and blames it on the local legendary monster. Sturges acts like this notion is absurd, but when Kochek tells him he sold the usual meat scraps he sets aside for Sturges to a local hog farmer, Sturges reacts in great alarm. he cals Kochek a fool, but the storekeeper just demands his three dollars for the order.

Given part of that order was meat, anyway, I guess we're supposed to just assume that Sturges doesn't make enough as a lighthouse keeper to be buying quality meat for himself and for placing in bowls chained to the cliffs below the lighthouse.

At the local diner later, Sturges comes to visit his daughter, Lucille (Jeanne Carmen). He's worried that she'll be working late into the night and he doesn't like how dangerous that is for her. She assures him that her grad student boyfriend, Fred (Don Sullivan) will walk her home. Sturges doesn't like this much better, but knows better than to press it. As he goes to leave, Matson arrives and he briefly stops Sturges for questioning, but the old man can't tell him anything useful since he didn't see or hear anything, but he emphasizes he warned the boys away from the area on many occasions.

Matson discusses the case with local sawbones, Dr. Jorgenson (Les Tremayne!). Jorgenson says that the heads were removed so cleanly that if he didn't know better, he'd say they were put through a guillotine. Worse, they have been utterly drained of every drop of blood. Matson asks if that means it was murder, but Jorgenson demurs, saying that's Matson's department, not his.

Meanwhile, on her lunch break Lucille goes to the beach with Fred, so her beau can go diving for samples for whatever he's doing his thesis on. Once Fred comes ashore, the two shamelessly recreate the iconic "making out in the surf" bit from From Here To Eternity. That evening, Fred drives her home in what will soon prove to be the town's only jeep. They briefly discuss her father's antagonistic relationship with the town folks, and she explains that her father used to be a lot friendlier before her mother died. And when she was a young girl, she ignored her father's warning not to explore the caves in the cliffs and got herself trapped. When her father found her, he was furious and sick with worry, so he shipped her away to a boarding school.

Moving on from her family history, Lucille says her father wouldn't appreciate Fred coming in, but she invites him for a moonlight stroll on the beach. However, he has to decline on account of his specimens. So he's not around to see her decide to go skinny-dipping.

However, she has an audience that she didn't count on. As she swims about in the buff, that clawed hand from earlier paws at her clothes and then swipes her panties. Her father, concerned that she hasn't come home yet, goes to call to her from the cliff. Lucille hurriedly gets dressed, not even noticing that her panties are gone. Sturges is annoyed when she tells him that she went for a nude swim, somewhat playfully chiding her for being immodest whilst also reiterating the danger of the cliffs. Still, it comes as a shock to her when she mentions a feeling like she was being watched and her father snaps that if she goes swimming at night again, he'll ship her right back to that boarding school. Lucille placates her father by swearing not to.

Meanwhile, our amphibious panty thief makes its way into town. We see only its shadow as it makes its way to Kochek's store, where the storekeeper is going over his books. Unfortunately, he doesn't notice the creature approaching until it's right on top of him. Kocheck recoils in fear as the beast lets out a bellow shamelessly stolen from The Creature From The Black Lagoon and closes in on him...

"Yes, it does exist! ...oh, crap, it does exist!"
Unfortunately for Kochek, the town is too busy with the funeral for the Renaldi brothers the next day and they don't realize that he is even missing. A young boy is left outside the store by his mother so he doesn't have to walk all the way to the cemetery on a bum leg, and the lad finds a quarter in the dirt whilst whittling at a stick with his pocket knife to amuse himself. The boy decides to go get some candy from Kochek with that quarter--and instead finds his headless corpse. The boy limps to the funeral and rather hilariously interrupts the lovely service Jorgenson is presiding over--that guy does everything--by running up shrieking, "Murder! Murder!" The boy tells of what he saw in the store. Matson takes a deputy to go to the store while Jorgenson, hilariously, tells the other mourners not to leave until the service is done.

The deputy, Eddie (Pete Dunn, also in the monster suit), has to be excused from the scene. However, Fred arrives shortly after Jorgenson does. Jorgenson confirms that Kochek was killed the same way as the Renaldi brothers--and then he finds a clue that may mean something more to Fred: a scale from some kind of aquatic animal. The three leave Eddie to move Kochek's body to the meat locker, where they were previously keeping the Renaldi brothers, and to watch over the store until they return. At Jorgenson's office--I think--Fred declares the scale resembles that of a Diplovertebron. Naturally, this is somewhat unlikely given that A) that was a real prehistoric amphibian that looked nothing like our gill man and B) as it was basically a giant salamander, it was unlikely to have had scales at all.

At any rate, the men are distracted from their research when Lucille arrives to frantically tell them her father has fallen off a cliff. Luckily, once he has been rescued, Sturges proves to only have superficial wounds, but he refuses to explain what the hell happened when pressed. Of course, we won't be told this until later, but I'm sure most folks in the audience have deduced that Sturges has been pulling a Mrs. Bickerman and has been feeding the gill man for years until he missed a few meals and it decided to look elsewhere for food.

Unfortunately, Jorgenson and Matson discover that Kochek was not the last victim when they head back into town and find a local man carrying the headless body of his young daughter. Matson manages to get out of the grief-stricken man that his wife had sent their daughter to Kochek's for an errand, thinking nothing of it. It's not much to go on, but Matson, Jorgenson, and a few other volunteers decide to go to Kochek's to ask Eddie if the young girl ever made it there. Except Eddie is nowhere to be found.

Matson goes to check the meat locker and barely a moment has passed before an angry bellow and Matson's terrified scream are heard from the meat locker. Matson staggers out clutching his gut, which will shortly be shown to be utterly free of blood or torn clothing so the creature either did not claw him as I first assumed or they couldn't be bothered to pour some Hershey's syrup on his shirt. Well, the creature then dramatically reveals itself by walking out of the meat locker with Eddie's head in its claw. One brave soul tries to kill it with a cleaver, but he gets his collarbone broken for his trouble. However, he did at least leave Matson and Jorgenson with further proof that the creature is their killer--the scale on the patently wooden cleaver matches the one found by Kochek earlier.

This is a neat trick, given we've now seen most of the monster suit by this point and not only does it not have any scales like the ones they keep finding, but it has a more insect-like carapace without any obvious scales anywhere!

Well, now that they know there's a salamander man on the loose, the only thing to do is to round up a posse and go looking for it. However, the salamander man isn't just looking for food. The men have deduced it must hunt by scent and, unbeknownst to them, it really liked the whiff it got of Lucille and it's only a matter of time before it tries to make her its mate.

Man, these reality TV wedding shows keep getting weirder.
The monster suit for this film is a wonderfully fitting metaphor for the film itself, as it is a hodgepodge of various pre-existing materials. The hands of the suit come from The Mole People suits, the feet come from the Metaluna Mutant suit from This Island Earth, and even its body seems to be a slight alteration of the Metaluna Mutant without the inexplicable slacks. Only the head appears to be wholly original and it is just as inexplicable as most of the rest of the suit, especially its pointy nose.

Hell, even its roars are mostly borrowed from The Creature From The Black Lagoon, right down to the pig-like grunts. The only original sound it makes is an inexplicable high-pitched scream that sounds like a pig call.

The film the monster belongs to is just as obviously molded together from well-worn genre parts, with about the only innovation being how flagrantly the film flaunts the Hayes Code. There are multiple severed head props in this film, and the scene of Lucille skinny-dipping shows as much as it can without showing anything--and then the film makes sure we later also get to see Jeanne Carmen disrobe so we get the brief tantalizing view of her nothing but in her slip and bullet bra.

However, when I say the film is basically a bunch of standard plot beats stitched together, that is far from a criticism of the film. This movie is a sheer delight.

For one thing, I was mystified to see one person review the Blu-ray by referring to the film as "plodding" because I don't know what film they watched. This film makes the most of its 71 minute running time and it makes damn sure we get the monster we came to see, showing us a glimpse of the beast mere seconds in and delightfully building to its dramatic, inexplicably drooling reveal when it comes to collect Lucille.

Monsters: always drooling over a pretty lady.
There's nary a scene I would call padding and while not all the performances are great, the characters are all likable enough that--aside from Kochek, I suppose--there's nobody you immediately want to see killed. And while the film is mercenary enough to kill off a little girl it never feels mean-spirited in the way many more modern films do when similarly taking such a risk. In fact, while virtually all the other deaths are played for as much exploitation value as possible, the aftermath of her death is shown to us as tastefully as possible and with all the gravity it deserves.

Of course, while the film is very competent in many respects I must note it is gloriously inept in others. I don't just mean the science, though that is hilarious enough. As is the idea that a creature with huge, mole-like claws could somehow sever heads as cleanly as a guillotine. No, I mean from a technical standpoint. Many scenes appear to be a truly embarrassing attempt at day-for-night, the fact that the cleaver used on the monster is a wooden prop would be obvious even if this weren't in HD, and in one scene you can plainly see the sound guy reflected in a store window. However, I found that kind of added to the charm.

If there were a complaint I had with the film, it's that the film plays up how hard it will be to kill the monster and then has it be defeated by a means that the film can't possibly expect us to believe will kill it. Maybe they were setting up a sequel that sadly never came.

All in all, this film is a blast and it looks great on the Blu-ray that Olive Films put out. I'm glad that I took a chance on it.

Also, my two-year-old son loves this movie, too, demanding we watch it every weekend since I first let him watch it with me. I'm sure many people would disagree, but I like to think that means I am doing parenting right.

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  1. Heh. I remember watching Bad Ronald as a 2 year old. I wouldn't have remembered it unless my father had reminded me!

    Also neat--this film can be connected with the Three Stooges. Jeanne Carmen was a frequent Joe Besser-era co-star.

  2. A very entertaining flick......wish they still made them like this