(1958)1.5Bruce EderIf The Monster of Piedras Blancas plays better than its low-budget, independent origins tell you it should, that's because there was more to the production than met the eye. Producer Jack Kevan, who also designed the monster suit (and may have worn it -- it depends which account you believe, as to whether it was Kevan or supporting player Peter Dunn inside the suit), was a veteran of Universal and had worked on such movies as Jack Arnold's Creature From The Black Lagoon; and Irvin Berwick -- making his directorial debut here -- had been in the business for a decade as well, first at Columbia (where he worked as a dialogue coach on pictures directed by William Castle) and later at Universal (where he worked with Jack Arnold). When work started to dry up at Universal in the second half of the 1950's, Kevan and Berwick formed their own production company, Vanwick, and The Monster of Piedras Blancas was their first project. Berwick's and Kevan's connections in the industry allowed them to draw on some very able talent from the affordable end of the acting and production spectrum, with the result that for around $150,000 or so, they got a picture that looked like it was made for (and worth) two or three times that much. Don Sullivan (The Giant Gila Monster) is a decent young male lead, convincing in his role and conveying sincerity, which is exactly what was needed; and Jeanne Carmen could pull off the role of the not-quite-ingenue daughter, and was sufficiently . . . pneumatic-looking to hold a special appeal for older male viewers. Frank Arvidson and the director's young son Wayne Berwick (later a screenwriter) also fill out some key supporting roles. And John Harmon (in a rare leading role), Forrest Lewis and Les Tremayne, who between them had about 80 years' worth of acting experience, easily carried most of the dialogue and the dramatic weight when the monster wasn't on screen -- and that made the monster's scenes even better. Kevan's contribution on (and perhaps in) the monster suit was the film's raison d'etre, and he outdid himself here, with a huge, nasty, loathsome-looking creation that, in some ways, eclipsed his work on the Gill-man from Creature From The Black Lagoon -- speaking of which, the same monster suit in this movie turned up in the 1965 Flipper episode "Flipper's Monster", this time worn by Ricou Browning, who had been in the monster suit in Creature From The Black Lagoon.
The location shooting also helped -- although the name and title were perfect as literary devices, the actual Piedras Blancas lighthouse and surrounding area weren't what the filmmakers were looking for, so the production used the Point Conception lighthouse and the town of Coyucos, California for the actual shoot, all of which -- in the hands of cinematographer Philip Lathrop, who was to go on to shoot major productions such as Finian's Rainbow and 36 Hours -- gave the picture a dark, haunting, brooding look along with a great deal of verisimilitude. And the result is a horror movie with a lot of familiar elements but just enough offbeat touches to keep viewers coming back for 50 years or more. There was apparently a long delay in its release, however -- most accounts say the film was made in 1957, while the copyright notice on the picture says 1958, and it apparently didn't get into wide release until 1959.
Lonely lighthouse-keeper Sturges (John Harmon) keeps mostly to himself, doing his job, which includes warning people away from the beaches and caves near the Piedras Blancas lighthouse. But when two fishermen are found dead, all-but-beheaded and without a trace of blood in their bodies, that brings Constable Matson (Forrest Lewis) and Dr. Jorgenson (Les Tremayne) snooping around. And suddenly the village is being stalked by some kind of monstrous creature, capable of killing anyone in its path. Sturges reveals what he knows, but this may be too late to save his daughter Lucy (Jeanne Carmen) or himself.