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Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Mid-Week Movie Break: The Monster Of Piedras Blancas



This week we utilize our Mid-Week Movie Break to hit the beach! Not the sunny, surfer-filled beaches of Hawaii, Southern California, or Lake City, MN,  but the craggy, brackish lighthouse property on the coastal outskirts of Piedras Blancas, CA. Get your baggies on and remember — six feet apart!

A page from issue 18 of The Monster Times,
spotlighting TMOPB.
The Monster Of Piedras Blancas is a sleepy little creature feature produced by Vanwick Productions, and is largely the culmination of favors called in by producer Jack Kevan, a makeup specialist and effects engineer who worked under the infamous Bud Westmore at Universal. You can watch the trailer here, or the entire picture here. It features a bevy of familiar faces from the world of 1950s television and b-film celluloid, like Les Tremayne (The Angry Red Planet, The Monolith Monsters) and Forrest Lewis (The Thing That Couldn’t Die), and features some shocking-for-its-time gore, especially when compared to what companies like AIP and Universal-International were putting out concurrently. The story hinges on a persnickety lighthouse keeper named Sturges forming a relationship with a legendary sea monster after his wife passes away. Lonely and isolated, Sturges (John Harmon, veteran radio, television and film actor who has appeared in key episodes of Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, The Rifleman and others) discovers that the rumored monster is real and starts to leave meat scraps for it. The monster grows dependent on Sturges’s offerings, so much so that years later when Sturges arrives at the local grocer’s store a day late and doesn’t get the scraps, the monster goes on a  killing spree. In the mix to add to the drama is Sturges’s daughter Lucille, back from college for the summer, and her new beau, a young scientist simply named Fred.

The opening shot to the Flipper episode "Flipper's Monster".
Our young protagonists Fred and Lucille, simply credited as “The Boy” and “The Girl”, are played by Jeanne Carmen and Don Sullivan. Carmen was a pinup queen and actress who starred with Jayne Mansfield in The Untamed Youth and was a familiar face within the pages of men’s magazines of the time. She was also an uncredited stripper in the Betty Page burlesque film Striporama and was the first female trick-shot golfer. You can hear her tell it all here. Yes, it would be criminal to neglect the fact that she was also in a Three Stooges short, “A Merry Mix-Up”, even if it was during the waning Joe Besser years. Sullivan is probably better known for his starring role in the teens vs. monster cult classic The Giant Gila Monster, which came out the same year. We get to hear Don rock out in Gila Monster with his ukulele, crooning “The Mushroom Song,” which you can see/hear here.  Carmen allegedly had some ties to the Kennedys and the mob and was advised to make herself scarce after Marilyn Monroe turned up dead, eventually moving to Arizona where she lived in obscurity for decades. Sullivan left the entertainment business to become a chemist and entrepreneur for the cosmetic hair care industry. 
Jeanne Carmen in a publicity still from The Three Stooges short A Merry Mix-Up.
Carmen is third from the left, cuddling up to Joe Besser.

The picture was produced by Jack Kevan and production partner Irvin Berwick, a one-time dialog editor for Columbia who had worked with William Castle and Jack Arnold, so he was already entrenched in the ways of the low budget sci-fi/horror/monster movie. Tired of working in obscurity in largely thankless and uncredited roles for the studios, Kevan and Berwick decided to try their hand at becoming independent producers, hence Vanwick Productions. The picture was made for around $29,000 with a number of favors and at-cost help being utilized from Kevan’s old connections at Universal. To my knowledge the only other picture Vanwick Productions ever had a hand in producing is a seedy 1966 drama called The Street Is My Beat, filmed in Texas. Kevan and Berwick did work together again however on pictures like Crown International’s The 7th Commandment (1961).

Don Sullivan on his book The Perfect Look:
Don Sullivan's Hair Care Secrets
Jack Kevan had helped develop the Gill-man suit for the Creature From The Black Lagoon and the applications for the titular creatures in The Mole People; elements of both were used in the Piedras Blancas monster costume, as well as pieces from the Metaluna Mutant from This Island Earth. The Piedras Blancas suit surfaced again years later in the 1965 Flipper tv series episode “Flipper’s Monster”, where Flipper comes across a low-budget monster movie production. The episode was directed by none other than Ricou Browning, the man who wore the Gill-man suit for the underwater shots in Creature From The Black Lagoon and can be seen here. The Monster Of Piedras Blancas was directed by Berwick, whose son Wayne makes an appearance as the little boy who finds the headless grocer. The film is ably acted for the most part. If anything it’s really the pacing that keeps it from being something special, which by no means should imply that it’s unwatchable. It’s a by-the-numbers late 1950s low budget monster movie which tries to make up for its short changing you on action with a mild dose of gore vis-a-vis some decapitated heads. Berwick went on to direct low budget pictures like Strange Compulsion, Malibu High and Hitch Hike To Hell through the early 1980s. Kevan, who helped with makeup effects on everything from The Wizard of Oz to Abbott And Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde to The Incredible Shrinking Man, seems to have abandoned the Hollywood game for the most part after The Monster Of Piedras Blancas and by the mid-sixties had joined Don Sullivan in the cosmetics field, as indicated by this 1965 article (below) from the Honolulu Star Bulletin.

Honolulu Star Bulletin article highlighting the career of Jack Kevan.
Though the film was largely forgotten after it’s release, it’s a fun little foam rubber monster romp that has endured mostly as an iconic still image of the titular monster brandishing one of the aforementioned severed heads, featured regularly in monster magazines of the 1960s and 70s, forcing itself onto the must-see lists of a whole generation of monster kids who were probably unlikely to find it before the advent of home video, save in a truncated 8mm print released to the consumer market. Punk aficionados will recognize the famous still of the monster and rubber head from the cover of the Angry Samoans’s 1982 debut LP “Back From Samoa”. 
Packaging of the Super 8 home movie version of
The Monster of Piedras Blancas.

While The Monster Of Piedras Blancas isn’t as strong a fish-man monster film as even the weakest of the Universal Creature From The Black Lagoon trilogy, nor nearly as revered a cult classic as Del Tenney’s The Horror Of Party Beach, I still recommend a viewing.

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