Beast Blanket Bingo

With great trepidation I approached my old “friend” THE MONSTER FROM PIEDRAS BLANCAS, a 1959 horror flick that haunted me through the early part of my misspent youth, which is now on Blu-Ray from the non-discriminating folks at Olive Films/Paramount Home Video.

When I say “haunted,” I’m not kidding – but more on that later.  THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS was an extremely graphic ghoul entry for its time.  The reason being that the titular cretin wasn’t satisfied with carrying babes off to some hidden grotto; he simply ripped the heads off his vics, male or female.  Why so anti-social?  Simple.  He’s hungry.  Monster Piedras Blancas (or MPB, for short) is the physical embodiment of a terrifying curse stemming from a California natural disaster (far worse than any lethal earthquake, but nowhere near as frightening as Pauly Shore).  MPB must be fed, or he goes on the rampage – and no head is safe.

The keeper of this secret is a surly old bastard of a lighthouse guardian (John Harmon) who tosses the freakish prehistoric link between reptile and man (a Diplovertebron, to be exact) his favorite vittles of liver and bacon…or else.  When the greedy local butcher (Frank Arvidson) sells off the yummy, tasty bits to some other fool, MPB rears his (literally) ugly head.

Fortunately for the small coastal town, two renowned eggheads (fossil Les Tremayne and facile Don Sullivan) have moved in to study the effects of…something.  Equally fortunate is the return of the mean ol’ lighthouse dude’s buxom daughter Lucille (Jeanne Carmen), back from college, where she apparently has been majoring in pole dancing (fortunate, because she seems to be the only female in the community under fifty). Two seconds after daddy warns her about steering clear of the beach, the rebellious vixen jogs down to the shore to go skinny-dipping.

With headless corpses piling up, it soon becomes obvious to local law enforcement that these murders may be connected.  Examining the latest half-munched headless torso, Tremayne and Sullivan, after much consulting (with the town’s local quack), determine that “Death was instantaneous.”

When the aforementioned butcher disappears, the curse is finally revealed in a gruesome follow-the-bouncing-cranium finale.

I’d like to say that this 71-minute indy pic moves like lightening, but I would be lying.  Truth be told, save a couple of juicy MPB moments, the movie remains a constipated homage to any 1928 talkie (but still infinitely superior to The Horror of Party Beach).  Sullivan, in particular, saddled with scientific jargon, doesn’t seem to know what the hell he’s talking about and that’s fine.  Why?  Because at least he’s not singing Christian rock – the most horrific aspect of his other “classic,” The Giant Gila Monster (where his boppin’ to the Lord took up approximately three hours of the movie’s 74-minute duration).  Tremayne is more fun, and fans of this ubiquitous character actor can rejoice in the fact that PIEDRAS BLANCAS is his only bona fide top-billed role.  Speaking of top-billed, we can’t refrain from mentioning the bodacious presence of the amazing Carmen.  True, PIEDRAS BLANCAS plunges her into some fantastic situations, but they’re nowhere near as weird as her life off-screen.  Carmen, infamously, was impregnated by The Monster of Viejos Ojos Azules, that’s Frank Sinatra, to you.  “Coerced” into having an abortion, Carmen soon gravitated toward the A-list crowd, soon becoming, she claimed, BFF with Marilyn Monroe.  It was Carmen (according to the starlet) who received Monroe’s last phone call – and on the night she died in August of 1962.  Till her death in 2007, Carmen claimed she knew the “truth.”  To most wags in the know, the only things missing in Jeanne’s Monroe Doctrine were spaceships and Elvis.

PIEDRA BLANCAS‘s origin is far more interesting than the actual narrative.  Director, writer and producer (Irvin Berwick, H. Halie Chace and Jack Kevan) were all employed at Universal-International in the mid-1950s.  There, they saw the sensation that became known as The Creature from the Black Lagoon.  And there they hatched their diabolical plan to make their own monster flick, using the Creature as their template.  The title is as close to The Creature from the White Lagoon as possible, translated as The Monster from White Rocks; luckily no one at the ginger-ale concern took high-school Spanish (although Piedras Blancas, I am told, is a real place).

The rubber suit comprising MPB is fairly close to the Creature with some fearsome alterations; in effect, it resembles a cross between the gill man and screen heavy Jack Lambert.  I incorrectly assumed for years that the creation was the work of the brilliant Paul Blaisdell (there is a slight resemblance to the alien from his It! The Terror from Beyond Space design); MPB was actually the work of Creature plagiarist Kevan.  That the success of PIEDRAS BLANCAS was assured is what race-track touts call “a sure thing”:  the picture’s final cost was under $30,000 – a ridiculous sum, even for 1959.

For all the “creators” allegiance to Black Lagoon, PIEDRAS BLANCAS owes more to Howard Hawks’ The Thing, especially in its most scarifyin’ sequence.  Remember in the Hawks pic when the group of Arctic soldiers/scientists open the greenhouse door?  It’s a scene that still makes first-time viewers jump.  And it’s swiped almost verbatim in this offering.  Here, it’s the townsfolk investigating the butcher’s disappearance.  They open his meat locker and out springs MPB, carrying the shopkeeper’s bloody severed head.  This and a claustrophobic encounter on the winding lighthouse stairway are genuinely harrowing, but these brief moments are overshadowed by the pic’s violation of the Val Lewton Act of 1942, that is, NEVER languish on showing the monster/demon/ghost.  It’s what you DON’T see.  Once the audience gets an extensive peek at the rubbery, zipper-up-the-back concoction (and in broad daylight, no less) all bets are off.  Watching him struggle along the shore with the grace of Wallace Beery on a toot takes the suspense down another peg.  MPB (or latexis joke-is, to refer to its Jurassic Latin term) remains nothing more than Jan-Michael Vincent with a Botox job gone bad. Worse is when Sullivan bops MPB on the melon with a projectile.  At Columbia, this would have been a Curly Howard moment, audibly accompanied by “It was an accident, Moe!”  Sadly, MPB isn’t allowed the luxury of speech, so we can’t even give him the expected response of “I’ll moiderize you!”  Sigh.

Why this movie haunted me is obvious.  At seven years old, watching it on Chiller Theater was a goosebump-raising experience.  The endless palaver was trimmed down for air time, and what remained were the head-rips.  I would sleep with the blankets over my mercifully secured head for weeks.  PIEDRAS BLANCAS was one of a handful of constantly-run 1960s-TV shockers that guaranteed me a plethora of nightmarish dreams.  It occupied a dark corner in my mind, alongside Frankenstein’s Daughter, It! The Terror from Beyond Space, Giant from the Unknown, The Giant Behemoth, The Crawling Eye and Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (I still find the latter three rather creepy and remain fondly attached to them).

Are there any redeeming 2016 reasons for owning a badly directed, written and (for the most part) acted no-budget horror flick?  Of course, and for all of the above.  Is there any genuine artistic rationale for embracing this kitschy fast-buckeroo?  Actually, yes.  The cinematography.  No, you read right.  Despite some unintentionally hilarious speeded-up Fractured Flickers footage, the movie is gorgeously shot in and around Cayucos and Lompoc, CA, by Philip Lathrop, one of our greatest d.p.s (Experiment in Terror, The Pink Panther, The Americanization of Emily, Point Blank, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, etc., etc.) in his salad days (and spectacularly realized in the beautiful widescreen Olive Films blu-ray).

A psychotronic riot, THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS is prime-rib cinematic junk food served with extra cheesy bread and a hefty side of mumbo jumbo.

THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS.  Black and white.  Widescreen [1.78”1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.  CAT# OF1262.  SRP:  $29.95.

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