The residents of the small coastal California town of Piedras Blancas are shocked to learn of the brutal decapitation murders of a pair of local fishermen. While the authorities initially believe the deaths to be the work of a madman or possibly even the result of a freak accident, the local shopkeeper believes that this was the work of an ancient monster that legend says has haunted the area for many years. While the town’s seemingly sole police officer and doctor initially scoff at the old man’s tale, they soon are forced to question the validity of the legend once a bizarre fish scale-like object is found at the murder scenes. There’s also the fact that all of the bodies have been drained of blood, which one would think is a much more important and bizarre element to the crime than it’s made to be.
FUN FACT: It’s worth noting that the town’s one general store also serves as a post office, a Western Union office, an insurance agency, and even as a makeshift morgue as the bodies of the creature’s victims are being stored in the building’s cooler… presumably right next to the bottles of milk. Coincidentally, the diner may be owned by the police officer. It’s a really small town, folks.
One person whom the authorities (but not some of the locals) tend to overlook is Sturges, the town’s curmudgeonly old lighthouse keeper. Of course, the film’s opening reveals that Sturges (John Harmon, who appeared in everything from “The Mickey Mouse Club” to Microwave Massacre) not only knows about the creature’s existence, but has been secretly feeding the beast for the last 10 years or so. However, when the shopkeeper disposes of the scraps of meat he’s been saving for Sturges, the monster is forced to seek other forms of nourishment, namely the locals themselves.
Coincidentally, Sturges’ daughter, Lucille (Jeanne Carmen, a pin-up model and former golf “hustler” who was friends with Marilyn Monroe and Elvis, as well as appeared in Untamed Youth alongside Mamie Van Doren) has recently returned home from the boarding school that her father placed her in years prior. She just happens to have struck up a romantic relationship with Fred (Don Sullivan – The Giant Gila Monster, Teenage Zombies), a young scientist who somehow finds himself involved with the investigation even though he’s not a member of law enforcement or a medical professional. Forrest Lewis (The Thing That Couldn’t Die, The Absent-Minded Professor) and Les Tremayne (The War of the Worlds, The Monolith Monsters) co-star as the town’s constable and doctor, respectively.
From here, the film spends some obligatory time marginally developing its characters, particularly those of Fred and Lucille and their budding romance. As with any good 1950s sci-fi film, there’s plenty of scientific research and speculation to be found, with little of it actually going toward the inevitable destruction of the creature. There’s also a nice dose of voyeuristic naughtiness from The Monster of Piedras Blancas in the form of implied/teased nudity during a moonlight swim, thanks to some highly skilled use of shadow… and, presumably, a body suit.
Eventually, the action does start to pick up and more townsfolk (including a young child) are picked off in vicious head-removing fashion by the monster. Although all of the deaths actually occur off-screen, The Monster of Piedras Blancas does stand out by offering some early cinematic shock and gore with the monster finally making its first full on-screen appearance while clutching the severed head of its most recent victim.
The Monster of Piedras Blancas was directed by Irvin Berwick, a then recently-dismissed dialogue coach/director on multiple Universal-International films throughout the 1940s and 1950s, including titles such as The Thing that Couldn’t Die and The Land Unknown. Later films from Berwick would include 1977’s Hitch Hike To Hell and 1979’s Malibu High. The film was produced by another former Universal employee: Jack Kevan, a make-up artist on notable films such as This Island Earth, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Monster on the Campus, and The Incredible Shrinking Man, but who frequently went uncredited as Universal’s make-up department lead Bud Westmore would usually receive all the praise.
While notably lacking compared to many sci-fi/monster movies of the era, I still found The Monster of Piedras Blancas to be a fun little flick that I think many fans of these older sci-fi and monster films can find a decent amount of enjoyment from. The creature, reported to contain a few parts made from the original molds of The Mole People and the Metaluna Monster, sports a somewhat clumsy and clumpy facial design and a head not too dissimilar to a bullet. That stated, I personally didn’t consider it overly distracting, nor do I truly think that the suit hurts the film all that much. What hurts the film is that it gets a bit talky for extended periods. As nothing that’s revealed throughout the film is what I’d consider a “surprise development”, and as the script and some of the performances aren’t quite strong enough to carry these moments, the film does occasionally feel like it’s dragging its heels.
Even with a brief runtime of just over 70 minutes, The Monster of Piedras Blancas can’t hide its thin plot and limited thrills. It also has some difficulty hiding its lowered production values, especially during the final showdown with the creature. While these particular instances are undeniably laughable (albeit very much not intentionally), these most certainly don’t help lend the film an air of respectability and end the film with less of a “bang” and more of a “thud”.
Overall, The Monster of Piedras Blancas clearly isn’t one of the “shining classics” of 1950s monster movie cinema. Nor does it deserve to be talked about amongst the worst monster movies of the era, although if we were to have that talk, I’m sure to claim to enjoy most of the examples likely to be cited. If anything, this film finds itself somewhere in the middle of the pack, which may be why it generally doesn’t get mentioned as much as many other films of its era and genre. Newer fans of these classic monster films might have enough here to enjoy, but many of the films listed in the cast and crew’s other credits are definitely worth discovering first.
As a kid I read about this one in a monster mag or two, and wanted to see it so badly. When I finally got around to watching it, I was prepared for the cheapness, but as you note, it was something of a letdown, being way too talky for its own good. Still, the monster suit is reasonably effective in its use of hand me downs from more famous Universal monsters, and the decapitation thing distinguishes it from a lot of sci-fi of the period. It’s not a must-see for most people, with the exception of hard core ’50s sci-fi fans. There’s a good copy streaming on Youtube last time I checked.