The Monster of Piedras Blances (1959) ***
Director: Irvin Berwick
Runtime: 1h 11m
By all accounts, the horror films of the 1950s were tamer affairs than later decades. And while I do not hold with the often-repeated adage that horror films are more violent now then they have ever been (seriously, what movies were these people watching in the 80s?), I was still reasonably confident that the fright films of the 1950s were certainly less violent than their contemporary counterparts. For a long time this was a given; yet recent developments have lead me to believe that this may no longer be the case. The horror movies I watched this last year, Annabelle: Creation (2017), Wish Upon (2017), It Comes at Night (2017) are all virtually bloodless. Even It (2017), which was regarded as an especially violent horror film, seemed rather tame. At the same time, I stumbled upon this lovely little film as part of my gill-man series of reviews, and was shocked by the amount of violence they were able to get away with in 1959. Case in point, one scene where the protagonists discover a severed head in a seaside cove, with a crab crawling over it was sufficient to get me to sit up and take notice. The average contemporary horror film may still be slightly more violent than the more extreme examples of 1950s horror, but the gap has closed rather faster than I believed possible.
The film begins with what appears to be the aftermath of a terrible fishing accident. At first glance, it looks like the Renaldi Brothers’ boat ran afoul of a squall and the brothers were dashed against the rocks, only to wash up on shore the next morning. That’s what the local constable George Matson desperately wants to believe at least, like most public servants he’s faintly horrified by the prospect of actually having to do his job for a change. Unfortunately for the lazy policeman, the local doctor Sam Jorgenson concludes that there’s no way the brothers’ deaths were accidental. For one thing, their heads were chopped clean off with almost surgical precision, for another their bodies were entirely drained of blood, there are even indications that the blood was sucked right out of the stump. The Doctor suspects they are dealing with an escaped maniac. Kochek, the film’s obligatory racist caricature and the proprietor of the local general store (I have no idea why he is present at the autopsy) is convinced that the deaths are the work of a legendary monster: The Monster of Piedras Blances. Matson tells the shopkeeper to shut up about the damn monster, it’s bad enough that he has to catch a murderer he doesn’t want the town getting all riled up on top of it.
As the deaths occurred near the lighthouse, constable Matson takes the reasonable step of questioning the local lighthouse keeper and inveterate misanthrope Sturges. Sturges took up his job as lighthouse keeper after his beloved wife died in an accident that was partly his fault, and wanted nothing more than to be left alone by everybody. If that’s what he wanted, he should have moved to New York City, where anti-social weirdos can go days without speaking to another human being if they want (I know from experience). Living in a small town means that everybody will know who you are and probably want to talk to you no matter how unpleasant you are to them. Sturges insists that he didn’t see anything of note the night the Renaldi brothers died, but it’s pretty obvious that he’s holding something back. If the constable’s suspicions aren’t drawn by Sturges they sure as hell are once he loudly declares, “Nobody listens! They’ll all learn!” in the middle of questioning.
Sure enough, more bodies start to turn up almost at once. The first to go is Kochek the shopkeeper. We see the unmistakable shadow of a gill man creep into his store one night, and the next morning he is discovered by a young boy going to the shop to buy some candy. Nor is Kochek the only victim claimed in the slaughter. Shortly thereafter, we see an ashen-faced man carrying a small body, wrapped in a coat, through the streets. His daughter has become the latest victim of the Monster’s rampage. It’s quite the arresting image; the way the girls’ legs dangle lifelessly as her father carries her, the little shoes making it plainly obvious what horror has just befallen. I’ll confess, I wasn’t expecting to see child-murder in a movie from 1959! It’s at this point that I started to realize just how much more violent The Monster of Piedra Blances was than most of its contemporaries. Unfortunately the only clue the authorities are able to turn up is a scale found at the scene of Kochek’s murder. Curiously, the Dr. Jorgenson discovers that it is identical to a supposedly extinct specious of amphibious reptile.
Given how much of a weirdo Sturges is, it’s something of a surprise that his college-aged daughter Lucille is so normal. Of course, this is because her father sent her away to boarding school after he caught her playing in one of the seaside caves after warning her to stay away. Her boyfriend Fred thinks this seems like a bit of an overreaction, and given all the talk about a monster he announces to the Sturgeses that he wants to go an investigates the caves. Naturally the elder Sturges is outraged and order the young man away from the caves, but surprisingly his daughter sides with him. Lucille goes so far as to tell Fred if he sets foot inside the caves, then it’s over between them. With so many lives at stake, Fred decides it’s high time to see what Sturges is hiding in the caves.
At the same time the monster is discovered in town, and things start to go downhill fast. The Constable organizes the men into a posse, but it quickly becomes obvious that a mob of yahoos with hunting rifles is no match for the monster. The first sortie against the monster’s cave ends in unmitigated disaster, with one man dead and another so wounded as to be effectively out of the fight. It’s at this point that the National Guard should be called in, but this film doesn’t have the budget to hire so many extras or the insanity to represent them via stock-footage like The Beginning of the End (1957) did. So, it looks like it’s up to Fred, Dr. Jorgensen and Constable Matson to find some way to trap and kill the monster on their own.
The monster itself is not only technically impressive, but genuinely scary. The body and claws are obviously taken directly from the original Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). Yet, unlike the original gill-man, this monster is not a lithe and agile swimmer, but rather a hulking brute more than seven feet tall. Consequently, the film makes no attempt to shoot the monster in the water, the actor inside can walk well enough but the suit is far too bulky to allow for any swimming. The monster’s face, which is hidden till the very end of the film, is so grotesque that I have no doubts about its ability to give the little kids in the Saturday matinee audience nightmares for weeks. Taken together the effect is striking, where the original creature was a sympathetic but dangerous animal (something along the line of King Kong (1933), complete with the improbable interspecies romance), this one is a mindless, almost sadistic killer. The creature’s penchant for taking the heads of his victims as ghoulish trophies only underscores this impression. Like its predecessor, the monster has a marked sexual interest in the film’s leading lady. He even stalks her while she’s skinny-dipping and steals her clothes. A viewer may be willing to give the Creature from the Black Lagoon the benefit of a doubt, but there is no question here that the monster’s intentions are of the foulest sort.
Admittedly, there is quite a bit that doesn’t make any sense about this movie. For starters, we have no indication why Sturges decided to start feeding the antediluvian monster he found under his lighthouse. He plainly recognized the beast could be dangerous, or else why would he have ordered Lucille to stay away from the caves? Why does everybody in town take turns driving the same jeep (probably because it was the only car that the production could afford)? These are minor complaints though, at its core The Monster of Piedras Blances is a solid monster movie, and probably the best of the Creature From the Black Lagoon knock-off in the 1950s, though I have a few more to plow through before I can say that definitively.