August 4, 2022

Freakish Fish People of Sci-fi #3: Spawn of the Slithis

Freakish, Frightful Fish People #3: Spawn of the Slithis (1978)

This third installment of Frightful Fish People takes us to the scenic Venice area of westside Los Angeles, with its famous beach, canals, boardwalk, murals, street performers… and occasionally, radioactive humanoid-fish mutants.

The protagonist of 1978’s Spawn of the Slithis is Wayne Connors (Alan Blanchard), a terminally bored high school journalism teacher whose newshound instincts are revived by reports of animals and people in Venice’s canal district being killed and the flesh sucked off their bones (yikes!).

The amateur sleuth sneaks into the house of a murdered couple, and finds a mysterious mud-like substance at the scene. He takes samples, which he delivers to a scientist friend, Dr. John (Dennis Falt). After Dr. John analyzes the stuff, he tells Connors that it appears to be Slithis, a rare organic form of mud resulting from radioactive contamination, that can absorb the properties of any lifeform it comes into contact with. According to Dr. John, Slithis first appeared near an atomic plant in Wisconsin, but authorities suppressed the findings to avoid a panic.

More murders take place. Connors interviews one survivor, a homeless veteran, who swears he saw a huge man-like lizardy-fish creature. Later, Connors talks to yet another expert, a nuclear scientist, Erin Burick (J.C. Claire) who confirms the presence of Slithis in the Venice area due to a leak from a nearby atomic energy facility. Burick speculates that Slithis can evolve into highly complex forms... like a murdering, face-sucking fish creature. (Burick has hideous facial scarring from a presumed lab accident -- this character definitely got my attention the first time I saw the movie.)

Poster - Spawn of the Slithis, 1978

Connors tries to get the police involved, but they prefer their own cult ritual murder theory. Connors and Dr. John take it upon themselves to drain the canals at the main lock to prevent the Slithis creature from getting ready access to the town, but the murders continue in the harbor.

The intrepid duo hires a SCUBA expert (Mello Alexandria) and his boat to collect mud samples near the energy plant to prove their Slithis theory. But, evidence or not, they soon realize that the police will do nothing and that they will have to capture the creature themselves.

You’ve got to have more faith in your monster suit

Spawn of the Slithis, released just a year after Star Wars revolutionized cinematic sci-fi and turned the genre into a gold mine, is a throwback to the ‘50s era of rubber-suited, atomic age monsters.

Producer/writer/director Stephen Traxler reportedly made his retro drive-in movie in just 12 days for a paltry $100K by spending long days shooting on location around Venice, Marina del Rey and Santa Monica. (Traxler’s only other directorial credit is a failed TV pilot/TV movie, Sam Churchill: Search for a Homeless Man, shot in Santa Barbara and broadcast in 1999.)

While that area of Southern California is scenic and funky and deserving of some cinematic attention, the film is slowed down considerably by lingering shots of local landmarks (including a whole scene devoted to -- wait for it -- a turtle race held at a local bar).

It also doesn’t help that some of the expository dialog is repetitive and long-winded -- various characters, including two scientists, go on and on about the origins and properties of Slithis, while the actual product of the gunk, the flesh-sucking creature, is given relatively little screen time.

To add insult to injury, most of the meager time the creature does get is so dark it’s hard to make him out. The rare close-ups and medium shots of the thing reveal a suit that’s not half bad. It’s not as if this is some Val Lewton-esque exercise in stimulating the audience’s imagination and fear of things in the shadows. Drive-in monsters should be seen and heard. But it seems as if Traxler didn’t have enough faith in his monster to put it out there unabashedly.

Screenshot - climax of Spawn of the Slithis, 1978
There he is! Lookin' good Slithis!

Traxler does try to mix things up with “fish-eye” POV shots of the creature stalking the streets and canals of Venice. And he provides a pretty good nighttime climax of the fish-man attacking the monster-hunters on their boat, which echoes classic scenes from Creature from the Black Lagoon and Jaws.

And then there’s this line, voiced by the boat’s captain (Alexandria) in his best Quint imitation: "Remember, this thing is just a fish, and I’m one hell of a fisherman.”

July 14, 2022

Freakish Fish People of Sci-fi #2: The Monster of Piedras Blancas

Freakish, Frightful Fish People #2: The Monster of Piedras Blancas (1959)

Much like the first entry in the series, The She-Creature, the Monster of Piedras Blancas is a prehistoric humanoid reptilian amphibian (or amphibious reptilian, or whatever) that likes to hang out along a section of the California coast and kill any landlubbers who are unfortunate enough to cross its path. (As I noted in the first installment, I am using the term “fish people” very liberally to include not only humanoid fish monsters, but ambulatory amphibians, crustaceans, cephalopods and other assorted mutant sea creatures.)

Although I didn’t know it when I first saw the movie, Piedras Blancas is a real place. It’s located in the central part of the beautiful California coast, just up the road from San Simeon and Hearst Castle off of Highway 1. The area is known for its historic lighthouse and elephant seal watching. (However, the movie was actually shot in Cayucos, CA and at the Point Conception lighthouse in Lompoc.)

Imagined Google Maps (TM) review of Piedras Blancas

The Monster of Piedras Blancas
is a cautionary tale about the dangers of people feeding wildlife. The film opens in a very Creature-from-the-Black-Lagoon-like way with a wicked-looking claw suddenly appearing from behind a rock and grabbing a big metal food bowl. Later, we find out that the grizzled lighthouse keeper Sturges (John Harmon) has been looking after his monster friend and feeding it ever since he discovered the thing hiding in a cave near the beach.

Sturges, probably driven batty by his lonely job, started feeding the creature fish, then gradually added meat scraps from the local store to its diet. So now the creature has decided it likes people -- for meals. And it has a distressing habit of playing with its food by decapitating it first.

When townspeople start turning up dead, the best the old coot can do is to warn his daughter Lucy (Jeanne Carmen) to stay away from the caves near the beach. Fortunately, Lucy’s boyfriend Fred (Don Sullivan), the town constable Matson (Forrest Lewis) and the town doctor Jorgenson (Les Tremayne) seem to possess all their marbles, and eventually they form a posse to hunt the creature down -- but not before it’s taken a considerable bite out of the town’s population.

The Hand-me-down Monster

Jack Kevan, who produced the film, was a make-up and special effects artist who helped create some of Universal Studios’ most iconic monsters, including the Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), the Xenomorph from It Came from Outer Space (1953), and Monster on the Campus (1958).

With his Universal Studios connection, he supplied the Piedras Blancas monster with the claws from one of The Mole People (1956), and feet from the Metaluna Mutant of This Island Earth (1955). (For more on the making of the Monster, see my post on “How to a Monster: FFB’s Low Budget Creature Effects Awards."

"The Fiend that walks lovers' beach with the feet of the Metaluna Mutant!"

The monster is credited with being a living-fossil offshoot of the Diplovertebron family of prehistoric amphibians dating back 300 million years. In his review of the film, sci-fi historian Bill Warren concedes that the monster is scary for a B movie, but lacks the logic and elegance of Universal’s exquisitely designed Creature (well, duh!):

[T]he Monster of Piedras Blancas seems to be designed solely to be scary. It follows no obvious logic, and while individually its various characteristics may seem plausible, and though it’s well designed in that all its body parts seem to hang together (although it has the Mutant’s fee and the hands of the Mole People), it completely misses on the basis of amphibious monster logic. … The head is preposterous. It has inexplicable stubby little horns, huge flared nostrils (in a sea creature?), and a mouth which, though full of sharp teeth and inclined to drool, seems to be incapable of being opened: there are two extrusions from the upper lip which are fastened to the lower. It’s a monster all right, and certainly ugly -- but it does not make sense. [Bill Warren, Keep Watching the Skies, Vol. II, McFarland, 1986, p. 320]

While there's always a place for logic and consistency, Warren seems to miss the point here. Nightmares are inherently illogical, and although this unpretentious B movie can’t hold even a tiny cupcake-sized candle to Universal’s Creature, it was nonetheless effective enough to cause a sleepless night or two for some Monster Kids back in the day (including yours truly).