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). 

July 7, 2022

Freakish, Frightful Fish People of Sci-fi B-movies, Part One: The She-Creature

Last year I created a series of posts on Amazing Animal People of Sci-fi, Fantasy & Horror. For the first post on Lota, the panther woman from the Island of Lost Souls, I observed that

“[O]ur myths and folklore are full of awe and wonder at the animal kingdom. From the animal-headed gods of ancient Egypt, to Native American animal shapeshifters, to werewolves and other were-beasts of European folklore, we have long been fascinated with the idea of taking on animal attributes and becoming something more than mere human.”

The series did feature one representative from the reptile kingdom, The Alligator People (1959), but I decided to save examples from the surprisingly robust B-movie fish/amphibian people category for another day (and that day is today).

Of course, the greatest anthropomorphic amphibian of them all is the Creature from the Black Lagoon. In the movie, the Creature is the last, lonely remnant of some evolutionary dead-end. For Universal Studios, he was an evolutionary bridge from the aging Gothic horrors of Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolf Man to the space aliens and radioactive monsters of the Atomic Age.

More so than other human-animal hybrids, the Gillman and his kind speak to humankind’s primordial origins. According to one popular meme, at some point in our deep, dark evolutionary past we were sea creatures that sprouted legs and learned to crawl on land.

The Creature finds that he is not alone in the Black Lagoon.
"Julie! Grandpa! What are you doing here?!"

So here we are countless millennia later, sprouting so much extra body fat that we’re ready to start crawling again, if we can even manage that.

Who knows? In some parallel universe, a prehistoric butterfly may have fluttered its wings, causing an Alamosaurus to sneeze, which altered the flight of a flock of Pterosaurs, which affected wind currents just enough to generate a superstorm, which wiped out a struggling group of mammals that otherwise would have successfully competed with land-crawling fish, which evolved into 21st century Gill people, who watch horror movies about hairy, smelly mammals that can **GASP** walk around on two legs.

But thankfully, we live in a universe where hairy, smelly apex mammals make cheesily entertaining movies about fish-human hybrids. Here then is the first exhibit in Films From Beyond’s aquarium of the damned.

Freakish, Frightful Fish People #1: The She-Creature (1956)

Speaking of prehistoric amphibians that have the ability to lumber around on land and take out clueless humans, the She-Creature is perhaps second only to her cousin from the Black Lagoon.

The She-Creature’s cracked premise was inspired by the story of Bridey Murphy, which was all the rage at the time. Under hypnosis, housewife Virginia Tighe recounted all sorts of details about her past life as Murphy, an Irishwoman who lived in the first half of the 19th century. The story was serialized in 1954, and a best-selling book and movie came out in 1956, generating a huge wave of interest in reincarnation. 

Not content to just exploit the reincarnation angle, American International Pictures decided to make it drive-in friendly by tacking on a monster.

The sinister hypnotist Dr. Lombardi (Chester Morris) has a young woman, Andrea (Marla English), under his thumb, and uses her to prove his theories on reincarnation.

Lombardi conducts public sessions in which Andrea is able to summon not only the memories but the actual spirit of Elizabeth, a 17th century English woman. Lombardi further wows audiences with telekinetic tricks and dire prophecies of doom.

Lombardi and Andrea become a sensation, and the hypnotist publishes a best-selling book that makes him rich. But Lombardi, not satisfied with mere wealth and fame, has a dark secret. Under deep hypnosis, Andrea can cause her earliest incarnation, the fearsome, primordial She-Creature, to physically manifest itself. Lombardi uses his control of Andrea and her prehistoric self to kill his rivals, but typically for B-movie madmen, his scheme backfires.  

The She-Creature gets cosmetic surgery

The She-Creature was the product of the fertile imagination of monster-maker extraordinaire Paul Blaisdell, who was also responsible for some of the more memorable creatures of ‘50s sci-fi: Marty the Mutant from Day the World Ended (1955), Beulah the Venusian vegetable monster from It Challenged the World (1956), and It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), among others. (For more on Paul Blaisdell on this site, click here.)

The She-Creature is Blaisdell’s most iconic creation, and a gift to B sci-fi movies that kept giving. The suit, or at least parts of it, was used in several more movies and TV specials, including Voodoo Woman (1957) and Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow (1959).

Half-sheet poster, The She-Creature, 1956

Blaisdell was a freelancer who worked up his creations for next-to-nothing on next-to-nothing budgeted movies. His wild imagination and meticulousness made up for lack of big bucks.

In his book Paul Blaisdell: Monster Maker, Randy Palmer devotes several pages to the painstaking work that went into creating the She-Creature. Under one photograph of the suit, he sums her up nicely:

[The She-Creature] was built up from over 70 lbs. of foam rubber and latex. The bony protuberances on her elbows, claws, knees, and heels were carved out of white pine. The ‘lunch hooks’ in the creature’s abdomen were also made from pine. Using his stomach muscles, Blaisdell could make the lunch hooks open and close, but director Edward L. Cahn never utilized the effect in the movie. [Randy Palmer, Paul Blaisdell: Monster Maker, McFarland, 1997, p.86]

[Note: At this point I need to fess up for all the sticklers out there. The She-Creature is not a fish person per se. In fact, she has breasts (see below), which technically makes her a sea mammal. However, she is so iconic, I couldn’t in good conscience leave her out of this series. So, I am playing fast and loose with the term “fish people” to include sea mammals, amphibians, crustaceans and other assorted ambulatory, bipedal sea creatures that aren’t mutated fish. Just so you know.]

The director couldn’t be bothered with utilizing the creature’s horrific abdominal hooks, but he did want to make sure movie-goers knew exactly what her gender was:

“When [director] Eddie Cahn got a good look at Paul’s first female monster, he decreed that the creature wasn’t top heavy enough. ‘She’s gotta have bigger boobs,’ Cahn decided. Paul transported the costume back to the workshop for an evening of alterations. When he returned to the set the following day, Cahn took one look at Cuddles’ new set of double-D knockers and exclaimed, ‘Holy Christ! Well, at least now you can tell it’s definitely a woman.’” [Palmer, p. 91]