The Monster of Piedras Blancas

Posted by David Middlecamp on July 31, 2013 

Publicity still from the "The Monster of Piedras Blancas." The 1958 low budget drive in movie was filmed in less than two weeks for $50,000.

MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS

The SLO County on the Silver Screen series has been announced and it includes the B-movie filmed on the North Coast, The Monster of "Piedras Blancas."

It will show on Nov. 23, 2013, in Cayucos, one of the movie's locations. Check out the details at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival website.

The low budget film plays out in front of Morro Rock, recently the site of a Viagra commercial. Not sure who Morro Rock's agent is but if these were the best offers on the table I would suggest the "Gibraltar of the Pacific" look for new representation.

On Oct. 20, 2002, The Tribune's Jay Thompson wrote about the film's history:

THE 'MONSTER' RETURNS \ CATCH A SCREENING

Lena Minetti remembers the spring day 44 years ago when Hollywood came calling to film "The Monster of Piedras Blancas."

The low-budget, drive-in horror flick, shot in less than two weeks in 1958 for $50,000, is the only movie ever filmed in Cayucos.

In the film, a 7-foot crab-man terrorizes the town, beheading its victims and sucking their bodies dry of blood. In one memorable scene, the creature flees with a man's severed head dangling from its claws.

This B-movie is more popular today than when it was released in 1959, despite the fact that the lighthouse depicted is in Point Conception.

"We were talking about that the other day, and I said, 'Well, I don't remember anything specific about the movie, ' " said Minetti, 78, a Cayucos resident who watched the filming. "And my son Mike, who's 49, said, 'Well I can always remember that monster's head coming out of Ghezzi's store.'

"I'm sure that there are a lot of people who were around at that time who have memories of the movie."

April Weeks of the Friends of the Cayucos Library said it's those memories that inspired "Hollywood Comes to Cayucos, 1958." The Oct. 27, [2002] event, a fund-raiser for the organization to be held at the Cayucos Veterans Building, will feature two screenings of the movie, a panel discussion that includes leading lady Jeanne Carmen, an autograph session and a drawing for a replica of the monster's mask.

Librarian Shera Hill pitched the idea after residents shared their stories of the town.

" 'Monster of Piedras Blancas' would always come up, " Weeks said. "Shera always thought it would be cool to show it in town as a benefit for the library. The Friends purchased a copy of it, and that really got the ball rolling. We said, 'We can show this. Hey, why don't we get hold of Jeanne?' "

Carmen, 72, resurfaced in the 1990s after a near 30-year hiatus from public life. She travels to memorabilia shows throughout the country and can be seen on TV in several "E! True Hollywood Stories, " including a 1998 biography, "Jeanne Carmen, Queen of the B-Movies."

"I think it will be wonderful to go back to Cayucos after so many years and just reminisce about what happened there, " Carmen said from her Aliso Viejo home. "I think it will be interesting."

* * *

Lucy: "Hurry! The monster's in the lighthouse with Dad."

* * *

The back story of "The Monster of Piedras Blancas" begins with director Irvin Berwick and producer Jack Kevan at Universal-Inter-national in Hollywood in the late '50s.

Berwick was a dialogue director at the studio, and Kevan had made a name for himself as a makeup artist. His rubber-suited monsters can been seen in "The Mole People, " "This Island Earth" and "Creature from the Black Lagoon." Both men longed for greater artistic control and ultimately teamed up as VanWick Productions.

"Irv's goal was to make pictures, " said Ted Newsom, a historian and documentary filmmaker who took a UCLA course on low-budget film production from Berwick in the 1970s. "He felt that would be a lot more fun and ultimately a lot more profitable. And 'The Monster of Piedras Blancas' was the venue."

On March 26, 1958, the Telegram-Tribune published a two-paragraph story announcing the arrival of VanWick Productions.

The crew included a 35-member troupe. "Their modern-day mystery stars Jeanne Carmen, a featured actress in the Hollywood play 'Pajama Tops, ' which ran successfully for a year, and Don Sullivan, experienced television actor of Westerns, " the paper reported two days later. "Supporting roles are being played by character actors Les Tremayne and Forrest Lewis, a longtime radio team, and John Harmon."

The newspaper reported that the crew planned to stay in Cayucos five days.

* * *

Mike: "Never saw anything in my life. Heads ripped clean off! What do you think, constable?"

Constable: "I don't know what to think. They're as white as sheets. They don't look like they've got a drop of blood left in 'em."

* * *

The film crew's work began before sunup at Al's restaurant at Ocean Avenue and Cayucos Drive.

"We would get up and go to this little restaurant for breakfast, " Carmen said. "Every day I had abalone. It was the first time I had ever had it. That was their specialty, and that's what I had all the time, breakfast, lunch, dinner. To this day I'm still a fan of that fish."

Child actor Wayne Berwick fondly recalled sitting in Al's "and seeing this line of kids and people outside. There were probably 50 or 60 people on the set at all times, hanging around and watching."

Berwick, 8 at the time, played Little Jimmy. He didn't have to audition for his other role, however.

"You know the scene where the man is walking his dead daughter down the street? Well, the dead daughter is me with girls' shoes on. And the guy carrying her is my dad."

* * *

Jimmy: "Murder, murder, murder. Mom, someone's been murdered! Someone's been murdered!"

Doctor: "Who was it, Jimmy?

Jimmy: "Mr. Kolchek. He's dead. He looks awful.

Doctor: "Where son? Where, where?"

Jimmy: "I went to his store to buy some candy, and he was in his office, dead. And Mom, he didn't have any head."

* * *

Corny dialogue and giant plot holes are a mainstay of B-movies. In young Berwick's big scene, he urged his dad to change one of the lines, but his father disagreed.

"I didn't want to say my last line: 'He doesn't have any head, ' " Wayne Berwick said. "I remember saying, 'It's corny. I wouldn't say that.'

"My dad said, 'Oh no ... that's the one that will grab them.' "

* * *

Constable: "We found our killer."

Fred: "What is it?"

Constable: "It's inhuman. He's nearly 7 feet tall, and he's got tremendous strength."

* * *

As rubber-suited 1950s-era monsters go, the Piedras Blancas creature has many fans, though the suit was a composite of several contemporary Universal monsters, most notably the "Creature from the Black Lagoon."

Producer Jack Kevan "just reused casts that he had around, " Newsom said. "The feet, I think, are from the mutant from 'This Island Earth, ' and the hands are from 'The Mole People.' The body itself may have officially been from the 'Creature from the Black Lagoon, ' but there was a lot of work that went into that. And the head is entirely original."

The monster was deliberately kept off-screen to build tension, but to young Berwick, who saw it daily, it was the source of repeated nightmares.

"I was right there the whole time, " he said. "I saw the cameras, I saw the monster taking the head off, putting it on, and I was freaked out for years. I was scared to death of that monster."

* * *

Fred: "This is what we've got to decide before we go after him in the morning. Does he have a brain that's capable of rational thinking, or is he just a beast? If he can think, we're in real trouble."

* * *

Pete Dunn, who died in 1990, played two roles in the film: Eddie, the constable's deputy, and the monster. In the film's most shocking scene, the monster clutches Eddie's severed head. Dunn found it difficult to wear the suit for more than a half-hour and was unable to play the monster while the final scenes were being filmed at the Point Conception Lighthouse.

So Carmen's press agent, Joe Seide, filled in.

"It's where the monster was at the top of the stairwell chasing my father, " Carmen said. "The first monster was very lethargic, but the second monster was a crazy, crazy man. When he got to the balcony, he started climbing to the top of it. Everybody was saying, 'Get off! You're going to kill yourself.' He was screaming and acting crazy."

Lucy's father, actor John Harmon, is hurled off the lighthouse's catwalk by the monster, which is in turn finished off when it's pushed off the lighthouse into the sea.

The director used the same dummy in both scenes.

"It was named Oscar, " Berwick said. "He was with our family for as long as I can remember after that. He just sat in my parents' closet. He looked like Pete Dunn. For some reason, they just used him as a model."

Years later, Berwick's father lent Oscar to a director making a movie about the Loch Ness monster.

"And it's at the bottom of Lake Tahoe now, " Berwick said.

* * *

Doctor: "If you try to corner him, there's no telling how many men he will kill before you get him. Besides that, Fred is right. He may answer a lot of questions on evolution as well as putting our town on the map."

* * *

The film lives on in the hearts of fans as well as those involved with the production.

Berwick said the project was his father's "pride and joy. 'Piedras Blancas' was his only hit." The elder Berwick died in 1998.

Wayne Berwick is now 52 and frontman of "Westside Wayne and the Boulevard Band, " a blues group that will play in San Luis Obispo next spring. He frequently returns to Cayucos. And every few years, he watches the movie.

"The thing I like about it is the memories that it conjures up, " he said. "One of the highlights of my life was being on that location at that impressionable age and to be treated the way I was. My dad, the big boss ... this sweet starlet, people lining up for my autograph and I could barely write my name, that kind of thing. It was a great experience. I can still picture it real vividly."

Carmen fondly remembers the experience. "I just thought it was a wonderful, little town, " she said. "The townspeople were friendly. They were wonderful. It was like family there."

And Lena Minetti, who is part of a family with deep roots in Cayucos, has her own memories. She recalled staying up late to watch the movie on TV during a visit to her daughter's North Carolina home. What caught her eye was what she calls the real star of the film: The town that's been her home since the 1940s.

"When I see it, I wish we were back in the good old days, " she said. "It would just be wonderful if Cayucos was like it was then. Now, like all little towns, it's overpopulated. At that time you could walk down the street, and you knew just about everybody. Now you don't know anybody.

"So I guess it's my age that's telling me I wish we could go back just a few years."

 

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