The Monster of Piedras Blancas (1959) Retrospective

 

SUMMARY
When the Renaldi brothers are found dead on the beach, the townspeople are horrified by the condition of their mutilated corpses. Soon after, town constable George stores the Renaldis’ remains in a meat cooler at the grocery, where storekeeper Kocheck frightens his customers by claiming that the mysterious deaths are the result of the legendary Monster of Piedras Blancas. At the store, curmudgeonly lighthouse keeper Sturges grows violently angry with Kocheck for not saving him meat scraps as he has regularly done over the years. While visiting with his only daughter, Lucile, who is bartending a cafe on her summer break, Sturges becomes upset again when he learns that Lucile will be home late, because he worries about her being alone at night. Sturges then returns home and secretly places fish scraps in a pail on a rocky bluff near the lighthouse. At lunchtime, Lucile has a romantic picnic with her boyfriend, marine biologist Fred, which leads to a kiss. Meanwhile, town doctor and scientist Ben tells George that the brothers were murdered, as evidenced by their severed heads and their bodies having been drained of blood. That evening, when Lucile refrains from inviting Fred in after he drives her home, she states that her father would not approve of their blossoming relationship and has been ill-tempered since her mother’s death, for which he blames himself. Lucile explains that her mother fell ill one day and refused to disturb Sturges, who was manning the lighthouse during a severe storm. By the time Sturges was alerted and a doctor was sent for, her mother had died. Soon after, Sturges sent Lucile to boarding school and she has rarely seen him since. After Fred leaves, Lucile disrobes to go swimming in the nude while the monster lingers nearby and, when Lucile returns to the shore, she hears the sound of its breathing. After Lucile reports the noise to her father, Sturges sternly chastises her for swimming in the dark and heads for the beach to investigate.

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Meanwhile, the monster enters the town and kills Kocheck, who is working late at his store. The next morning, neighborhood boy little Jimmy finds the body accidentally and runs to the Renaldi brothers’ funeral, where he tells those assembled that Kocheck was mutilated. When they investigate the scene, George, Ben and Fred find an oversized fish scale, which is revealed, upon further inspection, to be a living specimen similar to that of a prehistoric diplovertebrate fossil. Soon after, an hysterical Lucile asks George, Ben and Fred to help her father, whom she has discovered wounded and unconscious on the cliffs. The three men help Sturges back to his house, where he is prescribed bed rest. Lucile explains to the men that she had not seen her father nor their dog Ring since late the previous evening when Sturges left for the beach. Fred loans Ben and George his jeep to return to town, remaining behind to help Lucile man the lighthouse. When Sturges comes to, Fred asks him about the legend and Sturges explains: Before the lighthouse was built, many ships foundered on the treacherous point. The point was named Piedras Blancas because bird droppings colored the rocks white, making them very difficult to see in the surf, but early settlers blamed the wrecks on a legendary monster living in the caves. Later, Lucile tells Fred that she was sent to boarding school after she defied Sturges’ rule forbidding her from playing on the rocks alone. When Fred claims that Sturges is hiding something and insists on investigating the caves, Lucile, offended that Fred would defy her father, breaks up with him.

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Meanwhile, George and Ben find a young girl who has been killed in a similar manner to the other deaths. Soon after, the seven-foot monster bursts through the cooler door in Kocheck’s store, injures a townsman then flees. George immediately drives the jeep to the lighthouse to fetch Fred, who has found the feeding pail at the cliffs. After warning Lucile to lock the doors, George, Fred and several armed townsmen search the beach and caves, where George and Fred find one of the victim’s heads and then hear a round of gunfire. Racing to the beach, they find one townsman killed and another wounded by the creature. Back at Sturges’ home, Lucile tells her father that she loves Fred and asks him about the killings. Sturges then admits that he might be culpable for the deaths. He continues that many years ago, he felt as though he was being watched and heard heavy breathing coming from one of the caves, and when he investigated, he found the creature. After Lucile left for school, he was comforted by the presence of the creature and consequently fed it fish and meat scraps and decided not to alert the sheriff to its existence. After Lucile then helps her father walk up several flights of stairs in the lighthouse, which he insists on manning that night to prevent a shipwreck, she bolts herself in the house. Meanwhile, slide analysis reveals that the beast is a reptilian mutation and possibly a missing link in human evolution.

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Back at Sturges’ house, Lucile leaves a pan of food out for Ring and then goes back into the house to dress for bed. Attracted by the food, the monster bursts through the door and grabs Lucile, who faints, and carries her down the beach. When Sturges screams at it, the creature drops Lucile and ambles away. Meanwhile, Ben and George rush to the lighthouse after Lucile does not answer their phone call. As Lucile comes to on the cliffs, the monster climbs the stairs after Sturges, who leads it to the top floor of the tower and then locks himself out on the ledge behind a heavy metal door. As Lucile, Ben, George, Fred and townspeople watch, the monster beats down the door and throws Sturges over the railing to his death. Although Fred had wanted to capture the creature for scientific observation, he now runs up the tower steps armed with a gun. When a townsman’s flashlight temporarily blinds the creature, Lucile turns on the lighthouse light to stun it further. After the monster falls to his death, Lucile rushes into Fred’s arms.

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DEVELOPMENT
Irvin Berwick had been a child prodigy pianist but always preferred the theater, as an actor and director. ‘The music didn’t grow with me,” Berwick said with a touch of sadness. “I didn’t have that love of performing music that you needed.” He studied drama in New York with Elia Kazan, and segued to directing plays in college, explaining mischievously, “Since I couldn’t find anyone who I felt could do justice to the lead roles, well, I ended up doing them myself. We did “Petrified Forest,” and I played the Bogart role, Duke Mantee. The next year we did “Strictly Dishonorable.” A talent scout from Columbia saw me, liked the plays, and offered to make me a director in Hollywood. An agent named Max Arno called and said, ‘Go over to PRC. A director named Lew Landers wants some help with actors’ dialogue.

PRC Films (Producers Releasing Corporation films)
Genre fans know that as Louis Friedlander, Landers directed The Raven (1935) and Return of the Vampire (1943). “We did everything together,” Berwick said fondly. “We did 45 films in five years; that’s nine per year! He was a wonderful man. I saw him through several marriages, and he even slept on my couch for a while, just after my wife Mary and I got married. One picture we did was The Enchanted Forest with Edmund Lowe, in color with a 21-day schedule, which was big for a PRC film. Lowe had been a big star, but he was a little too old for the part; too old to get the girl. He asked me to stay below camera and now and then chuck myself under the chin. That was a reminder to him to hold his head up so his chin wouldn’t sag.

“Lew directed Mask of Dijon,” continued Berwick, “with Eric von Stroheim, who was difficult to handle. He’d been one of the biggest stars and directors, and now he was acting in a little six-day picture at PRC, which was almost the gutter. Lew knew this, and was easy with him.”

Berwick’s long association with Universal began with the western Frenchie (1950). “Shelley Winters was so young; a real doll. Joel McCrea was the star. When Berwick was in charge of dialogue on Against All Flags (1952), a latter- day Errol Flynn swashbuckler, his wife Mary received an early morning phone call. “She said, It’s Errol Flynn for you!’ I panicked. I thought I was going to get fired or something. What could he be calling me about? I said hello, and Errol said, Irv, I just wanted to know if you’re satisfied with the way I’m delivering my lines.’ At the end of the shoot he gave me a present, Smirnov vodka and grapefruit juice, which is what he drank.” Berwick also worked on the very first TV show shot on film. Public Prosecutor, and again paired with Landers on the Topper series. “Lew would set up a scene, and turn to me and say, ‘You go ahead and direct it.’ He trusted me that much!”

Girls In the Night (1953) began his association with sci-fi legend Jack Arnold. “I’ve worked on more of Jack’s pictures than any other person,” Berwick said with great pride. “Eleven films out of 25. People still come up to me to ask whatever happened to the girls in that film. Oh, they were all so young, so eager to make it, and nobody really came out of that picture except (Harvey) Lembeck, and now he’s dead.” This period included It Came from Outer Space (1953), Tarantula (1955), and the classic Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) “‘ duo (neither Arnold nor Berwick worked on The Creature Walks Among Us). And Berwick got to know Jack Kevan. Berwick wanted to direct, not merely coach actors for other directors; Kevan wanted more control over his artistry. “We worked extremely well together,” Berwick said. “I still talk to him two or three times a week. Never once did he interfere with anything I did on a picture, with actors or camera angles, and I never once interfered with his part of the job, arranging things, making the monster.” Together they hatched the story for Monster of Piedras Blancas.

Berwick and Kevan raised production funds by going from person to person on the studio lot. “It was a collection of very small investments, $1000 here, a thousand there, maybe a few people invested $1,500 or $2,000.I budgeted the film at—I hate to say this, because you’ll laugh, it’s so little,  thirty thousand dollars. And that was a union shoot. I brought it in for S29,000 so we took the extra thousand dollars and had a big party when it was over. Everybody got paid on the shoot, and everyone who had money in it made money, which isn’t always the case with pictures, you know.”

Universal-International was undergoing a slowdown at the time, so the studio was more than willing to help a project that kept employees working, especially since the studio wasn’t paying them. U-I even supplied Kevan and Berwick with a couple of limousines and a studio bus. Irv recalled, ‘They put a sign on the side with “Vanwick Productions” on it.”

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“When we started, we didn’t have any of the actors in mind, except John Harmon and Les Tremayn,” remembered Berwick. “I’d just done a picture at Universal with Les, not a horror picture but a big studio production, and sometimes two people just hit it off right. I tried to use both of them in everything I made after that. Les is a wonderful guy, and was the biggest star on radio, Mr. First Nighter and so on.”

Berwick had known character actor John Harmon for many years, often cast in small, showy roles: crooked gangsters, weaselly shopkeepers. He played Martha Rave’s unctuous brother in Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux (1947), a sneaky inmate in Brute Force (1947), minor crooks on Superman and a derelict who gets zapped when Spock and Kirk beam down to the Depression in the Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever.”   While actor-screen writer Halie Chase penned the final script, Kevan, Berwick and their wives mounted the production and took a driving trip up the California coast as far as Monterey to search for possible locations. “We found this one lighthouse at Point Conception, with rocky shores and a perfect look, very photogenic. Now, in that time, 1959, there were no more lighthouse keepers, all lighthouses were operated by the Coast Guard. So we stretched the facts a little for the purpose of the script.”

Stretching the facts for the purpose of a low budget is also evident in a contemporary news clipping from a Cayucos newspaper, which stated that VanWick Productions were in town on March 26, 27 and 28 taking motion pictures “of the local community… for a TV geographical study of California,” according to the spokeman, “J. William Berwick.”

“You don’t like to call too much attention to yourself,” shrugged Irv. “People may not have approved of us shooting a monster picture in their little town. Years later when I shot Hitchhike to Hell, about a homicidal rapist, a highway patrolman cruised over to ask what we were doing, I explained that I was helping out on a student-film documentary that warned against the evils of hitchhiking. He congratulated us on doing our civic duty and drove on. Of course, he had no idea we were shooting without permits, that we were doing an exploitation picture with violence, nudity, all of that. You learn to keep these things to yourself.”

BEHIND THE SCENES/PRINCIPAL PHOTOGRAPHY/LOCATIONS
The town of Cayucos (or, more poetically, Cayucos-by-the-Sea) was chosen for its picturesque small-town feel: wooden slat sidewalks, flat one-lane streets with views of the ocean, small sea-front shops. The town has not changed much over the years, and “Al’s Cafe” still stands. In 1959, it doubled as the “studio commissary.” Recalled Berwick, “We couldn’t really afford a catering service, and there wasn’t anything in town like that, so Al’s Cafe closed during lunch hour for us. My wife Mary and Jack and I would bus tables and wash dishes. It was a very happy group, and I don’t think I’ve done a picture since then that was as much fun.”

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“It was like a big picnic for me,” said Wayne Berwick, “because we took over the entire little town. I remember sitting in the store with local kids outside wanting my autograph—and I could barely spell my own name!”

Once the movie troup arrived at Cayucos with the lobster-man in tow, there was no way to be inconspicuous. Local reporters filed excited stories about the Hollywood production being filmed right in their home town. According to local papers, “some 500 people watched…and enjoyed the jovial antics of (Les Tremayne and Forrest Lewis), both on the set and between scenes.”

Though the Coast Guard gave permission to shoot on the lighthouse property, the local commander absolutely forbade the team shooting from the interior of the light itself, for fear of damaging the expensive beacon. “We were everywhere except inside near the light,” Berwick said; “the spiral stairs, the grounds, even the balcony. The wind was so fierce out there I’d yell to someone four feet away and they couldn’t hear me.

“Anyway, we needed to make a shot from the inside of the light, through the glass, to use on the fade, on the kiss when we put The End’ on screen. But this commander just would not allow it. So Jack took him to the local bar, started buying him drinks, shooting the breeze, and kept him sloshed and away from the lighthouse, and that’s how we were able to get our shot.”

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The local papers reported that incident thusly: “Producer Kevan stated that Commander Bob Cannon of the Coast Guard cooperated fully.”

Many of the Piedras Blancas crew were top pros at U-I: film editor George Gitens, propman Roy “Eddie” Keys, mixer Joe Lapis. Berwick gave Luana Sherman (daughter of Against All Flags director George Sherman) a chance to jump from apprentice to full-fledged script clerk.

“Everybody wanted to stay busy,” said Irv, “and most of them had money in the picture as well. We had a brilliant cameraman, Phil Lathrop.”

Lathrop later lensed Experiment in Terror (1962); Lonely Are the Brave (1962); The Pink Panther (1963); Point Blank (1967); I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! (1968) Earthquake (1974);; The Driver (1978) and National Lampoon’s Class Reunion (1982), an ecclectic cross-section of styles. He’s been nominated for five Emmy awards and has won twice. “I started as a D.P. (Director of Photography) in ’58,” said Lathrop, “under contract to Universal. This was one of the first shows I did after that, in early 1959. We were all Universal people. Everybody was working for nothing, a crazy set-up. I never put money into it, because it always takes such a long, long time to get it back.

“We started on Monday, ran through to the next Sunday, up on the other side of Santa Maria,” continued Lathrop. “Back in those days, we weren’t used to shooting on practical sets. If you did locations, you shot exteriors, then came back to the studio for interior sets, where you had your lighting high on scaffolds. We were very cramped, working on real locations for interiors, and we had to work fast, get a lot of stuff done.

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“It was done so quickly. I recall we had a couple of meetings at Kevan’s house in Beverly Hills, then hopped into this bus and were off. We should’ve had another couple weeks to prepare, looking at what you have to do, planning ahead of time. Ben Chapman wasn’t on the shoot, no, but we could’ve used somebody like that, a manager. We had a grip truck from Universal, but we had no idea how many lights we’d need, what kind of dollies, and so on. For example, shooting in the lighthouse was hard because we weren’t able to lay anything out. Jack, I don’t think, had everything under control. Out of necessity, we ended up doing a sort of documentary look to the photography.”The coastal location lent itself to gloomy shots of the rocky shore.

There are logic holes in the script. Why does the Monster attack before Sturges is laid low and cannot feed it? (Or why hasn’t it attacked before this?) Why doesn’t the monster eat fish? Why does it rip heads off?

But it was designed as a fright film, pure and (occasionally) simple. And it delivered the goods. Bloody heads were uncommon in 1959, and the sight of a crab scuttling over it in the sea cave is creepy and revolting. Berwick kept the monster off screen deliberately until late in the picture. “You have to do that for atmosphere,” he insisted. “If you brought the thing out right away, there’d be no big fright if you kept seeing it; you’d get used to it. So the first time you really see the monster’s face is when the girl sees it and screams.” That close-up is still effective, the scowling reptillian face lurching through the darkness, globs of drool pouring from its maw. “It’s just water, but it works,” laughed Berwick. “Anything that works in the film. I’ll take credit for.”

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Les Tremayne Interview

 One of your most popular films is The Monster of Piedras Blancas. After working with the major studios, how did you come to that independent production?
Les Tremayne: Irv Berwick was the director, and I had met him at Universal. Jack Kevan was a makeup man. They decided to produce this picture themselves. Well, I had an old friend from the radio days, Forrest Lewis. He had been asked to be in it as I had. Forrest and I ran around together for years so with both of us working together, it was going to be a ball! I was working on a TV show called The Grey Ghost and had broken three ribs in an accident with a horse. I did Piedras Blancas with three broken ribs they’re very painful.

You would never know it by your performance! Where was that picture filmed?
Les Tremayne: It was on the California coast and the lighthouse was located at a place called Point Conception. Whatever wasn’t shot near there, the rest was in the little town nearby.

The creature costume remains a favorite of many horror enthusiasts.
Les Tremayne: The biggest problem with the costume was not showing its back because of the zipper!

The Monster of Piedras Blancas was delayed in getting released. Why?
Les Tremayne: I don’t know that part of it, but I did have a small percentage of it and that was a long time coming.

img441I remember back in the 50’s at the premiere for The Monster of Piedras Blancas, I was walking the red carpet and there was a throng of people cheering for me.  There were a bunch of teenage boys and when I stopped to sign some autographs for them, they started to pinch my butt and grab me.  I said firmly “Watch the hands boys.”  Suddenly this weird hysteria swept through the crowd and the kids jumped the red ropes and started grabbing at me and they tore my dress practically off.  My press agent and some bodyguards rushed in and carried me into the building where it was safe.  That was the first time I realized how people can get caught up in the moment and lose control and act nutty.  But it was all in good fun.  Strangely,  when you’re famous, a lot of things get captured on film so a photographer got a picture of my torn dress and it was in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner paper the next day with the headline “Mob rips her $300.00 dress. – Jeanne Carmen.

Jack Kevan, the Westmores and issues with Universal
The Piedras Monster remains one of the ugliest, scariest creations of the 1950s. And back then, the competition was pretty stiff, including an impressive lineup of creature contenders: the Gillman from the Black Lagoon, giant half-human Flys, Teenage Frankenstein, invading Saucermen, Metaluna mutants, and ITs from beyond space. But, for its time, Piedras Blancas’ graphic gruesomeness presaged even today’s grisly show-all extravaganzas.

Jack Kevan looking over one of his more famous creations “The Creature”.

The film was the brainchild of Jack Kevan and Irvin Berwick, who had worked together at Universal-International during the halcyon days of the 1950s, Kevan in the makeup department, Berwick as a dialogue director. Ultimately, they formed VanWick Productions or the purpose of establishing themselves as independent filmmakers. Jack had done the Creature suit. Jack Arnold had directed those films, and they made a great deal of money for Universal. So we figured we’d do our own monster picture.”

If you read movie credits in those days, you might have assumed that it was Bud Westmore who created the fantastic creatures in the Black Lagoon series. This Island Earth, Abbott & Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll &r Mr. Hyde, Monster On the Campus, The Mole People and the Lon Chaney facsimiles in Man Of a Thousand Faces. Today’s endless credits list everyone from the producer down to the fifth assistant caterer, but until the 1970s, rarely would anyone but a department head see their name on-screen. Such was the case at U-I. Westmore was the penultimate brother of the famous “Westmore” makeup clan. “Buddy” Westmore had a bright smile, good looks, and a penchant for self-promotion. After a brief internship in low-budget PRC films in the 40s, he replaced makeup legend Jack Pierce from his long-held position as Universal makeup chief. The studio was upgrading its image (adding “International” to its corporate name, dropping their B-picture programmers, etc.); what better way than to have their own Westmore? Pierce, a hands-on administrator, had given 15 years to Universal, creating some of their most memorable fiends: the Wolfman, Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy, etc., as well as overseeing glamour makeups on stars from Deanna Durbin to Maria Montez. But he was feisty; Westmore was pleasant. Pierce used old-fashioned techniques; Westmore was “modern.” Pierce also drank on more than one occasion (ironically, Westmore developed a similar problem). The esteem fans have today for character and horror creations did not mean anything to studio chiefs in 1946.

“Budd  Westmore didn’t actually do pictures,” recalled Phillip Lathrop, veteran cinematographer who shot Piedras Blancas. “He was the head of the department, but Jack Kevan and those guys were the real makeup men. Jack wanted to step up, be in the front, be head of the department maybe, but he had to fight the Westmores of the world. He was a nice guy, but I don’t think you can jump from being a makeup man to a producer. That’s a very big step.”

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Kevan chafed under the studio policy. A gifted painter and sculptor, it was his instinct for the grotesque that made U-I’s monsters of the 1950s: flaring nostrils, gnarled, oversize hands, human-animals that would’ve been at home on Dr. Moreau’s island. The creations entailed collaboration (it was Jack Arnold who suggested the Creature should look basically like the Academy Award figure with fins), but the realization of the designs consistently shows the hand of Kevan. Even the Wolfman in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, although suggested by Pierce’s original concept and co-created by Kevan with Emil LaVigne, shows a bestial look similar to Boris Karloff’s Hyde and Arthur Franz’ ape man in Monster on the Campus. The only comparable contemporary artists were Ray Harryhausen at Columbia and Paul Blaisdell at AIP, whose creations were equally distinctive and personal. Yet Kevan was never mentioned in studio publicity, and only rarely shared the limelight with his boss.

“Jack Kevan was a nice, taciturn guy,” recalled director Jack Arnold. “On the Creature pictures, he was the guy on set, the Beastie’s Keeper, and he did a helluva job.” As to Kevan’s frustration with Universal and/or the head of the makeup department: “I think you might say there’s  some truth in that. He never expressed an opinion to me about Bud Westmore, but Jack wasn’t a demonstrative fella. It wasn’t easy to find out what he did or didn’t like. And really, I wasn’t interested, I just needed to get the work done. Kevan was a valuable fella and he did his work well.”

Kevan created a monster suit for the project that was without a doubt the ugliest, most deliberately repulsive and horrifying creature he had ever done. A body with layers of scales like the Gill-Man were customized by bulky shoulders, distended veins, grotesque feet (cast from the Mutant molds from This Island Earth ) and oversize claws with bubble-texture skin, courtesy of The Mole People, which Kevan had also designed. The face was a demon from hell, an angry caricature of hate. The scalp was egg-shaped like the Mole People, with vestigal horns poking demon-like from the forehead. The beady eyes were half-hidden beneath a furrowed brow, and the broad nose flared around into fang-like extensions that d ripped over the mouth, sculpted into a down-turned snarl.

Comparisons to the Creature from the Black Lagoon design are apt. The Gill-Man was certainly more anatomically correct for a half-human amphibian throwback, but its frog-like mouth often gave it the appearance of baffled stupidity. The Piedras Blancas monster looked permanently furious.  Pete Dunn was the man in the green rubber suit. “Oh, he was such a bad actor,” said Berwick with a gentle laugh. “He was a stuntman, and he desperately wanted a part. He also played the guy who gets his head torn off. (So in effect, he’s holding his own head.) But the stunt work was great.” He could only wear the costume for half an hour at a time. The close rubber and plastic horror suit stopped perspiration so that his skin could not “breathe!

DISTRIBUTION/RELEASE
The film was released by a company called Filmservice Distributing Corporation in late 1959, region by region, on a double-bill with a potboiler called Okefenokee (1959), starring Peter Coe and Henry Brandon. Piedras Blancas played for a few years theatrically, but was sold to National Telefilm Association for syndication in the early 1960’s.

“I was walking down the street in Brooklyn,” remembered Forrest J Ackerman, “and I saw a poster for the film with ‘Shock Award’ on it from my magazine. I had no idea what that was. That was the first time I ever heard about it. I think maybe the producer took my publisher out for drinks or something.” No other film was ever honored with the “Shock Award.” Perhaps no other picture ever came up to the high standards of FM publisher James Warren.

CONCLUSION

Post “Piedras Blancas”
Piedras Blancas proved a mixed blessing. It was financially successful enough to inspire Kevan and Berwick to make two more features together. The 7th Commandment (1961) and The Street Is My Beat (1966) with John Harmon.

In the early I960’s, Kevan left the motion picture business entirely, founded a cosmetics company and later sold it for a large profit. Though contacted occasionally by fans who have grown to be monster-makers and producers themselves, he politely but firmly refuses to talk of his motion picture days.

Irv Berwick produced and/or directed 40 features with glorious exploitation titles such as Hitchhike to Hell, Malibu High and In Hot Blood, plus educational films, religious featurettes, and TV commercials, some for Kevan’s makeup company. He also did dialogue-director duties on Rough Night in Jericho for his friend Arnold Laven, and was a second-unit director on Spartacus.

“I got a reputation for being on time and on budget,” Berwick said with justifiable pride. “Every picture I’ve ever made was finished on budget and was distributed. But I never got to make an ‘important’ picture, I was never given the budget. People couldn’t see me as anything else but King of the B’s.'”

THE ‘MONSTER’ RETURNS (Cayucos townspeople remember the Monster)
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.’

Cayucos 1950's
Cayucos 1950’s

“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.”

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. 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.

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.

Cayucos 1950's
Cayucos 1950’s

“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.”

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.

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 front man 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.

Cayucos 1950's
Cayucos 1950’s

“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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CAST/CREW
 Directed – Irvin Berwick
Produced – Jack Kevan
Screenplay – H. Haile Chace
Cinematography – Philip H. Lathrop
 Starring       
Les Tremayne
Forrest Lewis
John Harmon
Pete Dunn
Jeanne Carmen

CREDITS/REFERENCES/SOURCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY
Filmfax 18
sanluisobispo.com local news
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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