Blood Beach (1980) Retrospective

SUMMARY

In the opening scene, a woman named Ruth is walking her dog on Los Angeles, California’s Venice Beach, and is suddenly pulled under the sand of the deserted beach by an unseen force. The woman’s screams for help are heard by Harry Caulder, a harbor patrol officer who is swimming nearby. Harry reports Ruth’s disappearance to two LAPD detectives, Royko and Piantadosi, who claim that without a body, there is little they can do. The next day, Ruth’s estranged daughter, Catherine, arrives from San Francisco after Harry calls her regarding her mother’s disappearance.

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Meanwhile, the mysterious and crazed Mrs. Selden, who resides in an abandoned section of the Santa Monica Amusement Pier, witnesses the attack and disappearance (and others throughout the film), but does not come forward.

That night, while staying in Ruth’s house, Catherine hears Ruth’s dog barking on the beach near the location where Ruth disappeared. Catherine investigates and finds the dog beheaded, near a small sinkhole. Royko and Piantadosi, as well as Harry, are called to the scene, but police pathologist Dr. Dimitrious cannot accurately determine a cause of death for the dog. Royko and Piantadosi believe it to be the work of a serial killer, due to reports of other disappearances over the past few months.

The next morning, a teenage girl is buried in the sand at the beach, and begins screaming. Her friends pull her out of the sand, only to see that her legs have been injured from an attack by an unseen creature. The police, led by Captain Pearson, begin an investigation by digging up various sections of the beach at night, but find nothing. The next morning, people visit the beach, which the local media have dubbed “blood beach”.

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The following night, Harry’s co-worker Hoagy is closing up the harbor patrol office for the night when his girlfriend ventures under the pier to investigate a noise and is assaulted by a man. After being knocked to the ground by the girl, the would-be-rapist is attacked by the unseen creature, which castrates him.

An evening or two later, Marie, a French airline stewardess who is living with Harry, chases after her hat when it is blown by wind onto the beach. She too is grabbed by the unseen creature and pulled under the sand. The next morning, Harry sees Marie’s hat on the beach, along with a small sinkhole which he recognizes as similar to the hole at the scene of Ruth’s disappearance and the death of the dog. Harry calls the police, who dig up the area around the sinkhole and find Marie’s disembodied eyeball.

Searching for the unknown creature’s home, Harry ventures to an abandoned section of the pier and finds an access tunnel leading to an underground storage facility. After finding nothing, he leaves the tunnel, not noticing a movement in a collapsed section of the wall. Harry and Catherine go out to a nightclub, where they try to rekindle their romance. Meanwhile, a man with a metal detector is walking under the pier looking for metal objects when he is attacked and pulled under the sand by the still-unseen creature. The man’s wife, Mrs. Hench, reports him missing. The next day, Royko and Piantadosi find Mr. Hench emerging from a sewer manhole in a Venice street after escaping from the creature’s lair, but he is in a state of shock after being horribly mangled and cannot explain what happened to him.

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Hoagy is the next victim, after he visits the pier to try and persuade Mrs. Selden to leave the area. He too is pulled under the sand by the underground creature while she watches stoically.

Having been told by Harry about the access tunnel, Catherine visits the storage facility under the pier to look around just as Harry brings Piantadosi with him to investigate. They find all 16 of the creature’s partially eaten victims, including Ruth’s severed head, parts of Marie’s body and Hoagy’s fresh corpse. Captain Pearson arrives with the police, who remove all of the bodies. Pearson orders the officers to use a backhoe and equipment to track the monster down. Increased attention from the local news media lead the police to attempt to kill the creature as quickly as possible, and Pearson orders the installation of motion detectors, heat-sensing cameras and explosives.

That evening, the huge creature emerges from the sand and is caught on camera; (it resembles a worm-like Venus flytrap). Without hesitation, Royko activates the detonator and the creature is blown to pieces. Dr. Dimitrios points out that they still do not know anything about the monster’s origins or abilities. Since it resembled a giant worm, and some worms have the capability to regenerate, Dimitrios wonders what will happen to “each piece”.

The next morning, Harry leaves with Catherine to drive her home to San Francisco while the beach reopens to the public, now that the subterranean creature is dead. In the final scene over the end credits, as the beach becomes crowded again, new small sinkholes begin to appear unnoticed all over the sand, implying that Dr. Dimitrios was correct in his theory that the creature has the ability to regenerate from its severed pieces.

Director Jeffrey Bloom

DEVELOPMENT/ BEHIND THE SCENES

Back in the early ’80s, the summer vacation hotspot of Venice Beach, California acquired a much more sinister name due to a series of mysterious disappearances and untimely deaths. Yes, we’re talking about Blood Beach, the 1981 cult item starring John Saxon, Burt Young and what has been described as an “artichoke monster.” Anyone who haunted their local mom-and-pop video shop in years past surely remembers the iconic Blood Beach box art, which replicated the theatrical poster: a terrified young woman in a bikini being sucked into the sand under a blazing sun and blood-red sky.

The tagline on top reads, “The Five People Believed To Have Drowned Here Never Even Made It Past The Sand ‘. ” but it was the tagline underneath that would become synonymous with the film: “Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Back In The Water — You Can’t Get To It.”

That riff on Jaws 2 ‘ s classic slogan was taken directly from the film’s dialogue and caused a small problem, as writer/director Jeffrey Bloom explains. “I asked John Saxon to kind of throw the line away, which he did,” Bloom recalls. “We knew that the less we made of it, the funnier it would be. When the distributor decided to use the line in print ads, we heard from Universal’s attorneys regarding Jaws 2. Our response was something like, ‘Hey, guys, it’s one cute line of dialogue in a very small film. We don’t think it should threaten you. Give us a break.’ They backed off.”

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By 1979, Bloom had already written a rapist gets his just deserts. several films and directed a couple as well, both financed in England. He and his producing partner Steven Nalevansky were brainstorming ideas after being approached by executive producer Carole Wilson to make a horror film, when Nalevansky happened to be driving by the Santa Monica Pier and came up with the idea of a monster living under the sand.  The story was fully realized a couple of days later, with the first draft of the script following a little more than a week after that.

The trio were so excited about the project that they treated themselves to a dinner out at the Palm Restaurant in West Hollywood. “Any night out in Hollywood should be tax-deductible, no questions asked,” says Bloom, who had T-shirts and buttons made up to promote the film even at that early point.

Blood Beach is a curious film, a combination of creature feature and detective flick. David Huffman and Marianna Hill star as Harry and Catherine, two old friends who were formerly romantically involved and almost married. Catherine comes back to town when her mother mysteriously vanishes from the beach; the police rule it as a drowning, and life returns to normal until more disappearances and a dead dog start to raise eyebrows. It’s not until a girl, whose friends have buried her up to her neck in the sand, gets her legs tom up by something under the surface that the magnitude of the situation becomes clear to local law enforcement: a monster is clearly afoot. Said creature remains largely unseen for most of the film, and with good reason: it’s kinda goofy.

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For his effort to scare people, Bloom and artist-photographer Malcolm Lubliner, did sketches and came up with the design for the creature. Del Rheaume, who did the fine special effects work on the 1978 remake of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, was hired for the film and created the monster, a very alien-looking non-anthropomorphic creature which was operated by air valves and dozens of individually controlled tubes. “It was an incredibly elaborate affair that actually did far more than we used. It could rear up and open its mouth and lots of other things,” Bloom says. “We ultimately decided not to use all those capabilities because it would mean our concentrating on the creature too much. In a monster movie you don’t want to O.D. the audience on the monster when it’s finally seen because no matter how good and horrific it is, if you look at it too long, suddenly it’s not scary anymore. The creature is seen briefly, which I think is enough.” Rheaume also built the contraptions which sucked people down under the sand, made holes in the sand where the creature was supposed to be, and was in complete charge of the special effects for the movie, which uses no opticals.

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“We were unable to work closely on the monster for a number of reasons,” says Bloom. “We were disappointed with the result, which was very late in coming, and in fact wasn’t delivered to the set until we were just about ready to shoot Being a low-budget production, we had to live with it, and hoped we could make it better in post”

Released by indie outfit The Jerry Gross Organization with a marketing campaign worthy of the majors, the film enjoyed decent box-office results as well as critical success when it was released in the U.S. as well as Europe. “We were delighted and amazed when Carrie Rickey, then the film critic for The Village Voice in New York, called it ‘a peculiarly eloquent summation of genre movie history.’ Who’s going to argue with that?” Bloom says. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before the film began to run into problems. “The distributor, who’d been loudly proclaiming enormous grosses in the industry trade papers, declared bankruptcy. Money that was owed to Steven and I, as profit participants, never came through. The various financial partners claimed to be as lost as we were. And Blood Beach, suddenly, was history.”

It wasn’t long, however, before the film gained cult status on video-store shelves. That amazing box art completely sucked potential viewers in (pun intended), along with the lurid description that was nonetheless devoid of basic plot information: “Ruth screams for help as she desperately tries to free herself, but there is no es- cape. The sand pulsates, like a heart- beat — and then nothing. An atmosphere of terror takes over what becomes known as Blood Beach’.”

When the film was released on VHS, there were (unbeknownst to most) two editions. There was the Media Home Entertainment cassette, which contained the R-rated cut that was distributed to most of the world. However, there was also a German VHS tape, put out by UFA, that was unrated, reinstating about three seconds of gore. Two scenes in particular were appended: When the girl who is buried in the sand gets attacked, we see a monster claw scratch her bloody leg. The second change is seen in the night scene where a woman’s hat is blown onto the beach and she chases it, getting sucked into the sand. We see her suddenly lying naked and covered in blood as the monster, its eyes glowing red, pounces on her.

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Regarding any particular issues with the MPAA, Bloom says, “I’m not aware of the different ratings, but I’m sure it has to do with language. Burt Young’s character spoke colorfully. Over the years, the film’s enthusiastic audience has continued to grow, and we’ve heard more and more requests for a disc release, which we would love to do. Regrettably, no one can find the negative, or even a 35mm print that hasn’t seriously degraded. But even more frustrating is the fact that no one can determine the legitimate rights holders. It’s been decades since Blood Beach was first released. Companies have come and gone. Principal participants have died. And the trail itself is so faint that even a good GPS system couldn’t track it!”

One of the most tragic of those deaths was lead actor Huffman, who was stabbed twice with a screwdriver and killed at age 39 after chasing a 16-year-old thief who had just robbed a neighbor’s motor home. Huffman was a familiar face to TV viewers in the ’70s and early ’80s, thanks to roles in shows such as Remington Steele, Trapper John, M.D. and T.J. Hooker. “David Huffman was a very cool guy, a terrific actor and a total professional,” Bloom says. “There’s no doubt he would have had a wonderful career. We were all profoundly saddened by his death.”

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In this day and age of remakes, reboots and sequels, it’s only natural to ask Bloom, who went on co-write the TV horror-anthology pilot turned theatrical release Nightmares and scripted and directed 1987’s Flowers in the Attic, about his thoughts on expanding the Blood Beach legend. “Yes, we hoped for a sequel,” he admits. “I still think a remake is in order, with the kind of amazing effects done these days followed by Son of a (Blood) Beach! I’d entrust the reimagining of the monster to the best effects people I could find. Their minds work in far different ways than ours! I’m not in retirement,” he adds. “I’m just here waiting, biding my time!”

CAST/CREW
David Huffman as Harry Caulder
Marianna Hill as Catherine Hutton
John Saxon as Captain Pearson
Burt Young as Sergeant Royko
Otis Young as Lieutenant Piantadosi
Stefan Gierasch as Dr. Dimitrios
Lena Pousette as Marie
Darrell Fetty as Hoagy
Eleanor Zee as Mrs. Selden
Pamela McMyler as Mrs. Hench
Harriet Medin as Ruth Hutton
CREDITS/REFERENCES/SOURCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY
GOREZONE #32
Cinefantastique v10n01 (1980)

 

 

2 thoughts on “Blood Beach (1980) Retrospective

  1. Don’t think I have ever seen anything have so many positives, yet totally fail to come together in the end. The photography is stunning, the idea is great, the performances are good, and the score is scary as all hell. But it doesn’t work. You wait the whole film to get a monster and we get a cock and balls with am artichoke for a head. That bag lady character is as obnoxious as f*ck. And they totally telegraph the shocker ending. Scientist is basically all “Yeah, we know nothing about it, but maybe it has regenerative abilities and each separate piece can become each own creature?” Oh well, at least it looks good and the core is nightmare inducing.

    Liked by 1 person

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