Digest>Archives> September 2002

A Monster of a Lighthouse Movie

By Jeremy D'entremont


You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
The monster carries Jeanne Carmen, the lighthouse ...

If you scare easily ... have a weak heart...faint at the sight of blood ... DO NOT SEE "The Monster of Piedras Blancas" ... but if you want the thrill of a lifetime see this picture tonight...

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Keeper Sturges (John Harmon) confronts the ...

- Radio ad copy for the 1958 horror movie The Monster of Piedras Blancas: For connoisseurs of low budget 1950s horror/sci-fi flicks, The Monster of Piedras Blancas occupies a special niche. For one thing, it was ahead of its time (depending on how you view these things) in its depictions of gore. And it's possibly the only monster movie ever made that takes place largely at a lighthouse, with a keeper and his daughter as central characters. On the short list of lighthouse movies, this one is clearly at the opposite end of the niceness scale from “Captain January” with Shirley Temple.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Leading man Don Sullivan clowns around behind ...

Despite the fact that it was shot in less than two weeks for a microscopic budget of $29,000 (an extra $1000 was used for a cast party), the film is actually one of the more entertaining entries in its genre. There are some genuine shocks and surprises along the way.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
The Point Conception Lighthouse in California.
Photo by: Bob & Sandra Shanklin, ‘The Lighthouse People.’

Although the lighthouse in the movie is purportedly the one at Piedras Blancas, the shooting was done at California 's scenic Point Conception Light Station, now on the privately-owned Jalama Ranch. The lighthouse at Piedras Blancas was not so attractive, as its lantern had been removed a few years earlier. The monster was the creation of producer Jack Kevan, who also designed the famous Creature from the Black Lagoon. Director Irvin Berwick was another Hollywood veteran who had worked with director Jack Arnold on such movies as “It Came from Outer Space” and “Tarantula.” The Piedras Blancas monster was largely a recycling of earlier designs, but the head was completely original. It wore a perpetual scowl that has no doubt lived in the nightmares of countless children.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
The monster ascending the stairs in the Point ...

As the movie begins, we see a mysterious, inhuman hand reaching over rocks by the ocean. We're soon introduced to the salty lighthouse keeper, Sturges (John Harmon). While on his way into town on his bicycle, he runs into a crowd gathered on the beach. Two local fishermen have been savagely killed, and their decapitated bodies have been drained of blood. This puzzles the town doctor, played by veteran character actor Les Tremayne.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
The monster does his thing on the lighthouse ...

Keeper Sturges arrives at a grocery store to pick up supplies. The storekeeper, Kochek, thinks the deaths of the fishermen are related to the local legends of the “Monster of Piedras Blancas.” Sturges impatiently asks for his usual supply of meat scraps “for his dog,” but Kochek has already given the scraps away.

Sturges enters the nearby cafe, where they meet his daughter Lucy (Jeanne Carmel working behind the counter). Sturges sternly reminds Lucy to be home before dark. When Sturges returns to the lighthouse, we see him looking worried as he leaves some fish out on the rocks.

Meanwhile, Lucy is cavorting on the beach with her marine biologist boyfriend (Don Sullivan). Their picnic soon dissolves into smooches in the surf, apparently a deliberate echo of the famous love scene in From Here to Eternity. Disobeying her father's orders, Lucy finally returns home after dark. To make matters worse, she proceeds to go for a skinny dip near the lighthouse. As she does, monstrous hands paw her clothes left on the rocks. Needless to say, this all leads to more mayhem and a violent climax at the top of the lighthouse.

Besides acting in a string of "B" movies (Untamed Youth, Portland Expose, Born Reckless, Too Much, Too Soon, etc.), leading lady Jeanne Carmen was famous as a beauty contest winner and trick-shot golf artist. Carmen's personal life has made her most sensational movies seem tame by comparison. Marilyn Monroe was a close pal, and Carmen's circle of friends and admirers over the years included Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and Errol Flynn.

Carmen turned down a small role in a major Hollywood film to take a larger role in Piedras Blancas. She says that her innocent, sweet character in The Monster of Piedras Blancas was actually closer to her true personality than the parts that she usually played. Carmen made a perfect lighthouse keeper's daughter, despite the fact that there was no time for research. "All I did was learn my lines," she laughs. "We didn’t rehearse but we got through it."

She remembers it as a positive experience, but Carmen took her lumps during the filming. In one scene, a character throws an oil can from the top of the lighthouse toward the monster, who is carrying Carmen on the beach. The can hit her in the leg twice before hitting the target. And she laughs when she recalls the filming of the supposedly romantic scene in the rolling surf with Don Sullivan. "The water was so cold we couldn't speak," she says. And for some reason, Carmen's hair was dyed red for the (black and white) filming, which caused much of it to fall out.

A stunt man named Pete Dunn played the monster through most of the production, and the costume was so stifling that he could only wear it for half-hour stretches. Carmen remembers that Dunn became ill and had to be replaced for the climactic scenes at the lighthouse. The lethargic Dunn was replaced by Carmen's press agent, which according to Carmen explains why the creature was so much more animated in the final scenes.

Character actor John Harmon's portrayal of the keeper is surprisingly believable, and lighthouse buffs will appreciate the emphasis on “keeping the light” despite personal hardship. And there's a nice scene of Harmon polishing Point Conception's beautiful first order Fresnel lens. The crew wasn't supposed to film inside the lighthouse, but legend has it that the official assigned to watch over the filming was lured away to a local bar while certain scenes were shot.

Other than the scenes at the lighthouse, most of the movie was shot in the quaint seaside town of Cayucos. The producers told the locals that they were in town to film the local community for a "TV geographical study of California." It didn't take long before residents saw the lumbering monster and other sure signs that this was no "geographical study," but by then everyone in town was enjoying the show. Jeanne Carmen enjoyed filming in Cayucos. "We ate lots of abalone - morning, noon and night," she recalls.

Wayne Berwick, the son of the director, played a local boy who finds a quarter on the ground ("That's all I was ever paid for the movie") and enters Kochek's store to find that the storekeeper is the latest victim of the monster. He runs to the funeral of the fishermen to alert others. Berwick, who was eight years old at the time, got to watch all the filming, and he remembers, “I was right there and I knew it wasn't real, but I had nightmares for a long, long time!”

Berwick loved Cayucos. "I go back there at least once a year," he says. "There are still old-timers who remember when the movie was made there." The movie also helped kindle a love of lighthouses in Berwick, who has since had a successful career as a TV writer and a blues musician ("West Side Wayne and the Boulevard Band"). "I like lighthouses and I like to be near the coast. Lighthouses just have that vibe," he explains.

To the people of Cayucos, every person in the cast was a celebrity. "The kids were lined up for autographs while I was sitting there eating breakfast," says Berwick. "I could barely write my own name." Berwick's strongest recollections of the movie concern his feelings for Jeanne Carmen, who was the cause of his first feelings of jealousy. "She was just sweet – she had that Southern charm. And my Dad was shooting these scenes that were kind of risqué down on the beach. I wanted to get rid of Don Sullivan!"

In Cayucos, for some years public screenings of the movie were held each Fourth of July and Halloween. The influence of The Monster of Piedras Blancas has been felt in surprising places, including the rock music world. Gregg Turner, former member of the ‘80s Los Angeles punk rock band Angry Samoans, saw the movie several times as a small child. The film made such an impression on Turner that a publicity photo of the monster and Jeanne Carmen was featured on the cover of the Angry Samoans’ album “Return to Samoa.” And here's great news for fans of this movie and its ilk. Writer/filmmaker Ted Newsom is nearing the completion of “The Naked Monster,” a low budget spoof of low budget horror flicks. He started shooting the film in 1985 to pay homage to some of his favorite films, and the cast includes John Harmon (as a lighthouse keeper!) and Jeanne Carmen, along with other Hollywood veterans. Newsom shot his lighthouse scenes at Point Vicente Lighthouse – “It’s what a lighthouse is supposed to look like,” he says. He expects the film to be released on DVD.

All in all, The Monster of Piedras Blancas was fun for those involved. “Nobody got mad, nobody yelled. There was a lot of love on that movie – we had fun together,” says Jeanne Carmen. And despite a bit of black-and-white gore, it's a fun movie that showcases a picturesque lighthouse station that is, unfortunately, off limits to the public.

This story appeared in the September 2002 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

All contents copyright © 1995-2024 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.

to Lighthouse Digest

USLHS Marker Fund

Lighthouse History
Research Institute

Shop Online

Subscribe   Contact Us   About Us   Copyright Foghorn Publishing, 1994- 2024   Lighthouse Facts     Lighthouse History