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DVD SAVANT

Beast from
Haunted Cave


Beast from Haunted Cave
Synapse Films
1959 / B&W / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 + Flat Full Frame / 75 min. / Street Date March 26, 2002
Starring Michael Forest, Sheila Carol, Frank Wolff, Richard Sinatra, Wally Campo.
Cinematography Andrew M. Costikyan
Film Editor Anthony Carras
Original Music Alexander Laszlo
Written by Charles B. Griffith
Produced by Gene Corman and Roger Corman
Directed by Monte Hellman

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

A minor horror film - major filmmaker debut makes for a DVD treat in this Special Extended Version of Beast From Haunted Cave. The surprise is that it plays topsy-turvy: The production is as slim as any other minimal-budget terror enterprise from the time, but the direction of the actors is very good. Savant expected the sketchy spiderlike monster (which isn't all that bad) but not the careful performances and measured direction. Cult director Monte Hellman didn't throw this one away -- on this good-looking widescreen disc it plays a lot better than many of the pix directed by Roger Corman around the same time.

It's the middle of snow season in Deadwood, South Dakota, where Alex Ward's band of thieves prepare to pull off a heist. An explosion in a nearby mineshaft will decoy the rubes while they pillage the local bank. Local ski guide Gil Jackson (Michael Forest) has been hired to guide them to a remote cabin to await a private plane in which to make their getaway. Kingpin Alex Ward (Frank Wolff) uses his girlfriend Gypsy Boulet (Sheila Carol) as date-bait to keep Jackson from guessing their game; cohort Byron Smith scopes out the bank. Slick trigger man Marty (Richard Sinatra) takes a local barmaid out to the mine to get in some necking while laying the diversionary explosive charge. When a horrid hairy 'thing' attacks out of the darkness, he panics and leaves her there. The robbery and initial escape go well until heavy snow makes the plane rendezvous unlikely. Marty, slightly unhinged by his encounter with the monster, starts acting irrationally. Then he sees the barmaid's shriveled body crammed into a nearby tree. The grisly Beast has been stalking them, while dragging her along for convenient snacks.

Movies with titles like Beast From Haunted Cave didn't get much attention in serious film circles, at least not in 1959. Monte Hellman had to wait five years, after doing various odds 'n' ends direction jobs for Roger Corman, until a pair of westerns put him on the directorial map. The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind got practically no play yet made a name for him as a talented hopeful; his masterpiece Two-Lane Blacktop cemented his auteurship but its floppo boxoffice kept his career perpetually on the margin.

The ability to make his first film a location genre picture must have been a welcome challenge for Hellman. Shot back-to-back with Corman's more elaborate Ski Troop Attack, this show got the short end of the production stick. Besides the abundant snow, what we have here is a superior exercise in minimalism. Charles B. Griffith's script is a loose re-think of Key Largo that in other hands might have been a big nothing. Corman and Griffith basically remade it the next year as the comedy Creature from the Haunted Sea, a film that plays so poorly one can appreciate Monte Hellman all the more. Beast is by no means ready for the horror pantheon, but it's also nothing to be ashamed of.

Most of the cast is excellent, and several have interesting careers to boot. Toplined Michael Forest is a likeable but somewhat lunky athletic type, who started with Corman on The Saga of the Viking Women and their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent, an engaging loser famous for its long title. After Beast, he played Atlas for Corman in Greece. It's one of the more painfully underbudgeted pictures ever made, but it made the modestly-muscled Forest a name in peplum films.

The very good actor Frank Wolff appeared in dozens of European productions. This was only his second film, but he later graced such winners as Elia Kazan's America America and Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West. His role in Beast From Haunted Cave has some nice wrinkles. Alex Ward is supposed to be a businessman who moonlights as a bank robber, a louse who sics his good-time girl on the ski guide and then gets jealous when sparks ignite between the two. Wolff handles all this very well -- even the predictable punch-out between him and Forest is pretty good.

Of the rest, Wally Campo is too broad supplying comedy filler. Frank's nephew Richard Sinatra doesn't attract any acting honors either. Sheila Carol doubled in this show and Ski Troop Attack, and dropped off the IMDB radar; I'm sure there's a Filmfax article on her somewhere. She's yet another interesting, seductive character actress from the Corman years.

For atmosphere, Beast From Haunted Cave stays ahead of most low-budget horror of its time by virtue of its realistic snowy location. The day-for-night photography is fairly acceptable (but please don't tell me people can seriously sleep in the open air in snow like that) and the crew somehow manage to shoot in the snow without leaving a mass of telltale tracks everywhere. One location, supposedly miles into the woods, is betrayed by power poles and phone lines, but by and large there are no Ed Woodisms in sight.

The film spends more time as a low-end crime thriller than a horror item. The monster is not all that scary, and is all too clearly a manipulated marionette made of rags and hair. But skipping a few sickly shots of the thing superimposed over the snow, the majority of its appearances are well-staged. It retains a certain mystery. Its habit of stashing its victims for later feeding through a siphon appendage is a disgusting detail that would crop up in the later Alien films. The staging of the action is different and interesting, and while not necessarily good, the film is a creditable effort.


Synapse Films' DVD of Beast From Haunted Cave shows that company's continued good faith effort to present their titles with the highest possible quality. The disc contains both standard and 16:9 widescreen versions of the film, in transfers that finally make the show watchable: Television prints back in the '70s were so dark that Savant never was able to make it all the way through the movie in one go. The audio, much of it apparently recorded on location, was also unintelligible on TV, and this transfer makes most of it sound fine, although a few lines are still echoey and hard to understand.

At 75 minutes, The Gene and Roger Corman production is no epic. It was originally even shorter, one of those one-hour second features to help squeeze in more shows per day. For television sales Hellman pulled some of the actors back in and shot a couple of extra scenes to pad out the picture. Usually this is an invitation to disaster  1 but Hellman's additions mesh perfectly with the surrounding scenes and actually flesh out the characters -- they look like material he might have been shot the first time around if time hadn't run out. Bill Warren's excellent liner notes detail these additions, while placing Beast in the best possible light. I don't remember the ad art being quite as lurid as what's on the DVD cover, but who's complaining? The outrageous tag line, "See screaming young girls sucked into a labyrinth of horror by a blood-starved ghoul from hell!" must have been concocted by the publicity boys during a bender at the local bar.

Monte Hellman became an obvious major talent for Savant after Two Lane Blacktop. This minor horror film demonstrates that he had a talent for sensitive direction from the very beginning.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Beast from Haunted Cave rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Good
Sound: Good-
Supplements: Trailer - in pretty terrible shape - this is how the feature looked on television!
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 10, 2002

Footnote:

1. Look at the prologues shot for X- the Man with X-Ray Eyes and The Pit and the Pendulum included on those discs to see how inane this practice can be. Corman's standard tricks to flesh out features for tv sale included meaningless multiple text scrolls and repeated footage. Allied Artists and Universal took random sequences from one film and stuffed them into another. The final solution, a favorite of the Full-Moon ripoff school of filmmaking, is to pad out short shows with inordinately long end credits, sometimes even with lengthy outtakes.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2002 Glenn Erickson

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