by Anders Runestad
Every low-budget movie needs a way to bridge the gaps. Not every scene can be a chase, a fight, a great moment of comic relief, or have memorable dialogue. Something more abundantly available and ordinary has to fill in the spaces between. This may be driving, walking, shots of nature, or assorted subplots that don’t affect the narrative. But if the film rises all the way to competent or better, then something above average was going on and, in the hands of the right filmmakers, the in-between moments can be something special.
As a low-budget powerhouse, producer (and sometimes writer and director) Roger Corman knew what any effective manager understands in any field: how to delegate. Long recognized for giving breaks to talented newcomers who would go on to bigger things, Corman is perhaps best understood not only as a talent scout but a non-micro manager, a hands-on filmmaker who also knew the labor-saving value of talented employees. Encouraged by financial incentives from the state of South Dakota, Corman had already planned his World War II action flick Ski Troop Attack (1960) for filming in the Badlands, but got inspired by the ready opportunity waiting to film the same location a second time.
Corman got yet another script from his prolific collaborator Charles B. Griffith, and had his brother Gene produce the other film, Beast from Haunted Cave, which would play earlier than its twin in 1959. Along with locations, multiple cast members were shared between the projects, including Frank Sinatra’s cousin Richard, spaghetti Western stalwart Frank Wolff, and lead actor Michael Forest, well-known as Star Trek’s rendition of the Greek god Apollo. And while Roger Corman directed Ski Troop Attack himself, he utilized one of his more unique collaborators for the other movie, Beast from Haunted Cave’s first-time director, Monte Hellman.
A name associated with the New Hollywood cinema of the late ‘60s and ‘70s, Hellman had mostly theater experience up to this point. While Corman collaborators often went on to big Hollywood careers, either as critical favorites (Martin Scorsese) or reliable hit-makers (Ron Howard), Hellman’s infrequently made and quietly offbeat films were increasingly sparse after the curious decade of the ‘70s, leaving behind a filmography that showed commitment to his personal vision. His pair of 1966 anti-Westerns The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind (filmed back to back with financing by Corman, naturally), have little resemblance to conventional Westerns, the former film an almost surreal odyssey through a desolate landscape. Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) stars a pair of softspoken rock stars in James Taylor and Dennis Wilson as gearheads on a road trip, but does not feature them performing music. And in 1974’s exploration of the poultry gladiator subculture, Cockfighter, Hellman’s repeat leading man Warren Oates occupies the whole movie as the title character—largely mute.
Critics and cult film lovers have found much to savor in Hellman’s minimalist sensibility and focus on loners and outsiders (often described as existential, though I don’t recall anyone quoting Albert Camus in The Shooting or Two-Lane Blacktop). But that love hasn’t been shared with Beast from Haunted Cave, which is a shame. For if one imagines Hellman making a ‘50s monster movie, it would—curiously enough—be exactly what appears onscreen here. The prerequisite creature movie element of a monster is there, just as the characters in The Shooting are dressed like cowboys and ride horses, but the characters onscreen here are on an odyssey of doing what they do because they do it. And to top off the weirdness of a Monte Hellman monster movie is the fact that a good half or more of Beast from Haunted Cave is a crime movie.
Charles Griffith’s script is that of a multiclass genre story: the main characters are a gang of outlaws planning a heist who need the help of a beefy ski instructor to guide them into a cabin in the wild that will be their hideout. Meanwhile, the main baddy’s girlfriend falls for the skier, and circumstances bring the characters into a cave where lurks, yes, a monster. All of this genre-hopping acts to cancel out the sense that this movie exists in a genre. Rather, this stuff is simply happening and it’s within that unreality where Hellman’s brooding minimalism as director sneaks in the spaces between and kicks in.
Take, for example, the dissatisfied girlfriend, well-played by the rarely featured Sheila Noonan. Introduced in the opening scene at a ski lift where she pours drinks and slurs her words, she later asks her thuggish guy, while lounging and sounding bored, “Alex, are you going to blow up that mine tomorrow?” She asks this alarming question as if barely awake, even less interested than a couple minutes before when she remembered more innocent times: “I’m not staring at the cowboy, I’m staring at the days of blind dates, and bobby socks, and chocolate malts.” This is not all that far from the ennui of artier films to come in the following decades. But lest it all get too moody and alienated and downbeat, the genre elements keep bringing Beast from Haunted Cave back to life.
The monster and its cave (that would be the mine) of the title do indeed show up, and actually quite well under the minimalist circumstances. Corman found another ace collaborator in cinematographer Andrew M. Costikyan, who with Hellman crafted some extremely fine visuals. More than once there is a subject in the foreground while something else is shown happening a room away in the background. A shovel is hurled into the camera, a character walks forward and there is a fade to black—it is little bits of such visual distinction and the fact that the shots flow well together that make much of the difference in quality for a cheap movie. A number of this era’s drive-in features have a gray, undistinguished look that undermines them more than a cheesy monster costume, but good visual style saves Beast from Haunted Cave from that low-contrast fate.
And of course, there is the monster. As is so often the case, the creature is better the less it is seen. But Beast from Haunted Cave is one long, slow reveal. Shot in a disused mine that is rich with atmosphere, the creature first appears by invading the frame with some gossamer webbing, later pushing a claw into the picture to snag a victim. We eventually get unsettling perspectives on the creature’s prey and the beast itself—but let’s not spoil anything. Suffice it to say that the minimalism works as intended and doesn’t show too much.
All together, Beast from Haunted Cave makes fascinating viewing because it works on so many levels. It is at the same time one more piece of Roger Corman’s dominance of the drive-in, an embryonic Monte Hellman existential loner movie, a crime drama minus melodrama, and a monster movie where the budget-strained monster comes across quite well. But more than anything, it works because it plays like no one minded too much about combining unlike things.