Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film
Debut film of: Monte Hellman, director
By Roderick Heath
It’s harder to judge the quality of a directorial debut when that debut is not sponsored by a fully functional, well-financed, major studio or, indeed a more modern film with access to cheap, yet sophisticated technology that can make even a shoestring production look good. The Beast from Haunted Cave is a fine example of a genre that is long gone—the ultra-low-budget drive-in movie—a category that runs the gamut from startling works of invention like Night of the Living Dead (1968) to the oeuvre of Edward D. Wood. Beast was made under the aegis of Roger and Gene Corman and AIP, the only people to turn such fodder into a minor cultural phenomenon.
Monte Hellman is a shadowy legend of American New Wave cinema, joining such rare figures as his mentor Roger Corman, John Cassavetes, and John Waters as true mavericks of Hollywood. Unlike Corman, he didn’t stick to specializing in B-movies when his efforts to break out of the ghetto proved disillusioning; unlike Waters, he never made himself agreeable enough for a mainstream breakthrough. With his near-legendary pair of cheap, but poetic, westerns, Ride in the Whirlwind (1965) and The Shooting (1967), and his barely-screened interior dramas, Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) and Cockfighter (1974), one might have expected Hellman to burgeon into a Malick or Coppola. His vision, however, ultimately was too esoteric, and his only real achievement of note in the 30 years since has been producing a very famous first—Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992). It’s worth noting that Hellman might have been drawn to that project because it, like his distant debut, centered on the robbery getaway by a group of hardened, but human criminals.
The Beast from Haunted Cave is easy to laugh at. It’s cheap, tacky, badly shot, with lousy sound, and features what looks like a cobweb-strewn pile of cabbages as a monster. It was recycled out of Corman’s own Naked Paradise (1956) and itself spun into Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961). It’s also an oddly gripping and inventive little film that doesn’t so much show how far you can go with a small budget— perhaps Val Lewton’s films and Night of the Living Dead are better examples of that—but of how a solid script and a neat idea promise a film that, with a little more cash and love, could have been pretty good, and offers strong hints of a directing intelligence.
Beast begins in a ski resort in the Black Hills outside of Deadwood, South Dakota. Alex (Frank Wolff), Marty (Richard Sinatra, Frank’s cousin), Byron (Wally Campo)—the thieves posing as Chicago businessmen—and Alex’s gangster moll Gypsy Boulet (Sheila Carol) are planning a robbery of gold extracted from a local mine. Their plan is to set explosive charges in the mine, causing a cave-in that will draw off attention whilst they raid the gold storage. They then plan to take off cross-country, posing as recreational skiers, to hole up in a mountain cabin. To this end, they’ve hired local ski instructor Gil (Michael Forest) and rented his own cabin.
Marty, a would-be hipster (“Is knitting your scene?”) and ladies’ man, sweet-talks Gil’s sister (Kay Jennings) and barmaid Natalie (Linné Ahlstrand, Playboy’s Miss July 1958). He and Natalie sneak off together and, under the guise of sating his curiosity over the mine, Marty plants the explosives. But they are attacked by a mysterious spidery beast (played by Chris Robinson, who also built the monster suit and plays a barman), newly hatched from an egg and apparently disturbed from millennia of gestation by the miners. It snatches Natalie away, and Marty returns breathless and panicked to his confederates. His half-coherent explanations are dismissed by the relentlessly pragmatic Alex. The next day, a mine worker discovers a strange cobwebby material in the shaft just before he’s blown up by the charge. The thieves do their job whilst Gypsy keeps Gil distracted, and then depart on their trek; occasional glimpses of the beast’s hairy tentacles show that it is following them.
Beast was penned by Charles B. Griffith, who was also responsible for the clever screenplays of Bucket of Blood (1959) and Little Shop of Horrors (1960), films that gained credible attention for Corman. Griffith’s script is surprisingly strong, especially in the characterizations and dialogue. It combines elements of The Thing from Another World (1951) and Key Largo (1948), and predicts Alien (1979), which may even have been influenced by it. The main dramatic conflict in Beast centers around two self-contained males—Gil and Alex—competing over Gypsy, which, curiously, anticipates the central pas-de-trois of Two-Lane Blacktop, in which James Taylor’s Driver and Warren Oates’ GTO compete for the admiration of The Girl (Laurie Bird). Wolff’s Alex even somewhat resembles Oates’ character; gruff, antisocial, mustachioed, prone to hiding behind dark glasses and affecting a vaguely existential hipster cynicism slightly at odds with his air of the middle-aged lay-about. The difference is that Alex is definitely a villain, a self-congratulatory winner in a Darwinian world, who plans to knock off Gil at his first opportunity and take off with the loot to Canada.
Meanwhile, the drunken, forlorn Gypsy is desperately attracted to the rugged mountain dweller, and Marty, believing the monster remembers him and is stalking them to ensure their destruction, keeps an eye out for the beast. One night, he is horrified to stumble upon the monster guarding the cocooned, still semiconscious body of Natalie. Later, he discovers the entrance to a cave where the beast’s tracks lead. The monster attacks Marty, and then drags off Gil’s housekeeper Little Dove (unidentified actress), who has crush on Byron. Byron follows to snatch back Little Dove, but he is soon caught and cocooned alongside her, and the two have to watch Natalie’s blood being sucked out. When the beast tries to do the same to Byron, Little Dove tries to stab it, which provokes it to kill her. Gil, warned of his charges’ deadly intentions by Gypsy, has already made a break for the countryside. An oncoming storm forces Gil and Gypsy to shelter in the cave. Marty insists on heading there with Alex to get the beast, packing rifles and flare pistols. Interrupting the beast’s attempts to eat Gil and Gypsy, Alex is chomped and Marty mortally wounded, but he fires the flares into the creature, setting it ablaze, before expiring, leaving Gil and Gypsy as the solitary survivors.
Despite the ratty production, Hellman’s sense of film grammar and his touch with actors, especially Wolff, Sinatra, and Carol, are well in advance of the average director on Poverty Row. He successfully draws out intelligence from Griffith’s script—in Alex’s übermensch rants, Gil’s meditations on the superiority of his mountain life over city life, and Gypsy’s teary confession of how she got involved with Alex and why she can’t get away. It’s a pity then he can’t really generate any dramatic intensity for the situation, and the film feels awfully padded at a scant 75 minutes. The effect of tacking on a monster yarn to a dully plotted gangster melodrama doesn’t exactly make for high tension, despite Hellman’s and Griffith’s attempts to solidify the drama. The film only achieves eeriness in a couple of places—when Marty finds Natalie’s cocooned body and the death throes of Byron and Little Dove—and builds to a climax during the battle with the perambulating spinach monster, where Hellman compensates a little with some nifty editing and lighting. His gift for drawing a sense of healthy atmosphere out of location shooting, which was to serve him well in better films, makes the best of the snowy terrain and stony caves where the action takes place.
A film like Beast is a borderline case, rudely built as a cinematic seat warmer for other films, some better, some worse. Yet it displays glimmerings of a quality that money can’t always buy and the lack of it can’t always obscure, standing in contrast to the utterly mercenary banalities of, say, Friday the 13th. Despite having nothing to work with, Hellman produces something.