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Beast From Haunted Cave

the movie somnambulist

THE MOVIE SOMNAMBULIST #22 – Beast From Haunted Cave

BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE is either a crime noir or a monster flick. Those are the two ingredients, and they are, in the immortal phrasing of the Dungeon Master’s Guide’s die roll chart for mixing magic potions, immiscible. That’s a 2d10 (or 1d100 if you’re that kid) roll of anywhere between 09-35. So the possible outcomes are: (09-15) neither genre has any effect; (16-25) one genre is muted while the other works half as well; (26-35) both genres work half as well. Let’s figure out what this movie rolled, shall we?

Two goons, Smith and Jones, are taking Polaroids of areas around a ski slope. The movie dates itself by showing the business of getting the picture out of the camera; although, come to think of it, that’s gone back to being a pretty awesome prospect for cameras, hasn’t it? Wouldn’t you like your camera to spit out a picture on the spot? We really slid backwards on that one. Smith and Jones work for Alex and his “secretary” Gypsy. They’ve got a plan to rob the local “Administration Building” of exactly six bars of gold. No, it’s fine: the movie’s explicitly set in South Dakota and gold mines are mentioned. Six bars is the magic number because there will be three robbers and two bars each is all they could manage while skiing cross-country to get away.

The idea is to set an explosive charge in a local gold mine to create a distraction. Gypsy, who’s cozied up with tall, strong-jawed ski instructor and local landowner Gil, has her mark halfway to his own cabin deep in the woods. They’re waiting for Alex, Smith, and Jones to set off the blast, nab the gold, and meet them for what Gil is told is a cross-country ski trip that he’s been paid to lead to his own cabin. This actually works pretty well. There’s the downtime waiting for the heist, the heist, and the escape. Other than someone being in the mine when the bomb goes off, it goes pretty well.

Other than the bit where Jones picks up a local waitress and decides to make good use of his time by taking her to the gold mine to simultaneously do her and set the charges, the movie attempts to be very noir. But it’s hard to keep a noir-ish mood when the barmaid gets nabbed by a tentacle and some shimmery doodad floats on and off-camera. Jones runs off and is visibly shaken for most of the rest of the movie. Here’s where the potion miscibility chart from the DMG popped into my mind. Noir movies are bleak things. There can be humor, but it’s fatalistic because nearly everyone in a noir movie knows the score. It’s an extremely materialistic worldview, both motivationally (as in let’s get some gold that isn’t ours) and philosophically (as in you’re born, you suffer, you die). When you have a supernatural element, that clashes with this worldview.

Now it would be one thing if it meant that even one character changed their worldview, but even the one character who seems to actually doesn’t. Gypsy is a bit long in the tooth to be a gangster’s moll, but that’s essentially her role. She plays the distraction in all their capers; once it was because of her great beauty, but now it’s because age and experience give her a different allure to men. Arguably she’s much more effective now than then. She goes from making world-weary pronouncements like (when asked what she’s staring at) “I’m staring at blind dates, bobby sox, and chocolate malts” to deciding she wants to get back to nature and be with Gil. When they escape the clutches of the gang and she is recaptured, she immediately claims that Gil forced her to go along and that she’s glad to be back. Even after Alex the ringleader is killed by the monster, her choices remain in doubt, partly because the credits roll about sixty seconds after Alex dies.

There’s not much point to adding the supernatural to a noir story if nobody is affected by it. I think there’s ways to integrate the two successfully, but the noir part would then cease to be. About half of you are forming lists of movies that combine a fatalistic worldview with sci-fi or fantasy, but remember this: they may well be set in fantastic places and have replicants and such, but those are cases where the fantastic elements are an accepted part of the world. Here we have an egg-hatched spidery, tentacle thing from a gold mine that nobody’s seen before. Still, what about Lovecraft? Fatalistic worldview, supernatural and unexpected elements, but is it Noir? I think what makes THE KILLING a Noir and FROM BEYOND not is that the horrible things that happen to Noir characters are of strictly materialistic origin. Noir characters either screw themselves or are screwed by the inevitable but somewhat unpredictable actions of forces they already recognize.

To their credit, the characters rarely behave stupid in horror movie fashion. They are occasionally brave, but not horny-teenager foolish. The characters not obsessed with revenge on the creature pointedly observe that staying in the cabin is the only intelligent move and stick to it until other factors reasonably intervene. Really, this is a good movie to defend the idiocy of most horror movie characters. It is distinctly less interesting to watch these characters do lots of things to avoid death at the hands of the creature and each other. Hell, most of them survive it. When you finally see what the critter does, it actually gets more interesting. It takes its victims and webs them to a cave wall and regularly drinks their blood, keeping them alive as long as possible. Even the goddam creature behaves reasonably. And frankly it’s a buzzkill.

I love love love the attempts at hardboiled dialogue in this thing. The stilted line readings help, but not enough. Gil tells Gypsy: “You’re certainly not a girl from a soap commercial.” Or this exchange while dancing: Gypsy says “What do you think of Nature, Gil?” and he retorts “I think it’s pretty natural.” There’s a lot of straining for double or even single entendres. A few singles, for your enjoyment: Gil says to Gypsy “You talk like a faded woman regretting a misspent life.” Another, same characters: “I have my whole life ahead of me, and yours is all used up.” Gil is a fountain of weird observations: “At night I like to listen to the wind try to get in.” Gypsy: “You think it ever will?” Gil: “Not while I’ve got two hands to hold it back.” Oh, oh, oh and this interesting road not taken in the script. When Alex asks Gil if he’d ever like to see the big city, Gil kinda floats off for a minute: “I went to San Francisco once. I was there about a week. I think I saw everything there was to see there. It was wonderful.”

When asked what he likes to read, Gil says “the encyclopedia.” That’s a damn philosophical materialist for you. Even though he’s meant to be the patsy in this scheme, when Gypsy tells him that Alex plans to kill him there’s nary a ripple in his demeanor. Gil says he figured as much. He even has a plan to get away from Alex and the goons. Gypsy says she wants to change her ways, go back to nature, maybe have a lot of sex with a certain rugged local ski instructor. Gil isn’t having it. He tells Gypsy she’s just regretting her current situation. He tells her if she’s serious about a change, meet him later and they’ll go to the police together. Gil’s no dummy.

There’s a scene early on between Jones the goon and Gil’s sister Jill, who only appears in the one scene. It works very well on a natural level and you can tell that they had to keep it in just because it worked. It’s flirty and cute in a way that none of the Gypsy/Gil interactions are, and it even leaves you wondering what the movie would be like if these two had played Gil and Gypsy instead. Jones even encourages Jill to follow her passion to paint. Jill says she doesn’t really know how and Jones says “Who knew anything when they first started painting?” That may well be the Rosetta Stone to this movie.

In all, BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE is a victim of its own reasonableness. What you really have is a proper horror movie underneath a heist film. Jones the goon and Jill the sister are the actual horror movie leads here. Jill is cute, reasonable and stays the hell away from all the action. Jones the goon doesn’t drag her into his life of crime, is the first to see the creature, hunts it diligently throughout the film, and even kills the damn thing in the end. Gil shoots it to no avail, but Jones the goon already knew that wouldn’t do and brought a flare gun; see, he observes earlier that the thing didn’t like fire. So that solves our immiscibility problem; the movie rolled a 16-25, resulting in the Noir to be cancelled and the Monster Flick to have normal efficacy. Let’s say it rolled a 25, just avoiding both potions having half-effect.

Stayed awake for the whole thing because the dialogue is utterly priceless, especially as delivered. Plus once I saw that the critter didn’t actually kill anyone except Alex, I was re-hooked. Five wide awake eyes for this one. (One eye equals 15 minutes of runtime.)

John Ira Thomas writes graphic novels for Candle Light Press. He also once pondered a paper analyzing GLADIATOR using the Armor Class tables from 2nd edition. For more Movie Somnambulist fun, check out the archives!

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