blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

Beast from Haunted Cave (1959, Monte Hellman)

Besides the unfortunate special effects execution (the conceptions are fine), the only thing wrong with Beast from Haunted Cave is the title. And, I suppose, some first-act budgetary shenanigans—the movie’s about Frank Wolff’s crew knocking off a gold reserve in a mining town and heading across the mountains on skis to escape, and they have this big exposition dump about the heist. Only when it comes time for an effects sequence, the movie entirely skips it. Someone should’ve ponied up for emergency vehicle stock footage.

They don’t skimp (by Beast’s standards) on the Beast for the finale, which helps the movie stick to its landing.

Here’s the setup: Wolff has hired ski instructor Michael Forest to take he and his crew (who Forest ostensibly thinks are just Chicago businessmen) on a two day, cross-country ski trip. It just happens to be timed after Wolff and the crew knock over the reserve. They’re in the sticks–Beast shot on location in South Dakota, which sometimes means better locations, sometimes not—and the reserve’s not guarded on Sundays. Or they can distract the guards? It might be in the exposition dumps, but the subtext of those scenes is always Wolff’s main squeeze, Sheila Noonan, making eyes at Forest.

Noonan and Forest have a contrast flirtation. He’s a hunk, she’s a babe, but he’s wholesome (they’re heading to his cabin, where he gets away from it all to read the encyclopedia and learn about the world he doesn’t want to experience), and she’s fallen. Much of Beast is their getting-to-know-you scenes. Forest’s not good, but he’s not godawful, and he’s sympathetic. Noonan’s good, though. For most of Beast, they don’t know they’re in a horror movie; they think they’re in one of those back-to-nature noirs, and they toggle beautifully.

It helps the third act is maybe eight action-packed minutes.

The best performance is Wolff, who’s an awesome asshole. Forest isn’t so worried about his party having guns until he witnesses Wolff’s management style—Richard Sinatra (cousins) is going off the rails because he watched the Beast eat his hot date, and no one believes him. The Beast is chasing Sinatra; if you see the beast, it’s coming for you. Because it’s a terror. It taunts its prey with visions of digested victims and so on. It looks terrible because it’s 1959 and low budget, but the concept–some faceless spider monster draining your precious bodily fluids–is terrifying.

And director Hellman gets how to oscillate between the terror and the crime suspense. Beast is always done straight, just cheap. Wolff’s got some questionable makeup decisions, but the acting’s so good beneath them, it doesn’t matter. Finishing the quality triangle is Charles B. Griffith’s script. Griffith, Hellman, Wolff. They make Beast something special.

Wally Campo plays the other goon, who’s goofier than Sinatra, even when Sinatra’s freaking out. But both Campo and Sinatra get to show some humanity, while Wolff’s just an exercise in cruelty. Him, you watch for the tension, while they’re a combination of comic relief and dread. Then, Noonan and Forest have their star-crossed flirtation.

And there’s a spider monster out to eat them all.

Hellman’s direction is often quite good, with solid black and white photography from Andrew M. Costikyan, nice enough cutting from Anthony Carras, and a score full of personality by Alexander Laszlo. Laszlo flexes in odd directions at times, with varying degrees of success, but it’s always hep.

Beast from Haunted Cave is more than all right.

Except that title. Like, call it The Hold-Up or something generic heist. It’s a heist movie with a monster, not a monster movie with a heist. Otherwise, though, real cool.

One response to “Beast from Haunted Cave (1959, Monte Hellman)”

  1. If you’re watching BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE on the recent, outstanding Film Masters Blu-ray release, try scrolling to the right on the menu page and click on the beast himself–he’s holding onto an Easter Egg.

    And thanks to Film Masters for providing a courtesy screener!

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