B&W, 1959, 72 mins.

Directed by Monte Hellman

Starring Michael Forest, Sheila Carol, Frank Wolff, Wally Campo / Cinematography by Andrew M. Costikyan / Music by Alexander Laszlo

Format: DVD - Synapse (MSRP $24.95)

Letterboxed (1.85:1) (16x9 enhanced) / Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono

Best known for bucking the Hollywood system during the 1970s, director Monte Hellman developed a knack for using drive-in subject matter to craft his own unique, personal statements on film, for better or worse. He turned the conventional western on its head with The Shooting, Ride in the Whirlwind, and China 9, Liberty 37, mined the untapped philosophical implications of car racing in Two-Lane Blacktop, and finally defied genre categories altogether with Cockfighter and Iguana. Though he wasn't considered an auteur in 1959 when he made his first film, The Beast from Haunted Cave, Hellman already thwarted audience expectations by spending most of the running time developing his characters trapped in an elaborate heist plot, with the monster mainly confined to the sidelines before suddenly taking over during the startling, unforgettable final ten minutes.

Near a ski resort in South Dakota, a quartet of thieves set off a mine explosion to cover up for a bank robbery in which they make off with a cache of gold from the vault. After much bickering, flirting, and random exploring, all with the help of a hunky ski instructor (Michael Forest), the robbers come to realize that their little stunt has awakened a bloodthirsty beast in a nearby cave, and the locals are now paying the price with their blood.

Best known to '90s viewers as the executive producer and intended director of Reservoir Dogs, Hellman seems much more intrigued by the execution and aftermath of the robbery and its impact on the environment than the demands of creating a monster film, at least until he finally cuts loose for the nightmarish ending. The shots of helpless victims, swathed in cocoons while lashed to cave walls, screaming as their essence is drained by the vaguely defined craeture, are difficult to forget and must have sent drive-in patrons into a mild hysteria at the time. The cast is fine if unremarkable, with late sleaze vet Frank Wolff (The Lickerish Quartet, Cold Eyes of Fear) scoring some of the best moments as one of the head schemers. The icy ski setting in the wilderness makes for a nice change of pace for a monster film, and Hellman does a good job of maintaining suspense while withholding a good view of the monster until the last possible moment. If only he had displayed as much skill with his next horror film thirty years later, Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: You Better Watch Out...

As with many drive-in films of the period, Beast from Haunted Cave apparently clocked in at barely over an hour in its original length, with Hellman rounding up the cast to shoot additional footage to pad it out for a TV sale. This expanded cut is the one most widely seen over the years, and the Synapse disc marks by far the cleanest presentation to date. Much of the footage of characters tromping through the snow and woods feels like filler, while Wolff's weight and facial hair fluctuate enough to betray the presence of inserts shot several months after the fact. A few hairline scratches aside, the source material is in very satisfying condition, with a surprising lack of dirt and very solid, natural gray scales lending the video a rich, film-like appearance. The film is presented both in a full frame presentation and an anamorphically enhanced widescreen variation; the latter adds as much to the sides as it loses from the top and bottom, but it benefits greatly from the added lines of resolution. The disc also includes the original theatrical trailer, which has certainly seen better days.

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