Roger Corman is the undisputed champion of the creature-feature, but few people know about his older brother, Gene, who got into the film business before Roger and also made some memorable monster movies. In 1959, Gene used many of Roger’s core team members and pumped out Beast from Haunted Cave, a quickly produced but cleverly written gangster film-cum-monster movie set in the beautiful snowy mountains of South Dakota.
Frank Wolff (Once Upon a Time in the West) stars as Alexander Ward, a kingpin gangster who rolls into the Happiness Lodge in Deadwood, South Dakota with an idea to heist a load of gold from a bank vault. The plan involves setting off an explosion in an old abandoned mine as a diversion so that the gang can waltz in and take the gold while the town’s limited police resources are at the blast site. Along with his girlfriend, Gypsy (Sheila Carol from Ski Troop Attack), and his henchmen, Marty and Byron (Wally Campo and Richard Sinatra, respectively), Ward puts the plan in motion, beginning with sending Marty to the mine to plant the explosive. Marty gets the bomb set, but while in the mine he is frightened by a terrifying, spider-like creature. When the bomb goes off, the plot works perfectly, and the gang escapes with the gold. They hire a handsome ski instructor named Gil (Soap Opera star Michael Forest) to lead them to a secluded cabin where they can wait for their escape plane. Once there, they discover that the explosion they caused killed a man, so they are not only thieves, but murderers. With bad weather keeping their plane from coming, the criminals discover that more than just the police are looking for them; the creature from the cave has followed them up to their hideout as well.
Beast From Haunted Cave is the first film directed by legendary cult filmmaker Monte Hellman, who would go on to make such classics as Two-Lane Blacktop, Cockfighter and The Shooting. Hellman’s vision is evident, and even in this early example of his filmmaking the viewer can see his great sense of storytelling. Unfortunately, his slow pacing is also evident, as Beast from Haunted Cave tends to drag a bit, particularly in the pre-heist section. However, even with the drawn out conversations, the film is never boring, and the lack of action in the beginning is more than made up for in the end.
Written by longtime Roger Corman collaborator Charles B. Griffith (The Little Shop of Horrors, Death Race 2000), Beast From Haunted Cave is just the right mix of crime drama and horror. The film starts off as a typical heist film, with a gang of miscreants scheming to break into a bank. The introduction of the monster is genius, adding a new dimension to the flat storyline and making it fresh and new. The threat of the monster gives the picture a nice ambiguity; Gil is the obvious hero, but who’s the villain, Ward, Marty, Byron or the monster? And what difference does it make who’s good and evil if the monster is after everyone?
The creature itself was designed, built and controlled by Christopher Robinson, who would go on to star on “General Hospital.” Robinson’s creature is a perfect B-movie monster, hardly ever shown in its entirety, but always making its presence known and felt. It looks like Cousin It from “The Addams Family” with hairy spider arms, leaving a trail of webbing wherever it treads. It makes all of the typical monster screams and grunts, also, and, for the time period, is quite scary. The creature in Beast from Haunted Cave is exactly the kind of low-cost high-quality monster that audiences expect and demand from a Corman production, whether it’s Gene or Roger at the helm.
Roger Corman liked Griffith’s script for Beast from Haunted Cave so much that he had him re-tool it as Creature from the Haunted Sea so that he could direct it himself. Charles B. Griffith got a lot of mileage out of his gangster monster script, and the Cormans made a couple of memorable creature features out of it.