Beast from Haunted Cave (Monte Hellman / U.S., 1959):

Fear and Desire has nothing on this Corman production of shoestring Sophocles. The contrast rests between the existentialism of Monte Hellman's direction and the satire of Charles B. Griffith's screenplay, the snowy setting gives the director the edge -- the slopes of South Dakota stand in admirably for the void of human existence, where men navigate its whiteness, rising and falling. "What kind of freedom is that," the capo (Frank Wolff) asks at the bar counter, before rounding up his gang for a ski resort robbery. Gold is stolen, the local guide (Michael Forest) is forced along with the thieves into the woods, the loot leads to a cave housing a scraggly arachnoid whose hairy legs keep intruding from the side of the screen to snatch cast members. Wally Campo's frenzied pas de deux with a box of crackers points to the treatment's comic potential (realized in Creature from the Haunted Sea), Hellman instead makes it strangely sad and poetic: When a web-wrapped victim's eyes all of a sudden open to howling wind, it's an image not of campy horror but of desolate lyricism. The soused moll (Sheila Noonan) slurring "Home on the Range" in her bathtub would have been enough to give the game away as a Key Largo parody, yet the character -- "an underpaid model in the wholesale arts" -- slowly and surely grows into the movie's aching center, a template for the drifting, affectingly blank women on the edges of Ride in the Whirlwind, The Shooting, Two-Lane Blacktop. Asked about the fate of one of the victims, she gives the maxim of many a Hellman wanderer: "Sorry, I can't help you. I can't even help myself." With Richard Sinatra, Linné Ahlstrand, Chris Robinson, and Kay Jennings. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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