B&W, 1959, 65 mins. 28 secs. / 71 mins. 56 secs.
Directed by Monte Hellman
Starring Michael Forest, Sheila Carol, Frank Wolff, Wally Campo, Richard Sinatra
Film Masters (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC), Synapse Films (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

B&W, 1960, 73 mins. 43 secs.
Directed by Roger Corman
Starring Michael Forest, Frank Wolff, Wally Campo, Richard Sinatra
Film Masters (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC)

Best known for Beast from Haunted Cavebucking the Hollywood system during the 1970s, director Monte Hellman developed a knack for using drive-in subject Beast from Haunted Cavematter 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 was hardly considered an auteur in 1959 when he made his first film, 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 final ten minutes.

Near a ski resort in South Dakota, a quartet of thieves sets 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 beefcake ski instructor (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.

Later known as 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 creature, 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 Euro-cult 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 Beast from Haunted Cavesuspense while withholding a good view of the monster until the last possible Beast from Haunted Cavemoment. Amazingly, Hellman eventually returned to the horror genre thirty years later with Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: You Better Watch Out..., but that's another story entirely.

As with many drive-in films of the period, Beast from Haunted Cave clocked in at barely over an hour in its original length, with additional footage shot to pad it out for a TV sale. This expanded cut is the one most widely seen over the years, and the Synapse DVD released in 2003 followed suit. 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. The film was also issued by a variety of PD companies over the years in drastically inferior versions (including a not-great Blu-ray from Retromedia paired up with The Wasp Woman), all best avoided.

In 2023, Film Masters revisited this film in its best edition to date by a very long shot as double-disc Blu-ray or DVD editions paired up with another South Dakota quickie shot back-to-back with this one with the same leads, Ski Troop Attack. The first disc is devoted entirely to Beast with either the 1.85:1 matted 65-minute theatrical release (which obviously has the best pacing) or the open matte 1.33:1 TV version (mostly the same excellent source with lower quality SD inserts for the TV footage, particularly the lengthy tacked-on opener). It's quite an impressive transfer (a "4K scan from 35mm archival elements") featuring nice deep blacks, fine detail, and as much film grain as each scene originally featured (which ranges from minimal and fine to rather chunky in a few low-lit interior scenes). DTS-HD MA 2.0 and Dolby Digital 2.0 English mono options Beast from Haunted Caveare Beast from Haunted Caveincluded, both sounding fine, with optional English SD subtitles, and the theatrical cut also has a thorough commentary by Tom Weaver and Larry Blamire. They go to town here covering the film's unusual genesis (as a sort of noir heist movie with the edict that a monster had to be added in), the reason for shooting in South Dakota instead of Corman's usual stomping grounds around L.A., and the cast including a number of Corman repertory players, with Weaver throwing in some contributor surprises along the way. As usual for the label, the commentaries also include English subtitle options. Also included are the original trailer (open matte and in much better shape than ever before), a new 2023 promo trailer, and a behind-the-scenes gallery.

D isc two features a new HD scan of a 16mm reduction print of Ski Troop Attack, essentially a freebie feature tossed into the mix with most of the same cast shuffling around on skis, hanging out in a lodge, and spying on World War II stock footage of German soldiers. The plot involves a quintet of U.S. commandos near the end of the war, with Sergeant Potter (Wolff) ordering the reluctant men into combat at the outset. As they navigate the snowy area and contend with finding shelter with a questionable German woman (Carol again), they eventually come up with a way to seriously harm their opponents' transportation plans and put a plan into motion.

Considering it was mounted for peanuts in wintry South Dakota, Ski Troop Attack is certainly a resourceful effort meant to contend with the frequent WWII studio and indie films coming out around that time. Rescued here from the a/v hell of public domain sludge, it's an atmospheric contribution to Corman's on-and-off history with combat films that extended to one of his late period films, Von Richthofen and Brown. The Blu-ray is presented at 1.33:1 and looks fine framed that way, again looking very clean and quite detailed given the source. Here you get a fun new audio commentary by C. Courtney Joyner and Howard S. Berger who mount a solid defense for this film given its somewhat negative reputation; they also go into Wolff's career in particular as well as Corman's directorial techniques and the backgrounds of the other (scant) major players. In addition to a 2023 promo trailer, the disc also features Hollywood Intruders: The Filmgroup Story: Part One (16m22s) with Joyner covering how Roger and Gene Corman came up with their own company, Filmgroup (at the same time retaining their connection to AIP), to turn out a slew of efficient programmers starting with high school J.D. titles and moving on to favorites like these two films. The set also comes with an insert booklet with essays by Joyner and Weaver providing useful thumbnail sketches for both films, including ties to other Corman titles and pointing out some merits to keep in mind while watching them with a big bowl of popcorn.


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Reviewed on October 16, 2023