Monday, November 10, 2008

Movies: "Ain't no room in this outfit for showboats."

The late comedian Mitch Hedberg used to have this bit in which he described an ill-fated garage band he was once a part of:

People either loved us. Or they hated us. Or they thought we were okay.

The Cave, Bruce Hunt's 2005 underground creature feature suffered from being released the same year and the popular and critical favorite The Descent. A by-the-book monster romp that pits a team of expert cave divers and biologists against a clutch of mutated bat monsters driven to hunger by a nightmarish subterranean version of toxoplasmosis, The Cave's modest achievements were so overshadowed by the far superior monsters-underground pic that it suffered somewhat unduly in the comparison. Now, a few years removed from direct competition with a film that just might go on to be a classic, it is clear that The Cave is totally and extremely okay.

The plot follows the sciffy monster template laid down in such seminal classics Creature from the Black Lagoon: Scientists invade the home of the creature(s) and pay big time. Though The Cave adds a few nice twists - for example, the ultimate baddy here isn't the Aliens like bat creatures but a tiny little parasite - it wisely decides that this familiar narrative structure has evolved for the very specific reason that it is utterly successful. Why screw around with success?

After a short introductory bit showing some unfortunate spelunkers from the Cold War Era, the flick jumps to the present day. Subterranean biologists discover what they believe to be the largest cave structure in the world. It is located several miles below the Carpathian Mountains. Much of the system is flooded, so the researchers bring in a team of expert cave divers. We know they're experts because of their easy swagger, their jargon-laden dialogue, and the fact that anybody not referred to by last name only has some vaguely military-sounding nickname, like "Top" or "Chief." Like all crack organizations, there's also hints of low-grade disciplinary problems:

"When I tell you to surface, you damn well surface!"
"But I found the air pocket! I knew what I was doing!"
"I don't give a damn, Briggs! This isn't some game! Your show off attitude is going to get somebody killed! Tell 'em Top!"
"That's right, Chief. Ain't no room in this outfit for showboats."
"Okay. I'm sorry."

That exact dialogue may or may not actually appear in the film. If it doesn't, it should.

The divers and the scientists enter the cave and set up a base camp, but it is only a matter of seconds before a stray diver runs afoul of something big and toothy. The ensuing conflict leads to the diver's death and ends up sealing off the cave system's main entrance.

What follows is a running conflict between the humans, desperate to get out, and the mutated monsters, eager for long pig. I don't believe I'm spoiling the flick by revealing here that the monsters are actually the Cold War Era cave explorers, transformed by a ubiquitous parasite that adapts its host organism to an underground existence. To tip the balance further against the humans, the team leader is infected fairly early in the game, causing the rest of the team to wonder if he isn't actually attempting to trap forever in the cave.

The tone of The Cave has less in common with the brutal survival horror of The Descent than it does with action-horror pics like Aliens and Predator (both stronger outing whose influences are clearly on display). Even the setting, which is full of monumental grottos and raging underwater rivers, places this flick more in the tradition of Journey to the Center of the Earth and The Lost World than the claustrophobic tunnels of Marshall's monster film.

For its lack of ambition and predictable plotting (though the body count order is nicely shuffled), it would be easy to dismiss The Cave outright. But this, I think, misses what is so okay about the film. The Cave is a familiar trip to into the hokey fantasies that used to eat out hearts of Saturday afternoons, when you'd see how long you could stay in your jimmies watching giant insects fight Army guys before your Mom would turn off the television and demand you venture into the sunlight and engage in social interaction with other young boys and girls similarly expatriated from the world of fading pop horror dreams. Like that one with the monster like a spider and the toxic gas weapon and the scientists daughter in the white one-piece bathing suit, The Cave is like an efficient but ultimately disposable pop single, so similar to a hundred other staple fantasies that it almost verges into a sort of background hum. It makes no demands and asks, in return, that none be made on it. There was a time when this sort of thing was the dominant expression of the genre: professionally built almost intentionally forgettable factory product meant to hold whatever remaining teen attention wasn't dedicated to the serious business of heavy petting in the back row. Either this strikes you as positive way to approach a retro-tinged entertainment. Or it promises a blatantly soulless retread of tired and artless ideas developed by the lowest bidder to fetch a few shekels on the open market. Or it is okay.

I thought it was okay.

As a bonus, the monster designers – who do a nice job – get a nifty little min-doc about their work in the Special Features. I love monster-making featurettes.

Let me digress. There's a shop not far from my pad called Bierkraft. It has about a billion exotic beers for sale, including a selection of ultra-tasty beers that you can only get on tap and they'll sell you in a growler. This would be enough for any ordinary shop, but not Bierkraft. They have to take their awesomeness to absurd heights. They also sell a wide selection of amazing cheeses and meats, excellent pastas and sauces. They also deal in what it widely believed to be the world's finest ice cream sandwich. Basically, Bierkraft is Willy Wonka's for the functional alcoholic and aspiring gourmand set.

I bring this up because I've always imagined that the employees of Bierkraft walk to work with a spring in their step. As they strut down the avenue, they wave to the locals, hand out flowers to young ladies, and whistle some jaunty tune out of the American songbook. And everybody who sees them smiles because they are evidence that, somewhere, there's work that is like play, work that makes you happy to be alive every day.

"Who is that man, daddy?"
"Take your hat off son. That man works at Bierkraft."
"Are you crying, daddy?"
"A little, son. Just a little."

Guys who work in monster-making effects shops all seem to be the way I imagine Bierkraft employees to be. It's awesome.


Anonymous said...

I must admit that between the descent and the cave, I thought the latter one was the better movie - certainly not great, but at least entertaining in typical b-movie fashion.

CRwM said...


I can see the appeal. In the B-movie charm department, The Cave definitely has the edge.

Plus, in the last few minutes, I think The Descent kind of unravels (no matter which ending you prefer).

Still, I personally prefer The Descent, if only for the reason that it is sometimes genuinely scary while The Cave is more of an action flick.