Directed by Georg Fenady
Written by Norman Katkov
Last time, we had cause to discuss the curious release history of The Night the Bridge Fell Down, the fourth disaster telefilm produced by Irwin Allen for Warner Bros. Television, made in 1979, but not to see the light of day till 1983. It's much the same story for the fifth and final one in that series, Cave-In!: after Hanging By a Thread, WBTV's partners at NBC evidently looked at its ratings, re-evaluated its follow-ups, and determined that it would be better business to broadcast literally anything other than the two movies they'd already paid for. Four years passed, and neither were ever aired. And yet, after what I like to imagine was a search for the least-valuable piece of programming the company had lying around, NBC put Bridge up against the series finale of M*A*S*H. But it's at least possible Bridge actually did better than expected, in that it did anything at all; it achieved up to twelve percent of the share in some markets, at least, which, I don't know, might've been considered promethean in light of the competition. In any case, Bridge must've reminded somebody at NBC that they still had another one gathering dust, and so, at last, Cave-In! got its broadcast, airing on the night of June 19th, 1983.
It likely helped that one could argue for Bridge's quality. It had been the best of Allen's TV disasters, at least good enough that the weird freaks and snooty Altman fanboys (hi dad) who'd skipped M*A*S*H to watch it probably would've felt some desire to tune in the following night to see how it ended. Which brings that up, so let's make a note of it right now: Cave-In! has one objective advantage over Allen's previous pair of disaster telefilms, in that it was not a two-night event, but a lean, presumptively-mean 98 minute self-contained thriller, and so, hypothetically, it wouldn't have the same need as Hanging By a Thread and Bridge to pad out its utterly basic scenario to fill four hours of commercial programming. (Yes, I harp on it, but it's hard to get over how a pair of junky TV movies represent some of the longest films I've ever seen.) Still, Bridge had suggested that Allen and his TV catspaw, director Georg Fenady, had at last figured out how to do disaster cinema on the small screen; so there was reason for me to go into Cave-In! with cautious optimism. And for bonus points, its onscreen title card actually does refer to it as Cave-In!, with the exclamation mark, so I don't have to write a bitchy aside about how it's not really called that, ala Flood[!] and Fire[!], which marketed themselves with the same breathlessness but neglected to put it in the movies themselves.
Goddamnit. I'm not taking out the hyphen.
It's an unhappy thing to report that Cave-In! does not justify that optimism, though I could be talked into calling it the second-best of Allen's TV disasters (there's the matter of Flood, but I expect that "Cave-In! is number 2!" is a reasonably safe assertion, considering that literally nobody cares). Well, there's something more-or-less likeable about it anyway, especially in its clear intention, here at the end of the movement that Allen had done so much to kick off, to get back to the fundamentals Allen had established in his masterpiece, The Poseidon Adventure, back in 1972.
I wish I could tell you it actually managed that, and that it had more to offer than good intentions. But, of course, by "get back to the fundamentals" what I mean is "do a scaled-down Poseidon Adventure remake, set in a phony-looking cave instead of in a convincingly-upside-down ocean liner and beholden to every formal and informal TV content restriction possible and hence devoid of any of the soul-blasting nihilism that made its forebear great." It is, nonetheless, a remarkably close copy: a party of random individuals makes a step-by-step escape through corridors towards an alternative exit after the usual ones have been sealed off, there by water, here by earth (and sometimes still by water), with several sequences that are basically the same but at least with distinct plutonian imagery, and one sequence in particular, involving swimming through a flooded chamber, that is exactly the same, a shot-for-shot and beat-for-beat regurgitation of the corresponding scene in The Poseidon Adventure, except for the very important beat at that scene's conclusion where it takes a cheesegrater across your heart. It does "correct" one element, by giving Leslie Nielsen an actual role, instead of executing him at the outset to prove its ruthlessness. It also has a thorn-in-everybody's-side figure constantly shouting at the central hero. In the one departure from the template, it triples down on Allen's telefilms' weird insistence on shoehorning in a violent criminal with a gun, in case the deadly perils of collapsing caverns were insufficient, this being the same person as the shouty guy.
So meet Tom Arlen (James Olson), an ex-con who begins the film in a car chase that ends in him taking a cop hostage somewhere near Five Mile Caverns State Park. It's unclear what precisely happens with Arlen afterward: the cop dies offscreen, but it's a little mysterious whether Arlen snuck into the caves with the cop in tow and killed him there, or if he killed the cop, and then proceeded to join a tour to get himself "lost" until the heat dies down; the latter makes more sense (not an enormous amount of sense, as he didn't even bring a snack), but it's kind of a shame no one ever gets to run across a bullet-ridden corpse during their subterranean travails. Anyway, now our focus shifts to the signs of instability within the cavern, ignored by Ranger Walt Charles (Lonny Chapman), and the ad hoc "tour group" he's put together despite those signs. There's the married ordinary tourists, Joe (Nielsen) and Liz Johnson (Julie Sommars), the former getting his character wrinkle as a cop presently under suspension due to his partner's death, leaving his colleagues to believe he's a coward. Then there's the peremptory professor, Harrison Soames (Ray Milland), who has come down to Five Mile Caverns in pursuit of evidence that humans migrated to North America millennia earlier than generally thought (and this is one of those "likeable" things about the movie, as I find the history of archaeology interesting and this a primary document regarding the public's understanding of archaeology in 1979; it helps, furthermore, that Milland is almost implausibly rude, but funny). There is, also, the professor's daughter, Ann (Sheila Larken), who's spent much of her life—and she's not that young—serving as her father's assistant, which has kept her from having a personal or romantic life, and she'll discover her selfish father has been instrumental in keeping it that way.
Finally, there's the state senator, Kate Lassiter (Susan Sullivan), originally from around these parts and here at Ranger Charles's invitation to do some important conservation bureaucracy. The really important thing, however, is that this group will be led by Ranger Gene Pearson (Dennis Cole), Lassiter's ex-boyfriend, who gave up their relationship a few years back when their careers diverged. They go underground, and soon enough the entrance caves in!, and Arlen pops out of whatever crag he was hiding in, for the time being at least attempting to pretend to be an ordinary victim, and Ranger Pearson leads them on a hazardous "cross-country" trek through the less-forgiving stretches of cavern, some of which are altogether deadly.
This is workable: "Poseidon Adventure in a cavern" is not, on its face, a terrible idea, and while it's maybe not the best idea to do that on a TV budget with TV cinematography, this series of very soundstagey caves, with their surprisingly bright lights (even in the underwater parts) and dubious, wobbly rocks, are at least acceptable, considering the format and the era. Now, I'm sympathetic to the built-in criticism that caverns are, by default, boring places to wander around in for any length of time even if they'd been persuasively rendered; and the basic realism of the scenario (and the budget) obviously preempts any seriously phenomenal cave imagery here, let alone the much-more-fanciful spelunking thrills of (for example) a Journey to the Center of the Earth. And even so, Fenady and Allen, by way of art director Duane Alt—who with this and Bridge achieved the extremely modest legacy of being the MVP of Irwin Allen's last two TV disaster movies—come up with just enough different ideas for 98 minutes of action: a boiling pool of acidic water that you might be able to navigate, if only you don't slip; a segment of cave filmed like a life-sized cross-section, where two slabs allow enough room to crawl, broken up by a deep gap in the bottom one filled with stalactites or perhaps stalagmites (Prof. Soames will teach you the difference or be a pretentious twat trying*); an ancient rope bridge over a yawning abyss, left behind by grizzled prospectors; the aforementioned flooded chamber. Cave-In! even makes a strength out of "being boring," like The Poseidon Adventure before it squeezing a lot of anxiety out of ragged victims crossing each new obstacle slowly and one at a time, while Richard LaSalle's excellent (and startlingly Gothic) score gives Alt a run for his money for that whole "MVP" thing.
The problem, then—the biggest problem—is that Fenady and screenwriter Norman Katkov simply don't trust their survival sequences, and in trying to work around them undermine their intrinsic tension. It was more explicable, anyway, when the runtimes were 194 minutes, but it turns out that 98-minute Cave-In! is just as riddled with flashbacks as Allen's last two TV disaster films and somehow uses them worse. Cave-In! kind-of does still need them, but for its own reasons: it needs to dump its characters' backstories as efficiently as possible, since it essentially doesn't have a first act to lay out these backstories naturally. But good, bad, or whatever, the flashbacks long outlast their utility, and Fenady and Katkov shove them in with the most graceless crudity. It's probably even a deliberate strategy, but it's an astounding failure of one: for the first hour (even seventy minutes), every successive setpiece gets interrupted by one more dumbshit flashback, and when they finally do stop, now Fenady can't figure out how to pace his action so that the obligatory fade-outs to commercial breaks don't fuck things up exactly the same way.
It sucks all the fun out of watching people continually almost die; but then, so does them not dying. Cave-In! is astoundingly demure for disaster cinema, operating under the mistaken belief that establishing lethal dangers in dialogue is better than establishing them by object example, which is a lousy thing to do to a movie that never amounts to anything besides a series of cave-themed deathtraps. The unhinged crook is surely intended to be his own source of unbearable suspense—when will he snap?—but the longer this gets delayed, the less it makes any difference to the situation, and it is delayed forever, allowed to become a pointlessly-tacked-on thriller module at the end involving an entirely separate and entirely less-interesting set of dramatic stakes. And that's a pity because, although his character is underwritten, Olson is doing "unhinged" too damned hard to not let him off the leash (Christ, he looks like he might literally pop—in one of Olson's flashbacks, he makes his skin turn such a brilliant shade of crimson that Scanners could've used him as a living special effect). And I mostly do like the acting here: Nielsen and Milland are predictably solid, and Sullivan, whoever she is, is genuinely charismatic; and nobody's actively weak. But the film itself is structured with such an awful stop-and-start quality that even the low-rent but reliable pleasures of watching people struggle desperately across rocks are lost.
*It's stalagmites. I know the difference.
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