Cole Hauser leads a team of idiots into The Cave.

Viewers of those VH1 nostalgia countdown shows are familiar with the term "awesomely bad," denoting a song that one hates to love because it's unintentionally tacky and awful, yet there's something about it that won't let you dismiss it entirely. It's also a fine way to describe The Cave, but chances are that once you know it stars Cole Hauser, no further explanation is necessary.

Hauser, whose father is B-movie hero Wings Hauser and whose great-grandfather founded Warner Bros. studios, is one of those guys whose line readings are utterly wooden, yet his eyes are always full of bugged-out intensity, giving him the enviable ability to both overact and underact at the same time. Multiple facial expressions seem out of the question; when you've perfected one that does the trick, why mess with a good thing? Add in a mild Southern twang to scare blue-staters just a bit, and you've got yourself a man's man. Hauser's last major project was Paparazzi, in which he played a movie star who turns psychotic and starts killing cameramen. It was deliriously insane, and produced by Mel Gibson ... but I repeat myself.

Here, he plays an expert in underwater caves. Well, why not? Along with his team -- which consists of Amiable Brother (Eddie Cibrian), Smart Love Interest (Lena Headey), Token Black Guy (Morris Chestnut), Token Asian Guy (Daniel Dae Kim), Crazy Old Scientist (Marcel Iures), Eye-Candy Babe (Piper Perabo), Mean Asshole (Rick Ravanello), and a couple of cannon-fodder extras for good measure -- he's being sent into the mountains of Romania (aka the Nation Formerly Known as Transylvania, which is relevant) to explore a cave system that has never been charted. It's located under the ruins of an ancient church where, legend has it, a bunch of demons killed everyone a long time ago.

Much to no one's surprise, save the characters onscreen, there's a cave-in once everyone's down there, and it becomes clear pretty quickly that nobody on this expert spelunking team actually prepared for such a possibility. So after some amusing, soap-opera-style dramatic outbursts at one another, they come to the highly important conclusion that another way out must be found.

At about the thirty-minute mark into the film, we finally get what we came to see. Monsters! You don't see them all that clearly, which seems like a good tactic, except that the TV spots have revealed both the monsters and the film's only significant plot twist. Anyway, the creatures are designed by Patrick Tatopolous, who also created the monsters of Pitch Black, a movie kinda like this one except that it was good. Cole Hauser's in that one too.

The major monsters are big-ass things with wings and skull-like faces (movements occasionally performed by frequent monster actor Brian Steele), but there are also lower forms of danger like scorpions, mutant fish, and mutant moles. The cause of all of their mutations is a newly discovered parasite, which gets into Hauser's bloodstream, giving him super hearing and, oddly, making the irises of his eyes turn star-shaped. Combined with his already eye-popping stare, the star contacts are extremely hilarious, but to the credit of the cast, everyone manages to keep a straight face.

Fans of creature features are probably wondering if The Cave's rating deems it unworthy of your time. After all, PG-13 usually means no blood and no gore, and definitely no toplessness for the ladies -- although Perabo wears almost nothing, which must make her really cold, since everyone else wears full body costumes. The MPAA ratings process, of course, is subjective and arbitrary, and this movie proves it -- there is blood, and even some Perabo-humping by one of the critters, but director Bruce Hunt (third-unit director on the Matrix sequels) has come up with a "brilliant" sleight-of-hand trick. Just edit the hell out of each killing scene in such choppy fashion that you can't quite tell what the details are unless you frame-by-frame it. Rare is the movie in which it's so blatant that the quest for a lower rating has influenced the aesthetic style so much. An R should have been pursued; when Headey's shirt gets cut in half late in the game to reveal nothing ... but a bra, you know they were thinking it.

There's no reason to see The Cave in a theater; you'll hate yourself for paying full price, and it ought to have gone direct to DVD anyway, where you can do the aforementioned frame-by-frame trick. Plus you'll need beer, and lots of it, to appreciate the sheer sublime grandiosity that is Cole Hauser. So wait for cable and order a pizza. Then rent Paparazzi again.


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