In the distant past, not too far from where Conan was hanging out, lived the evil warlord Zor (David Cain Haughton). Because of his huge mustache or maybe because of his outrageous fashion sense he attacks the castle of the peace loving Akronas (Charles Borromel). Just when things seem bleak, Akronas sends his warrior daughter Mila (Lisa Foster) to seek out aid.
And that aid comes in the form of Ator (Miles O’Keefe), a hulking sword swinging hero who is also a master of inventions. With him is the trusty but silent force known as Thong (Chen Wong), who is as deadly with a blade as Ator. Mila finds Ator and convinces him to come to battle Zor. But the journey back is filled with perils. Zor has tricks up his sleeve and he’s not about to let Ator stop him. What this has to do with The Cave Dwellers is really anyone’s guess.
I’ve mentioned it before, I’m a sucker for ‘80s fantasy. I love it all, including and especially the bad stuff. This stems back to being a kid where I would often watch the most bizarre looking films from my dad’s video story including Yor: The Hunter from the Future, Planet of the Dinosaurs and Ator: The Fighting Eagle.
So imagine my surprise when I ran into this episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and there is Miles O’Keefe as Ator running around. Turns out this is a sequel to The Fighting Eagle that was originally called: The Blade Master or Ator the Invincible. Either of those titles makes more sense than Cave Dwellers, but I digress.
Suffice to say that this hastily produced and executed follow-up fails in just about every way it can. Not to say that The Fighting Eagle didn’t have its problems. It was a clear rip off of Conan the Barbarian, but you can tell they actually tried to do some interesting stuff. The first film had more adventures along the way and a bit larger of a budget to work. So in many ways this sequel to the Ator films is like Conan the Destroyer - stinky in just about every respect.
Rumor has it that Cave Dwellers didn’t have a script and most of it was improvised on the spot. Wow. But you know what, that explains a lot about this movie. Let’s start with the basic plot. Old man Akronas creates some kind of… well, um, it’s a thing. You never get a good look at it, and it’s described in vague terms “It is everything and nothing.” Akronas feels that it can further the evolution of man, but fears what wicked men like Zor will do with it. Zor knows about this thing (called the Geometric Nucleus) and tries to take it. Akronas tells his daughter to go “to the ends of the earth” to find Ator.
Luckily it takes about three minutes of screen time to reach the ends of the earth, but takes about forty minutes to get back. If the journey is so dangerous, how come Mila survived it going to Ator in the first place? Even if you ignore all that, the adventures that occur coming back are less than impressive. You get invisible monsters, cannibal cavemen (the only possible source for the title Cave Dwellers), some rogue samurai, a cult of snake worshipers (Conan again!), and the final raid on the castle. Actually looking at the list, it sounds pretty cool, but the movie doesn’t have the budget or inclination to make any of it interesting.
Most of the costumes, sets and props look thrown together at the last minute or reused from other low budget productions. Some of this works OK, but most of the time you’re wondering why there are handrails in the castle that appears to be 1500’s Bavaria, when the voice over explained that this movie occurs in the dark ages. Why are there samurai running around, and yet the snake cult temple looks distinctly Mediterranean?
Ok, so I’m willing to just let all that go as long as the action is good and there’s some skimpy clothes. Well they got the skimpy clothes part right. Miles O’Keefe is in great shape and runs around mostly naked for the entirety of the film. He isn’t too bad in his action scenes, but there is also a distinct lack of fun being had. On the other end is Foster as Mila. She looks good in her warrior girl outfit, and tries her best during the fight scenes, but you can tell this is not her strong suit. She looks more like a ‘80s rock band groupie than a warrior woman.
For the best acting in Cave Dwellers we get Haughton as the over the top villain. His dialogue is ripe as moldy cheddar and he’s having a blast with it. He also seems a bit too interested in Ator, if you get my drift. It adds to the unintentional humor of the whole thing. Sadly he is more often paired with the dull and dry Borromel, who has endless scenes of exposition and says them in the most slow and dreary manner possible. Zor should have killed the old man off and injected some sparks into the plot.
The best scenes are when the movie attempts to embrace the fantasy. Ator and Thong’s battle against the invisible monsters is a bit of silly fun. But I enjoy the battle in the snake cult’s lair. The cultists have goofy weapons, including a snake whip! Then Ator tries to save Mila from the snake god, who turns out to be a big ass puppet. It’s great stuff.
But the piece that everyone remembers from this fine film is the Ator on a hang glider sequence. It comes out of nowhere, and propels the finale of the film. Not only is Ator on a hanglider swooping over the castle, but he’s also chucking bombs at Zor’s henchman. If the rest of Cave Dwellers had such great scenes in it, I’d recommend it wholeheartedly to fans of bad ‘80s fantasy. Sadly, it’s the highlight. Even Ator’s final battle with Zor is lacking in energy.
But Joel and the bots are at hand to kick off their third official season of Mystery Science Theater 3000. And Cave Dwellers is the perfect opener.
While Joel and the bots handled a big glob of 80s sci-fi in the first season with Robot Holocaust, they never really got into the 80s fantasy scene – until Cave Dwellers. And boy do they hit the ground running. This is one of those direct to video releases, much like Pod People, that was released under another name by the video company and slapped with a new set of extremely low budget opening credits featuring footage from another movie. The guys go to town on this mocking the "shoebox format" of the screen as well as the bizarre action on display.
The entire opening scenes of Cave Dwellers consists of voice over, followed by random scenes of cave men. It has nothing to do with the movie, and is supposed to establish the setting (but once again, the cave men are hardly in the movie at all!). Joel and bots unleash with all kinds of hilarious cave man humor even referencing 2001: A Space Odyssey as well as “the man who invented the wedgie”.
Once the movie meanders over to Mila and Akronas, the guys pick up on Foster’s valley girl accent and looks and continue to add lines for her throughout the film. My favorite being “Daaad, we’re all out of Avian.” But one of the funniest sequences in these early moments is when Akronas tells Ator’s life story to his daughter. This is comprised almost entirely of scenes from Ator the Fighting Eagle and edited so badly that it’s confusing as all hell. Tom even quips, “Tolkien couldn’t make sense of this plot”. The guys just let the jokes fire at nearly every quick scene that goes by and it’s one of the riffing high points of the entire Mystery Science Theater series.After that most of the best quipping occurs around Zor and his over the top acting and lingering glances at Ator. I love the scene in the snake temple where Zor literally tosses his hair over his shoulder and marches out with his men, allowing Crow to say in a lispy voice, “Come on girls.” Haughton's intensity is appreciated not just for the movie in general but for all the great riff fodder he offers. Well, that and his awesome mustache and wig.
Most of the traveling scenes in the second half of the movie are a mixture of goofy and dull, and Joel and the bots are able to keep things funny. When the movie bogs down in slow exposition or walking scenes, the guys usually attack the pacing directly or add lines for Mila or Thong (who they constantly refer to as Dong, or Wong or Kong, before correcting themselves).
The highlights are the entire snake temple scene, which starts out very slowly, but allows the guys to riff on just about every character there (including a reference to an 8 sided dice!). Once the action scene kicks in with the evil puppet, it’s a real riff-a-palooza. But the best material is for the entire hanggliding scene, as Joel and bots tear apart every element of the scene including the music. Tom sings a song about Ator flying and ends with a line that I still quote to this day (especially if something intended as inspiring occurs in front of me), “Its not just Ator that’s flying – it’s the human spirit.” Thank you Tom.
The host segments are typical of the Joel years, with some silly stuff mixed in with observations on the movie. They start off coming up with new names; Tom wants to be called Mr. Tibbs. For the invention exchange Joel creates a smoking jacket with real smoke, and the Mad Scientists create robotic arm wrestling (inspired by the hit film Over the Top). At the fist break, Joel and bots recreate the opening credits with goofy music and slow motion. The next break they talk about fantasy names for ordinary objects. The third segment has Joel showing the bots how Foley works. When the movie ends, Joel and bots unleash their anger at all the continuity errors, contains the phrase “someone’s been four wheelin’”. The Mads reply with “What do you want from us, we’re evil… EVIL!”
As evil as the Mads are, they gave Joel and the bots a classic to work with. Easily one of my favorite episodes from Season Three, and while the movie does drag the riffing is able to keep it fun. If you haven’t seen Cave Dwellers yet and you enjoy ‘80s fantasy trash, then seek it out. I give it 5 Wongs, I mean Thongs, out of 5.This episode is available on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection Volume 2.