Starring Vincent D’Onofrio, Will Patton, Wyatt Russell, Lili Simmons
Written by S. Craig Zahler
Cinestate is a new production company located in Dallas, TX, and they mean business. They just finished principal photography on Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich and they’ve released The Narrow Caves, what they call the first “audiostate”.
An “audiostate” is somewhere between an audio book and a radio drama. Shorter than an audio book, clocking in at around three hours, it features dramatic narration and a full cast in speaking roles. Audio effects and foley work flesh out the production, effectively making this a movie you listen to. The concept for the series is to produce scripts that weren’t greenlit for feature films, and that’s a smart move. Even with very high production values, it’s cheaper to make a high-concept horror tale like this entirely in audio than it is to put actors in caves and do horrible unworldly things to them.
The Narrow Caves was written by S. Craig Zahler, best known for writing and directing Bone Tomahawk and writing the Puppet Master reboot. With a cast including the incredible Vincent D’Onofrio and screen veteran Will Patton narrating, this is no small-time affair.
Class, style, and quality are the name of the game here. Leads Wyatt Russell (yes, Kurt’s son) and Lili Simmons play Walter and Ruby, two college-age kids in 1983 who fall in love after a bumpy start caused, in part, by Ruby’s secretive nature. We experience their romance blossoming, including some steamy love scenes. Despite some nightmarish hints that something isn’t quite right, Walter accompanies Ruby on a visit to her childhood home. There, they are hosted by Ruby’s odd and off-putting father (D’Onofrio) who does little to settle Walter’s nerves about Ruby’s reluctance to discuss her past.
Before long, everything goes straight off the rails before spiraling to a horrific Lovecraftian finish.
That back half of the story lifts heavily from Zahler’s most known work, Bone Tomahawk, in both theme and content. Whether that will bother the listener is unknown. I noted it, but it didn’t feel like a retread. Suffice to say Zahler is in familiar territory with caves, captivity, and horrors perpetrated on prisoners by monsters from the past.
Caves takes a huge left turn from Tomahawk in the source and nature of the threat, however, and as I mentioned above, our good friend Howard Phillips will leap to the front of your mind while listening.
Production is grade-A work. The foley work and special effects are fantastic, with a great mix for headphone wearers. The performances are solid across the board, especially Russell and Simmons in the lead roles. Even without having to perform the visuals of their ordeals, this is gutsy, difficult work, and the hit every mark perfectly. D’Onofrio doesn’t play a huge role, but the man’s voice is a cultural treasure, and I’d listen to him read just about anything.
The writing is good. Just…good. Zahler struggles a bit with the format. What seems like a series of errors at first is actually a motif: Walter is the “lanky man” and Ruby is the “pale woman.” Every character has a pronoun-based nickname like that, used repeatedly. In written fiction, that’s a massive no-no. A sign of a very inexperienced writer. Here, it’s clearly used as a kind of verbal shorthand, a style choice. It’s an odd one, and I can’t say it works. It’s a little irritating for someone used to audiobooks, as an author would never adopt such an odd and grammatically transgressive style. I’m thinking it may be an artifact of his screenwriting, where you often reference a character using a similar motif before naming them properly. Here, he continues long after we have their names, so it must be an intentional decision. It’s an odd one, and as a proofreader and editor, it grated me a bit.
The romance is believable, but the love scenes are, frankly, a little gratuitous. In a film, they’d play out quickly and add a steamy component to the romance. Narrated and voiced, they seem to take a very long time. Kudos to narrator Patton for delivering them without any subtle discomfort. For the listener, though, there’s not much refuge. The sex is graphic, and only sometimes plays into the plot.
Both of these issues are symptoms of a screenwriter straddling the fence between written prose and a script intended to be performed. Basically, they’re pitfalls of this format. It’s impossible not to think of audiobooks when listening, but audiobooks are simply the written word spoken aloud. This isn’t that. At the same time, this goes beyond narration written for a play, audio or screen. Since the narration provides a huge portion of the visual information, it naturally has to be more book-like. While it’s not a format that’s brand new (similar productions have been created for decades, but not often due to the effort required) it’s new to the folks at Cinestate, and all of this can be blamed on that, I imagine.
Any negative effect these issues might have will depend heavily on the listener. Personally, they were minor irritants, and finishing the tale was no chore at all. Some might be driven away entirely, others might not even notice them.
Either way, it’s impossible not to recommend The Narrow Caves. It’s a great horror tale told well with fantastic performances from world-class actors. It’s a graphic, brutal runaway train once we hit those…infested halls. There’s no reason to avoid investing three hours of an afternoon listening to Walter and Ruby’s plight. As for Audiostates, I look forward to more work in the future. Honing the form can only produce even more enjoyable forays into lost, unproduced screenplays.
You can get The Narrow Caves exclusively from Audible at this link.