"The Cave" isn't just a bad movie, it's a very, very, very bad movie, so bad that it can't even redeem itself by turning into high camp.

It's supposed to be scary, but we weren't scared, not for a moment, not even when we finally saw the big, bad creature stalking all the pretty people. Okay, we were scared when we saw Morris Chestnut furrow his brow and we thought for a minute that meant he was going to act, but we realized that he was probably calculating how long it was going to take for the check to clear.

The basic premise is this: Deep in a Romanian forest, a bunch of scientists/bounty hunters/whosises (doesn't matter because they won't be around for long) stumble upon a 13th-century abbey. On the floor of the abbey is a tile mosaic of an exceedingly nasty-looking critter. If you've seen a horror movie before, you know that this can mean only one thing: Get the hell out of Dodge. The scientists/bounty hunters/whosises quite naturally ignore the ominous music swelling in the background and crack open the floor, whereupon they discover a hidden cave.

Surprise, surprise: Very bad things happen.

Cue the soundtrack and cut to Mexico, where a team of crack divers is spelunking through the azure depths of the Caribbean. Back on the boat, they get a call from a grizzled Romanian scientist who tells them that he's found a cave and he's got some money, so why don't they come on out and do a little diving.

What are they looking for? A new ecosystem, people. (Ooooh, sexy.) But does it matter, really? The whole film is just an excuse to shoot some cool underwater scenes and put some hotties in harm's way. And kill them off, one by one.

About the hotties: On the diving side, there's Jack (Cole Hauser), the arrogant leader, who will undergo a dramatic transformation; his brother, Tyler (Eddie Cibrian), the dimpled guy; the gung-ho chick, Charlie (Piper Perabo); and Buchanan (Chestnut). And there's a sexy scientist, Katherine (Lena Headey).

But all this pulchritude, male and female, is wasted. It's just too darn dark down in that cave, and they spend all their time zipped up in trendy diving duds that hide the physique. Everything's shot in a haze of gloom. It's not artistic gloom, it's just gloom gloom, too dank and dim for the viewer to discern who's chomping on whom. And with horror movies, you want to see who's being served for dinner.

Even the monster, for gawd's sake, is a disappointment, cut and pieced together from bits of movies past: "Aliens," "Creature From the Black Lagoon," "War of the Worlds." Take your pick. You've seen this creep before.

So just how bad is "The Cave," directed by first-timer Bruce Hunt? Let us enumerate the ways. There are gratuitous displays of testosterone: See colleagues throw punches -- and miss. They do not do this to advance the plot, but just to show each other who's boss! There's sibling rivalry that gets miraculously resolved when one of the brothers is infested by a hideous parasite, and there's sexual tension that goes absolutely nowhere. (The only kiss in the cave is a bit of hot mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.)

There is astonishingly bad dialogue: "This cave is a very serious piece of work. It's already taken one life. Respect the cave." And there are unintentional moments of high hilarity (see aforementioned dialogue).

But to be fair, there is one very positive thing to say about "The Cave": Clocking in at just over an hour and a half, you'll be in and out of the theater in no time. And that's good.

The Cave (97 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for intense creature violence and one shot of a heaving bosom.

Cole Hauser, left, and Morris Chestnut, as divers exploring an underwater cave, could easily be looking for a way out of a predictable script.