Wednesday 23 November 2022

Movie: Roger Corman's 'TEENAGE CAVEMAN'



Review of: 
(1958) With Robert Vaughn, Darah Marshall, 
Leslie Bradley Director: Roger Corman. 
DVD: 2012, The Arkoff Film Library


‘In the beginning there was chaos and eternal night’ runs the portentous pseudo-Biblical voice-over, with credits superimposed over cave-paintings set to Albert Glassner’s epic soaring score. Roger Corman can conjure something worth watching out of zero-budget and nil-resources. It looks easy. But watch the films of Ed Wood to see how vaguely similar ingredients will end up when handled with more enthusiasm than competency. Of course this movie is Drive-In trash. Even the title is a trifle of irresistibly playful mischief. Yet you have to admit that, even though Corman himself irritably protested ‘I never directed a film called ‘Teenage Caveman’’, it’s a marked improvement on his original ‘Prehistoric World’ title, or the critic’s suggestion ‘Rubble Without A Cause’! 

The tribesmen, wearing loincloths and brandishing ‘throwing stick’ spears, carry the body of a freshly-killed deer into ‘the clan’ cave village. They’re remarkably well-fed healthy primitives. Only the lone ‘Son of the Symbol-Maker’ stands apart, staring wistfully over the forbidden river. He sports a stylish cross-the-shoulder tunic, neat dark hair, and a knife thrust under his belt. He questions and demands to know answers. His discontent mirrors teenage rebellion. In ‘The Wild Ones’ (1953) Mildred asks Marlon Brando ‘Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?’ He shrugs back ‘whadda you got?’ That’s the Symbol-Maker’s Son’s attitude. He’s warned off questioning ‘the signs and gifts and mysteries’. Why can’t the Clan cross the forbidden river? Because the law says so. Because there’s superstitious fear that beyond the river there are shadows ‘deep and cold’ where men ‘sicken and die, red and dried out’. Because of the burning plain with ‘dirt that eats men’, and ‘the god that gives death with its touch’. These warnings come dramatised with insert-clips of savage jungle and dinosaurian lizardoids. His grey-bearded father (Leslie Bradley) advises him ‘wonder no more.’ ‘I wonder still’ he muses. 

The young rebel is Robert Vaughn, decidedly no teenager. He’d already done TV parts in hardboiled cop-drama ‘Dragnet’ (with its much-imitated intro ‘the story you are about to see is true, only the names have been changed to protect the innocent’) and gritty Western ‘Gunsmoke’ – with James Arness as Marshal Matt Dillon, as well as popular sitcom ‘Father Knows Best’. He had successes, but it wasn’t until he was cast as ‘Napoleon Solo’ – a name suggested by Ian Fleming, in the hugely tongue-in-cheek ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E’ from September 1964, that he ascended to household name status. Intended to be the suave James Bond in the agents’ fight against the evil ‘T.H.R.U.S.H’, he was ironically overtaken in the sexy pin-up stakes by enigmatic sidekick David McCallum as ‘Illya Kuryakin’, who had the advantage of a comb-forward Beatles fringe. 

‘Teenage Caveman’ may well be trash, but they play it admirably straight-faced. They may have no names beyond Blonde Maiden (Darah Marshall), the Black-Bearded one (Frank DeKova), or the Curly-Haired boy, but they yield nothing of R Wright Campbell’s dialogue to dramatic theatricality. When Vaughn challenges ‘The law is old, but age is not always truth’ he might as well be adding ‘whadda you got?’ in stirring up generational confrontation. The following day the clan hunts again, and although they kill a ‘fur-beast’ bear, his father is wounded. As he recuperates, four prehistoric rebels – ‘The Young And The Brave’ according to the trailer, set out in defiance of the law, wade through waist-high swamp, and swim a jungle-river to reach the forbidden far shore of ‘A Wonderful And Strange World!’. Once there one of them admits ‘there’s meat here, we kill and go back.’ Vaughn is not so easily satisfied, ‘no, I came to find the truth or lie of the old stories, the ancient Law.’ He’s not about to go back, yet. 

Filmed on a tight two-week schedule in Griffin Park, Arcadia, the Californian landscape is suitably primeval. The Symbol Maker’s Son blows into a hollow-twig flute, which attracts two dueling dino-lizards. As usual in this kind of movie the monsters attack each other, allowing the tribesmen time to flee. As they penetrate deeper, one of them drowns in the ‘sinking earth’. Two get scared and head for home. Only the Symbol Maker’s Son goes on. When he builds a campfire for the night it attracts a monster-mutation, unafraid of his flames. In a matter of moments he invents, and masters the bow-and-arrow. Only to be attacked by a pack of wild dogs. 

Meanwhile, his father recovers, follows his son and intervenes. Once they’re safely back in the village Vaughn is sentenced to die. He fights back, and his punishment is commuted to isolation. No-one talks to him. Even his Blonde Maiden girlfriend shuns him, at first. Until he plays his flute as she coyly skinny-dips. He’s now reached the age of ‘Manhood’, and takes an oath to renounce his questioning. Will he settle down with the blonde girl in their ‘sleeping place’? ‘Wonder no more’ she urges him. ‘I will always wonder’ he affirms. Yet he bides his time, for now. 

Corman’s tyro producer/director quickies – ‘Highway Dragnet’ and ‘Monster From The Ocean Floor’, had come in January and May 1954. He made five rapid turn-around films the following year, three in 1956, and no less than nine in 1957, running the gamut of titillating exploitation from tacky horror, westerns, Beatnik and noir-crime as well as opportunistically settling on what could loosely be termed SF. Of course, the movies are Drive-In trash that look laughably easy. ‘Teenage Caveman’ is one of five movies directed in 1958, with cheapo effects patched together from archive stock-footage. The dinosaur sequences were originally contrived by Roy Seawright for Hal Roach’s ‘One Million BC’ (1940), while a clip from Edward L Cahn’s ‘The She Creature’ (1956) is also filched and inserted to illustrate radiation mutation. But this seamless zero-budget nil-resources collage technique catches something of the jittery angst of its time. Something a 2002 ‘Teenage Caveman’ remake, directed by Larry Clark, fails to do, despite its gore and nudity. 

The film’s final section opens with a horse-riding stranger approaching the cave village. Fearfully they hurl spears. Only Vaughn tries to stop them. The stranger manages to utter the single word ‘Peace’, before they spear him to death. In a Clan debate his Symbol-Maker father now argues for seeking out other tribes. His scheming black-bearded rival seizes on this blasphemy as an opportunity to strip him of his symbol-making powers. ‘There is no more to say’ declares Vaughn defiantly, ‘it is time to act.’ He has his bow, and a quiver for his arrows. His blonde woman watches him set out alone. But first his father follows him. Then the vengeful tribe pursue them both intent on killing them – only to be attacked by the wild dog-pack. 

In the forbidden zone the duo are menaced by a crawling slithering mutation. A curious Vaughn approaches it in a gesture of conciliation, just as Black-Beard hurls a rock at the monster. The Symbol Maker’s Son turns and shoots him with a well-aimed arrow, but it’s too late. Beneath the mask is a wizened old man, the last of the long-lived ancients. ‘A man, another kind of man.’ They find a book within his corroded radiation-suit covering, turning the pages in uncomprehending awe. Cities. Skyscrapers. The UN building. ‘The Atomic Era’. 

‘What symbols are these?’ they wonder. We know. This is the shock revelation. The punchline. Theirs is not some long ago sometime in the distant past. The Clan are not only the remote survivors of atomic war, but of a historical eternal recurrence. Will the tribe now be wiser? ‘Perhaps man will dare to try again?’ The stern voice-over resumes to ram home the warning message, ‘this happened a long time ago. How many times will it happen again? And if it does, will any at all survive the next time?’ A sobering closing question in a time of Cold War brinkmanship, ‘or will it be… THE END?’



‘TEENAGE CAVEMAN’ (American International Pictures, July 1958, black-&-white) Producer & Director: Roger Corman. Executive Producers: Samuel Z Arkoff & James H Nicholson. Screenplay: R Wright Campbell. With Robert Vaughn (Teenage Caveman), Darah Marshall (Blonde Woman), Leslie Bradley (The Symbol Maker), Frank DeKova (Black-Bearded Usurper), June Jocelyn (Symbol-Maker’s wife), Beach Dickerson (Bear, Man from the Burning Plains) and tribe-members Charles P Thompson, Ed Nelson Robert Shayne, Marshall Bradford, Joseph H Hamilton. Music: Albert Glassner. Cinematography: Floyd Crosby. Film Editor: Irene Morra. 65-minutes. DVD April 2012, The Arkoff Film Library. DVD extras include trailers and Samuel Z Arkoff NFT audio interview.

Originally featured on website: 
‘VIDEOVISTA’ (April 2014)

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