Riffraff: Teenage Cave Man (1958)

Teenage Cave Man

Roger Corman’s batting average is a strange one. He mostly strikes out miserably, but very few of those many times he swings, he hits a home-run or at least lands a hit that manages to allow him to run a base or two. Teenage Cave Man is one of his more notable misfires thanks to its appearance on Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the fact that it stars Robert Vaughn a year before his Oscar-nominated portrayal in The Young Philadelphians(1959) which placed him on the map and allowed him to pave his way to a successful run on television. The rest of the cast includes F-Troop’s Frank DeKova and some Corman regulars. In tone and delivery it is quite similar to many of Corman’s early duds, but it lacks the cheesy monsters and enjoyable special effects commonly found in many of them. It feels like a bland attempt at appealing to a youthful audience with an unsurprising “shocking” ending. Despite it seeming like a teen cash grab, the title was actually changed during production from Prehistoric World to Teenage Cave Man no doubt to appeal to a juvenile audience. Vaughn has also called this the worst movie he has ever made (and he made the 1970 version ofJulius Caesar and Superman III (1983) mind you).

Teenage Cave Man 3

The film is essentially about a young caveman who wants to break away from his tribe and explore into a “forbidden area” that no one is allowed to enter. Uh, I’ve seen this movie before. I think we all know he is going to find the fall of man if he wanders out. I know this movie predates Planet of the Apes (1968) by a decade, but that film had the build-up, execution, and shocking conclusion that this film does not. Plus, I highly doubt Rod Serling saw this and stole it to write Planet of the Apes. Anyway, cut to lots of static action sequences and unimaginative sets and production design to fill-out the movie’s runtime. There’s also a girl Vaughn likes played by Darah Marshall (who only made this movie and given her non-acting it is no wonder why). This movie’s production and world-building techniques are similar to that of Corman’s notorious Viking Women and the Sea Serpent (1957) but this film lacks that movie’s cheesy allure as Teenage Cave Man is mostly just predictable and dull.

Teenage Cave Man 2

Our main monster is a man-like creature that is discovered to be a several hundred-year-old scientist. The creature can kill with one touch due to the scientist being a survivor of a nuclear holocaust. This has made mankind regress back to their primitive nature (although the cast certainly seems awfully modern to be definite cave men in the first place removing the audience from the intended shock as it is already unconvincing). Vaughn was also about twenty-five when he made this and he certainly doesn’t look like a teenager. I’m sure there’s more to talk about but when I think of this movie I remember it being pretty uneventful and just plain uninteresting. Once again, it isn’t hard to see where it is going every step of the way (and it thinks it is being so clever) and the lack of production really makes it short of an identity. If this movie didn’t have the script, it at least had some actors that knew what they were doing but they are playing stencils of characters not to mention they all look out-of-place in an intended prehistoric piece. For instance, Vaughn is perfectly trimmed and shaved with perfectly cut 1950s hair.

This has the look and feel of a Bomba cheapie, so naturally it is a good film to riff. As one would imagine, one of the reoccurring jokes in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode are references to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968) and Vaughn’s Napoleon Solo. I like the one line where they lament how they are watching a Corman movie meaning they better get used to seeing the same set over-and-over again. Much of the references also deal with the low-grade production values being displayed throughout the film’s run. There is a funny scene where Vaughn plays a flute leading Tom Servo to reference how it sounds like “I Talk to the Wind” by King Crimson leading Crow to demand that Vaughn preform some Jethro Tull. This episode is also complete with two shorts including Aquatic Wizards and Catching TroubleAquatic Wizards is about water skiers which more entertaining when we see Esther Williams do it complete with bright MGM color in her movies. Catching Trouble is certainly an uncomfortable sit, but I find Joel and the bots’ riff of it to be hilarious. When I first saw it I was pretty mortified as it is about an animal trapper (Ross Allen) demonstrating how he catches animals for the zoo complete with some dated narration (the narrator even refers to Ross as his “boyfriend”). Joel and the bot root for the animals such as when Ross is catching a dangerous snake and when he steals two bear cubs leading Joel to state how he wishes the bears’ mother would show up. It is a quick and very funny riff, but man that short is certainly “of its time” given its treatment of animals. It make sense that one of the host segments is Joel and the bots changing Catching Trouble to Catching Ross where the hunter becomes the hunted and gets a taste of his own medicine.

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Teenage Cave Man is a pretty blah movie. You’ve seen its obvious plot-points in other, better movies where it was handled with much more intellect and sincerity. Even though this is the case and the movie is poorly made, it is also pretty typical with other teen-aimed fodder of the time period. It isn’t much worse than a Bomba movie, but I would argue that Bomba at least attempted more action even if it was always cheap and unexciting. This movie cannot deliver much in terms of excitement and it doesn’t even seem to try very hard. That’s one of the things with Corman as he made all his films as fast and as cheap as possible, but you can always tell which ones his heart was in when filming. Look at House of Usher (1960) and The Masque of Red Death (1964) which are two of his most critically-acclaimed movies and while they were made with a little budget and on a faster pace than most directors are used to, Corman clearly cared about them and wanted them to come out as good as possible. It is clear Corman and the actors involved on Teenage Cave Man really didn’t care that much. It just seemed to be made because Corman likes making movies and could pump them out so easily. The result is an embarrassment on the resume of an actor that would become a star and household name in only a few years. It shows its budget and it shows its effort (or lack thereof) and none of them are worth parading. It is a stupid movie that assumes its audience is way more easily entertained and easily fooled than they actually are.

~Virginia

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