Teenage Caveman (2001)

It’s hard to keep your thinking cap on when you’re watching Teenage Caveman, directed by the notorious Larry Clark, the photographer/director whose movie Kids incited many parents and critics to proclaim that the line between cinema and exploitation had been crossed. Drawing as much acclaim as condemnation, Kids offered a sobering stare at an urban wasteland where teens indulged in dangerous sex, substance abuse, and rampant violence.

It’s good to see that nothing — other than the amounts of gore and tongue-in-cheek overacting — has changed on Clark’s watch. Teenage Caveman is one of several releases from Creature Features — a Southern California Distribution/production house run by former AIP head Samuel Z. Arkoff’s son Lou, monster-maker Stan Winston, and actress Colleen Camp — that are remaking or updating the schlock horror films of postwar America with able-bodied adolescents from the latest issues of Teen Beat.

This 2001 cable TV version of Roger Corman’s 1958 snoozer — itself duly skewered by Mystery Science Theater — is not your run-of-the-mill intertextual update, interested in interrogating the aspects of the original’s sociological origins: think Troma’s Toxic Avenger or Full Moon’s Puppetmaster with naked teenagers and you’re there.

Corman’s film seized upon a post-apocalyptic future characterized by the kind of hysteria that preoccupied many SF films of the period as pretext for his caveboy’s (Robert Vaughan) coming-of-age metamorphosis. Clark’s movie uses the same plot to demonstrate yet again, the inefficacy and duplicity of adults. Sure enough, by the film’s 30-minute mark, the only grown-ups with speaking roles have been killed off by the, ahem, kids.

The titular caveman, David (Andrew Keegan, the narcissistic pretty boy from 10 Things I Hate About You), kills his father, a self-elected messiah of the clan (think: Jim Jones or David Koresh), after pop tries to rape his son’s sweetheart, Sarah (the too skinny Tara Subkoff), having picked her to be his disciple, or something. In a particularly Clarkish moment (even if he didn’t write this thing, his prints are all over it), David kills dad with a small metal crucifix through the eye. After the clan finds out about this blasphemy, David is strung up like Christ to a tree outside the cave to rot, or better, serves as target for little kids bearing rocks.

He’s eventually saved from this fate by his faithful friends, a group of multi-racial, gorgeous kids he’s been teaching to read using Penthouse magazines as educational materials. The Kerouac-reading David leads his group — “The Future,” he calls them — into the wild, looking for another home.

Faster than you can say Kids, Clark’s handheld camera goes into action and the script, whatever there is of it, seems to go out the window. Spending what feels like five minutes of screen time, Clark just lets his kids loose into the woods like he did into the NYC streets in Kids, recording whatever they have to say. I heard someone say, “I’m tired of walking!” at least twice (whatever you say about Teenage Caveman, you can’t say that it isn’t funny). Most of what they ramble on about isn’t even synched with the shots. It almost looks like a fashion commercial featuring the rambunctious, rag-tag teen fleet in rags.

Then, it gets sillier. The kids come upon a post-apocalyptic version of Seattle, but are summarily forced into a cave because of a nuclear-winter-type storm that descends upon both them and the screen. Cut to Clark’s bread and butter: shots of all of them lying about a super-cool urban penthouse in nothing but their underwear and some cool-as-shit poses, and you have your cinematic left field moment. The camera lingers on their lithe young bodies long enough to clue you into what Teenage Caveman is really all about (teen sex), before introducing the villain, a coked-out, fashion-victim stoner named Neil (Richard Hillman).

The rest is run-of-the-mill exploitation fun: by living the high life in the penthouse and having sexual intercourse with Neil and his hyper-sexualized girlfriend, Judith (a mostly naked Tiffany Limos), the cavekids are suckered into becoming receptacles for the former party-hearty couple’s modified superhuman genes, which will eventually allow them to engender another human race. Problem is, without a serum, the kids literally explode. As you can guess, everyone blows up, except David and Sarah, who spend most of the movie talking about why they’re “just not ready” to hump yet.

Before they blow up, though, the film offers lots of sex and drugs. In one seemingly unscripted section, Clark just lets his kids loose in a 10-minute segment where everyone except David and Sarah frolic, coke up, have sex, overact, look confused, cackle, drink, and deflate every erotic moment they initiate (it may not sound like a long time, but sitting through it, you’ll realize just how long an onscreen minute can be).

This is easily one of the strangest scenes I’ve ever seen, because it doesn’t look like it belongs in the film. It’s as if Clark took Kids‘ finest and final scene, the apartment party, and grafted it onto Teenage Caveman without the journalistic “distance” for which he’s sometimes reviled. There’s nothing to hold on to here but images, and even then, it’s slippery. There’s an obvious, if tawdry, fulfillment in watching the teen cavekids get their rocks off after being hounded by David’s dead dad/messiah into repressing their sexual urges. But when one of them explodes, almost 15 minutes after the sex scene, the dots are only vaguely connected.

Which is cool, because Teenage Caveman is a comparatively low budget horror flick you rent for those Friday nights when you’re chilling with your friends and in the mood for guilty pleasures, something that can make all of you laugh your asses off while satisfying that urge for gratuitous gore. Creature Features isn’t in the biz to produce Saving Private Ryan, after all. So, just grab some popcorn, kick back, and laugh as you watch the naked kids try on cool clothes, bone each other, and then explode in a mess of crimson and flesh.

Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.