Shitty Movie Sundays: Teenage Cave Man, or, Teenage Caveman, Whatever

According to the internet, so it must be true, star of Teenage Cave Man, Robert Vaughn, called it the worst film ever made. The internet is an infinite repository of apocrypha and bullshit, so who knows if this is an actual quote. This level of disavowal seems harsh. Teenage Cave Man is no Vertigo (released the same year), but it’s also no Ed Wood joint. It’s a b-movie that had a low budget, a silly script, and kitsch value out the wazoo.

One of four movies directed by Roger Corman in 1958, and one of seven he produced in that year, Teenage Cave Man follows the trials and tribulations of The Symbol Maker’s Teenage Son (Vaughn), as he comes of age and begins to question the laws of his clan of cave dwellers.

After an opening narration that is downright biblical, we are introduced to the clan and its way of life. They are a simple bunch, clad in imitation skins that look like dyed cotton, and, in at least one case, shag carpeting (low budget, remember). The clan resides in a cave in a cliffside (played by the ever-reliable Bronson Cave). The clan ekes out a meager hunter gatherer existence, with no literacy, and a set of myths and laws that they follow with strict adherence.

The most important of these laws is to never cross the river. This law has been part of the clan for longer than living memory. It seems that there is a monster on the other side of the river that can kill with a single touch. The Symbol Maker’s Teenage Son, despairing at the lack of good hunting on the safe side of the river, wishes to explore the other side, take the land for the clan, and hunt the giant beasts there that could feed his clan for many moons.

Standing in his way, besides the law, is The Symbol Maker’s Teenage Son’s father, The Symbol Maker (Leslie Bradley). He’s the guy wearing the most fashionable carpeting, and he believes in the law. Meanwhile, The Black-Bearded One (Frank DeKova), is maneuvering behind the scenes to take The Symbol Maker’s job for himself, and earn a less dastardly name. He does this by goading The Symbol Maker’s Teenage Son to cross the river and break the law. It works, setting off a chain of events whereby the clan is forced to reckon with its laws and its future. The Teenage Cave Man movie posterinternal conflict leads to violence, the appearance of the monster from the other side of the river, and a final twist that was common in sci-fi comics and short stories of the time. Indeed, Stan Lee must have used this ending a half-dozen times in Strange Tales alone.

Corman, ever the efficient filmmaker, managed to cram all this story into a flick that clocks in at 65-minutes long. There is nothing to fault about this film’s pace. The b-movie bona fides reside everywhere else. As noted above, the costumes are downright cheap. Then there are the clean-shaven faces, DeKova excepted, 1950s haircuts, and dialogue that could have been used in a contemporary, culturally clueless shitty western about Native Americans.

Corman also cheaped out on effects shots, cribbing footage from One Million B.C. for its giant lizards, and a random humanoid monster shot from The She-Creature that has nothing to do with this movie.

The pièce de résistance of the movie, though, is Vaughn. He was in his mid-twenties when this was filmed, but had the joyless demeanor of someone who spends sixty hours a week in suit and tie. His performance as a ‘teenager’ gives Steve McQueen’s role in The Blob a run for its money in generational silliness. Vaughn is so hilariously miscast that it’s part of the charm of the movie.

There’s not much more to say about Teenage Cave Man. It’s a Corman quickie designed to make a buck, and was never intended to have the kind of lasting cachet that it does. Unfortunately for those involved, this is the kind of movie viewers laugh at, and not with. That’s a great win for the shitty movie fan, though. Teenage Cave Man is essential viewing for fans of 1950s b-movies. It showcases Corman’s talents as a filmmaker, and how those talents were in constant conflict with his cheapness. Guess which side of him wins out. It’s shitty gold, making it into the hallowed top fifty of the Watchability Index, displacing The Dead Next Door at #40. Check it out.

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