‘Prehistoric rebels against prehistoric monsters!’
Teenage Cave Man is a 1958 American science-fiction feature about a young man defies tribal laws and searches for answers. The result of his quest yields knowledge of past generations.
Produced and directed by Roger Corman from a screenplay written by Robert W. Campbell (The Masque of the Red Death; Man of a Thousand Faces), the Malibu Productions movie stars Robert Vaughn (Transylvania Twist; Buried Alive; C.H.U.D. II: Bud the Chud), Darrah Marshall, Leslie Brady, Frank De Kova, Jonathan Haze and Beach Dickerson. It was promoted as Teenage Caveman and also released as Prehistoric World and Out of Darkness.
The soundtrack score was composed by Albert Glasser (Tormented; The Spider; The Amazing Colossal Man; Monster from Green Hell; et al).
In 2002, the film was loosely remade as a TV movie.
In a tribe of cave-dwelling primitives, one youth questions the taboos and restrictions that have kept his tribe from progressing. With few allies, he risks punishment to explore lands beyond the river and confront a monstrous entity called “the god that gives death with its touch.”
After the huge success of I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), the I-was-a-teenage… label got slapped on quite a few youth-centric horror properties of the late 1950s. Many just reran the Werewolf plot formula of kids unhappily transformed into monsters by cruel and domineering adult authority figures (an ideal story hook for the demographic). Roger Corman‘s Teenage Cave Man, made for drag-racing hooliganism factory American International Pictures (AIP), was a refreshing exception – though when it comes to originality, the big plot twist of a future society collapsed into primitive `prehistoric’ conditions was not all that new itself, going back to early science-fiction authors.
Still, it had not been rendered by the cinema before and offered a proper excuse a raggedy place, setting and English-language caveman times, realised by Corman for executive producers Samuel Z. Arkoff and James Nicholson on a $70,000 budget.
After a crudely animated creation-story opening credit sequence, we make the acquaintance of a stone-age tribe that refuses to venture into lands beyond a river. There, generations of them have been told, lurk monsters, traps, and the dreaded “god-who- gives-death-with-its-touch.” A sensitive and smart cave-youth simply credited as the Boy (Robert Vaughn, looking a little bit beyond boyish) questions the superstitions and rituals that keep the tribe stuck in their little canyon-ravine and ignorant of the larger world.
After venturing into the forbidden zone, where he invents the bow and arrow (later depicted by Umberto Lenzi in the kitsch classic La guerra del ferro/Ironmaster, 1983) and discovers music (later depicted with Ringo Starr in Caveman (1981). He even gets a glimpse of the grotesque, shambling god-who-gives-death-with-its-touch and lives to tell. But the Boy is temporarily ostracized for his repeated transgressions of the law. As the son of the tribe’s wise and influential Symbol Maker (Leslie Bradley), he escapes the ultimate punishment of execution urged by the tribe’s arch-conservatives.
This is a rare I-was-a-teenage… plot in which the hero’s parents actually support him (unlike the feckless ones James Dean got stuck with in Rebel Without a Cause), and the Boy and the Symbol Maker both go back across the river for a confrontation with the god-who-brings-death-with-its-touch, which brings a fairly satisfactory revelation of what we have actually been watching all this time – extras in bulky, lurching dinosaur costumes and all.
With a running time apt for double bills at drive-ins, it’s not a bad time-passer. By Corman standards, many critics have been surprisingly kind to the picture, and the seriously delivered monosyllabic dialogue doesn’t tip over into camp. Brief shots of dinosaurs are either much-borrowed scenes of poor made-up alligators and monitor lizards from the original 1,000,000 B.C. (1940) or people in ridiculously wobbly T-Rex suits, wisely lensed at a great distance. It works better if you know the “surprise” ending that will explain all.
Fetching blonde leading lady Darrah Marshall, whose sleeping arrangements with the Boy probably qualified as pretty hot stuff for 1958, was once a Miss Teenage America, so… some truth in advertising there; maybe Teenage Caveperson would have been more apt. Robert Vaughn, soon to become famous as TV’s Napoleon Solo, superspy in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., had quite a guarded love-hate relationship with this early blot on his resume, but I do think somewhere I saw him say that the 1968 Planet of the Apes filmmakers owed Teenage Cave Man a debt, or a lawsuit settlement, for stealing the denouement.
Regular genre viewers may recognize the god-who-brings-death-with-his-touch costume re-used in Night of the Blood Beast, also in 1958.
Charles Cassady Jr., MOVIES and MANIA
“The surprise is handled very nicely. Considering how lame-brained and unimaginative most exploitation films at this level are, it’s brilliantly handled. Teenage Caveman has the reputation of a thinking man’s creature feature — well, a Cormanesque liberal thinking man’s creature feature.” DVD Savant
“It’s easy to poke fun at the obvious cheapness and the silliness of a lot of this movie, but if you consider that it was a caveman epic, it was quite ambitious in some ways. It’s actually trying to make some real commentary on the nature of law and tradition, and I can’t help but admire the intention…” Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings
“While Teenage Caveman is an exploitation movie, it has an inventive script. Screenwriter R. Wright Campbell structures it as a classic conceptual breakthrough story. He uses the familiar theme of championing a breakthrough of knowledge over superstition and tradition. In the unique twist ending, when the lead character makes the discovery about the world, the film manages to ingeniously turn the audience’s expectations on their head.” Moria
“Teenage Caveman is a bit slow in spots. The love subplot is pretty dull and since it’s a Corman flick, there’s too much padding. But the twist ending is pretty inventive and certainly raises the flick above the norm.” The Video Vacuum
Cast and characters:
Robert Vaughn … The Symbol Maker’s Teenage Son
Darah Marshall … The Blond Maiden
Leslie Bradley … The Symbol Maker
Frank DeKova … The Black-Bearded One (as Frank De Kova)
Charles Thompson … Member of the Tribe
June Jocelyn … The Symbol Maker’s Wife
Jonathan Haze … The Curly-Haired Boy
Beach Dickerson … Fair-Haired Boy / Man from Burning Plains / Tom-Tom Player / Bear
Ed Nelson … Blond Tribe Member
Robert Shayne … The Fire Maker
Marshall Bradford … Member of the Tribe
Joseph Hamilton … Member of the Tribe (as Joseph H. Hamilton)
John Brinkley … Blonde teenage tribe member (uncredited)
Barboura Morris … Young Tribe Member (uncredited)
Stephanie Shayne … Young Tribe Member (uncredited)
Ross Sturlin … Outsider in monster costume (uncredited)
Black and white
Aspect ratio: 1.85: 1
Includes a brief shot from The Monster of Piedras Blancas (1958).
MOVIES and MANIA rating: