Bright Lights Film Journal

I’m Taking the Kids! Larry Clark’s <em>Teenage Caveman</em> on DVD

Girlflesh ‘n boyflesh ‘n apocalypse [Warning: Spoilers!]

It’s hard to keep your thinking cap on when you’re watching Teenage Caveman, directed by the notorious Larry Clark, the famed photographer/director whose pseudo-documentary, Kids, incited parents and critics alike to proclaim that the line between cinema and exploitation had been crossed to excess. While Kids drew as much acclaim as condemnation, it was nevertheless a sobering stare into a too-idle teenage wasteland populated by dangerous sex, substance abuse, as well as rampant violence and disregard for an authority exposed as neutered, suspicious, and/or fragmented.

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 – capitalizing on the current fascination with the teen market by recreating or updating the schlock horror films of postwar America featuring a host of able-bodied adolescents from the latest issues of Teen Beat. A lofty goal, to be sure, especially considering that, at least when it comes to Teenage Caveman, these films are not your normal horror flicks concerned simply with gore and icing the nearest sucker in sight. Would you need to bring Larry Clark on board for something that simple?

Good question, because this 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 its predecessor’s sociological origins: it’s basically Kids with special effects, and not as hard-hitting. Think Troma’s Toxic Avenger or Full Moon’s Puppetmaster franchises with naked teenagers and you’re there. But where Corman’s film seized on a postapocalyptic future filled with the kind of atomic hysteria populating most films of the period as a pretext for his caveboy’s (Robert Vaughan) coming-of-age metamorphosis, Clark’s uses the same text as another example of the inefficacy and duplicity of adulthood. And, sure enough, by the film’s 30-minute mark, the only adults with major speaking roles are killed off by the, ahem, kids.

The plot is relatively simple. The Teenage Caveman in question, David (Andrew Keegan, the narcissistic pretty boy from 10 Things I Hate About You), kills his father, a Jim Jones/David Koresh-type self-elected messiah of the clan, after Pops tries to rape his son’s sweetheart, Sarah (the too skinny Tara Subkoff), having picked her to be his disciple or something. Yeah, exactly. In a particularly Larry Clark moment – hey, maybe he didn’t write this thing but his prints are all over it – dad gets killed by taking a small metal crucifix through the eye. After the clan finds out about this blasphemy, David is strung up Christ-style to a bare tree outside the cave to rot or function as a target for little kids with rocks. He’s eventually saved by his posse, a multiracial group of gorgeous-looking kids he’s been teaching to read using Penthouse magazines. Featured line:” I never believed these stories were true until my conservative wife asked me to ream her bunghole with a vibrating dildo” – I’m not lying. The Kerouac-reading David (I said I’m not lying) then leads his group – “the future” he calls them – into the wild looking for another home.

Re-enter Larry Clark.

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

Then it gets sillier. The kids come suddenly upon a postapocalypse version of Seattle, but are summarily forced into a nearby cave because of a nuclear-winter type storm that descends on 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. Clark lingers on their lithe young bodies long enough to clue you into what Teenage Caveman is really all about, teen sex, before introducing the film’s villain, a coked-out, fashion-victim stoner named Neil (Richard Hillman). The rest of the plot is your run-of-the-mill exploitation fun: by living the high life in the penthouse and, ahem, through having sexual intercourse with Neil and his hypersexualized 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 explode, CGI-style.

As you can guess, everyone blows up, except Christ-like David and his Mary-like girlfriend, Sarah, who spend most of the movie talking about why they’re just not ready to hump yet. But before all the kids blow up, you gotta show the sex and drugs, and Clark is more than willing to oblige. In the film’s strangest – and seemingly unscripted – portion, Clark just lets his kids loose in a ten-minute (it may not sound like much, but while you’re watching it you’ll realize just how long an onscreen minute can be) 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’s easily one of the strangest things 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 disconnection he’s become known and sometimes reviled for. There’s nothing to hold onto here but images, and even then, it’s a slippery grip.

And it’s utlimately confusing because you’re sure there must be some narrative value other than obvious fulfillment in watching the teen cavekids, who were relentlessly hounded by David’s hypocritical dead dad/messiah into repressing their sexual urges, get their rocks off. It isn’t until one of them explodes, almost 15 minutes later, that the dots are 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 some 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 make Saving Private Ryan, after all. It’s just that the weird twist of adding Larry Clark to some silly sci-fi update is a curveball, especially when considering that his very Kids-like film, Bully, came out the same year. It’s hard to separate the man from the method, but it is possible.

So just grab some popcorn, kick back, and laugh as you watch the naked kids try on some cool clothes, bone each other, and then explode in a mess of crimson and flesh. It’s the horror, stupid.