Wouldn’t it be a neat idea, one might have occasionally thought to oneself, for the great effects man and creature-builder Stan Winston to have his own monster movie production company, so he could make all the critters he ever wanted? Well, for a while he kind of did. He was one of the bosses of an outfit called Creature Features. And their business model was to make ultra-cheap B movies starring semi-known attractive young actors. And they all take their titles, but not their plots, from old American International Pictures features. So far so good. But the other part of the business model, apparently, was to reach out to unusual directorial talents...
Never having seen the Roger Corman original, I thought the title might reference a frozen neanderthal, or a mad scientist inducing evolutionary regression, or just a tale set in the year negative one million. But no, this is a post-apocalypse. The cavemen are our unlucky descendants. Their environment’s capacity to carry a human population of any size is very limited, so they have to keep their birth rate down, and therefore they, like many cultures before them, have turned sexually repressive. Which means it sucks to be a teenager. Even worse, the tribe’s religious leader gets all the nookie he wants, because “god” says so. When the priest picks out Our Hero’s girlfriend, and she ain’t buying the lie, this leads to Our Hero killing the priest. Who is his dad.
So this movie is truly all about teenageyness. The cave culture is, like, the perfect society to have teenage rebellion against. And that’s where we have to discuss our director... Larry Clark.
Clark’s entire career, from what the conventional wisdom says, consists of shocking movies about out-of-control teenagers doing shocking things, like snorting coke, practicing autoerotic asphyxiation, giving each other AIDS, and committing random acts of brutal violence. He apparently hasn’t stopped mining this vein since he made Kids back in ’95. That film made a splash because unlike most juvenile-delinquency claptrap made before it, it was shot in such a real-looking documentary style that hordes of viewers became instantly convinced that this movie really was exposing the awful truth about what today’s kids are really like. Certainly there are some kids like this out there... and Clark was one himself when he was that age. In particular, he was a hardcore amphetamine abuser. I guess that’s why his stuff about bad kids is so convincing — to him, it’s just real life. (Might be nice if he outgrows that phase of his life someday... but I guess it puts food on his family.)
Clark’s characters are such bad role models that it’s not too uncommon for his films to be denied an R rating. And apparently they’re naked a lot; that can’t help. One film of his, Ken Park, is so notoriously explicit that even with an NC17 rating it never did find US distribution.
Mind you that this is all hearsay... I have never seen any of these films that made his reputation. But clearly, we have got someone here who, when given a scenario for teenage rebellion, can really run with it.
Anyway, once Our Hero’s friends bust him out of captivity and the six of them (one of whom has also murdered a tribal elder, but got away with it) flee the cave and head for the ruined city, the movie takes an abrupt left turn into completely un-postapocalyptic territory, and becomes (so others have said) totally Larry Clarkish. And that’s what turns this into a damn weird movie, which I think it’s fair to describe as “unlike anything else”.
On the verge of perishing, our six protagonists find themselves waking up on fancy sofas in a swank loungey space full of old-time technological artifacts. They’ve been cleaned up and dressed in preapocalypse clothes... or rather, underwear. Then they meet their rescuers (or captors?), a young and very stylish couple named Neil and Judith. Neil is a charismatic weirdo in the Crispin vein. They proceed to introduce the kids to a life of hedonism, with a whirlpool bath, gallons of liquor, coke, pills, and all the unprotected coitus a deprived and frustrated youth could wish for. To kids who’ve apparently never even had the opportunity to experience beer, this is pretty mind-blowing.
But Our Hero and his girl hang back... they aren’t ready to just jump into an orgy and get it on with everyone in the room. So they hold back... and when The Awful Truth is revealed later on, this decision turns out to be the key to who is with them and who is against them. Because, you see, their two hosts are no longer human... and they want to recruit new colleagues.
This movie operates on a bunch of levels. On the one hand, it’s a horror cheapie with rubber monsters and gore and tits. On another, it’s a social satire as crudely pointed as a fire-hardened wooden spear. On a third, it could be seen as absurdism in a sort of Robert Sheckley vein, or a bit like the goofier branches of sixties experimentalism. On a fourth, it works as a meditation on the opportunities and dangers of blind rebellion. And on a fifth... well, on a fifth it’s an unholy self-indulgent mess.
The middle part of this movie is amazing. It’s amazing that anyone could get away with making the entire second act of a movie nothing but one long intoxicated orgiastic party. Drinking and snorting and screwing is followed by more drinking and snorting and screwing, which leads to additional drinking and snorting and screwing... and during this section, you’ve got nekkidness on the screen for what seems like half of the running time. The fact that there is a sense of forward plot movement during all this is a testament that Larry Clark must have some legitimate filmic storytelling skills. Through this we gradually learn what our young protagonists are up against... and from time to time one or another of them dies a horrible Stan Winstony death.
The cast gets smaller, the hosts get nastier, and finally there’s a showdown. Now the video box is basically a big promise of rubber monsteriness, but we only meet one rubber monster, in the closing boss-fight.
Finally, there’s a creepy ambiguous coda which might constitute a happy ending, but which, as happy endings go, seems likely to turn out very badly.
This is, on the whole, a rather mind-blowing little film. That doesn’t mean it’s a good film. But I can recommend it to anyone whose cinematic palate is growing jaded by familiar pleasures.
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