Retro Review Triple Play: Modern Cavemen
We’ve looked at two prehistoric flicks that showed our ancestors in their natural environments. Now it’s time to take a look at the weirdly specific sub-genre of Caveman films featuring modern day cavemen. Often frozen in ice and thawed like a missing link Hot Pocket, there’s no shortage of movies that try to drop an ancient neanderthal into contemporary settings. Some try for screams and some try for laughs, but like the microwaved horror that is the Hot Pocket, many of them are completely unpalatable. Here are three of the most well known entries in the Modern Caveman genre.
As the movie states, the Bible tells of prehistoric giants who once roamed the land. Apparently a tribe of these paleolithic prodigies managed to make it to California, and continued to survive up until present day. A young woman named Roxy is headed out to her fathers posh night club for a swim one night when she nearly crashes her convertible into Eegah, last of the giant cavemen. Confused by the contraption, Eegah briefly investigates but is scared off when Roxy’s boyfriend Tom arrives on the scene. When her story is laughed at, Tom and Roxy’s father, a famous writer, decide to investigate the next day. Roxy’s dad goes up onto Shadow Mountain alone, finds Eegah, but falls and hurts himself in his fright. Worried, Roxy and Tom follow him, eventually becoming separated. Eegah nabs Roxy, and takes him to his cave, where she finds that her father is alive and well, treated gently by Eegah. When Eegah shows a romantic attraction to Roxy, Tom arrives and sets the two free. Followed by Eegah, they flee back to civilization, where Eegah quickly makes trouble.
Roundly regarded as one of the worst films ever made, you may remember this film if you’re a fan of the boys over at Mystery Science Theater. The film almost strays into the realm of so bad it’s good…almost, but not quite. The sound work is hilariously bad, with added dialogue cut into the film that makes no sense to the plot, and several musical numbers from Tom, who is in a Beach Boys/Elvis style rock band. There is a criminal amount of white people flailing about un-rhythmically (i.e. dancing) and way too many pompadour hair cuts outside of an actual Elvis movie. Poor Eegah (Richard Kiel, who would go on to famously play Jaws in the James Bond series) communicates in guttural jibberish, and is not allowed to actually swing his giant wooden club at anything, lest he break it and cost the film any money. To say this was shot on a shoestring budget is an insult to shoestrings, which are actually useful. If you have to subject yourself to Eegah! make sure you watch the MST3K version. I got 5 minutes into the vanilla version before nearly passing out, and quickly switched to the funny version instead.
Encino Man (1992)
Two losers (Sean Astin from The Goonies, and Pauly Shore from those other 1990’s movies you thought were funny at the time but now regret bitterly) are awoken by an earthquake, and discover that the tremor has freed an ancient caveman who was trapped in ice. Being responsible citizens, they clean him up, cut his hair, and decide to immediately make him the centerpiece of a harebrained scheme to achieve high school popularity. Naming him Link (as in the missing…yadda yadda) they enroll him as a foreign exchange student, and are suddenly seen as cool by the rest of the students, including Sean’s love interest. Jealousy soon splits the trio as Sean resents Pauly for making Link into a ditzy stoner like himself, and then further resents Link since his would-be lady likes Link better. A plot by the school bully reunites the three, and they manage to overcome their petty fighting, just in time for another earthquake to reveal that a second person, Link’s prehistoric girlfriend, is now also alive and well in the 20th century.
Let me tell you, kids, nostalgia is a bitch. I know that Pauly Shore’s schtick got old fast, and that he’s now regarded as a comedy pariah. I also have seen enough comedians come and go to know that this is pretty much always the case (say, how’s Jim Carrey, Eddie Murphy, or Dane Cook’s movie careers doing these days?!) I was prepared for a second watching of this film to be disappointing. Holy hell, was I right. This movie has aged worse than Brendan Frasier. In fact, Brendan Frasier’s physical comedy and charming nature as Link is the only thing about this movie that doesn’t completely suck in retrospect. The plot is Weird Science for the scientifically challenged, and Pauly Shore’s surfer/stoner mannerisms make me wish literal, physical harm on him. Sean Astin ditches the earnestness that made him so lovable in The Goonies in favor of being a jealous, brooding little piss-ant. The jokes are so culturally specific to 1992 it’s like they intended the movie to be buried in a time capsule as soon as it was done screening. Say…that’s not such a bad idea for a movie…
Scientists working in the arctic circle uncover a caveman who has been frozen for 40,000 years. Using cutting edge medical techniques, they manage to coax the man, nicknamed Charlie, back to life. He is terrified by the scientists, but manages to be calmed by Stanley, an anthropologist, who bonds with Charlie. Charlie is set up with an artificial preserve to mimic his old home, and with the help of linguist and psychologists, Stanley is able to forge ahead with understanding some of what Charlie has to share, and to create an unlikely bond with the misplaced traveller. Unfortunately, many on the team are more interested in Charlie’s DNA, and want to use his body to discover how the cryogenic procedure can be duplicated with modern patients. Stanley sees that Charlie longs to be free, and as the scalpels draw closer for Charlie’s blood, he makes a daring escape into the arctic with his new cro-magnon friend.
OK, we’ve waded through two stinkers with Eegah! and Encino Man, here is the light at the end of the tunnel: Iceman is a very good movie. The plot is rock-solid and gets most of its science right. The characters are believable and nuanced (especially Timothy Hutton as Stanley and John Lone as Charlie.) There is a real dynamic between the cast of characters, even the “evil” ones, and the issues of human rights, bio-medical research, and culture shock are all given a complex airing. Iceman is an engaging blend between Of Mice and Men and King Kong, and I mean both of those comparisons in the most positive terms. If any of these Retro Reviews inspire you to see one of these films for the first time, make it Iceman. You won’t be disappointed.