Caveman (1981) – A Review

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With a series of slapstick, stop-motion dinosaurs and caveman lingo, Caveman tells the story of an outcast caveman named Atouk. Driven out by brutish leader Tonda (John Matuszak), Atouk ends up forming his own tribe. At first being a band of misfits, together they make radical discoveries, like walking upright, the magical uses of fire and how to construct weapons.

There manages to be a bit of romance in this prehistoric tale. Tala (Shelley Long) takes a liking to Atouk, but he still yearns for the buxom, shallow Lana (Barbara Bach). Perhaps by defeating Tonda and becoming the new leader, Atouk will win her – or will he make the discovery that his true love is Tala?

Caveman is an odd animal of a film. I recall going to the theater to see this and loving it. As a little kid, I thought it was hysterical. It had stop-motion dinosaurs, farcical humor, big piles of doo doo people fall into. I became an even bigger fan when it began showing up on HBO and was rerun over and over and over again. 

Ringo-Starr-John-Matuszak-Caveman-1981-comedyI’ll admit I associate Ringo just as much with his starring role in Caveman than anything he’s done musically. That probably is because I first got introduced to him as the star of Caveman. I only later learned he was in a band that was popular in the 1960’s, but never mind that! The man played Atouk! 

Caveman is a completely silly exercise. There’s nothing in it to take very seriously. It’s not aiming to be any kind of high art, it’s meant for juvenile laughs.

If it was attempting to be some kind of spoof or parody of famed prehistoric movies, than I think Caveman misses its mark. Other than the use of some recognizable classical music in certain portions ala 2001: A Space Odyssey, I don’t see any specific films Caveman is necessarily targeting with its humor.

I’m not sure ‘caveman movies’ have such a wealth of humor to mine from. Most prehistoric set films, like One Million Years B.C., already had an aura of silliness about them, so it’s tough to spoof what is already viewed as ridiculous. It’s too bad they weren’t able to coerce Raquel Welch into a small role into Caveman. Everyone would have gotten that casting joke. 

Although the recent hit film series The Croods, seem to be doing awfully well with its prehistoric setting and characters. So, maybe there are some tasty fruit hanging in the genre to poke fun at, what do I know. 

What’s especially ironic is that Caveman was released the same year as the much more dramatic and realistic depiction of neanderthal ancestors in Quest of Fire. They’re both as diametrically different as two ‘caveman’ movies could be. I doubt both were ever released together as a double feature. 

Ringo-Starr-Caveman-1981-comedy-movie-filmWriter/director Carl Gottlieb goes for laughs with some elemental fart jokes, dippy sound effects, exaggerated prat falls and juvenile visual gags. Caveman is like a big animated cartoon. Let’s say, The Flintstones would be Saturday morning prehistoric entertainment, Caveman is made for the afternoon. 

While Caveman is not a sophisticated comedy and I can understand why others would call it caca, but I have to admit I still hold a special place for it and still get a kick out of it. It could very well be my nostalgic affection for it has never worn, and that makes me willing to dismiss the clear harebrained entertainment of it, but I consider myself a Caveman fan.

So, Starr’s Atouk is viewed as the misfit in his tribe, but he’s actually pretty smart. He’s working on a spinning thing we would later call a wheel, he can form plans and has much more intelligence than the mindless thugs he’s surrounded by. The only thing is he’s in love with Lana, Tonda’s main squeeze and he is determined to win her.

Shelley-Long-Ringo-Starr-Caveman-1981-comedyHe tries to make a play for Lana which angers the monsterous Tonda who tosses Atouk out on his neanderthal butt.

Now alone with his one friend Lar (Dennis Quaid), they wander meeting new friends and eventually form their own tribe. The first pair they meet is Tala (Long) and her blind father Gog (Jack Gilford). As soon as Atouk and Tala lock eyes while standing upright it seems to be love at first sight. Yet, Atouk still has his heart set on Lana, much to the jealousy of Lana.

Although it will take Atouk some time to accept that as he continues to pine for Lana. 

Picking up an eclectic band of other cave folk  – there’s a dwarf, a black man, two gay guys and an Asian caveman who with no explanation is the only one who speaks English in the movie. Maybe he was meant to translate some of the meaning of the caveman words that are used in the film for audiences so they could understand them. 

Most of the film plays as almost a silent movie. There is very little dialogue and what words that are heard are of its own creation. Caveman famously has it’s own ‘Cave Words’ that the cast utter.

Barbara-Bach-Caveman-1981-comedy-fur-bikini“aiyee” – help / “alunda” – love / “bobo” – friend / “caca” – shit / “gluglug” – drowned /”guwi” – out to get / “haraka” – fire / “kuda” – come / “macha” – monster / “nya” – no/not /
“ool” – food / “pooka” – broken/pain / “ugh” – like /
“zug zug” – sex/mate

They’re really not all that difficult to figure out. During the film’s initial release, some theaters gave audiences a pamphlet of the words and their meanings. I’m not sure if that was simply a marketing strategy for the film or if the studio legitimately were worried audiences needed assistance in deciphering the ‘Cave Lingo’.

They needn’t had worried, it’s pretty simple. By the end of the movie you should be able to carry a conversation in Caveman-speak quite eloquently. 

Through their adventures, Atouk and his followers battle dinosaurs, face off against an abominable snow monster (who is pretty creepy looking) in a “nearby” ice age, they make music and learn ways to actually cook their food. They seem to be doing pretty well for themselves, but when Tonda’s tribe attacks them and steals their women the club is thrown down. 

Atouk leads the charge to finally defeat Tonda, become the big leader of both tribes and win Lana – or will he finally see her for who she is and carry Tala off to his cave?

Dennis-Quaid-Ringo-Starr-Shelley-Long-Caveman-1981-comedyOne of the kicks of Caveman is seeing young stars like Long and Quaid playing in such a ludicrous movie. I suppose at the time landing a role in Caveman was heavily desired work and a good way to break into movies. Being a young and hungry actor makes one much less indiscriminate at the film choices they made. 

The role of Tala was Long’s first big-screen role. She apparently went after the part with great gusto, only speaking caveman language at her audition. It apparently worked.

Quaid, I always wondered how he got cast, since a few years earlier he scored with a terrific performance in the fantastic Breaking Away, was part of the impressive casts in The Long Riders and All Night Long. I would’ve thought his career already had the momentum to get other roles than ones that required him having giant insects smoothed on his face and peeing icicles. Seeing him in this, it’s been a bit of mystery to me.

Also in the cast is veteran character actor Gilford who gets to play his ‘blind jokes’, like grabbing boobs and walking around confused. Avery Schriber is Tonda’s righthand goon. For those old enough would recognize as ‘The Doritos Guy’, who did countless commercials for the snack chips.

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Ringo on location filming Caveman

Caveman was filmed around locations in Sierra de Organos National Park in Mexico and it really compliments the prehistoric setting well. Watching Caveman I wonder how much trouble it must’ve been to film such a silly movie in such a remote locale. They certainly took a tougher road to film there, than had they filmed in more convenient parts of California. The locations certainly brings an aura of effort and quality to the movie.

The visuals of cartoonish looking stop-motion dinos are a comical addition. They’re quite fun and add even more goofiness to this prehistoric fantasy land. 

Caveman-1981-Ringo-Starr-Barbara-Bach-cast-comedyAlong with the rocky locations and comical dinos, there’s a score by legendary composer Lalo Schifrin. He could add a very entertaining score of Caveman to his well known scores for Bullitt, Enter The Dragon and the theme to ‘Mission: Impossible’. I always thought the music was quite toe-tapping.

During filming is where Starr famously met Bach. Within a year they would be married and remain together to this day. While Caveman might not be one of Starr’s great career accomplishments, I’m sure it holds a special place for the couple. 

Starr does have an endearing charm about him as the lead caveman. Bach rivals Welch’s pinup beatury in her furskin bikini, it’s fun to see stars young and hungry running around in loincloths, some of the visual gags are amusing and there’s those stop-motion dinos with their tongues hanging out everytime they eye some cave folk nearby. 

Caveman-1981-comedy-dinosaur-stop-motion-effect-modelCaveman is indeed a silly exercise. It appears to have been meant to appeal to kids – or viewers who watched it under the influence of some outside stimuli. Maybe Caveman plays even better while being high. Yet, I think if you’re in the right frame of mind, go in watching it knowing what kind of goofy cartoonish comedy it’s meant to be, Caveman can be a hoot.

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