There are bad movies and there are bad movies. A sort of basement elitecream de la crap, if you must. No bad movies are as much fun as genre films from the 1950s and 1960s. Not only laughably bad but often with a bit a charm that endears them to the viewer with those sorts of tastes. Everyone hears how horrible Edward D. Wood, Jr.'s (which is how he billed himself in his films) 1959 Plan 9 from Outer Spacethat it's generally considered, even by those who have never seen it, as the worst movie ever made. Is it bad? Incompetent? Cheap? A mess? Sure, but it's not that bad and neither is the 1953 head scratcher Robot Monstera film bad enough that some rank it a very close second to Wood's opus.
But it is bad. It's no sci-fi classic like Them! (1954) or The Thing from Another World (1951; usually just called The Thing). If Mystery Science Theater 3000 (they did it during the show's first official season) farewithout the onscreen wisecracksisn't one's sort of Kool-Aid, then this probably should get a pass.
"A tale told by an idiot...."
Before taking the film apart (yeah, all 62 minutes of it, including an intermission card at about the halfway point), what is it about? Well, the Hu-man race has been getting a bit too intelligent for the Robot Monsters from planet Ro-Man (despite the trailer and alternate release titles claiming their residence to be the Moon) decide a preemptive attack is in order. Well, there's one Robot Monster. And his leader the "Great Guidance." But he is only seen through a viewscreen.
The story picks up in this post-apocalyptic world where eight survivors remain. A Professor, his wife, two daughters (Al-iss and Carla), his son (Johnny) and his co-scientist Roy. There are also two others, Jason and McCloud who are never shown or heard from but do take part in the plot later on. The action revolves around the robot monster's attempts to extinguish this last remnant of humanity and their attempts to survive. In the end does the Ro-Man conquering force (of one) and its "Calcinator" death ray triumph? Do the humans prevail? Is the Ro-Man real? A figment? The shape of things to come? Do you care?
How to Make a Monster
Robot Monster was made for $16,000most people these days own cars that cost more than this movie did at the time (in 2003 dollars it would've cost about $106,000). Interestingly, despite rumors to the contrary, it got some decent reviews when it came out and went on to make $1,000,000over sixty times the initial investment. Of course, a small budget demands certain limitations. And oh, does it show.
It was filmed in about four days using only exterior shots. There is the bare exception of some shots of the Great Guidance who only appears on Ro-Man's (the titular character) viewscreenwhich is basically a sheet of wood or cardboard with some contact paper or other material on it to allow blue (or green, if you like) screen work. When it's turned off you can see the lumps and wrinkles in the material. Those exteriors were filmed almost entirely in Bronson Caves and Bronson Canyon in California, a location dozens of films and television shows have used dating back to the 1930s. Everything from westerns to horror movies to science fiction. Batman, Captain Marvel, Superman, and the crew of USS Enterprise have all appeared at those locations at some point in time. So have the Lone Ranger, Dracula, the Three Musketeers, Flash Gordon, and...in 1953, Julius Caesar (yes, an adaptation of the Shakespeare play).
And then there was Ro-Man. The original idea was to have a metal robot but that just wasn't in the cards (or the budget). So how to create a monstera robot monsteron a shoestring? Enter actor and stunt man George Barrows. He provided his own gorilla suit. POW! The second half of the equation is complete. But what of the robot? A diving helmet (which itself looks fake) with antennae glued to it. And anyone who recalls the days when every television set had those splayed rabbit ear antennas atop the set can imagine just how effective and robotic this monster is. The mask isn't dark so the viewer can see a Hu-man head covered with what appears to be a stocking.
That might partially explain Barrows' acting in the suit (he also walks around like a poor guy baking in a heavy, burdensome apesuit). But probably not. Combined with the voice of John Brown (who's been a mouderin' in his grave since 1957), Barrows' overly emotive pantomiming gives one the impression of a poorly acted, horribly dubbed kung fu movie (I like those, too).
There are also some scenes lifted from 1940's One Million B.C. and 1951's Flight to Mars plus some stock footage of WWII bombing runs. The clip from the One Million B.C. (played over and over) is of slow motion lizards wrestling on a desert set. All of a sudden, during one clip, a pair of triceratops attacking each other appears. Then disappears. Inexplicably. In fact, the whole point of the footage is confusingthough near the end the Great Guidance says he is sending the monsters to destroy life (which at the time consists of five people, all of them in the canyon). Other than a tree, the footage only shows the creatures attacking each other.
The "space" footage is supposed to represent two scientists (who never appear on camera) escaping in a rocket to the space platform (which seems to be a toy jet plane with a sparkler attached maniacally going in tight circles). When it blows up (as you know it will) you can see the stick and gloved hand holding it.
Perhaps most bizarre (or not, it's all pretty bizarre) are all those bubbles. Which don't really make sense (a "practical" reason will be suggested below). There's a machine that emits lots and lots of bubbles. And there are bubbles when Ro-Man talks to the Great Guidance (just Barrows in the Ro-Man costume with Brown doing the same voice). But the bubbles must be important. They get their own screen credit: "Automatic Billion Bubble Machine" a product made by the fine folks at N.A. Fisher Chemical Products.
Comin' at Ya!
Or not. The movie was filmed in 3-D (an attempt to cash in on the craze started a year earlier with Bwana Devil). It's very difficult to see in that form (though it seems an actual 3-D version was available at one time on VHS), so revel in the film's glorious black & white 2-D action! But here's the thing, there is hardly anything that would really look very 3-Dnot even SCTV's Count Floyd leaning into the camera moments. There are a few wooden hammy primate gestures in the general direction of the audience but nothing that would've impressed. That leaves two things that probably account for 90% of the 3-D effect. The bubbles (aha!) and the explosions/zappings. The floating bubbles would create a sense of depth as they wander and float in the breeze (like when you first see the fish in 1955's Revenge of the Creature). But bubbles? That must've gotten old fast.
The explosion and electrical-ish zapping would've looked kinda cool, too. The alien attacks seem to consist primarily of lightning and quick flashes where they print the negative, alternating between that and the positive print (rather well done, if pointless). Now bright, shiny things tend to look cool with those old 3-D glasses (the ones with one red lens and one blue lens). I had some in grade school. Cartoons, comic book covers. Very cool. No depth effect but still cool. But it won't make and certainly won't save a film. And those long shots of Ro-Man walking up the mountain...walking down the mountain...walking in the canyon (time killers like in those old westerns of the 1930s full of shots of men riding from one side of the screen to the other)...just ain't gonna cut it.
"We're a Happy Family"
An interesting aspect of the film is its (very 1950s) celebration of the nuclear (post-nuclear?) family. The children dress appropriately. Carla (who does almost nothing in the film aside from getting attacked...well one other thing) wears a pretty dress (later, shorts), has a dolly, and always talks of playing house. Johnny opens the movie, playing space alien, complete with bubble helmet and ray gun (probably one of those old metal ones that shoot sparks...I never could get those sparks to ignite anything). He wears the stiff, slightly oversized jeans with the cuffs neatly folded for himjeans that mysteriously turn into shorts for most of the movie...perhaps not so mysterious when all is said and done (that opening scene is the key to helping make as much sense as one can out of this mess).
There is the relationship that develops between Roy and Al-iss. It leads to an odd scene where the Professor marries them and a bizarre love scene, done sans dialogue (they fear Ro-Man might hear their B-movie fumblings), under bad music. It's pantomimed as bad or worse than Ro-Man's behavior, looking like some freakish imitation of a Tarzan interacts with Jane while pretending to do sign language moment. And Roy can't seem to keep his shirt on, insisting the viewer worship at the altar of his hirsute muscular torso. Without giving a plot-related reason. As creepy as it all is, it's pretty Wonder Bread wholesome (probably just as nutritious).
Though, family friendly as it is, one wonders what a father would think when his (admittedly adult) daughter shows up with his shirtless partner. Then again, he cluelessly asks what has kept them. Carla, more astute, suggests they were playing house (far more palatable than the reality).
[An aside here. The actor playing Roy, George Nader, was an up and comer in Hollywood and well groomed (pun and not pun both intended) as a leading "beefcake." Not quite a first or second tier star, he nonetheless did well for himself. He fell out of favor a few years later when his closeted homosexuality was about to be leaked in the gossip magazines. Linked to (also closeted and also leading man) Rock Hudson who was a friend, the two helped cover for each other. (Though Nader was more linkedthey became longtime partnersto Hudson's male secretary.) There is speculation that Nader was dropped like the proverbial hot potato in order to protect the star power (and box office) of major star Hudson. Nader did manage to put together a successful career acting in Europe following his fall from grace but had to retire in the mid-70s after a car accident and development of glaucoma (he could no longer stand working under the bright lights). Following retirement he wrote a novel, Chrome (1978) which is notable as one of the first, if not the first, gay-themed science fiction novels.]
The family is held as special, even to Ro-Man, who gives his reason for kidnapping Al-iss as because the woman is the life-giver. Some viewers seem to think he has a "thing" for her (some reviews going so far as to refer to him as woman crazy or something similar). He asks to meet with Al-iss because she will understand (just what is unclear). When she defiantly leaves against Roy's protestations ("you mean there are things nice girls don't do?"), Johnny asks if she is going on a date with Ro-Man. And even though he is "built to have no emotions," the Professor attempts, via viewscreen, to stir emotion by introducing his family, hoping to get Ro-Man to spare them. Maybe a heart truly beats deep in his barrel robot-gorilla chest. Viva la familia.
On the other hand, with dialogue like "you're either too beautiful to be so smart or too smart to be so beautiful" and "you're so bossy you oughta be milked before you come home at night" (both Roy) the film doesn't lose any of its 1950s sexist street cred.
"That's not writing, that's typing."
Such fine dialogue graces this fine film. Take this comforting speech after the death of a loved one:
No regrets Johnny. We enjoyed her as long as she was with us and now somehow we must find a way to live without her.
And, no, it's not a eulogy for the family pet. Sure it's not as rousing and inspirational as George C. Scott's George S. Patton talking of going through the enemy "like crap through a goose" but they can't all be gems.
How about these speeches by Ro-Man:
Suppose I were Hu-man. Would you treat me like a man.
To be like the Hu-man. To laugh, feel, want. Why are these things not in the plan?
See: Ro-Man want to be like Hu-man. Deep inside Ro-Man and Hu-man are same. Want same. Talk weird. It appears screenwriter Wyott Ordung (writer of the also cheap but actually pretty good Target Earth the following year) was channeling William Shakespeare:
I am a Jew. Hath
not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die?
Shylock, The Merchant of Venice Act III Scene I
Unlike so many films, the scientists aren't batty or shortsighted or...mad. They're the heroes. Of course, not much science is really evident beyond assorted electronic parts that one can pick up at any local Radio Shack. But there is science hinted at. Like why are they survivors and no one else is? Simple. The Professor and Roy created a superpotent (perhaps omnipotent) antibiotic that could cure all human diseaseeven the common cold. Yes, an antibiotic so strong it can destroy viruses. Wow. Rewrite the Bio texts. And like any intelligent and ethical scientist, the Professor tested the product on his family and his coworkers.
What does that have to do with the plot? Again simple. Antibiotics also ward off the common Calcinator ray. Just what mechanism this pill uses to protect against flashing explosions, lightning, and...bombs from WWII is unclear. But trust them, they're experts. And such an advanced civilization are the Ro-Man that they don't try physically attacking the survivors until the last 15 or so minutes.
The Rest of the Story
The most notable name in the cast is the composer (the music is solid and the score over the opening titles quite good). Elmer Bernsteinyes, that Elmer Bernstein. The Elmer Berstein who, while being no Ennio Morricone (who is?), had a very long and prolific career. The Elmer Bernstein who was nominated for Academy Awards in 11 different years, including 1963 when he had two nominations and 1967 when he had three (some of the nominations were shared with lyricists). The same Elmer Bernstein who won an Oscar for Best Music, Original Music Score for the film Thoroughly Modern Millie in 1968. The Elmer Bernstein probably best known for the classic theme music from The Magnificent Seven (1960; also nominated, plus nominated for one of the film's sequels two years later). That Elmer Bernstein. (Oh yeah: he also did the music for 1953's Cat-Women on the Moon and 1987's Bill Cosby bomb Leonard Part 6.)
One of the more interesting stories surrounding Robot Monster is the claim that poor reviews led to deep depression for director Phil Tucker resulting in a botched gunshot suicide. This is mostly false (despite being mentioned on The Internet Movie Database; www.mst3kinfo.com also makes the claim connecting reviews to the suicide attempt). As noted, the film actually got fairly decent reviews at the time and did exceptional box office considering the original cost. There was a suicide attempt (apparently sleeping pills, not a gun) but it had more to do with the distributors cheating him out of profits which led to a conflict that got him more or less blacklisted around Hollywoodsupposedly he wasn't even allowed into theaters to watch his movies under general admission. He did work again but mostly sleazy (by 1950's standards, of course) "adult" fare.
The Last Ro-Man on Earth
The trailer calls the film "Overwhelming! Electrifying! Baffling!" Definitely one out of three. But don't be so smug and jaded, viewerbecause the trailer also warns that the movie is
An actual preview of the devastating forces of our future! Unsuspected revelations of incredible horrors that will terrify you with their brutal reality!
Chew on that popcorn Mr. Wood. "Bevare," indeed.
Sources: personal copy on DVD, the Internet Movie Database, www.mst3kinfo.com, http://www.moria.co.nz/sf/robotmonster.htm, inflation conversion done at http://westegg.com/inflation/infl.cgi, the "typing" quote was Truman Capote, if you missed the
Shakespeare and Ramones references shame on you.