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Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Robot Monster (1953)

Director: Phil Tucker
Stars: George Nader, Claudia Barrett, Selena Royale, John Mylong, Gregory Moffett, Paela Paulson and George Barrows
I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

For a bad movie, and this is a really bad movie, it's a quintessential low budget fifties scifi romp, perhaps even more fun to watch than Plan 9 from Outer Space. If it had been released half a century later it would still be in movie theaters today with cult audiences heckling the screen on a monthly basis with producer/director Phil Tucker kept busy flying from screening to screening to sign autographs. I'm sure he would have plenty to talk about during a Q&A too, given that he shot the film for a measly $16,000 in only four days without any sets, and somehow managed to make it in 3D and with stereophonic sound too, the first time that had been done on a scifi film. If Tucker was alive today, I'd try to introduce him to James Cameron. Avatar may have earned two billion dollars on the basis of its 3D ticket prices but that's only eight times its cost. Robot Monster grossed a million bucks and that meant more than 62 times what Tucker spent on it.

Even the credits are fun, for a whole slew of reasons, not least that they unfold over a gorgeous display of pulp magazine covers that I'd love to own: Another World, Space Cadet, Worlds of Fear, Terror Tales, Strange Suspense Stories and, inevitably, Robot Monster. The cutting edge technology is listed as the Tru-Stereo Three Dimension Process and there's even a credit for N A Fisher Chemical Products for providing an Automatic Billion Bubble Machine. One of the stars, and when the cast is only eight names long everyone's a star, has her name misspelled and hey, there's Elmer Bernstein owning up to the score. Yes, that Elmer Bernstein, a few years before he'd compose scores for such other grade Z scifi drive in movies as The Man with the Golden Arm, The Ten Commandments and Sweet Smell of Success. Over his career, he racked up 14 Oscar nominations and won once, but no, not for Robot Monster, love theme notwithstanding.

The most important character in the film is little Johnny, which may explain a lot. He's a pretty transparent character: we first spy him climbing out of the ditch to disintegrate his sister Carla and blow bubbles all over her, so in other words he's just like any other ten year old boy. She just wants to play house but she's a girl so she doesn't count. 'These woods are full of spacemen and it's either them or us,' says imaginative Johnny and so off they go to wander around Bronson Canyon and find a couple of archaeologists hacking apart the entrance to the Batcave, the one from the sixties TV show with Adam West. They're minding their own business, chipping away an ancient cave painting to take to a museum, you know, like archaeologists do, but this little brat tells them he wants them to die. Such a nice boy, Johnny. He and Carla are there for a picnic with their mother, credited simply as Mother, and his young, free and single elder sister named Alice.

They take a nap after lunch because Mother says so, but when Johnny gets up and wanders back over to the cave, all hell breaks loose, and I'm almost not kidding. Lightning flashes, the ground explodes, there's a bright light in the sky and dinosaurs start fighting each other and throwing each other off cliffs. No, there's no Rod Serling to point out that we've stumbled into the Twilight Zone, but after Johnny starts playing with the machinery that's magically appeared in the cave entrance, out comes Ro-Man! Actually he's not called Ro-Man, it's more of a species like we are Hu-Man. All of his kind are called Ro-Man and they come from the planet Ro-Man too, so you can tell how much imagination they don't have. Apparently it was all used up on character design because Ro-Mans (yes, Ro-Mans not Ro-Men) are fat guys in gorilla suits. With diving helmets on their heads. And antennae. If there were TVs in their bellies too, they'd be teletubbies.

The Ro-Man in the cave is Extension Ro-Man XJ2 and he reports back to Great Guidance Ro-Man via some sort of intergalactic videoconferencing. We'll call them Ro-Man and Great One just to be clear. They're looking for intelligent life so that they can destroy it, because hey, that's how they roll and it's here that a rare treat begins because Ro-Mans are humourless aliens with a penchant for overstatement and scientific gobbledegook, which are always the best kind. 'No life has been discovered on other planets,' offers Great One. 'Earth is our only rival.' Now, it isn't much of a rival any more because Ro-Man started a nuclear war by waving his calcinator beam around and now everyone's dead. 'My energiser has scan checked by square feet,' he reports. 'No life above lepidoptera level exists.' So he thinks, but Great One apparently has a tiny penis. 'My computator is more accurate. In the 22nd category there is an error of sixteen billionths.'

What this translates to is that there are eight people left alive on the planet Earth, and you can be sure it's not me and seven hot Japanese schoolgirls with kilt fetishes and mad martial arts skills. Yeah, it's Johnny and his family, who are now comprised of all the people we've met thus far. He's forgotten about his dead dad entirely and substituted the Professor in his place as his mother's partner of 23 years and father of all three kids. Roy the studly archaeologist is naturally Alice's fiancé, but then who else was she going to pick with no other humans left on the planet? I should point out that the final two are never seen and soon get vaporised by Great One as they attempt to fly a rocket to the space platform to inject the garrison there with serum to immunise them against Ro-Man's deadly calcinator beam. Did you blink? Sorry, they're all dead. Great One blows them out of the sky with a cosmic blast after counting down from ten to eight. The cad!
So there are six of them left and they live in a hole in the ground that used to be the basement of a house. They don't have a roof or a bathroom but they do have a videoconferencing screen, which is useful because it means Ro-Man can chime in once in a while and threaten them some more. It doesn't get TV though, because they forgot to buy a converter box. There's electrified wiring strung around to deflect Ro-Man's scans because every member of this family is a genius at thwarting Ro-Man. Well, except for little Carla, but we don't want to be rude about her. She's still traumatised by the near obliteration of the human race through nuclear holocaust and the ensuing search and destroy mission run by a robot monster in a gorilla suit, so she's just waiting for it to all be over so she can go over to Janey's house and borrow her dolls. Actress Pamela Paulson never acted again and, judging from her performance here, that didn't upset her one bit.

I can't believe I've gone a couple of paragraphs without some stunning Robot Monster dialogue so I'll use some to introduce the biggest star of the movie: good old 1950s sexism. Johnny knows the whole family are geniuses, so he suggests to his dad that maybe they should, I dunno, kill Ro-Man. 'No, Johnny,' he replies, 'The armies of the entire world have tried and failed. We have thrown everything we had at him but he's impervious.' But wait! I have to compose myself as the next line has me in stitches every time. Alice chimes in with, wait for it, 'Unless we find his weak spot!' Wow, what a girl! Could she be any less understanding of war and defeat and nuclear frickin' annihilation? Well, no, but she is an electronics genius which is why they have a working videophone when the world has gone to hell in a handbasket and there's nobody to call. They don't have a bubble machine though, unlike Ro-Man. Every cave should have a bubble machine.

And in chimes Ro-Man, as if on queue. 'Hu-mans, listen to me! Due to an error in calculation there are still a few of you left! You escaped destruction because I did not know you existed! Now I know you are watching! I see five of you who have not been destroyed! Show yourselves, and I promise you a painless death!' It's impossible not to use exclamation marks when Ro-Man is in threatening mode, even though we get distracted by trying to work out how he can count five of them when only four are standing there or wondering why the few remaining Hu-Mans keep introducing themselves. 'Do you wonder what happened to your fellows?' asks Ro-Man, as he triggers some truly astonishing stock footage of explosions that completely fail to touch the ground. 'Watch them! My calcinator beam wiped out your last sages, your last scientists in their deepest shelters! Everyone but you few! There is no escape from me!'

Every moment in Robot Monster is good for something sexist, so Mother decides to give peace a chance. You know, at this point they think there are only five people left alive, all from the same family so there's no way to repopulate the world beyond inbreeding, and she wants to appeal to Ro-Man's better nature. Maybe he's a nice guy when you get to know him. Maybe he's merely allergic to bubbles. Fortunately Roy turns back up to restore any hope of saving the human race from a fate of becoming retarded banjo players sitting on porches and explains why they're still alive. Apparently dad invented 'an anti-biotic serum to cure all diseases, even the common cold,' promptly used his own family as test subjects and entirely coincidentally managed to immunise them all against Ro-Man's calcinator beam. We're not supposed to notice coincidences in this film, like the one that has the only six Hu-Mans left living a stone's throw from Ro-Man's HQ.

Roy also elevates the sexism to startling heights by reacquainting himself with his fiancée with words of romance and tenderness like, 'You're so bossy you ought to be milked before you come home at night!' Don't try that one at home, folks. He tries to suck up after that with lines such as 'You're either too beautiful to be so smart, or too smart to be so beautiful,' and 'Do you realize what you tried to do was impossible, yet you almost did it?' It doesn't help though, especially when Ro-Man suddenly decides he likes the look of Al-Iss so wants to rendezvous with her at the ruin in the area of the fork of the two dry rivers. He has no idea where on the planet she is but he asks if she knows the fork of the two dry rivers. Talk about optimistic! Anyway, Roy won't let her go to attempt to save the world with her feminine wiles and he even picks her up to stop her doing it anyway, just for emphasis. He's apparently He-Man and she's Wo-Man, not for Ro-Man.
Actually He-Man makes sense, given that he soon strips off his fashionably torn shirt to wander around topless for the rest of the movie, demonstrating his best beefcake poses. Actor George Nader, who bizarrely won a Golden Globe in 1954 as the most promising male newcomer of the year, something we can only hope was utterly unrelated to his work in Robot Monster, was gay and had his screen career ruined after sex scandals threatened big star Rock Hudson. Nader's long term companion, Mark Miller, was Hudson's personal secretary and the two actors often covered for each other to help preserve their straight images. Apparently Robot Monster, very possibly the worst film Nader appeared in, stuck in his mind because after a career revival in a series of West German movies, he turned to writing, including a 1978 science fiction thriller called Chrome about a bunch of gay robots. I honestly can't say if it had a bubble machine too.

Because Nader's image was straight he could be irresistible to the ladies and yes, whatever sexist shenanigans he pulls on Alice can be forgiven with a smile. Then again, she can't exactly wait around for a better man, given that the only other male left on the planet is her dad, so one romp in the bush later and they're asking daddy to join their hands in marriage. Inevitably they find a veil for Alice but can't be bothered to find a shirt for Roy but then again, we know Phil Tucker didn't splurge on costumes because Alice and Mother both wear the exact same white backless number, which is very likely the single most unbelievable plot hole in this entire film. Of course Alice is desirable to an alien robot gorilla in a diving helmet. Of course robots would have a copy of the same serum the Professor made to cure all human diseases. Of course cosmic Q rays create dinosaur battles. But the last two living women wearing the same outfit? Come on!

There's much more to come. The wedding is a hit and the whole town shows up, which may well count as seven people if you include Carla's doll. Ro-Man crashes the honeymoon, beats up He-Man and carries Wo-Man away, because she's such a girly girl that she tries some patticake patticake 'you're such a brute' defensive blows, turns round to run away and promptly falls over. She's so unwilling that she even ties herself up in Ro-Man's cave when he can't work out how to tie a knot while wearing a gorilla suit. That's after he tries to molest her so maybe she's just into inter-species bestiality. Luckily little Carla doesn't see this because she's already been strangled to death for being dumb enough to walk up to the robot monster who's happily destroying the human race and tell him that her daddy won't let him hurt her. So much for that bright idea. And in the end, Johnny wakes up to refresh our memory that this entire movie is a dream sequence.

Initially I felt that this was a saving grace, because it does feel like something an imaginative ten year old scifi addict would conjure up: old school pulp adventure with no pretensions of grandeur in sight. Yet the more I thought about what his dream really contains, the more I can't help but realise little Johnny is a little pervert. He imagines that the Professor is his father, even though he's met him precisely once and he speaks in a Bela Lugosi accent, something of a kick in the teeth for his recently deceased dad. The accent is because actor John Mylong is Austrian, though at least he's not Korean or he'd be My-long John. Johnny has his little sister strangled to death, though he has the decency to bury her. He watches his elder sister get deflowered by another strange man, get kidnapped on her honeymoon then molested by an alien ape with a bondage fetish. He sees himself murdered. Oh, and the world is destroyed by cyclotronic vibrations.

In other words, little Johnny needs a psychiatrist snappy, before he gets to advertise Kool-Aid and have The Mickey Mouse Club reject him as a Mousketeer for not being able to sing or dance well enough. Then again actor Gregory Moffett retired at twelve, which is way cool. His screen mother was forced to retire after one more film, not for tarnishing her reputation with this little gem but because she got tangled up in the communist witchhunts, even though she'd become much loved for organising the Stage Door Canteen that served free meals to servicemen passing through New York heading to or returning from World War II. She's Selena Royle and she had an interesting response: rather than testify in front of HUAC she sued the American Legion, who had listed her name in Red Channels and won, clearing her name. Her career was dead though so she got married, moved to Mexico and wrote books like The Gringa's Guide to Mexican Cooking.

Somehow that's a better story than director Phil Tucker had to tell. You'd think he would be over the moon making a picture for $16,000 and grossing a million bucks, but the distributor screwed him out of his share and he attempted suicide. He survived and lived long enough to find his film listed in the Medveds' book The Golden Turkey Awards, in which his cheap attempt at the title character was pronounced 'The Most Ridiculous Monster in Screen History'. He did mount a mild response, saying that 'for the budget and for the time, I felt I had achieved greatness,' and he has a point. He knew people with robot suits but couldn't afford them, so made do with what he could get: George Barrows, who owned a gorilla suit and was willing to work for free. Barrows plays both Ro-Mans, though English actor John Brown provided the voices. What Tucker ended up with is a cult hit, truly terrible but joyous and engaging, the most watchable bad movie ever.

2 comments:

BeckoningChasm said...

Very nice! Though I feel compelled to point out that, as a comic-book/sci-fi obsessed kid, Johnny would naturally think that ALL monsters "wanted our women" so that may be more shoe-horning the genre staples into his dream. I don't think that makes him any less, er, ill, but it might be a mitigating factor at his trial some years later.

Well done review!

Hal C F Astell said...

Thanks!

You may well be right but surely alien monsters wanting our women doesn't mean our women have to help. 'Sure, molest me! Molest me! Hang on, let me tie myself up for you first!'

Wouldn't it be great if someone wrote a thesis for their philosophy degree on the implications for little Johnny of his dream? What do all those lurid women in peril pulp covers do to young maturing minds (other than make them very happy for reasons they may not yet understand)?

Hal