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Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Robot Monster (1953)

Original Screenplay (boy, is it...) by  Wyott Ordung
Directed by Phil Tucker

George Nader:  Roy
Claudia Barrett:  Alice
Selena Royale:  Mother
John Mylong:  The Professor
Gregory Moffett:  Johnny
Pamela Paulson:  Carla
George Barrows:  Ro-Man the Monster / The Great Guidance
John Brown:  Voice of Ro-Man the Monster / Voice of The Great Guidance

Why am I reviewing Robot Monster today? Because it's just a hair over an hour long, so I won't get too bogged down (and hopefully get a review wrapped up in under 6000 words for once). Because it's a fever dream of baffling intensity. Because it doesn't make a goddamned bit of sense, and because the killer that wiped out entire armies by itself is represented by a stuntman in a gorilla suit with a diving helmet on top instead of a stiff rubber monkey mask. Perhaps a better question would be why it took me so long to get to this one. To answer that, I can only say that I watch a lot of movies and it takes a long time to write a review.

I'd heard about this one from several sources (the Medved brothers' Golden Turkey books, Stephen King's Danse Macabre, and of course a few clips of it--sadly, none with overripe and confusing dialogue--in It Came From Hollywood). But none of the video stores in my home town had it on tape and as far as I can remember it never showed on television in the Chicago area, even on the direst and cheapest of UHF stations. The legend (which Wikipedia disputes) is that the movie was received so poorly and made so little money that Phil Tucker, the director, tried to kill himself. The truth behind his suicide attempt was that he couldn't get a job and the producers of the movie stiffed him, even though it grossed more than a million dollars on a budget reported to be a mere sixteen grand. At any rate, it is a legendarily bad and weird movie, and when you're shooting a movie in a mere four days on a sofa-change budget you have to settle for what you can get in virtually every aspect of the filmmaking process. Don't have a ruined house to shoot in? Go to a construction site and film in a completed foundation. Don't have a huge effects budget? Splice in old footage of a monitor lizard and alligator fighting from One Million B.C. Don't have time or money to build the rest of a robot suit after making a helmet? Looks like you're stuck with a friend's home-built gorilla suit. Don't have the budget or reputation that harnesses an A-list score composer? Well, actually, you got one anyway. This is Elmer Bernstein's first professional gig writing a film score and he does quite a nice job.

The credits for this legendarily awful film run over a pile of horror and science fiction comics (or, to put it another way, if I'd been an eleven-year-old in 1953, it would have been filmed in my brain). The opening credits promise a TRU-STEREO THREE DIMENSION PROCESS, but I've only ever seen this in 2-D. The first time, happily enough, was at B Fest. There's something about being sleep deprived and slap-happy that makes this movie go down nice and smooth. The film itself is so disconnected and odd that going without sleep for 22 hours puts you in just the right frame of mind to experience it.

After the credits, young Johnny is playing Invader From Space with his younger sister Carla; after disintegrating her with a toy ray-gun she says it's time to play house instead (and that Johnny said he would after a suitable amount of time was spent as a force for cosmic destruction). It's a pretty boss plastic space helmet that Johnny's sporting in this scene. I remember getting a green and yellow plastic alien helmet and blaster for Christmas one year when my age was in the single digits, which means I can really see where Johnny's coming from. Johnny tells his sister that the hills around their house (Bronson Canyon, which you have seen multiple times if you're a science fiction fan).

In one of the more familiar caves in the greater Bronson Canyon area, Johnny and Carla come across an archaeologist and his assistant; Johnny says they must die since that's what space conquerors tend to tell people. The scientist says peace would be much better (in a thick German accent, although I think that's more a case of "Phil Tucker hired people he could afford" more than any intentional political commentary) and Johnny says he'll be from a friendly planet in that case. The scientists explain what they're doing in the cave--looking for artifacts and paintings from pre-European-contact Californians--and the older man says as far as he can tell there were no spacemen running around the area in olden times. Well, he might sound European but he can't possibly be Erich von Daniken.

Before Johnny can irritate the scientists any further, his mother and sister show up to drag them away from the cave. His sister Alice sparks a mild connection with Roy, the younger scientist, and then Johnny and Carla return to their family's picnic site to take a nap (?). Johnny says if his father was still alive he would have been allowed to pester the archaeologists, and then asks his mom if she's going to marry a new father, and if so, make it a scientist who builds rocket ships. Even if the actor wasn't a grating little shit that's a weird rap to lay on your mom. Perhaps 1953 was a stranger time than I tend to think it was.

Johnny rises from his nap to find everyone else at the picnic site sleeping and goes back to the cave, when suddenly there are flashes of lightning, an electronic tone, the screen solarizes, a meteor or alien ship streaks through the sky, and a monitor lizard fights an alligator with a fin glued to its back. (Watching this scene back at B Fest, I asked which one of them was the robot monster. My friend Sean instantly responded that it was like Grape-Nuts, in that the name was doubly inaccurate.) Some stop-motion dinosaurs clash briefly in between the real-animal violence and when Johnny wakes up again it's at the same cave, but now a bubble machine next to a shortwave radio is filling the air with the Lawrence Welk Re-Enaction Society's usual decorations.

And then Ro-Man stomps out of the cave, bent on destruction. There's really nothing I can say to describe how dumb the costume looks, because a picture is worth a thousand words. And all thousand of those words from me are going to be "...Really?" when I'm trying to hip you to the scene of exactly how sad the Robot Monster looks. However unimpressive that still shot is, when it's moving the suit is even worse. I said "Ro-Man" earlier but his full title is "Extension Ro-Man XJ2", and he tunes his space videophone in to his home planet to talk to Guidance Ro-Man. For convenience, I'll be referring to the Earthbound gorilla in a diving helmet as "Ro-Man" and the one in space that's in charge of things will be "The Great Guidance".

Anyway, The Great Guidance is kind of a jagoff (the first thing he tells his subordinate is that he's 14 minutes late checking in, which suggests more structure than I'd particularly like to deal with if there are going to be interplanetary check-in calls). Ro-Man is told that Earth is the only rival for the Ro-Man Empire, being the only other planet that had developed intelligent life (or, indeed, life of any kind). As a first strike meant to ensure there would never be a war between Earth and Planet Ro-Manet, Ro-Man killed hundreds of millions of people with the Calcinator Death Beam, nearly exterminating all of humanity before a counter-attack could be mounted. He only announced his presence when the democracies and USSR started chucking H-bombs at each other, because if all the cities were destroyed the conquering Ro-Men would have nowhere to live (or, possibly, they wanted to knock all the buildings down themselves--the dialogue is pretty unclear here). Ro-Man claims that he, by himself, has killed every human being on Earth. The Great Guidance responds "I want facts, not words!" which doesn't even make a tiny amount of sense.

Anyway, it turns out that not quite every single person on Earth is dead. As The Great Guidance puts it himself, "In the twenty-second category there is an error of sixteen billionths," which means precisely fuck-all as far as I can tell. But Ro-Man and his boss explain that it means there are exactly eight people left alive on Earth. If the Calcinator Death Ray isn't going to scrape the last of humanity off the planet like gum from a shoe sole, Ro-Man is going to have to take a more hands-on approach. The Great Guidance says to find and kill the remaining people, and then call back via Space Skype.

Ro-Man decides to get right on that by walking over to his bubble machine and then heading back into his cave. Johnny sneaks in just long enough to make the audience yell "What the hell do you think you're doing, you idiot?" and then runs back to what I'm pretty sure is supposed to be a wrecked house for his father (the archaeologist from before) and mother (his mom from before, now apparently always having been married to the archaeologist) to scold him. It is Armageddon, after all. You can't just go wandering around like a carefree child.

The family's shelter is a roofless, wall-less foundation for a basement with some electrified wires strung around it. The electric wires--created by the professor and Alice--baffle Ro-Man's detection apparatus and the lack of a roof lets in plenty of sunlight and rain. I assume there's a latrine trench dug somewhere as well, and hopefully a few crates of Spam and Tang so that it doesn't wind up that the last human being on Earth kills and eats the penultimate one before starving to death or getting killed by Ro-Man. I went kinda dark on that joke, yeah, but it's a dark movie. I mean, we're eleven minutes in and virtually the entire human race has been wiped out. I think I can be forgiven for going a touch Cormac McCarthy for the time being.

Johnny tells his family that he saw Ro-Man at that cave, and ran away before he could be detected. But the presence of the alien genocidaire so close to the basement house that the family's hiding in cannot be good news. Johnny thinks that maybe his family can kill Ro-Man where the combined military force of every surviving nation failed. Dad says that's a futile hope; Alice says Ro-Man might have a weak spot that they could take advantage of. Offhandedly, Alice says there might be a garrison of soldiers on the "space platform", and that they might be able to kill Ro-Man now that the alien's location is known. Unfortunately there's no way to get in touch with the Space Marines.

Dad says that it's impossible to talk to the space army, but then their cabinet-mounted Jetsons space phone starts screeching and displaying static. He thinks it could well be the military contacting them and letting them know that hope is not completely lost. Nope. It's Ro-Man telling them that there are five people left alive on Earth, he's looking at them now, and if they give themselves up they'll be killed painlessly. Johnny, displaying all the tact and care of a malfunctioning robot, tells his older sister she must be happy that "Roy" has died, since they used to bicker so much. That reduces Alice to tears and Ro-Man shows off a highlight reel of his attacks on Earth's proud and noble cities in response. Also, if The Great Guidance says there were eight people left on Earth, what's up with there being only five people in the basement (and Roy, who is still alive out there somewhere)? I just don't understand.

Oh, and Ro-Man threatens the family by saying "Your death will be indescribable," when they don't obediently march out to get murdered. The mother says it might be time to try and communicate with Ro-Man because there's literally nothing else they can do. And then, back at the cave, Roy shows up and starts dicking around with the shortwave radio / bubble machine, atttracting Ro-Man's attention but successfully hiding from him about six feet away. Ro-Man tunes his Interrociter back in to talk to his boss and tells The Great Guidance that he's only seen five hu-mans on Earth as opposed to the eight that are supposed to still be there. At any rate, the pep talk goes about as well as you'd expect from a genocidal alien race:  Ro-Man has until the Earth revolves one more time to find and kill all eight remaining people, or he'll be destroyed for his failure to do so.

The Earth would complete one entire revolution in a year, by the way. But I'm pretty sure the screenwriter meant "rotation", which would be a day.

When Ro-Man stumbles back into the darkness of his cave, Roy beats feet over to the nameless family's house. The noise of his arrival wakes the professor up, who says the gun he's holding isn't a last-ditch attempt to kill the invader--it's for a murder-suicide pact so his family dies at human hands rather than alien ones. Jesus, this is a dark movie. Anyway, it turns out to be Roy instead of Ro-Man and that he's still alive because Ro-Man couldn't detect him with any of his super-advanced bubble machines. A super-clumsy piece of backstory gets delivered artlessly to the audience here, when Roy mentions that the professor developed a super antibiotic serum that cures all diseases permanently, and he shot himself and his family up with it as the first human test (as well as Roy, and two dudes named Jason and McCloud that we're never actually going to see). It turns out that the serum makes people invisible to Ro-Man's death ray and space radar.

Those two dudes we don't actually meet have another supply of the serum--they're going to load one of the remaining rockets on Earth with all the remaining doses and take it up to the space platform, where they will immunize all the soldiers and counterattack with a troop that will be immune to the Calcinator Death Ray. It's a plan so half-baked, it just might work! Unfortunately there's a pair of serious drawbacks. The first one is that the soldiers on the platform will shoot the rocket down if they think it's an attack from Ro-Man, which will kill Jason and McCloud, destroy the serum, and doom a counterattack before it can even start. Second, if the family radios the space platform to tell them what's coming, Ro-Man will intercept their transmission, find out where they are and kill them before the soldiers can charge in to the rescue.

Alice says the only possible way to get word to the soldiers is to rewire their home viewscreen to transmit on a frequency Ro-Man can't detect (how they would know which ones he can find and which ones he can't is left completely unexplained, natch). It's two days until the rocket goes up so it's time for a montage of soldering and voiceovers from Alice and Roy about whether or not they're doing it wrong. After two days of constant effort Alice has to admit that she can't rewire a viewscreen on the fly with a box of spare parts and that the rocket's just going to have to get to the space platform on its own without a warning broadcast from Earth. Right around that time Ro-Man calls to threaten them again, spotting Roy and realizing that there must really be eight humans left on Earth and that, unfortunately, The Great Guidance was right (which means he's got to give a better gift than a coffee mug for the next Boss's Day).

Ro-Man, gloating at his superiority, shows a broadcast of a rocket taking off for the space platform (it's just stock footage of a V-2 launch, of course). The plastic model with a sparkler crammed up its tailpipe standing in for the space platform is featured in one of my favorite special effects failures of ever--not only do we get to see the rod that it's mounted on, in one scene we see the hand of the prop guy holding the rod! Truly, we live in the days of miracle and wonder when that's available on DVD. The stock footage and the model space platform are both destroyed by the Calcinator Ray; now there are only six people left alive on Earth and they cannot expect any kind of rescue or assistance.

"Is there a choice between painless surrender death and the horror of resistance death?". Well, that's a heck of a question there, Ro-Man. He says he'll go looking for the humans in one hour "of your clock time", and then it's murdering time. After a brief Despair Break, the professor says he'll try to communicate directly with Ro-Man to negotiate something other than surrender and death. Which means another shot of Alice and Roy's hands as they work on an electronics project. The chat with Ro-Man goes poorly; none of the humans offer to surrender and the professor shows his family (and Roy) to Ro-Man in an attempt to show the alien that he has nothing to fear from the last remnants of humanity.

When Ro-Man sees the professor's children, though, he gets a strange and unfamiliar thought in his mechanical brain. He falls instantly in love with Alice and decides that he should talk to her instead of the professor. He sets up a meeting with her, promising to negotiate and to see if he can calculate a way to bring the six remaining humans into the Ro-Man civilization rather than exterminating them. That makes it three days since he had "one revolution" to kill everyone by my count, by the way. When Alice tries to leave over her family's protests, they overpower her and tie her up in a scene that I have seen but still don't quite believe. Meanwhile, the poor son of a bitch in the Ro-Man suit is staggering awkwardly around the hills of Bronson Canyon trying not to snag the suit's shag-rug fur on any branches. This sequence and several more just like it led to my friend Dennis and I yelling "In case you were wondering how he got down the hill!" at B Fest each time, which led the people in the seats in front of us to think we were dickheads beating a joke into the ground. I'll plead guilty to the second charge but not the first.

Oh, for some reason, the Calcinator Death Beam goes off several times while Ro-Man is plodding around. And while everyone was incapacitating Alice, Johnny ran out to confront Ro-Man at the meeting place that the alien set up. His parents flip out when they realize that they've restrained one child only to have another one sprint pell-mell into lethal danger. The professor sends Roy out and tells Alice to go with him (so they untie her mere moments after she was tied up for her own safety). At least the script is realistic enough that Alice is pissed off about the way she was treated.

After another partially solarized shot of Ro-Man climbing a hill, Johnny runs past a wrecked house and tries to talk to the alien to determine why the human race had to die. Ro-Man says his species didn't want to wait until humanity could put up a fair fight in its own defense, and it was easier and safer to wipe them out in 1953. "I think you're just a big bully picking on people smaller than you are," is Johnny's not particularly wrong response. Ro-Man:  "Now I will kill you." That doesn't disprove Johnny's smack talk, you know. A lengthy blast of the Calcinator Death Ray does less than zip to Johnny, who tells the robot "You look like a pooped-out pinwheel," one of the early Fifties' most brutal insults. I guess. Johnny also lets it slip that his father's super curative serum is the reason the Death Ray isn't doing anything to him, so Ro-Man tells him that he'll just recalibrate the Death Ray and then the last six people on Earth will die. Way to go, Johnny. Way. To. Go.

Ro-Man plods off to his cave while Alice and Roy go looking for Johnny (and try to avoid getting apestrangled to death). Roy takes his tattered shirt off (a little something for the ladies!) and scoops Alice up to run away when he sees Ro-Man is near. For an all-conquering threat, Ro-Man can't see jack shit in that helmet, so the pair of survivors gets away for now. We get to see the poor stunt man walk down the same hill he so recently and laboriously climbed up, so there's that. When Johnny returns to the ruined house / foundation he tells his parents that he spilled the beans about the super serum, and now Ro-Man is going to build a better Calcinator Death Ray. There's a silent romantic interlude between Alice and Roy (the latter of whom appears to be bleeding from the ears for some reason the movie declines to provide) while Ro-Man trudges around again, possibly getting closer to them, or not. With only one hill to go up or down I don't know how to judge his position relative to the other characters.

Alice and Roy return to the incomplete foundation hideout with that "just been fucked" look about them, and ask the professor to officiate a wedding ceremony for them. Sure, it's the end of human history, but that's a touchingly optimistic and loving gesture. Even pretending there's a future can be heroic if you're absolutely certain there isn't going to be one. The professor is delighted to perform the ceremony, declaring it to be "the social event of the year". He's not even wrong, but thinking about that too much is just going to depress you.

Back at the cave, Ro-Man is goofing around with his viewscreen again while the bubble machine racks up some overtime pay. He tells The Great Guidance that he's figured out why the Calcinator Death Ray didn't kill them all, and the Guidance informs Ro-Man that the planet has "half-revolved" (...what?), so he's only got a little time to kill everyone and avoid getting taken out by the Guidance himself for failing in his mission. So it's time for some more shots of Ro-Man awkwardly returning to the back of the cave before we switch back to the basement hideout for Alice and Roy's wedding. Alice has found a veil somewhere but Roy hasn't located a shirt. One assumes they could have found one somewhere if every other house in the city is full of corpses (or just little piles of ash; we never really do find out what the Calcinator Death Ray does to people).

The professor apologizes to God for not being good at performing weddings and then carries on with the ceremony as well as he can. He also asks God to watch over the couple on their wedding night, which turns out not to happen (Ro-Man kills Roy to death while he and Alice are out on a honeymoon as far away from the basement as they can prudently go). Alice says she'll get "her things" before they leave, but as far as I can tell nobody in the shelter actually has anything. Johnny's mother says they're running out of food at one point but none is ever depicted.

Carla runs off to pick flowers for a wedding bouquet and inevitably Ro-Man runs across her (he must have figured out that the family was conveniently close to his cave at some point, but imagine how he'd feel if he was in, say, Calcutta and the six humans he had to kill were in Bronson Canyon halfway across the world). Anyway, exit Carla and Roy, although Ro-Man takes Alice back to his cave rather than killing her outright as well. He also makes a call to The Great Guidance, trying to alter "the plan" by keeping one human alive (for "unforeseen contingencies", although that basically comes across as Ro-Man saying "because of reasons" while talking to his leader). The Great Guidance isn't having any of that "keep one human around" shit, though, and commands Ro-Man to get with the program and wipe out all five remaining people.

The professor and Johnny's mom (if she got a name in either part of the movie, I missed it) discover Carla's body and bury her in a shallow grave with the obligatory rough wooden cross above it. Johnny says he wishes he'd played "house" with her more back when she was alive, but in such a flat manner that it's funny rather than awful or touching. Roy, mortally wounded, stagger-runs down a hill to the makeshift funeral and tells the remaining three humans on Earth that Ro-Man has Alice before expiring. Johnny hatches a plan--if one of them acts as bait, Ro-Man will go away from his cave to kill that person. While that's going on, the other two can rescue Alice. It's a cool plan, but, uh, nobody knows that Ro-Man is planning to keep Alice alive, right? I mentioned earlier that the movie is a fever dream, and I stand by that characterization.

Ro-Man, back at the cave, asks Alice if she'd treat him "like a man" if he was a hu-man and not a Ro-Man. Before the audience can squirm themselves to death thinking about that, Alice says she needs to know where the power source that keeps Ro-Man vulnerable is. It's in the cave, Alice. Though which piece of equipment it is, I have no idea. Probably not the bubble machine. Ro-Man is tying up Alice when the viewscreen gets his attention; it's the professor, Johnny and his mother making a false offer to go and be killed painlessly by the alien as part of Johnny's desperate plan. Ro-Man tells them he's busy and to call back later. No, really. That's what he says. When he turns back to Alice, she's tied herself up (!) while Ro-Man wasn't looking. That actress spends a pretty considerable amount of time bound in this movie, and I'm wondering if it's just a lazy plot device or if Wyott Ordung or Phil Tucker just liked the idea.

The Great Guidance calls Ro-Man just in time for things to get really awkward about the whole "keeping Alice around because Ro-Man has fallen in love with her", and the pulp science fiction hackiness of the screenplay sinks to a whole new level as Ro-Man gets a soliloquy wherein he bemoans his fate, confused just as much as anyone else (in the movie or the audience) about why he has fallen in love so completely and instantly with the Earth woman. It's brilliant in its stupidity, so I'll just quote the speech in its entirety here:  "Yes! To be like the hu-man! To laugh! Feel! Want! Why are these things not in the plan?" As well as "I cannot. Yet I must. How do you calculate that? At what point on the graph do "Must" and "Cannot" meet? Yet I must. But I cannot!"

Johnny and his parents go out to the ravine to await Ro-Man, as they promised, and Johnny splits off to go on his own while Ro-Man calls The Great Guidance again to get chewed out before lumbering after Johnny. The professor and his wife rescue Alice just as Ro-Man gets to Johnny and strangles him. Because he was defiant, The Great Guidance declares that he can die like the hu-man if he's so all-fired ready to live like one and blasts some pretty nifty-looking negative scratch Force lightning down to Earth. Ro-Man collapses with three hu-mans still left to go on his kill list. But all is now completely lost; The Great Guidance busts out the ultimate weapon, worse by orders of magnitude than the Calcinator Death Ray. It's the Q Ray, which revives ancient dinosaurs to eat everyone left on Earth (though the stock footage is of herbivores, so good luck with that, Jack). Finally the head Ro-Man declares that he will "smash the Earth out of the universe!", so Alice and her folks are well and truly up shit creek (in practice, this means we get to see some of the same stock footage from the beginning of the movie before the movie returns to the cave where the archaeologists are helping Johnny up after a fall that left him with a pretty impressive bruise on his head.

That's right. It was all a dream. Which actually makes the insane things like the sets (a foundation for a basement standing in for a ruined house) and the two people Johnny met for a couple of minutes being transformed into his original father and his sister's boyfriend really work in the context of the narrative. It ain't much, but I'll take it.

Oh, hey, one more cliche left in the bag. The end...OR IS IT? For just as everyone walks away from that one cave that has been in the real world and Johnny's dream world, Ro-Man stalks out, hands raised towards the audience! And then he does it again. And...then he does it again. Three times, in case you missed it. THREE. TIMES. Then the film is finally over.

This is one of those rare films that, if you watch it without knowing what's going to happen, will make you feel as if you have accidentally coughed up your own skull. It has a kind of dream logic to the scenes after Johnny takes his nap, but not all the time, and plenty of issues with the film that might have merely been the result of a low budget and insanely rushed shooting schedule all start to add up to a glorious mess that you will be better for having seen. This film, Plan 9 from Outer Space and Beast of Yucca Flats are my trinity of Fifties Fiascoes. If you're a serious B movie fan and you haven't seen any or all of them you, you legitimately need to get on that.


  1. Of the three movies you mention, this was the only one I hadn't seen, so I rushed to find a copy. I gotta say, I actually like the Ro-Man costume. There's something delightfully creepy about it. The only thing that would make it better would be if the guy wearing it had a skull mask on.

    As for the rest, I'm actually inclined to be forgiving, since its pretty obvious that the movie is intended to be a little boy's dream. In fact, you could even argue that the plot holes and other oddities actually enhance the dream-like quality of the events. At any rate, it excuses a lot more than whatever the heck Criswell was trying to establish at the beginning of Plan 9.

  2. You're right, but there's plenty of oddball stuff going on, dream or no dream. For some reason Alice and Johnny's mom are wearing identical dresses. What's up with that? All the hyperflorid machine language dialogue for Ro-Man and The Great Guidance is also amazing.

    I've seen this one four or five times now, and it's a genuine treat. But it's also not any goddamned good.