We begin in True Stereo Three-Dimensions as the opening credits roll. And while the menacing score bombasts over some forgotten sci-fi pulp of yore, our film proper begins with young Johnny, decked out in his best Tom Corbett space gear, scouring the countryside for any alien invaders to disintegrate with his trusty atomic bubble-gun. Now, the only target Johnny (Moffet) can find is his little sister, Carla (Paulson), but he tries to disintegrate her anyway -- and with extreme prejudice.
After this skirmish ceases, these siblings continue to play and squabble until they come upon a cave, where two archeologists are trying to excavate a prehistoric painting off the wall near the entrance.
Threatened with being atomized unless they identify themselves, the younger man, Roy (Nader), quickly surrenders, but the Professor (Mylong) stands his ground. And as he lectures the boy on the wonders of peaceful coexistence, unable to decipher the old man's ever-changing accent, Johnny quickly agrees to end all hostilities and holsters his atomic bubble-gun.
Then, after a quick history lesson on the primitive beings who used to inhabit these caves, Johnny is so impressed he no longer wants to be a Space Ranger when he grows up but a fuddy old scientist with a dubious European accent. Johnny then relates this career decision to his mother and older sister, Alice (Barret), who were out looking for them and finally caught up. And once the introductions are out of the way, Johnny quickly tries to ingratiate Roy with Alice, but she’s not having it. Meantime, when mother Martha (Royale) invites the two men to come have lunch with them, they beg off and get back to work.
Moving on, this family of four chooses what appears to be the middle of Hell's Half Acre for their picnic spot. And as they dig in, when Martha reminds the younger kids they promised to take a nap right after lunch, Johnny grumps over this notion; and then, rather bluntly, asks if he's ever gonna get another dad -- quickly narrowing mom's playing field down to anyone who's a scientist, preferably one with a phony European accent. With that, the rest of the meal is eaten in very uncomfortable silence. Once finished, each family member pulls up a rock and drifts off to sleep.
Time passes, and Johnny is the first to wake up. Armed with his trusty side-arm, the boy returns to the cave but finds it deserted. Suddenly, a massive discharge of energy causes Johnny to fall. And as the kid gets a nasty face-burger while planting his noggin into the dirt, our film quickly dissolves into sheer insanity as more lights pop and flash, and a series of earthquakes rock the world, reducing massive cities into piles of rubble. A cataclysm so sudden and powerful, it also seems to have punched a hole in the space-time continuum!
And springing out of this temporal chaos, two triceratops try to dry-hump one another and a familiar looking “Dimetradon” battles a “Tyrannosaurus Rex” once more to the death, leaving a stunned audience to boggle and ask -- WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON!? Well, all I can say in answer to that is, Wait for it … As Johnny wakes up, unaccountably decked-out in a new pair of futuristic duds, and armed with a slightly more lethal looking atomic-disintegrator pistol, which he once more holsters so he can take up a can of paint and makes an attempt to expand upon that mural on the cave wall.
Now. At this point, you’ve probably also noticed how the entrance to the cave is now filled to the brim with all kinds of, uhm, … “hi-tech” equipment, including a communication device, deviously camouflaged as a cardboard box, and on the other side, mounted on a table, a surplus World War II radio that's belching out a ton of bubbles. Quite the surreal scene.
Meanwhile, brush in hand, Johnny keeps painting until there's another massive energy discharge, much closer this time, forcing him to head for cover. And once he's clear, from out of the depths of the cave stalks one of the greatest screen menaces of all time: Ro-Man Agent XJ-2 -- the ultimate instrument of destruction from the Planet Ro-Man!
Okay. Calm down. Look, I know our “Robot Monster” looks suspiciously like a gorilla with a TV-antennae adorned deep-sea diver's helmet for a head, but think about it for a second. Maybe it's camouflage? Did you ever think of that? Didn't think so. Either way, as our internal Goof-o-Meter redlines, careens out of control, and augurs itself very deep into the earth, lets just roll with this as Ro-Man (Barrows, and voiced by Brown) waddles over to the communicator and puts in a call to his Supreme Leader, The Great Guidance (also Barrows and Brown).
in a bizarre, minimalist techno-babble, Guidance scolds his agent on
the ground for reporting in late. Blaming Earth's gravity for this
error, as their conversation continues, Ro-Man is told no other forms of
life in the universe have been found, meaning the Earth was their only
rival for galactic supremacy -- stress on the “was."
Seems at first, through subterfuge shown in a series of nonsensical flashbacks, Ro-Man managed to get the world-powers to basically nuke themselves to death. And once the atomic fallout had settled, he then finally revealed himself to mop-up what little was left in terms of resistance. His mission apparently a complete success, Ro-Man triumphantly reports the Earth has now been completely scoured free of the hu-man plague, thanks to his trusty Calcinator Death-Ray.
Not so fast, says Guidance, who then grumpily points out the multiple errors in his minion’s correlating-vector calculations because, according to his data, there are still eight hu-mans on the loose. And since his boss is not amused with these egregious miscalculations, to save face, Ro-Man vows he will complete his mission post-haste, obliterate the rest of humanity, so the Ro-Men of the Planet Ro-Man can rule the Galaxy unimpeded at long last...
A legend amongst the B-Movie Brethren already, I think Phil Tucker’s Robot Monster (1953) definitely needs to dethrone Edward D. Wood Jr.’s Plan Nine from Outer Space (1959) as thee quintessential, so bad it's good, B-movie watching experience. For! Whereas Plan Nine tends to grind to a halt in spots with lengthy plot dumps, there are no dull moments in Robot Monster, which brings the schlock and the bedlam, non-stop, from start to finish. And of producer/director Phil Tucker, I can only paraphrase Dan Aykroyd’s character, Dr. Raymond Stantz, from Ghostbusters (1984): Either Tucker was a genius, or a certified whacko. As for which? Well, it might’ve been both.
As I scoured the web and dusted-off and searched through my old monster movie compendiums and Horror and Sci-Fi history books, trying to dig up any info on Tucker’s bio or background before his film career proved maddeningly elusive. What little we do know is he was born in 1927, a native of Kansas; he was a Marine Corps veteran, time of service unknown; and had written several short stories for certain Sci-Fi pulps and magazines -- of which I could find none. And that’s about it until Tucker, through a series of friends, came under the wing of producer George Weiss around the age of 25.
A student of the Kroger Babb school of road-showing, four walling, and square-up reels, where you could get away with just about anything considered obscene or forbidden by the Hays Code as long as you presented your film as being educational like with Babb's Mom and Dad (1945), Weiss and his Screen Classic Productions had already delivered a tell-all look at artificial insemination in Test Tube Babies (1948), the horrors of narcotics with The Devil's Sleep (1949), and a harsh lesson of female wrestlers duped into a money-laundering scheme in Racket Girls (1951).
Thus, I have no idea what kind of background Tucker had in film or filmmaking when he wound up working behind the scenes on Weiss’ burlesque film, Paris After Midnight (1951), which was raided by the police during production due its obscene content of strippers doing their thing. And when he had gathered enough experience, Weiss then pegged Tucker to direct the feature, Dance Hall Racket (1953), written by and starring legendary stand-up comedian, Lenny Bruce, his wife, stripper Honey Harlow, and mother, Sally Marr, which concerned dirty flesh-peddlers doing dirty things.
Now, there has been some dispute as to whether Dance Hall Racket or Robot Monster was young Tucker’s directorial debut as both were released the same year. Either way, while the former was for Weiss the second was for another notoriously cheap schlockmeister, Al Zimbalist -- of King Dinosaur (1955) and Monster from Green Hell (1957) infamy. Zimbalist had worked in the publicity departments for Warner Bros. and RKO in the 1930s and ‘40s before signing on as an assistant for Edward J. Alperson in a series of gender-swapped tales of adventure -- The Sword of Monte Cristo (1951), Rose of Cimarron (1952), and then Walter Wanger for another female revisionist take with The Lady in the Iron Mask (1952).
Then, Zimbalist decided to strike out on his own around 1952, announcing the formation of his own production company, Motion Picture Artists Corporation, and, sticking with the theme, the fledgling producer’s first proposed feature was originally supposed to be Miss Robin Crusoe. But this was put on hold to focus on a couple of Sci-Fi creature features instead that would hopefully prove more alluring to any potential distributors. One of which was Cat Women on the Moon (1953), and the other, Robot Monster -- both of them slated to be shot in 3D, which was just starting to blow-up after the release of Arch Oboler’s Bwana Devil (1952).
For if it wasn’t obvious already, money was extremely tight on both of these inaugural features -- and this definitely shows on screen. With $5000 of the film’s already meager $16,000 budget solely going toward renting the needed 3D camera equipment, this, of course, did not leave much money for everything else as Tucker and his cinematographer, Jack Greenhalgh, eschewed any sets and shot out in the open around the familiar environs of Bronson Canyon, along with a few pick-ups around an unfinished housing project near Chavez-Ravine and Dodger Stadium, trying to get Wyatt Ordung’s fairly (and perhaps too) ambitious post-apocalyptic script down on film.
Born in Shanghai, China, of mixed parentage, Ordung had served in the U.S. Army during World War II. After, he migrated to Hollywood around 1951, looking to break into showbiz as an actor, landing a few bit-parts -- most notably on TV as the Dick Tracy villain, BB-Eyes, and as an uncredited G.I. in Samuel Fuller’s Korean War thriller, Fixed Bayonets (1951). Around this time Ordung also tried his hand at screenwriting, which eventually landed him the Robot Monster gig; and later, he wrote the scripts for things ranging from another alien invasion / disaster movie, Target Earth (1954), to the hard-boiled tale of revenge, Walk the Dark Street (1956), which he also produced and directed. He would also direct one of Roger Corman’s first productions, Monster from the Ocean Floor (1954).
As mentioned earlier, the eyes of Ordung’s script were “slightly” bigger than the budget’s stomach, leading to a lot of stock-footage abuse and the old low-budget standby of telling a lot and showing very little. Among the pilfered FX were several matte paintings by Irving Block, including scenes of mass destruction and devastation lifted from Stuart Gilmore’s Captive Women (1952) and a rocket and gantry that can be traced back to Kurt Neumann’s Rocketship X-M (1950), while yet another rocket can be traced to Lesley Selander’s Flight to Mars (1951).
The earthquake and live lizard combatants with the glued-on features belong to Hal Roach’s One Million B.C. (1940) -- and that poor camain and monitor lizard, locked forever in eternal combat, savaged and ravaged, would haunt many a film yet to come. So spare a thought for them, will ya, and then pretend to kick both Roach and animal supervisor Roy Seawright right in the nuts.
Meantime, those randy stop-motion triceratops escaped from Edward Nassour and Sam Newfield’s version of Lost Continent (1951). But you have to understand, when Tucker and company tried to overachieve on any component or element for Robot Monster that they didn’t borrow or steal from somewhere else, the results were both, well, impressive and downright hilarious, beginning with their leading menace.
Since its debut, Tucker and his most infamous cinematic creation has been lampooned over the years for both its sheer absurdity and complete incongruity when trying to match up his antagonist with the title of his movie. One long held rumor was that Tucker actually had a robot suit built -- more likely stolen, sorry, “borrowed” from another production, but it couldn’t handle the rigors of outdoor filming, fell apart, and all he could salvage was the headpiece and improvised from there. However, in a rare interview with Harry Medved and Randy Dreyfuss for the book, The Fifty Worst Films of All Time and How They Got That Way (1978), Tucker sort of set the record straight on how they wound up with a gorilla-shaped hunk of Sci-Fi infamy:
“Well, I originally envisioned the monster as a kind of robot,” said Tucker. “I talked to several people that I knew who had robot suits, but it was just out-of-the way, money wise.” But Tucker’s salvation came in the form of George Barrows. “George’s occupation was a gorilla suit man. When they needed a gorilla in a picture, they called George, because he owned his own suit and got like forty-bucks a day."
Barrows was a bit player and a stuntman with a career that spanned over 50 years, who played his first gorilla in Tarzan and His Mate (1934). When the 1950s rolled around, Barrows had built himself his first gorilla suit and landed a couple spots on the Abbott and Costello TV show, which was around the time Tucker gave him a call. And to help give the illusion that this gorilla was of extraterrestrial origin, it looks like they liberated a Moon Man helmet from Republic Pictures’ prop department after it appeared a year earlier in the Commando Cody vehicle, Radar Men from the Moon (1952), welded a TV antennae to it, stuck a nylon stocking over Barrows exposed head, sealed him up, and the rest, as they say, is cinematic history.
Thus, with everything slapped and dashed together with spit, sparklers, and bailing wire, principal photography on Robot Monster began on March 20, 1953, and then wrapped three whole days later on March 23. From there, Tucker turned over the footage to his editor, Merrill White, who was tasked to make some semblance of a narrative out of Ordung’s fever dream of a script and Tucker’s exposed nitrate nonsense as Ro-Man the Robot Monster confirms his task to kill all the hu-mans, signs off the communicator, and waddles back into the cave. Once he’s gone, an eavesdropping Johnny hightails it home; home being the basement of a bombed-out house encircled by a series of live electrical wires.
Now remember, our reality has shifted a bit. Family wise, things are relatively the same except now the Professor really is Johnny's dad, and both he and Martha verbally tan the boy’s hide for wandering outside the electronic jamming barrier of the house (-- seems that's what all those wires are for), exposing them to Ro-Man’s censors. (Damn. That's some bubble machine.) Here, Johnny tries to warn them that Ro-Man is just over the hill in a nearby cave but the Professor can hardly believe such a terrible coincidence. (Neither can I, really.)
Here, we also find out Herr Professor was one of the world's greatest scientists before these end times, who created a super immunity serum, which he then field-tested on his entire family, which kept them relatively safe from Ro-Man’s genocidal machinations thus far. Turns out dad wasn't the only genius in the family, either, because that electronic screen was eldest daughter Alice’s creation. (Here I'll will also pause to point out this genius gene pool seems to have dried up a bit on Johnny and Carla. Not exactly the brightest bulbs in the world.)
Pondering their options, all the last family on Earth can come up with is they must find Ro-Man's weakness or they're doomed to extinction. Still, the Professor clings to a hope that some others also must've managed to escape Ro-Man's detection, who can help with Earth's resistance. One head slap later, Alice reminds everyone there's still an entire garrison of troops aboard an orbiting Space Platform. The only problem is, they can't communicate with them for fear of detection and discovery. Almost on cue, their own communicator kicks on. Hoping it's the Space Platform, to their horror, Ro-Man materializes on the vid-screen!
Computing only five hu-mans are present, and not the expected eight, Ro-Man assumes the Guidance made an error, adjusts accordingly, and then informs these last survivors if they will surrender now, he promises a quick and painless death. To help them decide, our villain cues up some footage of those who chose not to go quietly. As the others watch in horror, Alice doesn't take this latest population census very well because it means a man named Roy is most likely dead. Seeing enough, when the Professor tells the tin-pot invader to go and suck on his transistors because they will never, ever, capitulate, an enraged Ro-Man now promises them all a horribly painful death before signing off.
Now, despite her husband's flash of bravado, Martha is starting to crack a little, thinking perhaps they should reconsider Ro-Man’s offer and just get it over with; but the Professor remains firm, defiantly stating if Ro-Man wants them, he can calculate them.
Meanwhile, over at the cave, we discover the reports of Roy's demise have been greatly exaggerated as he's currently spying on Ro-Man, who's making another call to his boss to report his error on how many hu-mans were left.
Growing more annoyed by the second, Guidance quickly gives his field agent a remedial course on "reduction, correlation, and elimination of errors." There are EIGHT hu-mans left, not five, and before hanging up, he gives Ro-Man only one more Earth day to complete the mission or he will be sentenced for failure!
Back in the basement, when Roy (Nader) returns, Alice is so overjoyed he's still alive that she spends the next five minutes bitterly sniping at him. Happy to see her, too, Roy also brings more good news: Jason and McCloud are also still alive. (Who are they? Sorry. Not in the budget. And believe me, it won't matter in about five minutes.) Seems these men managed to scrounge up enough fuel to launch a rocket to the Space Platform, loaded with enough of the Professor’s serum to immunize the entire garrison; and once that’s done, they’ll all kick a little Ro-man ass.
Unable to contact the Platform to let them know they’re coming without being detected, fearing they might think the salvation rocket was sent by Ro-Man and destroy it by mistake, Alice insists they must try and is certain she can rewire the communicator so the alien can’t detect their signals -- if Roy will take orders for a change and help, that is.
What follows is a long -- albeit hilarious -- scene of two pairs of hands working in tandem on some machinery as Alice and Roy continue to bicker, wasting two whole days by their account. And, wow, are these tinkering scenes chock full of inappropriate innuendo and double-entendres. Freud would have a field day -- I think my favorite loaded snipe is when Roy claims Alice is so bossy, she has to be milked when she comes home. When is a soldering tool not a soldering tool? Well, I'll leave that up to you, Boils and Ghouls. And what does all this accomplish? Absolutely nothing. Well, at least they tried.
To make matters even more dire, Ro-Man calls again, who is now even more confused because there are six hu-mans instead of five hu-mans when there should be eight hu-mans (-- and to think: this guy conquered the world. Depressing, isn't it?) Talking instead of thinking, Alice blurts out this must mean he still doesn’t know about Jason and McCloud -- but I think he does now, genius.
However, Ro-Man reveals he had already detected their rocket launching and gleefully shows them the play by play as Guidance first blows the rocket -- played deftly by stock footage of a V2 missile, out of the sky, and then shows them the Space Platform -- played not so deftly by a plastic model with a sparkler shoved up it's butt, swinging in an erratic circle.
This gets blown up, too, but luckily, the very visible hand holding it up is left unharmed. With that, declaring they have no hope and surrender is the only solution, Ro-Man gives the hu-mans one hour to decide before signing off.
Okay, by now, you’re probably shouting at the screen, saying, Now wait a second, Ro-Man had only ONE Earth day to complete the mission. Then the hu-mans spent TWO whole Earth days working on the communicator. The hell? Well, I guess if the Ro-Men can’t count, can we really expect them to be able tell time? Anyhoo, devastated by this dire turn of events, after the family weighs their ever dwindling options, Martha thinks they should try and appeal to Ro-Man for mercy. The Professor agrees, thinking they can reason with him. But to do this, Alice and Roy will need to rewire the communicator to his frequency. Oh god, not again!
I assume another two Earth days later, when the communicator at the cave activates, Ro-Man quickly waddles out of the darkness to take the call. Now, you, like me, have probably noticed that Ro-Man spends quite a lot of time at the back of his cave. And it was at this point I finally deduced what was really going on back there. I can’t prove this scientifically, but I think the back of the cave is the *ahem* "little Ro-man’s room." Seems our hero came to Earth, drank the water, and the rest is history. Think of it as Montezuma’s Revenge on a galactic scale, and keep your eye out for any toilet paper stuck to his foot as he turns on the vid-screen and is surprised to see who it is on the other end of the transmission.
Ordered to state their business, the Professor once again announces they will never give up and humanity will survive, making us the cockroaches of the galactic frontier. He then asks what exactly do the Ro-Men have to fear from hu-mans? To this, we get the standard reply that we're too self-destructive and can’t handle tampering in god’s domain etc. etc. Stymied on this front, the Professor then appeals to Ro-Man's hu-manity by introducing his family, but the Ro-Man isn't all that interested until the defiant Alice takes her turn in front of the vid-screen, demanding peace with honor. And when they try to move on to Roy, Ro-Man demands to see Alice again. And those of you who can see where this is obviously going, please raise your hands. Everybody? Everybody. Good.
Yeah, I believe the hu-man resistance has finally found Ro-Man’s only weakness as it appears our alien invader is getting some biological urges that he can’t quite compute -- and these urges are starting to cloud his Ro-Man logic. [This program has performed an illegal action and will shut down.] He cannot calculate it, or verify why, but is willing to allow what the hu-mans call "a hope." Thus and so, willing to face the wrath of the Great Guidance, Ro-Man will consider integrating these hu-mans into "The plan" if Alice will have a palaver with him -- alone, he typed ominously. But when Alice agrees to meet him at the fork in the river, Roy and the Professor will have none of that. Even as Alice logically pleads it’s their only hope, they physically restrain her from leaving. And while they tie her up, Johnny manages to sneak away during the struggle to replace Alice at the negotiations.
Wait. What? Really?! This movie is, like, an hour long?!
Next, we get some of the funniest repeating transition scenes as Ro-Man endlessly walks up and down the same hill. (And if you listen real close, you can almost hear Tucker yelling at Barrows to "keep moving" until he shuffles out of frame.)
Meantime, realizing Johnny is missing, Roy volunteers to go and look for him. Alice is allowed to accompany him if she promises to behave, and as those two go and search for the little miscreant, Ro-Man goes up the hill, as Johnny makes his way to the meeting spot; and then Ro-Man goes down the hill, while Roy and Alice continue their search. This sequence of events then repeats itself about, oh, five or six times, with the only variation being, at some point, Roy nonchalantly removes his shirt, until Johnny and Ro-Man finally arrive at the predetermined meeting spot.
Extremely perturbed that Johnny showed up instead of Alice, when the kid mouths off, Ro-Man bluntly states, “Now I will kill you.” (Yay!) But when he tries to fry the little shit with the Calcinator Death Ray, Johnny is unaffected. (Boo.) Alas, civilization is lost once again when Ro-Man tricks Johnny into revealing the source of his immunity, gloating it will be easy enough to adjust the C-Ray and kill them all -- and since I don’t think this involves any counting, I believe the Earth really is doomed this time. Way to go, kid.
Thus, as Ro-Man heads back to his cave to re-calibrate the weapon, he doesn’t detect Roy and Alice hiding in the weeds as he stomps by. Once gone, Alice rises to continue the search for her idiot brother but Roy pulls her back down for the obligatory romantic interlude.
Here, instead of visual metaphors of rockets launching or trains going into tunnels, we get shots of Ro-Man going up and down the same hill. And while the haunting love theme from Robot Monster plays, Roy professes his love to Alice and they go for a *ahem* roll in the thicket (-- and it would be an even more touching scene if Roy wasn't so noticeably bleeding from his ear from some trauma he hasn’t received yet due to a glaring continuity error).
Meantime, Johnny returns to the bunker and fesses up to his colossal blunder. To console him, the Professor offers that it won't be so easy for Ro-Man to counteract the serum. Still, the boy must be punished; and for dooming all of humanity, Johnny is sent to bed without supper. Meanwhile, apparently lost, Ro-Man goes back up and down the same hill until he finally remembers the way back to his cave.
Once there, he cranks up the communicator and reports to his boss why the C-Ray failed to kill the remaining hu-mans. Unimpressed, Guidance warns his minion that the allotted time of one Earth day is half over and to get on with it -- or else! Thus, with time running out, Ro-Man forgoes adjusting the C-Ray and shambles off toward that damnable hill again. Seems sometimes a Ro-Man just has to get his paws dirty. Can you strangle the kid first? Asking for the audience. And waitasecond? Half a day?! It's been, like, five days!
Elsewhere, Roy and Alice return to the bunker. Seems they’ve decided to make it official and ask the Professor to marry them. Feeling this is a swell idea, Johnny stands up as best man and Carla -- oh yeah, Carla -- serves as the maid of honor. In the middle of the service, the Professor pauses to ask the Almighty to intercede on their behalf. (Just say "Man and wife!") And when the ceremony ends, Roy kisses the bride; and after they leave for their honeymoon, Carla realizes that Alice didn’t have any flowers for the wedding and sneaks off to find some.
And so, as Ro-Man goes up the hill, Carla catches up with the newlyweds, presents them with a bouquet, and is sent back home. But on the way, as he comes back down the hill, the girl runs right into Ro-Man, who seizes her, Carla screams, and then we cut back to the cave, where Ro-Man is calling his boss again, reporting there are now only four hu-mans left after he strangled the little girl.
To this, Guidance, who has just about had it with his his mathematically incompetent henchman, once more points out his error. There are five (5) hu-mans left to be expunged. Not four. And it's at this point where Ro-Man admits his error was on purpose and postulates that maybe they can keep one of these hu-mans alive in captivity to study. E’yup. Our little Ro-Man has fallen for the hu-man A-lice. Hard. This hypothesizing, does not go well. At all. Accused of heresy for daring to alter The Plan, Guidance orders Ro-Man to kill all the hu-mans, now, or face the consequences of failure!
Thus and so, with his internal conflict/resolution circuits taxed to the limits, Ro-Man sets out to do his masters bidding and manages to catch Roy and Alice out in the open. After a brief struggle, he easily overpowers and dispatches Roy and seizes the girl. To her credit, Alice pitched in during the fight (-- and sharp ears can hear a verbally unsure and un-scripted "Oh-God!" as Ro-man picks her up and carries her off).
Meanwhile, when they find Carla's discarded body, this proves to be the last straw for poor Martha. And as she breaks down sobbing, the Professor tries to console his wife and encourages her not to give up as he carries their daughter's body back to the bunker for burial.
Not giving up either, while being carried back to the cave, Alice manages to trick Ro-Man into revealing his external power source -- but this vital revelation comes too late and will have absolutely no consequence on the film whatsoever.
Back at the bunker, Carla’s memorial is interrupted when the mortally wounded Roy stumbles in, announces Ro-Man has captured Alice, and then expires. Rallying the troops, Johnny has a plan to rescue his sister: first, they'll call Ro-Man and pretend to surrender, and then, Johnny will use himself as bait to lure Ro-Man out of the cave, allowing the others to rush-in and save Alice.
Meanwhile, Ro-Man has managed to haul Al-ice all the way to his cave without having a stroke, where he professes his love for her rather haphazardly, asking, "Suppose I were a hu-man, would you love me like a man?" That’s a big nope. And as she continues to resist, her captor starts pawing at her, ripping her bodice and exposing her shoulders in true melodramatic fashion.
But as the lecherous Ro-Man tries to take it further his communicator starts pinging. Snatching some rope, he begins to restrain Al-ice but quickly gives up and just knocks her unconscious.
Moving to the communicator, the Professor appears and declares Ro-Man has won, they surrender, and if he wants them, to come and get them. But the libidinous Ro-Man says he’s too busy right now and to call back later. After hanging up, he turns his lustful attention back to Al-ice -- who for some inexplicable reason has gone and tied herself up! Wait. What?! Wow.
Moving toward Al-ice with a lusty, groping paw leading the way, the girl is saved once again by the communicator. Only this time, it’s the Great Guidance and his patience is now at an end as the Ro-Man begins to question the Ro-Men logic: "Why can’t we be like the hu-man ... to laugh and want? Why are these things not in the plan?" But his boss will not hear of this blasphemy and orders Ro-Man to kill the girl. Now! But with his circuits fusing, Ro-Man soon goes into vapor-lock, stuck in an eternal logic-loop, repeating, "I must ... But I cannot" over and over again.
Meanwhile, leaving his mom and dad behind, Johnny marches off to meet his fate. Presenting himself to the malfunctioning Ro-Man, a watching Guidance still insists his agent kill the girl first, and then the boy. Asking Al-ice to forgive him for what he must do, Ro-Man defies his master and shuffles off toward Johnny. Seizing the moment, their parents rush in, and while Martha releases Alice, the Professor smashes the infernal Bubble Machine.
Noting all of this, Guidance watches in disgust as his malfunctioning minion disobeys his orders for the last time. Thus, as Ro-Man throttles Johnny to death, his boss passes final judgment for failure, stating, "If you want to live like a hu-man. You can die like a hu-man!" Then, turning the Calcinator Death-Ray on his former agent, Ro-Man takes a direct hit and quickly crumples over and dies right next to Johnny as the audience slowly realizes that not one, but two, TWO, kids under the age of ten have died quite horribly in this film.
Fed up by these unforeseen circumstances, an enraged Guidance goes on another rampage, bombarding the Earth with even more deadly cosmic rays and who knows what else. And as the world is once more rocked and torn asunder by massive earthquakes, and while two triceratops try to hump one another, a Dimetradon and a T-Rex battle to the death and -- Omigod. Wait. I think the movie’s starting over! But as Guidance continues to rain down death and destruction, we suddenly hear someone calling Johnny’s name as the screen ripples and dissolves until we focus back in on the original reality, with Johnny lying unconscious near the cave entrance.
Calling out that he's found the boy, who has a nice bump on his noggin from the fall he took, Roy checks him over as the others catch up. Johnny is happy to see that they're all still alive, and a relieved Martha invites the archeologists to come and have dinner with them. They agree, and the cave is abandoned. Luckily, the total destruction of Earth was all just a young boy’s head trauma-induced bad dream (-- and you were there. And you. And you were, too. But you, you died. Sorry). Or was it! As the soundtrack turns ominous and -- Oh, no! -- the Great Guidance stalks out of the cave. Not once. Not Twice. But three times before the movie finally decides we’ve finally had enough of this glorious nonsense.
Robot Monster was shot and projected in a dual-strip, polarized 3D format. And with the large and cumbersome equipment needed to pull this off kinda explains why the camera is basically stuck in one spot for every scene and the film is nothing but long takes and master shots. What they did capture did work, however, earning high praise for the gimmick from several sources, including a rather glowing review in Variety, which said, “Judged on the basis of novelty, as a showcase for the Tru-Stereo Process, Robot Monster comes off surprisingly well, considering the extremely limited budget and schedule on which the film was shot. The Tru-Stereo Process (3D) utilized here is easy on the eyes, coming across clearly at all times."
And to the picture’s credit, the article concludes, no 3D gimmicks were employed, meaning nothing was ever purposefully chucked at the camera. Alas, they probably could’ve saved some money and skipped the gimmick altogether but Zimbalist couldn’t have predicted the 3D fad would just as quickly fizzle-out and be displaced by CinemaScope by the end of 1953.
The film also scored a bit of a coup when they landed Jack Rabin to handle the special-effects. Rabin had been working in the field since the mid-1930s, bouncing around several studios, specializing in matte paintings, miniatures, and opticals. In the 1950s, Rabin went freelance with a pair of other FX artists, Louis DeWitt and Irving Block, who all left their fingerprints on many genre movies, both low budget Bs -- Invasion, U.S.A. (1952), Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957), Kronos (1958), and the top-bills -- The Night of the Hunter (1955), The Killing (1956), for the next 20 years or so. And it probably should be noted all of the pilfered FX that appears in Robot Monster were done by either Rabin, DeWitt or Block for another movie.
Thus, Rabin was the key to making the film work, as he was the one who added all the opticals to Robot Monster -- the negative flashes to represent the Calcinator Death-Ray discharging, and added the fog or other foreground objects to give all that stock-footage a fighting chance in 3D. I’m also pretty sure that’s probably him pulling off that Space Platform gag, too, doing the best he could with the five dollars he was allotted. Regardless, that entire sequence is one of the funniest things I have ever seen committed to film. However, Rabin was not responsible for Ro-Man’s hi-tech equipment. No. That Million Dollar Bubble Machine was provided by N.A. Fisher Chemical Products Inc., according to the credits.
Now, at some point, you also probably noticed or noted how the soundtrack for Robot Monster was actually kinda good. And, well, there’s a reason for that. It's fairly common knowledge these days that Elmer Bernstein composed the music for this gonzo classic, and you can hear the talent that would eventually produce the themes for The Ten Commandments (1956), The Magnificent Seven (1960), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), and The Great Escape (1963).
At the time of the production, Bernstein was a young artist struggling to find work due to his leftist politics. And while he was never officially on the Hollywood Blacklist, the Communist witch hunt of that era did find him on the unofficial Graylist. And so, Zimbalist threw him a bone, which also netted him scores for Cat-Women of the Moon and Miss Robin Crusoe (1954), which the producer finally got around to making with Amanda Blake in the lead, co-starring Robot Monster’s other leading man, George Nader. (I’ve seen it, and it's actually pretty good.) Bernstein would later recall that he “enjoyed the challenge of trying to help a film” that needed it, and did what he could with his eight-piece orchestra to glue things together, adding menace and bombast to our ears to overcompensate for what we see with our eyes.
Strangely enough, the Blacklist and other prejudices loomed large over the whole production. Cast member and former MGM stock player Selena Royle’s career was ruined when she was named as a Communist sympathizer in 1951. She had refused to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities but eventually cleared her name. Alas, the damage had been done and Robot Monster would be her last feature.
After making his screen debut here, Nader would go on to win a Golden Globe the very next year for Most Promising Male Newcomer for his work in Four Guns to the Border (1954) and would sign on with Universal. Nader was also a homosexual, who refused to play the game like other actors in the closet and refused to use a beard. "We lived in fear of an exposé, or even one small remark, a veiled suggestion that someone was homosexual," said Nader. "Such a remark would have caused an earthquake at the studio. Every month, when Confidential came out, our stomachs began to turn. Which of us would be it?" Somewhat sadly, these fears came true when Universal threw Nader under the bus to satiate the tabloids in order to save Rock Hudson's career, forcing Nader to pull up stakes and move to Europe, where he continued his acting career.
As for our plucky heroine, Claudia Barret, she signed a contract with Warner Bros in 1949 but never really managed to break-out in the features. Still, she had a solid TV career well into the 1960s. And John Mylong had been playing the same kind of stuffy Continental Kook since Talkies became a thing and would continue to play them for the next 15 years. All of them do a credible job pulling off Ordung’s mind-melting script, which was no small task.
Positively ludicrous at first glance, and the second, and yes, even the third, but once you get past all of the lunacy and begin to analyze how utterly downbeat, and perverted, and nihilistic this film is it’s downright disturbing. I mean, What kind of a madman writes a screenplay where a 8 year old kid dreams about a post-apocalyptic future, whose subconscious calls for his entire family to be brutally massacred and his sister to be bound-up and molested by a robot ape going through an existential crisis?
And yet, as Roderick Heath put it in his review of Robot Monster on the website, This Island Rod, “There’s actual intelligence in the way Tucker and Ordung unfold the story as a system of childish transformations. Johnny’s vision of family at the centre of the universe feels exactly right in grasping this idea, the family unit surrounded by a literal barrier fending off evil and danger. The way he mashes together the concepts floating around in his young mind works in the same way – his bubble-blowing gun becomes the Ro-Man’s bubble-exuding machinery, the tantalizing cave becomes the dark pit from which all the id’s menaces emerge, the Ro-Man merges Johnny’s space-age fantasies with an impression of bestial strength that seems to encapsulate all a child’s understanding of the adult world. The opening credits unfold over a pile of comic books, suggesting the meal of Johnny’s mind and the sources of his protean imagination.” Can’t really argue with any of that.
And so, Robot Monster has a little bit more going on than you might think underneath that gorilla suit and it didn’t really derail anyone’s career, either -- well, with one notable exception, which we’ll be addressing in a second. Because, contrary to popular belief, despite some scathing critical reviews, the film was a bona fide hit when it was first released. Picked up by Astor Pictures it hit theaters in late June of 1953. And to stay ahead of some of those bad reviews as it went national, the picture also played under the more fitting title, Monsters from the Mars. Either way, the film grossed over a million dollars with its initial theatrical release -- and Phil Tucker never saw a dime of any of it.
Yeah, here, The Ballad of Phil Tucker kinda goes off the rails a bit. Of course, another well established urban legend surrounding Robot Monster is that Tucker tried to commit suicide after all the indicting reviews and assumed box office annihilation of his magnum opus. According to Harry Medved’s follow-up book on the worst films of all time, The Golden Turkey Awards (1980), co-authored by his brother, noted film critic, Michael Medved, Tucker “put a gun next to his head, pulled the trigger, and missed.” This is patently false, and the truth is a little more complicated than that.
As far as I can tell after sifting through several newspaper articles, after Robot Monster was released Tucker got into a heated dispute with Zimbalist, who, along with the distributor, were cooking the books, which essentially cheated the director out of his contractual percentage of the film’s profits. Here, after an attempted lawsuit went nowhere, and a follow up feature, Return from Mars, fell through, a disillusioned but undaunted Tucker headed north to Fairbanks, Alaska, where, according to several notices starting in early July and a lengthy article in the August 5, 1953, edition of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, he shot an independent and even lower-budgeted Sci-Fi film called Space Jockey -- a film Tucker would later claim was the “worst picture that’s ever been made by anyone, anywhere."
“The movie industry is stifled in Hollywood,” said Tucker in the interview. “They tell you what to write, how to produce it, when to direct it, who to put in it and when to try and sell it. It's a tight little island of rulers and it's a hard place in which to breathe free.” As to how bad the film actually was, well, we’ll have to take Tucker’s word on that because according to the article the filmmaker hadn’t found a distributor yet, and he apparently never did, and Space Jockey is now considered lost. In fact, there is no real evidence that the film was ever completed.
And I do believe it was this accumulation of a perceived blackballing by the industry and a series of business failures that sent Tucker into a spiraling depression and an undisclosed stint in the psychopathic ward of the Veteran’s Administrations Hospital in West Los Angeles before things reached a crucible on December 15, 1953, at the Knickerbocker Hotel, where a despondent Tucker, on a pass from the V.A., attempted suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills. He was found on the bed, resuscitated, and saved by the timely intervention of the police, who were alerted by a newspaper reporter. Seems Tucker had sent a lengthy suicide note to the publication, how he was screwed over by Zimbalist, lamenting his failures, and his lack of traction in Hollywood, saying, “I finally realized that my future in the film industry was bleak.” Then, after being stabilized in the emergency room of the H.E.H., Tucker was returned to the V.A. hospital for further treatment.
Of course, this flare for the melodramatic brought into question whether all of this was just an elaborate publicity stunt. None other than the aforementioned Ed Wood once commented on how an unnamed filmmaker did this kind of thing to help raise money. “Whenever he finds out his newest bad picture won’t sell, he comes up with the damnedest strategy: suicide,” said Wood. “In one instance, he sat on the roof of a hotel with a can of his film on his lap and his legs dangling over the street fifteen floors below, and then he gobbled down sleeping pills. Of course, the police had been conveniently notified so they arrived in plenty of time."
Was he referring to Tucker? The details don’t quite jive with the article covering the incident found in the December 16, 1953, edition of The Los Angeles Times, but Wood was also one to elaborate and embellish and perhaps was a little jealous that he didn’t think of it first.
Tucker seemed to get his act together a short time after, going back to work for Weiss on another series of burlesque films -- Baghdad After Midnite (1954), Strips Around the World (1955), and teamed up with Lenny Bruce again on Dream Follies (1954). And then there’s his loosely semi-autobiographical take on his own experiences in Hollywood, Broadway Jungle (1955). Long thought lost, having finally seen it, perhaps it should’ve stayed that way. (And if Tucker thought Space Jockey was worse than this? Wow.) And then, sadly, Wood might've been on to something as it appears Tucker would try to kill himself once again in August of 1957 via carbon monoxide poisoning according to a small blurb unearthed from the Des Moines Register.
Luckily, he failed, and Tucker's last time in the director’s chair was for The Cape Canaveral Monsters (1960). However, Tucker shifted gears and stayed in the business as an editor, mostly for episodic TV, and was a post-production supervisor on the features King Kong (1976) and Orca (1977). Sadly, like a lot of other pioneers in low-budget filmmaking of this era, Tucker passed away in 1985 before people really started to appreciate, celebrate, and lionize this kind of schlock and those who made it in the wake of their resurgence on home video.
And to me, Tucker’s Robot Monster definitely deserves its legendary cult status, even though it's nowhere near as bad as its dubious reputation would imply. And if taken at face value, as a child's blunt trauma-induced delirium, then I say it's friggin' brilliant. Yup. If it wasn't obvious enough yet, I truly do love this movie; it is so righteous in its wrongness that one can only watch and boggle as it plays out and transcends its schlocky trappings into something truly remarkable. There's just something about the Shakespearean sincerity when our hero, Ro-Man, tries to profess his doomed love for the hu-man Al-ice, that one can't help but feel sorry for the big lug. So much so that I'm surprised no one has ever tried to combine those elements before, the Bard by way of Barrows and Brown, into one form yet -- until now:
"Hath not a Ro-Man eyes? Hath not a Ro-Man hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same Calcinator Death-Rays, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Hu-Man 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? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? At what point do these two ideals connect on the graph? Why can this not be in the plan?!? Therefore if we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. We cannot. But we must. For if a Ro-Man wrong a Hu-Man, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Hu-Man wrong a Ro-Man, what should his sufferance be by Hu-Man example? Why, revenge; a revenge most indescribable. Fact: the villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction. Foolish hu-mans. There is no escape from me!" -- The Merchant of Ro-Man, Act III Scene I
Honestly, this is the toughest review I’ve ever had to write up since I started this nonsense, because no matter how hard I try, I cannot shake this film. And as I tried to write the plot synopsis, I’d get a few words typed up before images of Ro-Man wandering up and down that same damned hill would filter in my mind's-eye and I would start to giggle. Recovering, I would try again, but then I’d think about all that hi-tech equipment: the million-bubble bubble machine; the sparkler driven Space Platform; the Calcinator Death-Ray -- with its two settings of Painless Surrender Death or Horrible Resistance Death -- and I would burst out laughing. Then, I’d hit the floor, gasping for air, when I thought of Ro-Man and the Great Guidance arguing in a train-wreck of techno-babble that would've made even the most hardened Trekie's head explode.
And then, finally, with all the pathos of Shylock in the Merchant of Venice, as Ro-Man once more professes his love for Al-ice, I must now crawl away from the computer before my head explodes. And you know what? From now on, whenever an intergalactic invader, giant monkey, or any other kind of monster, inexplicably falls in love with an Earth hu-man in a movie or any form of media encountered by me, it will be affectionately referred to as another sad case of Ro-Man's Syndrome.©
Foolish hu-mans! There is no escape from this lunacy! Worst movie of all time? Nay, this is the greatest movie ever made. Seek this movie. Find this movie. Watch this movie. And you will love Robot Monster, too. Trust me.
Well, if you don't know what Hubrisween is by now, Boils and Ghouls, I don't think I can help you. Anyhoo, that's 18 films down with eight yet to go. Up next, Just when you thought it was safe to go back to Florida...
Robot Monster (1953) Three Dimension Pictures :: Astor Pictures / EP: Al Zimbalist / P: Phil Tucker / AP: Alan Winston / D: Phil Tucker / W: Wyott Ordung / C: Jack Greenhalgh / E: Merrill White / M: Elmer Bernstein / S: George Nader, Claudia Barrett, Gregory Moffett, John Mylong, Selena Royle, Pamela Paulson, George Barrows