Reviews of movies from my giant DVD tower, and more.
Released on June 25, 1953
Directed by Phil Tucker
Written by Wyatt Ordung
Cast: George Nader, Claudia Barrett, Selena Royle, John Mylong, Gregory Moffett, Pamela Paulson, George Barrows as Ro-Man and Great Guidance, and John Brown as the voice of Ro-Man and Great Guidance
Of the many low-budget and low-grade horror and sci-fi films of the 1950s and 1960s that are considered the worst of all time, most bad-film aficionados point to the Ed Wood classic Plan 9 of Outer Space as the reigning champ. (Personally, I’d go with The Creeping Terror, but we’ll save that discussion for another review). But there are a growing number of naysayers out there who believe Robot Monster takes the crown, and if you’ve seen both, you know it’s truly a tough decision to make. Especially if you find yourself lost just six minutes into Robot Monster, like I was.
The first five minutes seemed simple enough: a family of four—mother, hot older daughter, young son, younger daughter, and the memory of a deceased father—are having a picnic at the bottom of a canyon, and the two younger ones wander off to play, finding a cave entrance where two archeologists are studying cave drawings. The mother and older daughter find the kids and scold them, everyone gets a laugh out of it, then the family returns to the picnic site for a nap. The boy, intrigued by the work of the scientists, returns to the cave, only to find the two men are gone.
It’s at this point that all hell—and audience confusion—breaks loose. There’s a vicious lightning strike, knocking the boy unconscious, and suddenly a blazing meteor falls from the sky. Somewhere, dinosaurs and giant lizards engage in battle, and when the boy wakes up, still at the cave entrance, he’s now lying next to…an alien bubble machine! As the boy runs and hides, a tubby humanoid wearing a gorilla suit and diving helmet stumbles out of the cave, approaches what looks like a bathroom vanity, and contacts another ‘Ro-Man’ called Great Guidance, who wants to know: if Ro-Man wiped out all of Earth’s population, why does his ‘calculator’ show that eight people are still alive?
Why, indeed. Two of the eight are astronauts on their way to an orbiting space station, but they’re eliminated by Ro-Man’s calcinator ray, so now we’re down to the family of six, hiding in plain site on the patio of their home. Wait…six? Yes, somehow in this twisted storyline, the older of the archeologists is now married to the widow, and father to the kids, while the younger scientist is now the boyfriend of the older sister! Soon, these two get married, and in a fit of jealous rage, Ro-Man strangles and kills the younger sister! Good freaking lord! Finally, after Ro-Man tries to make off with the new bride, and throws her spouse off a cliff, the Great Guidance loses his cool, the Earth is torn asunder, and the young boy is found…awake? And we’re back to square one, with everyone alive and happy after their nap!
At first, this Oz-like wrap-up had me thinking: were these sad little filmmakers actually throwing alternate realities at me? Well, not quite. I’ve seen this movie maybe a half-dozen times, and it was only now that I noticed something I’d never paid attention to before: as the film opens, the young boy is blowing bubbles…just like the alien bubble machine! And then it hit me: this wasn’t about alternate realities at all…this was about a young boy’s dream! Dinosaurs and meteors and astronauts, and a gorilla from space, and a world where a friendly scientist is the father he no longer has. Everything that was happening was just what a young boy would find in comic books, and the pages of Boy’s Life magazine, and in Saturday afternoon serials at his local cinema.
So who do we credit—or blame—for all this? For Phil Tucker, it was the second of eight films he directed over a nine-year span, and was arguably his most popular and well-known. Made at a cost of $16,000 and shot in 3-D, it earned a cool million at the box office and was credited as the first science fiction movie to offer stereophonic sound (and it featured a film score by Elmer Bernstein!). And yet, Tucker attempted suicide that same year, after receiving no payment or percentage of the earnings for his work on the film, and unable to find a job after its release. As for writer Wyott Ordung, Robot Monster was the first of five films he received writing credits for in the 1950s, before moving on to assistant director duties on a handful of minor films in the 1960s and 1970s.
As for my recommendation, well, I don’t know what to tell you. Is it a good movie? No, it’s still poorly made, and could be considered a bit dull if it weren’t so ridiculously funny. I’ve always scored this a 1 out of 10, but this recent ‘it was all a dream’ revelation has me re-thinking my views. Did Phil Tucker make a science fiction adventure movie geared towards kids, that was misunderstood by the masses? Or is it just a low-budget piece of sci-fi schlock that I’m reading far too much into, and is worthy of all the negative reviews it’s received over the years? I think I’ll meet everyone part way, and give Tucker a bit more credit, and boost my rating by one. For fans of bad movies, I’d say it’s definitely worth the sixty-six minutes of time invested. (2/10)