Movie Monster Blogathon: Robot Monster (1953)



I first heard about Robot Monster from an ad for a local theater. They had this series called “Movies You Have to Be Drunk to Enjoy”, or something similar. At the time, I was disappointed that I was not going to be able to make the one night showing. When I saw the photo of the alien in the ad (see above), I knew that I would probably enjoy this flick.

That is because this has to be one of the most ridiculous movie aliens ever created. The body is that of a hairy, obese gorilla. The head is swathed in a nylon stocking, and then covered with a diving helmet with perky antennae jutting out of the top. That’s right, this is a mostly organic being that apparently has a robotic head. I think. The real story is that the director Phil Tucker knew a guy with a gorilla suit who would work for nothing, but that doesn’t help with the fictional side of things.

Robot Monster packs a lot more silliness into a mere 76 minutes. It is a compact piece of bad movie bliss, though you may understandably feel like you’ve been watching it for much longer.

The movie starts with little Johnny and his sister Carla. After he blasts her with his space gun and a few bubbles, she asks him for the first of many times if he’ll play house. They are interrupted by sharp banging sounds. When they investigate, they find a pair of archeologists chipping around ancient cave drawings which have miraculously survived the passage of time in the outer walls of the cave. The boy’s widowed mother and his grown sister Alice join them and scold the kids for running off.

Reunited, the family returns to their picnic spot, which sits near a pile of rocks in the direct sun. Somehow, they all manage to settle down for a nap in this hideously uncomfortable place. Johnny wakes up, and runs back to the cave. A bolt of lightning strikes him to the ground.

What follows is Johnny’s crazy end-of-the-world dream. In this nutty nightmare, his mother and old sister wear identical white dresses, his father has been replaced by the eldest of the archeologists, who is now a professor and the whole family lives in the basement of a bombed-out house that is ringed with layers of live electrical wire. Apparently this prevents the alien Ro-Man from hearing and tracking the family, who are among the last few humans (or as Ro-Man would say, Hu-Mans) on earth.

Somehow, furry, bumbling Ro-Man has destroyed the rest of the planet with his death calcinator ray, an invasion of stop-motion dinosaurs and a baby alligator with a fin taped to its back who wrestles with a lizard (or Gila Monster? I wasn’t sure). Much to the gorilla robot’s chagrin, the professor has tested a germ-fighting serum on his whole family and it seems to also make them death ray-proof.

The rest of the movie is a battle of wills, not only between Ro-Man and the pesky remaining Hu-mans, but also Alice and the hunky younger archeologist who is the professor’s assistant in Johnny’s dream world. Of course the latter pair end up in love, though Ro-Man makes a play for Alice and tries to convince his intergalactic supervisor, the Great One that she should be spared “for reference”.

Convinced that Ro-Man has bungled his earth assignment, his boss blasts him and what remains of the planet. Then Johnny wakes up and realizes it was all a dream. Or was it? You’ll get the answer to that question a whopping three times in a row.

The only way to do true justice to this astonishing movie is to go through it minute-by-minute. There are so many articles online that do this better. I’ve put the links to my favorites at the bottom of the post.

What I’ve decided to do instead is to share some of the more bizarre moments from the flick:

1. This is the only movie I’ve seen where a bubble machine gets prominent screen credit. As far as I know, this is the sole movie role for the Automatic Billion Bubbles Machine, which is a part of Ro-Man’s equipment, though I was never sure why. We all know there’s nothing more menacing than bubbles, as evidenced by that master of horror Lawrence Welk. Maybe that is why the Robot Monster is always surrounded by a swath of the floating orbs whenever he is standing at the mouth of his cave lair.

2. No one ever needs to die at the hands of the Robot Monster. All anyone ever has to do is slowly walk away and he could never catch up. There are several long shots in the movie of Ro-Man awkwardly wandering the canyon, looking like a hirsute Teletubby. He’s about as agile as the Cowardly Lion and equally scary. Instead of simply walking away, the child actors stop and wait for the monster to approach them, because if they ambled away, we wouldn’t have a story. Sister Alice makes the mistake of trying to run away, which of course means that she trips over a rock. Hasn’t that dame ever seen a movie?

3. The soundtrack is an early score by Elmer Bernstein, who is understandably better known for the classic themes in adventure flicks such as The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape. It’s pretty good, though it can get a bit too cutesy during the scenes with the children. There are some effective themes and an overall feeling of dark grandeur. Unfortunately, all this pomp sounds a bit goofy when paired with a gorilla in a diving helmet waddling up and down the sides of a canyon.

4. As you can’t see Ro-Man’s face, the actor in the suit is forced to emote solely with body language. Since his body is less than flexible, the bulk of Ro-Man’s motions are angry arm thrusts, which often do not correspond with his dubbed lines. The gorilla-bot’s most menacing move is to shake his paw in the air as if he is trying to chase a group of pesky kids off his rock pile.

5. Some of the things Johnny dreams seem a bit strange coming from the mind of a young boy. Why would he imagine one sister getting busy with a scientist and nearly molested by an ape, while the other is strangled to death? Not to mention completely writing his father out of his life so that a German science professor can be his dad instead. I’m a bit concerned about Johnny.

Quotes

The Professor: He is impervious!
Alice: Unless. . .we can find his weak spot!
--
Roy: I'm bossy? You're so bossy you ought to be milked before you come home at night.
--
Johnny: [to Ro-Man] You look like a pooped out pinwheel!
--
Great One: Have you made the correction?
Ro-Man: I need guidance, Great One. For the first time in my life, I am not sure.
Great One: You sound like a Hu-Man, not a Ro-Man. Can you not verify a fact?
Ro-Man: I meshed my LIP with the view-screen auditor, and picked up a count of five.
Great One: Error! Error! There are eight!
Ro-Man: Then the other three still elude me. Is it possible they have a counterpower?
--
Ro-Man: 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!

Video

Robot Monster on Mystery Science Theater 3000

MST3K: The actual start of the film is here at 3:45

Robot Monster in 3D

Trailer

Robot Monster reviews:

Jabootu’s Bad Movie Dimension
Bad Movies




23 comments:

Yvette said...

This sounds perfectly, screamingly awful! Is it posible it was meant as a comedy? Dangerous bubbles - who knew?

I am astounded to see Elmer Bernstein's name linked to this in ANY way. Wow. I'm happy to say I've never seen this movie and even happier to say that I probably never will. Thanks for a great review, though. I enjoyed reading it.

thingy said...

Awesome!! I think I may have seen this years ago, but who needs drinks with something like this. Love it.

Terrific post. : )

Nathanael Hood said...

Wait, wait, wait...Elmer Bernstein did the soundtrack?! Get outta town!

I, too, have a fondness for this film. Although, I won't lie...the first time I saw it was on MST3K. I can only imagine what this film must have been like unriffed and drunk!

What a film...what a classic bad film...it's so bad that it becomes good again!

Thanks for participating, and thanks for a great review!

Nathanael Hood said...

Yvette

That's the point! It's fun to watch BECAUSE it's so bad!

Kevin Deany said...

If memory serves, Elmer Bernstein's left-wing politics made him suspect in the early 1950s and he was denied major assignments. Thus, he had to do "Robot Monster" and "Cat Women of the Moon" to put food on the table.

I'll take "Robot Monster" over "Transformers 3" any day of the week.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

No one ever needs to die at the hands of the Robot Monster. All anyone ever has to do is slowly walk away and he could never catch up.

I don't know why this strikes me so funny, but I'll stop laughing in a minute.

I'm going to be a minority opinion here...the first time I saw this movie I was expecting something dementedly fun along the lines of Plan 9 from Outer Space...and while there's no denying the demented part its reputation doesn't live up to the hype. I kept looking at my watch wishing it would end. Still--and I think Kev overlooked this--at a time when Lawrence Welk's bubble machine also had difficulty locating work because of the Red Scare, it's nice to see the device turn in such a "wun'erful, wun'erful" performance.

RVChris said...

What a fun review, I loved the bizarre moments. I've heard of this through MST3K but now I really need to see it!

KC said...

Yvette--unfortunately the director of Robot Monster was very serious about his movie. The reviews were so bad that he ended up in the psych ward at a VA hospital! He got over it though.

Thanks thingy. I think bad movies have pretty much taken the place of alcohol for me!

Nate--I saw it for the first time on MST3K as well. It's a long 76 minutes, so it is nice to have the riffs to cover the slow spots. Thanks for hosting such a fun blogathon!

Kevin--That's interesting about Bernstein. I didn't know he was a suspect. What a horrible time that was. Well, I hope he was proud of his Robot Monster soundtrack. I refused to watch the Transformers (I made it about 5 minutes before I had to go into the other room), but I imagine Robot Monster will be a reliable source of amusement for many years.

Ivan--oh yes! I love to make people laugh. cool. Watching that poor monster trying to walk, was sort of funny, but also pathetic. He seems more like a disgruntled worker with a mean boss than a menacing creature from another world. I know what you mean about the pacing. It has lots of weird moments, but it also drags. It isn't quite as giddily strange as Plan 9.

RVChris--Thanks! If you do see it, you'll probably be a lot more entertained by the MST3K version. They do a really good job with that one.

Cliff Aliperti said...

Elmer Bernstein was definitely a surprise!

I think they used to show this one late at night on PBS by me. It's definitely deserving of it's spot on the poster representing this Blogathon.

Enjoyed it, KC, especially the list of the bizarre!

Michaël Parent said...

Wow! It seems like a fun movie like they don't do anymore! So bad it's good! Just the poster deserves extra points for its kitsch value! I liked the review very much funny and interesting.

Wednesday's Child said...

It's too bad that bad reviews don't send people to the psych ward anymore. Not really, but it's fun to imagine a time when the mindset wasn't so much "no publicity is bad publicity."

KC said...

Cliff--They showed this on PBS? Weird! My local station never showed stuff like this. They've been playing "All About Eve" constantly for years.

Michaël--I love the poster as well. What's up with the skeleton head? It's the perfect sci-fi poster because to look at it, you'd have no idea it's essentially about a guy in a gorilla suit wandering around a bunch of rocks and shrubs.

Wednesday's Child--I know, people used to actually care enough about their work enought to take criticism to heart. That can be good or bad, but I like the overall sense of pride it indictates. Tucker really thought he did a good job with the small budget he had. He must have a sense of humor about it now though, because he let the authors of "The 50 Worst Movies of All Time" interview him for their R. Monster chapter.

Rachel said...

I think this movie might be a contender for the silliest one reviewed for the blogathon thus far. Bubbles, who knew? And PBS?

I think the dialogue is even better than the robot monster. "He is impervious--Unless we can find his weak spot!" I'll have to find a way to work that one into casual conversation.

Thanks for tackling this one. I had fun reading about it.

Hal C F Astell said...

I love this movie. It's godawful but it's about as watchable as bad movies get, even more so than Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Reading your review, I realise another plothole (like there weren't enough already) that I didn't cover in mine. The thing is that every time I see Bronson Canyon in a movie, which seems to be every other week nowadays, I think of Ro-Man and his bubble machine. They're like ghost characters in all those other movies, hiding down the next tunnel. And yet, cave paintings can apparently survive the busiest caves in California. That's so far beyond hopeful it becomes more surreal than the rest of the movie.

Thomas Duke said...

Very entertaining review. Ro-Man is one of my favorite movie monsters, logic and taste be damned. I also wrote a review of Robot Monster if you wanna check it out: http://cinemagonzo.blogspot.com/2011/02/robot-monster-1953-ive-heard-of-monkey.html

grandoldmovies said...

"We all know there’s nothing more menacing than bubbles, as evidenced by that master of horror Lawrence Welk." Hilarious! So that explains the terror of Mr. Welk! This is a terrific post on one of the prime so-bad-it's-good classics of all time. Poor Phil Tucker, I didn't know about the psych ward! At least Elmer Bernstein got to do scores like the great one he did for TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Wonder if he kept ROBOT MONSTER on his resume?

Kevyn Knox said...

Sorry I didn't get to read this sooner (I was on holiday until today). Great review indeed. This is one I have not seen but after reading your piece on it, I will have to watch it (added to my queue mere moments ago).

Keep up the good work.

KC said...

Rachel--there are some very goofy flicks in this blogathon, but I think you may be right about Robot Monster. The bubbles push it to beyond silly.

Hal--It's unbelievable the number of plotlines and WTF moments there are in this flick. The best reviews of it are always practically book length, because that's the only way to catch everything. I'm curious to see your take on it.

Thomas--Thanks! I have special affection for Ro-Man as well. Partly because I feel sorry for him. The furry fellow had a rough ride. I'd love to check out your review--once I get through all these blogathon posts!

Grandoldmovies--Thanks! I think Tucker pulled through all right, though he remained a bit bitter. The Bernstein score is almost too good for the flick, but that adds to the fun.

Kevyn--I'm having a bit of trouble keeping up with all these posts myself, and I haven't been anywhere! They're all so good that I'm determined to read every one. You may want to rent the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version of Robot Monster. The quips help to fill in the slow spots.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

I wouldn't worry too much about Ro-Man. He made a comeback in the music video for The Cars' "You Might Think". It's kind of charming. As for Robot Monster: it's not nearly as fun as other really bad movies. And it has that curious time dilation effect generated by really awful movies, in which 73 minutes is made to feel like three hours.

W.B. Kelso said...

I always had a sneaking suspicion that Ro-Man spent so much time in the back of that cave because he came to Earth and ignored the Great Guidance's advice on not drinking the water. Consider it Montazuma's revenge on a galactic scale.

KC said...

Vulnavia Morbius--I didn't know that about the Cars! I'll have to look it up. I know what you mean about the fun factor in Robot Monster. As crazy as it is, it drags. However, after seeing it three times, it did start to grow on me.

WB Kelso--I agree. It was like Ro-Man was saying "screw you boss man; I'm going to party!" but he knew that he was too hapless to pull it off.

Tippi2 said...

Saw this in on VHS but the picture quality was awful. We love these so bad they are good movies! KC makes a good point..for some reason they grow on you with repeated viewings.

KC said...

Tippi2--I've seen it both online and on DVD. The picture quality has always been terrible! I admit that there are several bad movies that I watch over and over. I seem to have a problem.

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