Robot Monster / Monster from Mars / Monsters from the Moon(1953) -*****
Now this is a movie whose reputation precedes it. Phil Tucker’s Robot Monster stands among (and in my estimation, even exceeds) such films as Plan 9 from Outer Space and The Giant Claw as a true archetype of deliriously lousy 50’s science fiction. Time was when this was a movie more often talked about than actually seen, but now that the advent of DVD has made it economically sensible to dump public domain trash onto the market at unit prices of five dollars or less, Robot Monster is enjoying a truly unprecedented degree of availability. At least two DVD editions are out there to be had, and one of those can be bought either singly or (appropriately enough) as part of a double-disk gift pack with Ed Wood’s equally infamous aforementioned magnum opus. These days, it’s easier than ever to see for yourself the movie that nearly resulted in Phil Tucker’s suicide.
Most of you will already know Robot Monster, even if only by rumor and hearsay— this is the one where the robots are wearing gorilla suits. Tucker tried to make them look mechanical, to be sure. The robot aliens’ heads are a sort of variation on the classical pulp sci-fi space helmet, the kind that looks like nothing so much as an update of the equally classic Victorian-era deep sea diving helmet: a basically spherical metallic contrivance with a heavily tinted glass face-plate, customized with a set of antennae apparently borrowed from a television set and a few unidentifiable widgets affixed here and there to enhance the futuristic appearance of the whole thing. The space robots’ bodies, on the other hand, are nothing but ill-fitting gorilla suits of the sort that we’ve been seeing in crummy horror movies since at least the middle of the 1920’s— and honestly, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that Tucker rented only one ape suit, for while there are two distinctly different designs of Ro-Man heads in evidence, only one alien ever appears on the screen at a time. For more than half a century, bemused and astonished audiences have been asking, “Why a gorilla suit?” and we’ll probably never know the definitive answer. The most popular speculation is that Tucker’s complete special effects budget went into the two Ro-Man heads, and that there was no money remaining with which to create a body to go with them. Perhaps this is so, but anyone who has ever tried to rent a gorilla suit can tell you that those things don’t come cheap, either. And in any case, a sane person faced with that sort of budgetary shortfall would surely have resorted to the even cheaper and altogether more sensible expedient of procuring a wetsuit and spray-painting it silver— add a couple of vacuum cleaner hoses, a pair of engineer boots, and a belt with a suitably garish oversized buckle, and voila! Instant space robot. But Phil Tucker rented a gorilla suit instead, which pretty much sums up the whole gestalt of Robot Monster in one neat little package.
Adorable little 50’s tykes Johnny (Gregory Moffet) and Carla (Pamela Paulson) are out having a picnic with their mother, Martha (Selena Royle), and twenty-ish big sister, Alice (Claudia Barrett). Johnny, who is maybe even more obsessed with sci-fi than I was at his age, has been forcing Carla to play Alien Invasion with him. Roaming around in the vicinity of Bronson Canyon (Ever seen a 1950’s monster movie? Did it have a cave or a ravine in it? Then you’ve seen Bronson Canyon.), the children stumble upon a cave where archaeologist George Somethingorother (John Mylong, from The Mermaids of Tiburon) and his assistant, Roy (George Nader, of The Human Duplicators and Beyond Atlantis), are attempting to chip some ancient Native American artwork out of one of the walls so as to send it off to the museum for which they work. Johnny starts pestering the men, but is interrupted when Martha and Alice track the kids down— evidently they’re supposed to be taking a nap, not annoying innocent archaeologists. On the way back to the picnic blanket, Johnny comments to his mom that whenever she gets around to remarrying (Dad died some years ago), he hopes she snags herself a scientist. Then it’s naps for all.
When Johnny wakes up, the first thing he does is go back to the cave where George and Roy were working. But instead of a jolly old scientist with a thick German accent and his swarthy and virile assistant, Johnny now finds the cave occupied by… a robot gorilla from outer space!!!! This is Ro-Man, of the planet Ro-Man (well, technically he’s Extension Ro-Man XJ-12 of the planet Ro-Man), and either that was a really long nap Johnny and his family took, or something funny is going on here, because Ro-Man is currently the undisputed master of the Earth. As we learn when Ro-Man checks in with the Great Guidance Ro-Man back home on Ro-Man, he all by himself was sufficient to conquer the Earth and exterminate humanity. Once he trained his calcinator beam on our planet (incidentally, the calcinator apparently has two settings— one which causes the screen to flash negative and make things blow up, and another which triggers a sudden outburst of stock dinosaur fight footage from One Million B.C. and The Lost World), the human race toppled like a house of cards. The Great Guidance Ro-Man, however, grumpily interrupts XJ-12’s report at this point to inform him that his job is not yet done. “In the 27th category, there is an error of sixteen billionths”— apparently eight humans survived Ro-Man’s attack. The question is, what’s keeping those humans— sorry, “Hu-Mans”— from showing up on Ro-Man’s local sensory equipment? I mean, you’d think a World War II Army-surplus shortwave radio with TV rabbit-ears on top and a bubble machine built into it would be able to pick up anything!
When Johnny goes racing home from his eavesdropping on the conqueror of the world, we’ll come a little bit closer to figuring out what’s going on at the same time that we become even more hopelessly confused; most of the plot developments in this movie work like that. The eight Hu-Mans, it would appear, are Johnny’s family, George the archaeologist, Roy, and a couple of guys we’ve never heard of before. Oh, and Roy (who is missing at the moment) is now Alice’s boyfriend, Alice is now an electronics wiz, and George is now Johnny’s father— by which I mean not that he and Martha got married sometime prior to the sudden end of the world, but rather that the two of them have been hitched for the last 23 years. Even though they just met, like, a little while ago. Could you toss me that ice pack over there? Thanks. Anyway, George and Alice have rigged up some kind of electronic barrier around the homestead that interferes with Ro-Man’s bubble-blowing radio, and that’s why the alien can’t detect them. As for how the family managed to survive the calcinator beam, that’s because of a remarkable discovery George and Roy made before Ro-Man arrived on Earth. The two of them perfected a comprehensive antibiotic serum that cures all disease (which they tested on themselves, George’s family, and the two guys we haven’t seen yet), and somehow immunity to all Earthly pathogens also means immunity to the calcinator death ray. Look, it’s not my fault, okay? Roy arrives a little after Johnny (to the great relief of everyone in the house), and he has some exciting news. For reasons known only to him, Ro-Man didn’t destroy the space platform in orbit around Earth when he invaded, and so far as anyone knows, there should still be a garrison of soldiers aboard it. Roy has been helping the Unseen Guys load up a rocketship with enough doses of the immunity drug to inoculate the whole lot of them, creating an army that Ro-Man will be powerless to fight. The only hole in this plan is that there’s a good chance the garrison commander will assume that the rocket is really Ro-Man coming to get him and his men at last unless somebody gets on the radio to warn the soldiers that help is on the way. But to do so will lead Ro-Man straight to the house. Alice jumps in at this point with an idea that could salvage the situation. The launch is only two days off, so it’ll be a close call, but she thinks she could be able to rewire their communication gear to transmit on a frequency Ro-Man can’t access.
Things do not go according to plan. Alice can’t do the work fast enough, even with Roy’s help, and Ro-Man detects the rocket launch. The calcinator beam flashes forth, “destroying rocketship, space platform, Hu-Mans Seven and Eight alike!” Now there are only six humans left alive. Ro-Man also sends out a broadcast to gloat over this latest spasm of destruction, and to offer the last survivors a choice between “a painless surrender death and the horror of resistance death,” but since he still doesn’t even know where his foes are hiding, his bargaining posture is highly dubious. After Alice completes the modifications to the TV/radio rig, her father sends a gloating message of his own, showing Ro-Man the faces of the people whom he has been unable to kill. This is where things get interesting. You see, Ro-Man inexplicably develops a fondness for Alice (for what it’s worth, nobody finds this development more inexplicable than Ro-Man himself), and this leads him down all sorts of intellectual paths which Ro-Men are forbidden to tread. He tries to convince the Great Guidance Ro-Man to permit the preservation of one human (Alice— duh) as a hedge against unforeseen “contingencies,” but GG will have none of that. The boss’s stubborn refusal to reconsider gets Ro-Man thinking, and before long, he’s waxing positively Shakespearean: “To be like the Hu-Man— to laugh, to love, to want— why are these things not in the Plan?” This is much more than the Great Guidance Ro-Man is willing to tolerate, and he orders that the Hu-Mans be destroyed within one revolution of the Earth— “Otherwise, I will sentence you for failure.”
Let me pause here to talk a bit about the passage of time in Robot Monster. Frankly, I have no idea what GG is talking about when he says “the Earth may revolve one time” before he expects the final extermination of humanity. Technically speaking, a revolution is one year— the time it takes the planet to make its circuit around the sun. On the other hand, a lot of people say “revolve” when they really mean “rotate,” so we should also consider that this is what the Great Guidance Ro-Man is driving at. In that case, Ro-Man’s deadline is just 24 hours away. The trouble here is that neither one of those timeframes corresponds with what we see on the screen. It’s difficult to say for sure (Phil Tucker’s total lack of concern for the physical differences between day and night certainly doesn’t help), but it looks like about four days have passed between the time GG issues his ultimatum and the time he informs Ro-Man that his time is precisely halfway up. The only celestial cycle that even vaguely corresponds to an eight-day period would be the phases of the moon, but there’s simply no way to stretch an honest interpretation of “the Earth may revolve one time” to include that!
Anyway, Ro-Man resolves to use “physical means” to kill off the remaining Hu-Mans. He misses his first chance when Alice is prevented by Roy and her father from going to meet with the alien. (They tie her up to stop her from leaving the homestead— it’s pretty incredible.) Then he blows his second, too, when Johnny sneaks out to parley with the invader amid the commotion attendant upon restraining Alice (Johnny to Ro-Man: “You look like a pooped-out pinwheel!” Ro-Man to Johnny: “Now I will kill you.”), and Ro-Man proves to be too much of a lazy, fat fuck to catch him. Ro-Man finally enjoys some success on the night of Roy and Alice’s honeymoon (yeah, ummm… just nevermind, okay?); he strangles Carla when the girl foolishly rushes off alone into the wilderness to give her sister some flowers as a wedding present, and then ambushes the honeymooners themselves, capturing Alice, mortally wounding Roy, and setting in motion the chain of events that will bring about the movie’s climax. The Great Guidance Ro-Man is disgusted to see that his subordinate has kidnapped Alice, rather than killing her as per his instructions. While the unconscious Alice helpfully ties herself up off-camera, the two aliens have it out over the telescreen, and Ro-Man gets his second big Hamlet moment. Having been ordered once again to dispose of Alice before doing anything else, Ro-Man soliloquizes, “I cannot, yet I must… How do you calculate that? Where on the graph do ‘cannot’ and ‘must’ meet?” Just then, Johnny and his parents make one last, desperate effort to rescue Alice, and GG gets so fed up with the situation on Earth that he takes matters into his own hands: “You want to be like the Hu-Man? Good— then you can die like the Hu-Man!” Great Guidance calcinates Ro-Man to death, and then bombards the Earth with “the deadly Q-rays, which will release prehistoric reptiles [in other words, more stock footage from The Lost World and One Million B.C.] to devour all life.” Finally, he delivers the coup de grace, unleashing some other bullshit cosmic force I didn’t catch the name of, to “smash the Earth out of the universe!!!!” Not to worry, though. As we see once the stock-footage destruction of our planet is complete, the whole strange business has been but a dream Johnny had on the afternoon of that picnic from the first scene (which would explain a lot, now that I think about it…)— or was it?! While all the grown-ups lead Johnny out of the cave where he was knocked unconscious by a bump on the head, the Great Guidance Ro-Man comes looming out from the depths of said cavern. Then he does it again. And then he does it once more, just in case we didn’t get it either of the first two times. How Phil Tucker resisted the temptation to follow up with “The End?” flashing across the screen, I’ll never know…
It’s hard to believe so much could go so completely awry in a movie that isn’t even 70 minutes long. On the technical front— acting, continuity, sets, special effects, etc.— there is almost literally nothing about Robot Monster that does work. Elmer Bernstein’s score (that’s right, folks— Elmer Fucking Bernstein wrote the score to this turkey) is much, much better than the movie deserves, but it represents about the one little glimmer of quality that made it into the finished product intact. The performances don’t even deserve to be dignified with the term “acting.” Continuity errors abound (Johnny’s wearing shorts… now he’s wearing torn blue jeans… now he’s wearing shorts again), and in many instances (like when Alice apparently ties herself up in Ro-Man’s cave after Ro-Man cold-cocks her so that he can answer a call from his boss), not even the most stuporously unobservant viewer could fail to spot them. The sets are simply whatever locations Tucker happened to find while wandering around Bronson Canyon, and in some cases, it’s difficult to say for sure what they’re supposed to represent. For example, it sort of looks like the world’s last family are living in a ruined foundation, rather than a proper house, but they talk about the place as though it provided much better shelter than it would appear to from what we see of it. Is there supposed to be something left of the building the foundation once supported, but which we don’t get to see? Who knows? Ro-Man’s lair is another head-scratcher, partly because it’s difficult to understand what a robot gorilla from outer space would want with such accommodations, and partly because all the high-tech equipment which Ro-Man has brought with him to provide all the comforts of home is so manifestly low-tech. For Christ’s sake, he’s got his bubble-blowing hyperspace power conduit/global bioenergy detector whatsit set up on top of a flea market dining room table!
The special effects are an oddly mixed bag. There are a few artful uses of stock footage and double exposure in Robot Monster; in particular, Tucker does some highly effective things with newsreel footage of the devastation caused by the Luftwaffe and the Eighth Air Force in Europe, and the scenario here makes it believable for once that a mission to space would look like one of the US military’s on-the-cheap and on-the-fly test-launches of a captured German V-2. On the other hand… well, the alien invaders are robot gorillas wearing space-helmets, and that kind of speaks for itself. The telescreen images of the space platform which initially appears to be man’s last great hope are similarly piss-poor. The satellite appears to be a model-kit rocket (it might even be the old Aurora kit of the space ark from When Worlds Collide) with a lit sparkler in its tail, and because it’s supposed to be in orbit around the Earth, Tucker has it turning frantically around and around in a tight and noticeably erratic little circle. You will note, however, that the planet about which the space platform is supposed to be revolving is actually nowhere in the frame. And of course, the aliens’ ultimate weapon is a death ray that triggers stock footage from a pair of antique, public-domain dinosaur movies. That’s sheer madness right there, people.
The really baffling thing, though, is that Robot Monster is actually a far more ambitious film than its obvious crudity and incompetence would initially suggest. For one thing, if we disregard the point that the whole movie is revealed in the end to be nothing more than a little boy’s (possibly prophetic) dream, Robot Monster is easily the most relentlessly bleak and hopeless sci-fi movie of the 1950’s. It begins with the virtual extermination of the human race, it ends with the total physical destruction of the Earth, and along the way between those calamities, the last chance for a counterstrike against the aliens is crushed, a little girl is strangled to death, and the heroine sees her lover killed on their wedding night! The invaders have the upper hand throughout, and at no point can the human protagonists hope realistically for anything better than to survive like a colony of roaches in the shadow of their extraterrestrial conquerors. It’s also worth pointing out that Robot Monster plays shockingly fair with the oft-employed premise of emotionless aliens being corrupted by exposure to human society. While it is undeniably absurd that a robot space gorilla would fall in love with a human, Wyott Ordung’s script has the nerve to acknowledge that absurdity by making Ro-Man struggle to wrap his own electronic mind around it. It is to Ordung’s further credit that Ro-Man never succeeds in coming to grips with his dilemma. In that light, it makes a bit more sense that Phil Tucker could have taken this movie so seriously that he attempted to shoot himself when critics and audiences alike immediately greeted Robot Monster with a chorus of stunned guffaws. It did indeed prove a career killer, and the only work Tucker could get in the film industry for the rest of the 1950’s was on the string of burlesque movies he made in partnership with Lenny Bruce, who was even further out of favor than Tucker himself by that point. Filming Bruce telling dirty jokes while Deenah Prince took her clothes off was not exactly the post-Robot Monster career arc that Tucker had in mind, so his depression in the aftermath is understandable. Tucker was a terrible shot, however, and he ended up living until November 30, 1985. That, I hasten to remind you, means that he lived to see the birth of a subculture that appreciated movies like his, precisely because of their flagrant disregard for generally accepted standards of quality filmmaking. I wonder if he noticed the rabid fan-base that Robot Monster began to develop during his last years on Earth, and I wonder what he thought about it if he did…