It is ironic (and to some of us, vaguely disturbing) that, from the beginning of recorded history, and probably prior to that, humans have speculated and anticipated the ‘End of the World’. The Apocalypse, regardless of what name it is called by (Rapture, Ragnarok, Gigli 2, etc.), has been a rich source of both religious and literary inspiration. The end could come by plague, natural disaster, alien invasion, nuclear Armageddon, you name it, and it has been written or filmed. In the history of sci-fi films, it’s helpful to think of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as Writer, Producer, Director and Actor.
The post-apocalyptic film has been done well in films such as 12 Monkeys (1995) (plague), Escape from New York (1981) (crime/social disintegration), On the Beach (1959) (nuclear war) and Day of the Triffids (1962) (alien plant life) Sadly, for every good film, there are several unfortunate examples of why some people shouldn’t be allowed near movie cameras, let alone behind them. The lure of science fiction, combined with the availability of cheap sets anywhere there is a pile of rubble, has led some filmmakers to attempt social commentary or even cheap thrills at the expense of the audience’s sanity.
When filmmakers, authors and religious leaders indicated that the world would someday come to a terrible end, I doubt they had anything this terrible in mind…
Robot Monster (1953)
Hollywood rumor has it that filmmaker Phil Tucker, 25 at the time Robot Monster was made, was so upset by the finished product that he attempted suicide. Although this rumor had been floating around for years, completely justifying its inclusion on any list of history’s worst films, more recent information suggests that Tucker, embroiled in a dispute with the film’s distributor, was suffering from depression at the time. Still, the rumor is more entertaining, as rumors often are. Interestingly, it was made using the then-popular 3-D process, but I have never had the pleasure of seeing it in anything other than two dimensions.
The film was made over four days, at an estimated cost of $16,000, and it shows. At one point, Ro-Man stands in the mouth of a cave in all his robot-monstery glory – and brother, what glory. A misshapen and bulky gorilla suit topped with a space helmet, complete with antennae. One is unsure whether to scream in terror or laughter, but I’m leaning heavily toward the latter. I can just imagine what a spectacle this was in 3-D: “WATCH as he emerges from the cave! SEE his stupefying futuristic space helmet! DODGE his ridiculous pot belly as he turns!” Pity poor George Barrows – he truly has a thankless job in this film. Little did he know that he’d be remembered for this film, but decidedly not for the reasons he may have anticipated. It’s better to remember him for building the TV Batmobile than for this.
As quickly becomes apparent throughout the film, referring to something off-screen that provides context can help establish a sense of verité, but if you do it too often it’s just a reminder that cool things are happening all around the characters, but we sure ain’t gonna see ‘em. The purpose of a narrative is to involve us in the action we are seeing, which is defeated by reinforcing the idea that there are more interesting things going on somewhere else, if only the guy with the camera would stop following these jerks.
Robot Monster benefited (as much as it could) from its filming in 3-D, as well as a soundtrack composed by Elmer Bernstein, who also composed the scores for such classics as To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) and The Magnificent Seven (1960), all of which were Oscar-nominated. As far as possible explanations as to why Bernstein was associated with this film, I can only speculate that it had to do with intimidation or incriminating photographs, or possibly extreme luck on Tucker’s part. In any case, Robot Monster is a perfect illustration of the fact that a good composer can help a good film, but there’s no rescuing a bad film with music alone.
What the heck’s going on here?
We open, with little ceremony, on the titles, which are shown over a background of comic books, which immediately made me think how much I’d like to be reading comics than watching this film, but I made the commitment, and dammit, I was going to follow through. The immediate impression conveyed by the opening title music is of someone pounding their head repeatedly on a piano keyboard – which probably gives us an idea of Elmer Bernstein’s experiences during the making of this film, or perhaps hints at an uncredited performance from Sesame Street’s Guy Music. A credit for the “Billion Bubble Machine” does not instill confidence, either. We now proceed to the actual film. Brace yourself.
The first person (Perpetrator? Victim?) we meet is Johnny, a young moppet who comes over a little hillock dressed in a space helmet and endlessly firing a toy ray gun. Unfortunately, someone remembered to put air holes in the helmet. Johnny approaches a young girl, who blithely ignores the fact that Johnny has disintegrated her and reminds Johnny that he has promised to play house with her. They come upon two men who appear to be archaeologists, one of whom (not sure which, it’s one of many seemingly random dubbings) replies to Johnny’s assertion that they must die with a monotone, “Did you say something?”
The older man, the Professor, asks if they can live in peace rather than fighting. Johnny reluctantly agrees, although he still isn’t interested in playing house with the apparently obsessed little girl. Johnny’s mother then calls for him, and it becomes apparent that the children don’t actually know these men, despite Johnny’s willingness to sit on the professor’s knee. Nice going Mom. Ah, parenting skills, so important yet so elusive. Johnny’s mother and sister join the vaguely creepy scene, the younger scientist politely looking at the sister as they are introduced – actually no, it’s more like openly leers at her. This could turn really icky really fast, but fortunately, Mom and sis are here to collar Johnny for his picnic lunch. Mom has apparently had the foresight to drug the food, as everyone falls asleep soon after.
Johnny wakes up first, and runs off with his ray gun to hunt more scientists. Suddenly, without warning (or much sense), lightning lights up the sky – Johnny, apparently sensitive to lightning, falls down. The film flashes negative, and a glowing fireball falls from the sky. Then regular-sized lizards with fins glued on them fight on a miniature set, with a quick cut of some stop-motion dinosaurs thrown in for good measure. Seriously. This goes on for a while.
The cave Johnny fainted in front of now has some futuristic equipment set up in it, one machine (presumably the aforementioned Billion Bubble Machine) spewing bubbles madly. Johnny seizes the opportunity to grab a handy can of paint and deface the cave wall. More crackling and film-reversing ensues, because, as everyone is aware by now, aliens hate it when you paint on their caves. Johnny hightails it around the corner, and from the cave emerges Our Villain, Ro-Man!
Anyway, Johnny watches as Ro-Man twiddles some knobs on one of the machines to bring up a view of space on a viewscreen. Perhaps he’s looking for something better to watch: sorry Ro-Man, you’re stuck with this movie like the rest of us. Ro-Man is calling his boss to give him an update on his progress, his boss being another Ro-Man just like him.
Ro-Man describes to the identical Ro-Man (apparently they both live on the Planet of Identity Theft) how the “hu-mans” were unable to defend against his Calcinator Ray, and, as the human race first assumed the ray came from another country, cheerfully helped the whole extinction thing along by firing hydrogen bombs at one another. Ro-Man asserts that there is no human life left, but, as a typical boss, the guy on the viewscreen says his machines are better and there still is human life so get back to work you slacker. There are eight humans left, and they must be found and destroyed, in order for, uh, something… to happen which would be…good? Bad? Not really clear on the whole motivation thing, but let’s forge ahead regardless.
Johnny runs away from the cave to what looks like the foundation for a house surrounded by electrical sparks. The Professor, who Johnny now refers to as ‘Pop’ (he wished for a scientist dad earlier before everyone fell asleep), and his Mom lectures him how he was told never to venture outside of the wires without permission. Apparently the Professor and Johnny’s sister (named Alice) placed the wires around the house to defend against Ro-Man’s death rays. Ro-Man cannot see or hear people inside the house, but any noise outside would alert him to the presence of the last surviving humans. Johnny activates the family viewscreen, which reveals Ro-Man, who is in a speechifyin’ mood, as usual. He promises the five remaining humans a painless death if they surrender immediately. Ro-Man shows them what looks like scenes from better movies depicting the end of mankind, which traumatizes everybody, probably because they wish they had signed up for that movie rather than this one. Inexplicably, the little house-obsessed girl has reappeared from nowhere, making up the fifth member of their little band. Ro-Man tells then there is no escape from him, all the while gesticulating wildly for apparent emphasis.
A brief conversation between Mom and Pop follows (the highlight of the scene being when someone jostles the camera – Mom looks doubtful whether they’ll keep the take, but with only four days and sixteen grand to play with, we’re movin’ on). Back at the cave, a man in a torn shirt (but impeccable hair) tries to fiddle with the bubble machine, but Ro-Man has had the foresight to set the alarm, so the man runs away and hides. Ro-Man once again calls the office, confused as to what to do next. The boss accuses him of sounding “more like a hu-man than a Ro-Man.” Ooohh, burn. The boss continues to ream out Ro-Man, ultimately threatening consequences if he doesn’t finish the job and kill all the humans (whom he numbers as eight, although by my count, Studly McHairhelmet only makes six). When Ro-Man signs off, he tries and fails to spot our intrepid hair model, despite standing approximately five feet from him. I’m starting to side with Ro-Man’s boss a little here.
I should point out that, as ambient noise in this scene, there is a high-pitched whine representing the alarm for the machines that sounds constantly – it is akin to running dentists’ drills next to your ears for several minutes – just one more note of unpleasantness from this little film. Thank you, Mr. Tucker, for showing us the world through the senses of tinnitus sufferers.
Back in our cozy little bunker, and the family, sleeping together (I ain’t sayin’ nothin’), rouse from their slumber – Professor Pop, pulling out a pistol, indicates his willingness to off the whole family should it be necessary. Uh, someone else may want to hold the gun for a while. Mr. Ironlocks comes over the wall, grinning stupidly, and is finally addressed by name: it is the presumed-dead Roy, who brags about standing practically next to Ro-Man (Johnny pipes up that he was, too), and wonders aloud why he wasn’t seen. Alice speculates that perhaps it was because he wasn’t worth noticing. While I absolutely agree with her, I’d like to share a small acting tip: your emotional tone upon the return of a loved one should not be set to ‘bitch’. Roy indicates that there are two more people he knows of who are still alive, and attributes it to some common cold cure the Professor invented – or something like that. I actually found my attention wandering due to the rather profound difference between the other people’s dialogue and Roy’s dubbed voice – it’s like he’s in ‘Hi-Fi’ while the others are in ‘Mono’.
Ok, so Roy’s been busy – he and his two friends gathered enough of the Prof’s Miracle Elixir and rocket fuel to travel to a space platform and immunize the ‘garrison’ against the Calcinator Death Ray. Anyway, it is apparent that they will have to notify the space platform that they are coming, so they are not mistaken for Ro-Man and shot out of the sky. Alice and Roy argue about his worth as an assistant – she insists that he is too bossy, and he replies, “You’re so bossy you ought to be milked before you come home at night.” I eagerly awaited Alice’s reaction, which logically would have been wresting the gun from Pops and letting Roy have it in the kneecap, but a quick and well-advised apology puts the matter behind us. People spend some time inserting things into boxes filled with wires, while Roy and Alice continue to argue in voiceover. Then things get exciting, as a pair of pliers is introduced – I can’t imagine why THAT was left off the poster. Work continues. Alice needs rest, and Johnny tells us that they’ve been at it for two days, which was the deadline for completing the work. Oh, good, we endured the wires and bickering for no reason whatsoever. Once again, the movie adds to the amount of needless suffering in the world.
Ro-Man rings the family up again, telling them that he now knows of the other two hu-mans thanks to their rocket launch (stock footage of a missile followed by a toy rocket on a string with a sparkler jammed in the back of it), and he is now planning to destroy the platform. Ro-Man (or his boss, not clear on this) gestures menacingly, and the stock footage and toy rocket are destroyed in a flash. Ro-Man wants them to reveal themselves in one hour so they can be killed. Mom speculates that perhaps if they talked to Ro-Man, he might not hate them – we are treated to more hands and boxes and wires as they try to find a way to contact Ro-Man. Upon receiving their call, Ro-Man gets a little miffed that the family isn’t surrendering, and Pop decides to introduce him to, according to his accent, “the sick people you want to destroy”. Johnny, true to form, sticks his tongue out when he is introduced. Why they haven’t tossed him over the wall for extermination is anyone’s guess.
Ro-Man asks to see Alice again, as he is apparently getting strange stirrings in his naughty alien bits. He wishes to talk to her, to explain The Plan, as he feels she will understand. So, Ro-Man asks her out on a date, and she accepts – stranger things have happened, and all in the course of this film. Alice emotes like there’s no tomorrow to convince the others they should take this chance for peace. Roy and the family (with the exception of Johnny, who scoots over the wall) pin her down and hogtie her to keep her from going. I was hoping the movie was going to head off in a much more interesting, albeit disturbing, direction, but alas, the film continues as before.
We are treated to extensive footage of Ro-Man waddling his way up a long hill, with a few photo-negative flashes thrown in. Roy unties Alice so the two of them can go look for Johnny – Alice is still understandably bitter about the whole ‘family bondage’ thing. Johnny is soon engaged in haranguing Ro-Man, calling him a “big bully”. After an unsuccessful (and justifiable) attempt to kill him, Johnny says, “You look like a pooped-out pinwheel.” This, of course, pisses Ro-Man off even more. So much for the peace talks – nice work, Johnny. Of course, Johnny says too much and gives Ro-Man the clue he needs to adjust the death ray to destroy them – again, nice work, Johnny.
Roy walks with Alice, and is apparently overheated enough to remove his shirt. Sadly, Alice does not follow suit, as she is ‘perky’ enough to make this entire fiasco worthwhile. Ro-Man appears, and Roy scoops Alice into his arms and runs away. Ro-Man then descends the hill he was climbing. This ‘chase’ scene is somewhat less than tense, as we get only a rudimentary idea of where the bad guy is in relation to the good guys – it’s not so much a chase as a random walk in the hills. Roy tries to get busy with the reluctant female, and they make crude hand signs to each other so they cannot be overheard. At one point, Alice makes a motion that indicates that she is familiar with how male anatomy works, and that Roy is a blue-ribbon specimen, by all appearances – whether that’s what she meant, I’m not sure, but that’s definitely what it looked like. Lots of kissing, laying down in the weeds, and so on, are followed by a discreet fade out.
Ro-Man wanders back to his cave (there is a lot of lovingly-filmed shots of walking in this film), while Roy and Alice return to the bunker, apparently some time later. Bow-chicka-wow… They ask Professor Pops to perform a wedding ceremony. Better late than never, I guess. Pops is enthused, and he gestures in a long shot to show his joy, while in the close up, he’s suddenly holding a book – the magical family Bible, I’m guessing. The book is gone again in the next shot, so I guess Magic Bible needs some more time to prepare.
Back at the cave, Ro-Man has fired up the bubble machine, and he gives his boss a call to check in on the progress of The Plan. After much gesturing by both, he hangs up, checks the bubble machine and heads into the cave to make the necessary adjustments. Meanwhile, the wedding is taking place at the bunker. They have somehow managed to find a veil for Alice, however they haven’t managed to scare up a shirt for Roy, who nevertheless walks up the aisle whole Pops sings “The Wedding March”. Charles and Di, this is not. Pops asks The Big Guy to give him a temporary marrying permit so the ceremony would be legal – if they’re the only people left, who cares? Unfortunately, he neglects to ask for the film to end immediately, so there’s a ways to go yet. He manages to fake it to everyone’s satisfaction, so it’s off to the weeds again for Roy and Alice. They head over the hill, with Roy taking the time to put on his torn shirt again, until they are stopped by little Carla, who wants to give Alice some flowers for her special day. Fortunately, they won’t go to waste, as Ro-Man soon catches Carla and strangles her. Yay! One down.
Ro-Man calls his boss to brag about his success in eliminating the threat of playing house, and indicates that he’d like to keep one human alive “For reference”. Three guesses who. He interrupts once-again shirtless Roy and Alice on their honeymoon in the weeds, drops Roy off a convenient cliff, and absconds with Alice. Meanwhile, Pop and Mom find the lifeless body of Carla, whom they proceed to bury. Johnny wishes he’s played house with her more – too little, too late, kid. Roy has survived his fall, and runs to tell Mom, Pop and Johnny what’s happened, just before pitching forward on his face and dying. Even in death, his hair is perfect. The rest of the family hatches a plan to rescue Alice over his perfectly-coiffed corpse.
Ro-Man, upon getting Alice back to his Love Cave, asks if she would be interested in him if he were hu-man – she’s more interested in finding out where the source of his power is. As always happens at tender moments as this, the viewscreen activates, and the family makes its attempt to get Ro-Man away from his cave so they can rescue Alice, despite asking them to call back later. Then, the Boss calls – isn’t it always the way? – and chastises him for not destroying the girl, but Ro-Man is torn: “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!” Immortal dialogue, indeed.
Johnny shows up, and Ro-Man is more than willing to off him, and by this time, I’m rooting for the alien. While in mid-throttle, the Boss Ro-Man gestures grandly and kills Ro-Man for not following orders, then turns on the WTF Ray (which he refers to as the “Q-Ray”), which causes the film to go negative and activates the stop-motion dinosaurs again. The dinosaurs wrassle, and the Boss decides to blow up the Earth, which would be a blessing for the rest of us, let me tell you. We are treated to more lizards with fins glued onto them, or at least subjected to them. This goes on for a while, then, eventually, the Boss gestures dramatically, and…
Roy, alive and wearing a shirt, carries Johnny to the cave, the kid having apparently suffered some kind of bump on the noggin. It was all a dream!
Or was it? Suddenly, Ro-Man walks out of the cave, arms outstretched menacingly! Then, Ro-Man walks out of the cave, arms outstretched menacingly!, Then, um, Ro-Man walks out of the cave… Uh, again. Why? After watching this film, you will ask yourself that question many times. Why?
-Posted by Flash