You'll Have to See It to Believe It: Robot Monster
September 23, 2015
Two years ago this month, the World 3-D Film Expo took place over 10 days at the Egyptian Theater. I volunteer at the Egyptian regularly, and I love film festivals, so helping out with this one was a no-brainer. Plus, free movies.
The experience, the crowd, and the films were all more enjoyable than I expected, and I sincerely hope that a fourth festival is in the works. (The first fest was held in 2003, the second in 2006, and the third in 2013).
Luckily, my schedule allowed me to catch several screenings, including I, The Jury (1953) and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). While I got a kick out of all the movies I saw - some admittedly more for their campiness - by far the zaniest was Robot Monster (1953). That's a title I simply can't take seriously, which naturally compelled me to watch. (It also turns out it's a movie you can't take seriously either. One peek at the poster below confirms this.)
What the heck is going on here? I don't know what I like best on this poster of insanity...perhaps the dino?
Young Carla (Pamela Paulson) and her brother Johnny (Gregory Moffett) stumble upon archeologists Roy (George Nader) and The Professor (John Mylong) working in a cave while they play one day in the desert. The children's mother (Selena Royle) and older sister Alice (Claudia Barrett) take them back to their picnic area for lunch, and afterwards, everyone falls asleep except for Johnny, who runs off to explore. Suddenly, lightning strikes. Random fighting crocodiles appear. Some dinosaurs join in the action.
Totally a real animal.
This surreal combat concludes with the appearance of Ro-Man (man by George Barrows, voice by John Brown), an ape-like creature complete with a space helmet. Ro-Man sadly learns that his plan to annihilate the human race failed; apparently eight people survived, but luckily they are nearby.
Johnny runs to his father, aka The Professor (apparently), who is aware of Ro-Man’s presence, because a random screen soon appears by which Ro-Man communicates with all of them. “Humans! Listen to me!...You escaped destruction because I did not know you existed.” Ro-Man spots five humans on the screen so he stupidly assumes only five are left, which makes Alice sad, because boyfriend Roy (apparently that also happened) did not survive.
Could you really take that thing seriously? Really?
Ro-Man proceeds to show the family the annihilation of the world. They probably won’t face that type of destruction, but…they will die.
It turns out that Ro-Man isn't as tough - or smart - as you'd expect a space ape robot to be. His Ro-Superior actually holds the power, and he emerges on screen to admonish Ro-Man, insisting there are eight humans left. So the others have some sort of non-detection power? Yes, that must be it.
Actually, that's partly right. The Professor explains to his family that he developed a serum and unknowingly tested it on all of them (ethics smethics). Professor: “Therefore, the great antibiotic is also the immunizer to Ro-Man’s death ray!...And I thought it was the electronic barricade around the house!” Well, that could have helped too. Also, why did you need that?!
In other news, there happens to be a rocket close by with enough fuel to make it to a space platform and give the serum to the garrison up there, cause, you know, Ro-Man is after them next. Roy and Alice work to re-wire the screen so they can give the space station a heads up, but before they finish Ro-Man takes over to show them the rocket launch…and him destroying it. How rude, Ro-Man.
Ro-Man in major extermination mode.
“Calculate your chances…negative, negative…” They are given two choices: a painless death or resistance.
“Mommy, why doesn’t he like people?” Carla asks. Good question, child.
The Professor attempts to appeal to Ro-Man’s emotions to save his family: “I am built to have no emotion,” the bot replies. But physical needs he does possess, so Alice will do.
While Ro-Man roams the desolate landscape trying to figure out a way to kill the family, they go on with their lives – the kids play in the desert while Alice and Roy run around making out everywhere.
Be careful where you play, Johnny (Gregory Moffett)! That's not a playmate!
Johnny comes across Ro-Man, and he accidently spills the beans about the serum. Now Ro-Man must go to work to create a counteractive solution! No more aimless roaming!
Alice and Roy take a break from making out to get married, because this is as good a time as ever, right? The Professor performs the ceremony, in which the groom is shirtless. Quite casual for a wedding, even when you’re the last remaining humans, don’t you think?
Really Roy (George Nader)? You couldn't put on the shirt that you wear the rest of the movie in this wedding scene? I guess Alice (Claudia Barrett) is OK with that. The Professor (John Mylong) says the vows as Mother (Selena Royale), Carla (Pamela Paulson) and Johnny look on.
Ro-Man, still hoofing through the desert, comes across Carla. Things take a turn for the worse when he strangles her. After dumping her body, Ro-Man stumbles upon the newlyweds and tries to abduct Alice after attacking Roy.
Don't mess with the ape...martian...whatever Ro-Man is.
Meanwhile, the parents and Johnny bury and mourn Carla. Her death can't be in vain, as the Professor exclaims, “We must not give up!”...just as Roy stumbles to them and falls over, dead.
Alice, still in Ro-Man's clutches, tries to flirt to fend him off, while Ro-Superior gives him directions: “One: destroy the girl. Two: destroy the family. Fail and I will destroy you.” That’s pretty straightforward, but there's a problem: Ro-Man can’t bring himself to kill Alice, because he's now afflicted with these human things called emotions, but only for females, apparently: “Great guidance, I cannot kill the girl, but I can kill the boy!” Good timing, as Johnny just so happens to approach Ro-Man, who grabs him while the family frees Alice. It looks like Ro-Man kills Johnny next, but that isn't enough for Ro-Superior, who shoots lasers from his furry hands, striking Earth Ro-Man down dead. And back come the reptiles and dinos from the beginning…
Not back to prehistoric times again!
BUT! When the parents approach Johnny, he’s alive! And so are Roy and The Professor! And the women are dressed differently! I guess it was all a dream?! Or was it?
As they leave the cave, Ro-Man creeps out of the shadows in the creepiest way possible. Guess he's not finished with the humans yet...
2015 note: Yes, he actually was. If Ro-Man was indeed plotting a sequel, thank heavens it never materialized.
Is This One of the Worst Movies Ever Made?
According to books, yes. According to me, double yes. According to IMDb, triple yes. With a 2.9 rating, somehow Robot Monster failed to crack the IMDb Bottom 100; as of this publishing, that list begins with a 2.5 rating and goes down from there. Though Robot Monster doesn't currently hold a spot on that esteemed IMDb chart, the picture is rather famously cited on lists of the worst movies ever made, and I can see why.
Cast and crew wrapped production on Robot Monster in under a week, and it definitely shows. In fact, part of Robot Monster's fame emanates from its infamously and incredibly low budget, which was reportedly less than $50,000. And that's for 3-D, mind you. Here's my crack at the allocation of that money, without actual numbers, because that's too hard: 1. the Ro-Man costume(s), 2. the 3-D, which actually isn't that bad, but like many early 3-D films, it probably wasn't necessary, 3. whatever they had to do to get those dino/reptile scenes (miniatures?), and 4. those lasers that shoot out of Ro-Superior's hands at the end.
Can we take a moment to admire this costume?
The low budget also probably limited the building of sets, of which there was....none that I can really identify, other than some large props. Several scenes were shot in an area being renovated for low income housing near Dodger Stadium - the desolate look really added a touch of...despair, I guess - and the cave scenes were filmed in Bronson Canyon.
In an interview for Screen Sirens Scream!, star Claudia Barrett revealed some other ways the production saved money, specifically relating to the women's wardrobe; let's be honest, no one's close to being a fashionista in this film, but luckily that's not what the script called for anyway. Barrett remembered taking a trip with the wardrobe lady and Selena Royle, who played the mother, to Orbach's department store in Los Angeles to buy the clothes they wore in the film. That's your first sign. Second indication: Those purchases included gold felt vests and gold high heels, the latter of which was just a wee bit difficult to walk in on the uneven ground (and both severely out of place in the desert).Was everyone working on this film on the same page, or the same planet? Well, in Ro-Man's case, certainly not.
I guess heels would be hard to wear here.
While the current consensus overwhelmingly agrees that the film is pretty horrible, not everyone involved felt that way. True, in a 1983 interview screenwriter Wyott Ordung stated that it was the worst picture he's ever written and recounted the manager of the popcorn stand at the Hollywood Paramount theater remarking, "We should skin the writer alive!" However, star Claudia Barrett had only positive memories from filming the picture. She recalled that it was Phil Tucker's first time directing a movie (that may explain some things...), but he also had two extremely competent cinematographers who helped him out (only Jack Greenhalgh received credit; not sure who the other was). Apparently, neither the story nor the budget bothered Barrett much, as she took the role because she "just wanted to act," though her agent was not very happy with that decision. Understandably. Barrett also added that "most of the cast was very good." Most. Hmmm. Wonder who she was referring to.
Who was very good, now? I know Ro-Man's not pictured here, but don't leave him out.
The Promised (?) Return of Ro-Man
Well, not exactly. Yes, at the end of the movie we (horrifyingly) find that Ro-Man is still alive/there/real/maybe just a figment of our imagination but probably not. Luckily, though, he did not return like the Creature from the Black Lagoon for another installment. However, his memory is not forgotten, and for that the world can blame authors Harry Medved and Randy Dreyfuss for re-inciting interest in the picture with its inclusion in their 1978 book The 50 Worst Films of All Time (And How They Got That Way).
Both Ordung and Barrett made mention of Robot Monster's resurrection in the respective interviews I read, claiming separately that they didn't find the film funny originally but when they re-watched it decades later, it certainly was. "It's too bad the original producer and director didn't have a good sense of humor," Barrett commented in Screen Sirens Scream!
Actually, I'd argue that they must have possessed some sort of twisted comical sense to bring Robot Monster to life in the first place.
Looks like Ro-Superior is having a dance party?!
So, is Robot Monster Worth Seeing?
Hell yes, especially if train wrecks are your thing. Plus, with that 2.9 IMDb rating, the movie just begs a viewing, doesn't it? Despite its shortcomings, of which there certainly are many, Robot Monster is still an enjoyable enough cult piece that should garner several (unintentional) laughs, at times simply of sheer disbelief.
Mirroring the low budget of Robot Monster, you bet there exist several dirt cheap home viewing options, including classic VHS; two different Amazon Instant Video downloads (here and here); and three DVD options (one, two, and three), the first of which (the most expensive one at $11.65 currently) boasts "in intriguing 2D!" Oh, and if you'd like to go above and beyond, you can purchase a Spain import as well. I really hope it's dubbed in Spanish. As with the actual film itself, I expect all these offerings to vary from rather dismal to...still probably low quality (though to be honest I only tested one streaming version).
However, if you ever have the chance to view the movie on the big screen, do yourself a favor and go. For each square foot, the action grows exponentially more absurd. Seriously. Who wouldn't be curious to see that?!
Parla, Paul. Screen Sirens Scream!: Interviews with 20 Actresses from Science Fiction, Horror, Film Noir, and Mystery Movies, 1930s-1960s. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2000.
Zone, Ray. 3-D Revolution: The History of Modern Stereoscopic Cinema. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2012.