Everybody Loves Robot Monster
In 1953, Phil Tucker made his Hollywood directorial debut with the film Robot Monster. I don’t think there is a person alive with even the slightest interest in film who doesn’t know this film. They may not have seen it, but they know it: it’s the one where the monster is a guy in a gorilla suit with a diving helmet on. That alone demands at least a half dozen of the hours of your life watching it.
Robot Monster Plot
Robot Monster is a film that really needs to be seen twice. The first time you see it, it’s a pretty standard 1950s science fiction film. It’s only on the second viewing that most people see it for what it is.
The story is standard. The evil people on the moon have sent down Ro-Man, the deep-sea diving gorilla, to destroy humanity. And he has accomplished this — almost. There are eight humans who are immune to Ro-Man’s death ray. He manages to kill two of them when they flee in their rocket ship. So then Ro-Man decides he’ll just kill them all the old fashioned way. The high point of the movie is when Ro-Man strangles the little girl (sadly done off screen) — something I had been looking forward to the entire film.
Later, Ro-Man finds the older daughter making out with the young hunka-hunka burning love scientist. Ro-Man strangles and then throws the man over a cliff. The man lives just long enough to run home and tell everyone that Ro-Man has absconded with the daughter. Ro-Man has fallen in love with the daughter and cannot kill her even when commanded to.
The remaining three humans hatch a plan to save the daughter. Meanwhile Ro-Man’s leader (Great Guidance — just Ro-Man on a video screen) learns of Roman’s love of the daught and apparently kills Ro-Man as he tries to the kill the boy (as mother and father rescue the daughter). Then there are dinosaurs and… Poof, the little boy wakes up and it was all a dream.
Or was it?! Because the film ends with Ro-Man walking out of the cave toward the audience — three times. So was it a dream or a prophecy?
The second time you watch the film, you see that the “it was just a dream” ending is not the cheap trick. The first minute and a half of the film is made up of credits. And rightly so, as I will discuss shortly. But the next four minutes is spent with the little boy and girl playing without a care in the world. There is no indication that they live in a post-apocalyptic world. They meet two archaeologists. And then their mother and older sister arrive and the four of them have a nap. The boy wakes first, goes running, falls, and hits his head.
Cut to: dinosaurs fighting before the little boy wakes up and sees the cave filled with electronic gadgets that we will see Ro-Man using for the rest of the film. Now, the older archaeologist is his father and the younger one, Scientists #2, is now Love Interest #1. So Wyott Ordung’s screenplay, while fanciful, doesn’t play with the audience. If you watch the film closely, nothing should surprise you — in a bad way.
One Hell of a Movie
What makes people think that Robot Monster is a bad film is that Ro-Man is a gorilla with a diving helmet on. Otherwise, the film would be long forgotten as most films of that time are. But the great thing about this aspect of the film is that the filmmakers are completely in on the joke. And really, is Ro-Man any more ridiculous than Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still — much less Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet?
Just how Ro-Man came to be was explained by Phil Tucker in an interview in the largely repellent The Fifty Worst Films of All Time:
That’s a great story and part of what I love about these idiosyncratic low-budget films. You use what you’ve got. He had a friend with a gorilla suit and the rest is film history!
The Technical Side of Robot Man
From a technical perspective, the film is very good. And this is even if you don’t consider their constraints. The film was shot for $16,000 — that’s less than $150,000 today. And about a quarter of that budget went to them filming in 3-D. And they shot the whole thing in 4 days.
But it features a number of good actors: George Nader, Austrian legend John Mylong, pinko Selena Royle, and later television character actor Claudia Barrett. Together they appeared in over 350 films and television shows. And that doesn’t even count the 132 appearances of George Barrows — not always as a gorilla. Imagine what they would have done in 4 weeks.
In addition to this, the camera work by Jack Greenhalgh is excellent. They made things easy by shooting entirely outdoors. But why not? The film hardly needs interior scenes. And the outdoor shots look good — not something easy to do in the southern California sun. The editing by Merrill G White is also top rate.
To top it all off, it has a fantastic score by Elmer Bernstein — one of his first.
Some Interesting Things
I don’t think Ro-Man coming at the screen at the end indicates that the little boy’s dream was a prophecy. I think they were just playing around with their 3-D. And I’d love to see it in 3-D. I’ll bet it gave 1953 film-goers a nice fright at the end of the film.
According to IMDb, Tucker’s first film was Dance Hall Racket, that was written and starred in by his friend Lenny Bruce. This is because IMDb goes by when a movie was released. Racket was released four months earlier. But Robot Monster was made first. However, none of this really matters. According to Tucker, he made some two dozen “girlie” films like Tiajunana After Midnight — which is the only one that IMDb lists, perhaps because of the success of Robot Monster.
That’s probably the most amazing thing about Robot Monster: it was a hit. Phil Tucker claimed that while he was ripped off, the film itself was quite successful — netting over a million dollars — that’s roughly $10 million today — and an over 6,000% ROI. At the time, Variety wrote, “Scripting and majority of performances rarely rise to a professional level… of the principals, the less said the better… Pill Tucker’s direction… is off.” I’d say, as usual, what we had was another reviewer, quick to criticize based on a single viewing without a thought to what the producers were trying to do.
I highly recommend checking out Robot Monster. And I’m not alone. In The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, Michael Weldon writes, “Movies don’t come any better.” But even Harry Medved, usually a priggish teen throughout The Fifty Worst Films of All Time inadvertently shows a fondness for Robot Monster. When Medved (brother of one of the worst film reviewers of all time) and Weldon agree on a film, you know you need to see it.
It’s only an hour long. You can buy it on DVD, but I haven’t seen it and can’t speak to its quality. It doesn’t seem to have any extras.
DVD-R Party offers a 3D version. It isn’t great (which they admit), but it’s real and it comes with a fun video short on setting up the 3D hosted by Ro-Man. And when I bought it, they sent me four other discs, including their Sampler #12, which is an awesome thing to put on for parties.
A Blu-ray is coming out that is restored from the original 35 mm 3D print. Look for it!
Information about the movie itself:
- Release date: June 1953
- Length: 62 minutes
- MPAA Rating: NR
- Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
- Film: 35 mm Tru-Stereo (dual-strip 3-D) Spherical Black and White
I must provide my usual disclaimer: even the smallest of films involve Obviously, so many more people are involved in the making of a film. But here are some of the most important:
- Director: Phil Tucker
- Producer: Phil Tucker and Al Zimbalist
- Screenwriter: Wyott Ordung
- Cinematographer: Jack Greenhalgh
- Editor: Merrill White
- Composer: Elmer Bernstein
- Actors: George Nader, Claudia Barrett, and George Barrows