Monday, 7 November 2016

B-Movies: Robot Monster

Phil Tucker's horror sci-fi film 'Robot Monster' (1953) is often considered one of the worst horror films of all time. It is hard to even consider this B-movie to be a horror/sci-fi film versus a comedy due to how inconsistent and laughable it is. Despite this, it isn't the type of film that is is surprisingly very watchable especially with friends or family. It provides a good laugh, even if that was not the film's original intent.

Fig 1. Robot Monster (1953)

There are a great many things wrong with this film, from the strange setting to the horrific costume design. The main villain is a robot-alien trying to wipe out the human race...which you would expect to be some sort of intimidating or creepy figure. However, E.T. would prove to be a more menacing opponent than the creature from Robot Monster. Ro-Man (George Barrows/John Brown) is the film's robot-alien antagonist is "essentially a guy in a home-made gorilla suit with a fish-bowl shaped helmet with a TV antennae sticking out...his communication device which he uses to contact his superior on his home world is a bubble machine," (The Revenant Review, 2016). To top it all off, Ro-Man's gorilla body isn't even a strong muscular one that would back up his other-worldly strength that Alice (Claudia Barrett) points out as Ro-Man kidnaps her. Instead, his body more resembles a fat teardrop shape with a fish-bowl helmet that makes his head appear way too small in comparison to his body.

However, it is not just Ro-Man's costume that is poorly designed. At the start of the film the two child characters, Johnny (Gregory Moffett) and Clara (Pamela Paulson), wander across two archeologists in some rocky cave. However, one would not believe these were archeologists to start off with since we can at least see Roy (George Nader) wearing a black leather jacket...surely not what a normal archeologist wears while working. The set design for this film is not spectacular either. We discover that the children wandered off from a picnic with their Mother (Selena Royle) and older sister Alice (Claudia Barrett). When they go to return to their picnic, most would believe that it would be set up in a nice grassy bit with some shade or somewhere else equally comfortable. But, their picnic is strangely set up "on a very unappealing piece of bare ground surrounded by boulders and a huge mound of rocks, with no protection whatsoever from the sun," (Decker, 2010).

After their sunny desert-picnic nap, Johnny wanders off and is apparently struck by lightning (which triggers the screen to alternate between negative and positive images throughout the rest of the film). The viewer is then challenged to watch possibly the most random and incoherent part of the entire film, "a ball of fire descends from the sky, and in the next shot it turns into a lizard who flies into frame to do battle with an alligator with a fin glued to its back...unrelated footage of two fencing triceratopses follows," (Smalley, 2014). Perhaps Tucker threw this sequence into the film simply to make the rest of the film seem less ridiculous when compared to the lizard-alligator-claymation dinosaur fight scene. The scene is later repeated at the end of the film.

Fig 2. Alligator

To add to the absurdity, there are near constant bubbles flying around the screen, extremely repetitive musical score, philosophical monologues by Ro-Man (who becomes attracted to the human Alice), a post-apocalyptic wedding between Alice and Roy (who alternates between having a torn shirt on and being completely shirtless), and many other absurd events. Saying that, despite all of the films obvious downfalls, not all of Robot Man is bad.

First, it must be brought to attention that the film was "made in four days at a cost of around $16,000...Robot Monster's overall suckiness is not surprising," (Decker, 2010). Considering how little time or money this film had, it's hard (or at least harder) to blame it for being so bad. Second, the film does an ok job using what they have...the props aren't amazing but they do the job. For example, the screens they use to communicate with each other appear to literally just be empty picture frames on top of dressers. Saying that, the film actually does alright with some of its special effects, such as the communication screen's static while connecting to the other person or the sequence showing cities being destroyed (this does not include the strange lizard/alligator/dinosaur battle). Considering the time period, the small budget and the short production time, some of those visual/special effects weren't too bad

This leads into the forth reason why the film is at least focuses on issues during the time. During the time of the film's release, people were very scared about being bombed due to the wars going, so the film played on the fear of being bombed/wiped out by another group of people. In addition, it also seemed to hint at some of the issues women were facing. For example, Clara constantly mentions playing house, "it's established that Clara has a fixation on  playing house, since she always brings the conversation around this...a sign of the way women in the 1950's were brainwashed to believe that their only role in life was to be a housewife," (Decker, 2010). This theme around women continues as Alice agrees to meet up with Ro-Man to negotiate a way for her and her family to stay alive. Despite her agreeing to do this, The Professor (John Mylong) declares that he is the head of the family and that it is only he that would meet with Ro-Man. Alice insists on going, but The Professor and Roy restrain her and tie her up to prevent her from taking charge. Alice is also the damsel in distress later on when Ro-Man kidnaps her.

Fig 3. Roy, Alice, and Ro-Man

Lastly, the film somewhat redeems itself when it reveals to the viewer that "there is an explanation for its bewildering events, everything we have seen was just Johnny's dream...which means that the bizarre dialogue, jaw-dropping plot, glaring continuity errors, and obese robot gorilla wearing a diving helmet were all deliberate artistic choices," (And You Call Yourself A Scientist, s.d). Although the ending '...and it was all a dream...' is considered a cliché, it does provide explanation to the irrational events throughout the film. Ever since Johnny passes out from the lightning/bumping his head, we have been seeing a young boy's dreamworld.

Before Johnny was knocked out, he was pretending to be an alien that has come to wipe out the human race. This would explain why in his dream there is an alien trying to kill all humans and a gorilla with a helmet sounds like something a boy would make by ripping off the head of one toy and putting it on the body of another. In real life he was playing with bubbles, explaining why there were bubbles everywhere in his dream. He kept refusing to play house with his younger sister despite her continuous pleas, so perhaps her death in his dream shows that he feels guilty. He also mentions that his father died and asks if there will ever be a new father around their house, explaining why later his mother and older sister are paired up with the archeologists.

Whichever way it's looked at, Robot Monster has its ups and downs. Despite its strangeness and its bad reputation, it remains entertaining and relatively watchable if the viewer keeps an open mind. Looking deeper into the film, it is possible that some of the 'bad' parts of the film were actually done on purpose. It is also interesting to see the film represent some issues going on during the time period. While Robot Monster is not a showstopper, there are definitely films out there that are far worse.

And You Call Yourself A Scientist (s.d) Robot Monster (1953) At: Accessed on: 6/11/2016
Decker, N. (2010) Robot Monster (1953) At: Accessed on: 6/11/2016
Smalley, G. (2014) 160. Robot Monster (1953) At: Accessed on: 6/11/2016
The Revenant Review (2016) Horror's "Worst" Films: Robot Monster (1953) At: Accessed on: 6/11/2016

Illustration List:
Figure 1. Robot Monster [Poster] At: Accessed on: 6/11/2016
Figure 2. Alligator [Film Still] At: Accessed on: 7/11/2016
Figure 3. Roy, Alice, and Ro-Man [Film Still] At: Accessed on: 7/11/2016

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