BOOTLEG FILES 518: “Robot Monster” (1953 sci-fi cult classic).
LAST SEEN: The film is online in both 2D and 3D versions.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: It is available from several labels.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A lapsed copyright and one of the most astonishing monsters ever put on screen.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Already available from smaller labels, but this really needs The Criterion Collection’s attention!
When I was creating the book “The Greatest Bad Movies of All Time,” I opted to limit the selections from the filmmakers that are widely regarded as being among the world’s worst. After all, entire books can be written about the outrageously awful flicks made by the likes of Edward D. Wood Jr., Larry Buchanan and other celebrated shlockmeisters – there was no sense crowding the book with all of these celebrated stinkers, especially since I was trying to limit myself to a list of 100 films.
But when it came to choosing a film to represent the work of Phil Tucker, I found myself debating whether to go with the most obvious choice – the sci-fi cult classic “Robot Monster” – or to pick the lesser known endeavor “Dance Hall Racket.” I went with “Dance Hall Racket” primarily because of its incredible waste of talent: this was the only film performance by Lenny Bruce, but he was cast as a switchblade-swinging, karate-chopping nutjob gangster. Bruce’s performance – which he plays completely straight, with no hint of comic irony – was so weirdly off-kilter that it turned an otherwise forgettable B-grade programmer into a warped curio.
Of course, that doesn’t diminish the zany appeal of “Robot Monster.” And while the film is among the most bizarre things ever put on a screen, the production has some noteworthy aspects that have often been ignored or unfairly maligned. Rather than join the seemingly endless parade of writers that have made fun of “Robot Monster,” I would like to beat my different drum and point out some positive aspects in this notorious production.
For starters, there is no getting around the fact that “Robot Monster’ features one of the most astonishing monsters in movie history. In the original concept, the space invader Ro-Man is a giant robot that successfully orchestrates the destruction of the planet’s inhabitants. Unfortunately, the film’s extremely meager $16,000 budget did not allow for the purchase of a convincing robot costume. Phil Tucker solved this problem by tapping his friend George Barrows, who made a decent living playing gorillas in movies. Barrows agreed to appear as the robot in his gorilla costume as the robot; Tucker glued antenna on a diving helmet and put it over Barrows’ head in an attempt to suggest an interplanetary robotic being – at least from the neck up. Needless to say, every single critic wondered aloud why the title robot looked like a gorilla from the neck down.
But, quite frankly, where would “Robot Monster” be without the distinctive Ro-Man? If Tucker had obtained a robot costume, the film would just be another sci-fi romp with metallic robots. The film would have been lost in obscurity.
In some ways, the ape-like Ro-Man offers a spin around the Darwinian circle, with man’s violent simian past catching up to destroy him. Pierre Boulle considered a similar notion 10 years after “Robot Monster” was made – though, admittedly, the novel “Planet of the Apes” is a lot more graceful and subtle than “Robot Monster.”
“Robot Monster” also captures the 1950s’ paranoia of H-bombs blowing everyone to smithereens. Indeed, Ro-Man and his ilk, under the leadership of the Great Guidance (also played by Barrows, but carrying a violin bow to signify his dominant authority), manage to speed the conquest of Earth by pitting the planet’s nations against each other. The result of their mischief was an atomic war that decimated the Earth, enabling Ro-Man and company do wipe out almost all of the surviving humans.
Yet the seemingly emotion-free Ro-Man experiences a sense of existential angst that transcends the mere us-versus-them conflict of so many run-of-the-mill sci-fi films. Ro-Man’s attraction to the young woman Alice (played by buxom starlet Claudia Barrett) could be dismissed as mere carnal gluttony – and his desire to tie up Alice would suggest that Ro-Man was his planet’s answer to Christian Gray – but the agony that comes from desiring Alice places Ro-Man at odds with the robotic protocol.
“Yes, to be like the hu-man!” says Ro-Man in the film’s most celebrated monologue. “To laugh! Feel! Want! Why are these things not in the plan?” When ordered by the Great Guidance to kill Alice, Ro-Man is in misery. “I must, but I cannot!” he says. “How do you calculate that? At what point on the graph do ‘must’ and ‘cannot’ meet? Yet I cannot – but I must!”
One aspect of “Robot Monster” that rarely gets acknowledged is the film’s role in fighting back against the Hollywood blacklist. Elmer Bernstein, who wrote the film’s wildly energetic score, faced an uncertain future in films following his refusal to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Two actors involved in the film, Selena Royle and John Brown, saw their careers wrecked during the Red Scare – Royle was a well known character actress and Brown was a cast member on Burns and Allen’s sitcom, but both found themselves without employment due to the blacklist. While “Robot Monster” may not have been a prestige film, Tucker showed extraordinary bravery in giving work to creative artists that were otherwise shunned by their peers. (Bernstein’s career recovered rather quickly, but Royle and Brown never regained prominence in the entertainment industry.)
“Robot Monster” also launched the career of George Nader, who had previously appeared in uncredited bit parts before landing the role of the heroic archeologist. Nader was a handsome and athletic presence, and Tucker exploits this by having him spend much of the film shirtless. Despite the film’s inanity, Nader managed to attract the attention of the talent scouts at Universal-International, where he was signed to become part of the studio’s stable of leading men. Nader’s career never quite reach the level of popularity of fellow Universal contract players Jeff Chandler, Tony Curtis and Rock Hudson, but he was still a respected star in the 1950s and early 1960s.
And while “Robot Monster” is often derided for perceived shabbiness, the film’s sharp use of 3-D cinematography and stereophonic sound is grudgingly acknowledged as transcending its ultra-low budget. “Robot Monster” is among the most popular titles to turn up at 3-D film festivals, and there is even a 3-D version on YouTube.
Because it is a public domain work, “Robot Monster” has turned up in duped versions of varying quality on a number of video labels, and it can be found in numerous online postings. Personally, I would love to see a fully restored version released in 3-D Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection. And, hey, if the Criterion crowd needs someone to write a long, long essay on “Robot Monster,” I would gladly volunteer myself for this happy task!
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!