Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Revision! Response letter from Eric A. Meyer below...
In the early 60's, a very young Joe Dante wrote an article for Famous Monsters Magazine called Dante's Inferno. It was basically a long list of some of the worst horror and sci fi movies to date and was kind of a first for the genre: Editor Forrest J. Ackerman was incredibly uncritical of the movies his magazine celebrated. Twenty years later the fad books 50 Worst Movies ... Golden Turkey, etc. .. had a much more condescending attitude.
The only crime of movies listed there would seem to be not measuring up to dull Hollywood standards. Dante obviously
loved each title unconditionally.
Chief among the Dante Damned was Robot Monster, which like many movies in the list had become a
dead-of-night television staple, a one-line description in TV Guide. Even seven-year-olds eventually develop a descriminating taste, and Robot Monster was perhaps one of the first for which Savant decided, "Hey, that's kind of ... silly."
Look up Robot Monster anywhere on the net or in print and you'll find a writer having a jolly time yukking up its ridiculousness. Let's be different. Just pretend I was smiling as I wrote this:
Ro-Man, the advance warrior of an alien race, has successfully killed all of humanity save for eight frightened survivors. From his cave headquarters he has given the order to terminate the rest without delay, but begins to have second thoughts about his mission of doom. The surviving humans are struggling to communicate with Earth's only hope -- an entire battalion of soldiers on a space station that the invaders are unaware of. But Ro-Man is finding and killing the last few citizens, one by one.
This is one ambitious storyline. There's more action and spectacle here than in War of the Worlds. Space stations. Not one but two fearsome invaders from space, each a highly advanced robotic menace. All the armies of the world battling an unopposable death ray and vanquished, right down to the last man. The extermination of all but a few isolated earthlings. The depiction of another ray that distorts the space-time continuum, causing temporal disruptions in the form of hallucinatory visions
of both prehistory and the destruction of civilization. Pretty tall order, that. It reads like three entire chapters of Star Wars.
Many of Savant's reviews focus on the early fifties in Hollywood when studio autonomy was showing some limits and independent productions began to have a chance at real theatrical exposure. Most of the innovators were quickly gobbled up by the studio machine, like, say, Arch Oboler, who made a splash with his 3D Bwana Devil and then spent twenty less-than-fruitful years trying to top it. This was the era of Roger Corman, where the right talent in the right place could launch a career ... this is exactly how Stanley Kubrick got his start, with bold, awkward attempts at great filmmaking. All it took was technical knowhow and ambition. The new medium of television was full of embarrassingly amateurish content of all kinds, including dramatic shows so inept that psychologists worried about the future of cultural sensibility. How could one not do a better job than the makers, of say, Captain Video, a popular show whose props were so laughable that Mad Magazine used it for one of its first TV takeoffs?
Phil Tucker had access to all he needed ... George Barrows and his impressive gorilla suit, some intelligent and ambitious actors, like a young George Nader. Best of all for attracting investor interest, Tucker could get the use of a working 3D system. From all accounts the quality of the 3D in Robot Monster wasn't bad at all. Tucker had the help of optical freelancer Jack Rabin, who did the flashes to negative which represented the alien death ray, and who combined smoke and animated distortion patterns to flat stock shots from earlier films (One Million B.C., etc.) to give them a quasi-depth look. 1
What Phil lacked was a good script, or much of a notion of how to direct a movie. The literary source was a script by young hopeful Wyott Ordung, a director/writer wannabe who has since been critically scapegoated by just about everyone
for having the bad luck to direct one of Roger Corman's first features. The shooting appears to have been a case of getting one shot for every three desired; most of the dialog scenes are in terrible, sloppy masters blocked so poorly, the actors have their backs to the camera. Perhaps the 3D camera was so troublesome that there was barely enough time to get off a shot. The actors look reasonably prepared to say their lines, but under these conditions, it's a losing fight.
When the budget made a fancy robot costume unavailable, somebody came up with the unique propsition of making a 'robot' by zipping George Barrows into his gorilla suit and slapping a diving helmet prop over his head. This of course became an almost instantly hilarious sight ... a monster to whom the only sane reaction is, "They can't be serious."
There's little need here to run down every outrageous line of dialogue. A simple Web search will bring up several reviews that detail every awkward twist of the story and every howler dialog line. Ro-Man the invader intones grave warnings and vows, gesticulating with his hairy black arms and making fists at the camera. One of his best speeches sounds like paraphrased Shakespeare. Either Phil Tucker had an uncanny knack for the surreal, or like many a filmmaker deep into his work, he sincerely believed in these cockeyed dramatics.
Ro-Man undergoes an agonizing identity crisis. "I cannot, but I must" he wails. But he's also fairly unique among movie monsters. When Ro-Man cries out to heaven, searching for the justice in his existence, he's not simply one modest monster expressing his angst. He represents all misunderstood movie monsters, the hated, hunted and unreasonably feared. Ro-Man is pretty much as Monsterus Basicus as they get -- he fights the hero, carries off the girl and packs a death ray. We viewers tend to project all kinds of motivations and attitudes onto our favorite uncommunicative monsters -- the best, like Christopher Lee's Mummy reward us with expressive behaviors we understand. When Ro-Man bemoans his lot in life he's symbolic of his other monster brethren throughout the genre. If Antonioni can express the essence of human existence through minimalist anti-dramas, why can't Phil Tucker? Robot Monster is about as minimal as you can get. Perhaps this is why ol' Ro-Man is such a beloved
The important thing to note here is that Robot Monster is very entertaining. It'll bring a smile to anyone's face. Groups go crazy over it; it is in no way one of the worst movies of all time. Robot Monster reportedly made a popular target for MST3K, which to Savant sounds like a totally unnecessary exercise. I should think the right way for Tom Servo and friends to cover this film would be to just let it play, adding nothing and just staring at each other from time to time in mutual disbelief. How can one improve on perfection?
Image's DVD of Robot Monster is a clear and fairly unblemished presentation. The Astor Pictures logo has been removed but the rest of the film plays intact. The colorful packaging looks a tad cluttered and boasts that the film is in glorious "2D". Savant bets some consumers might confuse "2D" with "3D" until they got the disc home. Like most of Wade Williams' disc output the only extra is a trailer, in pretty bad shape. Several other trailers are included, for two space films and three Ed Wood features.
"Bad Movie" reviewers can be counted on to repeat the story that Phil Tucker was so distraught over the failure of Robot Monster that he attempted suicide. Savant can't dispute this, but wonders what failure exactly they were talking about. Robot Monster got a nationwide release. Where it didn't play in 3D, it played flat. Daily Variety was very positive; their reviewer saw solid boxoffice potential in the film. Hollywood Babylon types can relate the two if they wish; Savant doubts that many of Tucker's peers would have jeered at him. Making a dog that nobody sees or wants to see is the only failure in this town; Phil Tucker made his mark. In 1975 he was still working, in Television post-production I believe.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Robot Monster rates:
Movie: In the real world, a dud; in the world of Cult Movies, priceless
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: October 23, 2000
1. This trick of making 2D shots into 3D was also tried by Warners, which concocted 3D cowboy action sequences for at least one Randolph Scott 3D Western by taking normal flat 'wagons & horses' footage and rephotographing it with little prop rocks and foliage in the foreground. It looks plain awful on television and can't have done much better in a theater.
RESPONSE LETTER FROM ERIC A. MEYER
Sir, I have to say that your review of Robot Monster finally cleared up a few things for me -- like the weird juxtaposition of fighting lizard-dinosaurs with exploding model cities near the end -- as well as the scope of the filmmakers' ambitions. Frankly, this is why I read your stuff. While I still find "Robot Monster" very difficult
to watch, now at least I understand where the filmmakers were aiming, which always improves one's viewing experience. Thanks!
As for the MST3K episode, I have a copy and in fact the 'boys' spend most of the movie in dumbfounded silence, getting in the occasional "we need to justify our existence at the bottom of the screen" remark but not much else. They came up with some great sketches, though, not least of which was the one where Crow, talking through a picture frame, commands Tom Servo to "kill the Hu-Man" (Joel). Servo attempts this, and Joel defends himself with not one, but two breakaway chair props. It sounds goofy, but they sell it well; it's one of my favorite sketches in the history of the show.
On a tenuously related note, I corresponded with you many moons ago about MST3K doing "Danger: Diabolik," about which you were saddened to hear. I can see why you like the original movie, as it does have that fever-dream quality which can make for really fun viewing. But I would like to say that it was only because of the MST3K crew that I got to see it at all, and in the process discover (to my shock) that "Danger: Diabolik" was the source for pretty much everything in the Beastie Boys video for the song "Body Movin'." I mean, some of the stuff was shot-for-reshot, if you get my drift. While one might wonder if this really is a service to mankind, it was to me, in that it gave me a new appreciation for the Beasties and their definitely skewed sense of humor. Thanks again for the reviews you do. Keep 'em coming! - Eric A. Meyer 10/26/00
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson