Monday, October 27, 2014

Halloween Monsterthon: Robot Monster

Robot Monster poster

Often ranked among the great bad movies, Robot Monster certainly merits the kind of bizarre attention and appreciation that’s been extended to Ed Wood’s filmography. Again we have a movie whose ambitions vastly outstrip both the filmmakers’ resources and technical skill, but which marches on regardless. It is not what one would traditionally call good, but its originality and charm- as well as the fact that it runs barely over an hour- makes it damned entertaining.

The story is framed as a child’s dream; little Johnny (Gregory Moffet) takes a nap on a picnic and wakes up to a world where mankind has been all but wiped out by an alien invasion. His family- a professor (John Mylong), his wife (Selena Royale), his grown sister Alice (Claudia Barrett) and kid sister Carla (Pamela Paulson)- survived the attack of the Ro-Men and their destructive Calcinator Beam by hiding behind an electronic screen, and taking a serum that renders them immune to the monster’s death rays. The Ro-Man XJ2 (played by George Barrows and voiced by John Brown) seeks to finish off mankind, but finds himself strangely drawn to Alice.

Did I mention that Ro-Man is a giant gorilla with a space helmet for a head? This famous bit of low-budget jury-rigging creates one of the most memorable images in 50s sci-fi cinema, as a man in a bulky ape suit lumbers around Los Angeles’ Griffith Park and occasionally communicates with the Great Guidance, who is the same actor in the same gorilla suit with a slightly different helmet. Since the Ro-Men don’t have mouths, they augment all their dialogue with wild gestures. It’s hard to really imagine the Ro-Man as a one-ape invading force who managed to murder everyone on Earth except one family (and Roy, the film’s requisite strapping male lead.)  At the same time, though, it’s far more distinct a visual than simply putting an actor in a space suit (which was the plan), and it’s not like the film had much chance of being technically convincing otherwise, so the weird option was probably the best way to go.

One thing that distinguishes this movie from those surrounding it is just how unrelentingly bleak it is. This particular scenario has mankind effectively doomed, since one family and one not-relative are not enough for a species to propagate even if they weren’t being systematically hunted and killed by gorilla robots from space, and it’s just a question of how much of a fight the humans can put up on the way out. The story takes even grimmer turns before it’s over.

The screenplay for this one was written over a weekend, which probably accounts for some of the dreamier aspects of the story. There’s a brief subplot involving contact with two men at a rocket pad and an alleged garrison on board a flying “space platform” (which when shown is simply a rocket ship flying in a circle), but of course we never meet any of these people and they’re just there for Ro-Man to destroy in one scene. Since this is apparently all happening in a little boy’s imagination, the incoherence of it makes a certain amount of sense, and there’s a lot to be said of the psychological implications of him dreaming a father figure back in his life as well as an assertive alpha male type who bosses his older sister around.

None of this is executed terribly well; beyond the bad effects (which are the sort of thing you can partly blame on a low budget), the visuals are pedestrian, the dialogue’s generally pretty bad, and none of the human characters is nearly as interesting as the tortured and confused Ro-Man himself. Money doesn’t make a movie good, but Robot Monster clearly didn’t have enough to realize its vision and feels a little incomplete as a result.  None of its ideas ever gets developed very far, and the story feels random at times.

But it’s still pretty entertaining. Buried in all the ineptitude is a sincere little story about the indomitable human spirit, standing up in the face of extinction and even surfacing in its attackers; it’s a goofy conceit but a charming one. There are a lot of little things to enjoy here: the bickering between Ro-Man and his Great Guidance (both of whom, not having mouths, are given to gesticulate wildly when speaking), the random appearance of dinosaurs and giant lizards from older movies, and a frankly inventive score by Elmer Bernstein. It’s hard to call it legitimately good, but I feel like giving it a pass anyway.

Written by Wyott Ordung
Directed by Phil Tucker

Grade: B-

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