Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Robot Monster (Independent, 1953)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles had brought another download disc from Mystery Science Theatre 3000 — this one still with series creator Joel Hodgson as the host but during the show’s era on the Comedy Central channel, when Joel and his writing staff had honed their approach and were supplying genuinely funny lines to ridicule the movies instead of the rather dull ones from the show’s early days as a local program in Minneapolis. This episode featured two more of the Radar Men of the Moon episodes, which were really just more of the same, and as the feature it included Robot Monster, the legendarily and almost surrealistically bad film made by director Phil Tucker in 1953 and famously featuring his friend George Barrows in the title role(s).

With too small a production budget to make or rent a robot costume for his robot monster, Tucker (who was his own producer as well, though someone else wrote the script — more on that later) called on Barrows, whose regular gig was wearing a gorilla costume to impersonate a great ape. Tucker had Barrows wear his gorilla suit, and his only concession to “roboticity” was replacing the gorilla head with a deep-sea diving helmet and a body stocking over his head under it. A few wires were stuck on the outside of the helmet to make it look like Barrows, as “Earth Ro-Man” — the on-earth representative of an interplanetary invasion force whose weapon, the “Calcinator Death-Ray,” is so powerful that with a few waves of his arms (and a few reversals of the image into negative film and back) he has annihilated all of humanity except the six members of the on-screen cast — is in constant communication with “Great Guidance” (also Barrows, though both characters are voiced by radio announcer John Brown), his controller back on his home planet, which is variously referred to as the moon, Mars and a planet called Ro-Man in another solar system.

The film is full of gimmicks, including the fact that the entire movie is shot outdoors, ostensibly as part of a system the father of the family at the center of the action, “The Professor” (JohnMylong), has rigged up to protect himself and his loved ones from the fearsome calcinator death rays, but actually so Tucker and his cinematographer, former PRC stalwart Jack Greenhalgh (a pity that after PRC went out of business he had to get even tackier jobs to stay alive!), wouldn’t have to rent lights — and that the entire story is presented as a dream of the Professor’s pre-pubescent son, Johnny (Gregory Moffett), who wakes up at the end — only after that there are three, count ’em, three, glimpses of Ro-Man coming out of the cave where he’s been headquartered for the entire duration of the film.

The closest thing this film has to a “star” is actor George Nader (whose presence here puts George Barrows one degree of separation from Hedy Lamarr!), who plays “The Professor”’s assistant and also the main squeeze of the Professor’s post-pubescent daughter Alice (Claudia Barrett) — who, in an all too obvious rip-off of King Kong, is the object of a crush from Ro-Man as well. When I first saw this film I looked at the outrageously fake-seeming name of the credited screenwriter, “Wyott Ordung,” with its references to “dung” and “Ordnung” (“order” in German), and assumed it was a pseudonym for director Tucker, but when Charles and I were watching an episode of the 1950’s TV series Dangerous Assignment there was an actual person named Wyott Ordung serving as an actor in the cast. Robot Monster is a grandly silly movie, and Tucker’s rather plodding direction has nothing in common with the crude vitality Ed Wood brought to his equally stupid scripts, but what makes the film worth considering (sort of) is the sheer bizarre incongruity of the monster’s appearance.

Had Phil Tucker made his robot monster look like the ordinary conception of a monster robot, his film might have done better when new but wouldn’t have acquired the cult audience it has from the sheer, outrageous risibility of the sight of George Barrows in a gorilla suit topped by an old-fashioned diving helmet waving his arms in the air and pretending to be able thereby to destroy virtually the entire human race — or, for that matter, the added bit of madness that Tucker spliced in old clips of dinosaurs from the Hal Roach production One Million B.C. (a go-to film for people needing dinosaur action for their movie and lacking the special-effects money to stage any themselves) for reasons that died with him on December 1, 1985.