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The Bigger Picture Presents: Robot Monster

The Bigger Picture Presents: Robot Monster

Well, I’m back from my brief hiatus and apologies for having disappeared for a few weeks—unfortunately, an abundance of assignments is what happens when you’re a history student! Luckily though, things are quiet for the moment, so this week I thought I ought to return to reviewing bad films by taking a look at 1953’s Robot Monster. Before I start the review, however, I am aware that some of you were expecting me to review The Babe Ruth Story, a terrible 1940s sports biopic; truth be told, whilst the film isn’t great, there’s not really enough material there for me to construct a proper analysis around. Maybe someday I shall return to it, but for the moment I fancied having a pop at a proper 1950s B-Movie.

 

Robot Monster is a legendarily bad film. It has been on numerous ‘worst ever’ lists and has often sat on the IMDb bottom 100. Telling the story of a family in the American desert who have to deal with a psychotic alien robot, the film was apparently shot on a tiny budget and all the filming was completed in four days. Given its status, legacy and minuscule production, it’s very easy to go into this film with very, very low expectations. But how bad is it? Well, let’s take a look.

The movie opens with a title sequence, one with a musical score that I think marks the return of the Manos cat. You remember him, don’t you? He did the music for that film by running up and down a piano like a mad thing, except here he is on an electric organ. Actually, this film came out thirteen years before Manos, so perhaps the poor thing got a demotion. Maybe he widdled on the composer’s leg or something. Actually, this film did have a professional doing the musical accompaniment and if you’re a film fan, it’s a name you’ll certainly recognise. Yes, my friends, Elmer Bernstein himself is credited with having done the soundtrack for Robot Monster—he is the man responsible for the music used in The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape and Ghostbusters. That fact alone is weird, it’s like finding out that Hans Zimmer has just composed the theme for an Adam Sandler comedy.

Anyways, we eventually get to the story and learn that there is a small group of people out in the desert. There’s a little boy wandering about pretending he is in a sci-fi film, even going so far as to take pot-shots at his sister. I love the dialogue here: he shoots his sister with the pretend gun, declares she is dead, and she says, “good, can we play houses now?”. She’s such a savage kid, it’s quite delightful. The boy stumbles across some archaeologists who are working in a cave, and they talk about something. All of this is preamble until the child is knocked unconscious just as the apocalypse begins. I’m not skipping anything here either, it does all happen that abruptly.

And then we meet our monster. I say monster—what I really mean is a tubby man in a gorilla suit with a diving helmet rammed onto his head. He waddles about the desert with the soundtrack trying to make him sound menacing but, try as he might, even poor Elmer Bernstein can’t make this cheap-as-chips alien look frightening. His name is Ro-Man, as in Robot Man, but the director seems to have forgotten that Romans were real people. Ro-Man isn’t just on Earth for a jolly holiday though—he’s on a mission to destroy the last remaining humans left on the planet after his species wiped out all the others. Somehow, the only people left are the boy, his family, and the two archaeologists we saw earlier. And yes, they’re one family now instead of a cluster of strangers. This film gets a bit confusing at times.

Ro-Man lives in a cave. I suppose a cheap monster needs a cheap home, and a cave in the American wilderness does the job quite nicely. They do make it look like a suitably alien accommodation though—there is a big monitor which allows Ro-Man to talk to his boss and the other humans, and his lair is protected by the menace of the Billion Bubble Machine. No, really, bubbles. Quite who came up with this idea, I have no idea. Anyway, what does Ro-Man get up to during this film? Well, he waddles about the desert and strangles a few people and falls in love with a young woman called Alice (the big sister to the boy at the start). For some reason, he ends up in a peculiar, pseudo-philosophical fight with himself as he wrestles internally over whether or not he can have feelings for a human. It’s really odd watching this gorilla monster squabble both with himself and his boss over the matter, made even more strange when he tries to yank Alice’s shirt off but fails. Like I say, this film goes from bizarre to flat-out weird very fast.

How does the movie end? Perhaps appropriately enough for a terrible film, it ends with the apocalypse. Ro-Man’s boss, tired of his minion’s inability to kill six humans, decides to blow the planet up, (insert stock footage of dinosaurs fighting because the director thinks its clever), and we learn the big twist. The little boy was dreaming the whole thing; Ro-Man, the end of the world, everything in the proceeding hour of film was in his unconscious imagination. It’s a terrible resolution, a naff trick to pull on an audience just before the curtain falls. It makes the film feel like some weird prank, as though the director was cackling in the distance, laughing at how much of our time he has just wasted.

Robot Monster is everything a 1950’s B-Movie should be; cheap, short and often unintentionally comical. Between the robot gorilla in a diving helmet, to the overly enthusiastic music, it’s perfect for a quick laugh. If you want a bad movie evening, I strongly recommend this nonsensical mess.

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