Retro Review: ‘Robot Monster’
Those who believe that 3D was a recent development utilized by theaters I have some news which may shake your beliefs to their very core…..or just kind of surprise you. During the 1950’s Hollywood began using the 3D gimmick especially on science fiction flicks like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. This was done, because this genre would benefit from the third dimension; but also because the increase in television was being felt in the movie industry. Young director and producer Phil Tucker wanted to get in on this action, unfortunately he did not have the budget or the time span to create an A-level production. What he gave audiences was a fun B-picture he slapped together in the course of 4 days called Robot Monster.
In the mountainous desert of the American Southwest; a scientist, his wife, his children, an assistant, and two pilots are doing scientific research things. Their lives are interrupted when the being known as Ro-Man launches a death beam which wipes out all human life As such they become the last survivors and must face Ro-man’s wrath. This begins a standoff between the scientist’s family and the extraterrestrial who wiped out their world. When the invader begins to develop feelings for Carla, the scientist’s oldest daughter things take an unexpected turn in Ro-Man’s plan for conquest.
As mentioned before, Phil Tucker only had 4 days to make Robot Monster, which naturally means he was working with limited resources. With the exception of a random Los Angeles residence, the entire movie is filmed in Bronson Canyon in California. When it came to the costume used for Ro-Man, a full robot suit was out of the budget so they used a gorilla suit topped with a space helmet. This leads to a monster who looks very bizarre, but it is that odd appearance which has led to Ro-Man being so memorable. There are plenty out there who have never even heard of this flick who still recognize the creature. Many are surprised that Robot Monster had such a brief window to film in considering that the flick seems to drag so much in the middle of its runtime. One would figure with such a short time window things would be more frantically paced. One of the standout elements of this movie is the score which was produced by Elmer Bernstein who would go on to work on classics like; the Magnificent Seven, Ten Commandments, as well as the Thriller music video with Michael Jackson.
Despite enjoying a nice sized cult following today, the film did nothing for those involved with it. Disillusioned with the film industry and realizing Robot Monster did nothing for his career, director Phil Tucker attempted suicide. He was unsuccessful and there remain conflicting reports as to how he was saved. Selena Royle, who played the scientist’s wife, had made a nice career as a dependable character actress, but sadly this was her final film as the House Committee on Un-American Activities branded her a communist and she never found work again. George Nader who played the lead saw the beginning of a promising career and was even signed to a multi-picture deal by Universal, but never broke out of B-productions.
Robot Monster proves to be a strange movie, not just for the subject matter but in the way the actual film is made. Despite having a dumb premise and a weird looking monster, the flick is too solidly made to fall into the so-bad-it’s-good category. At the same time it is not made well enough to be an actual good movie. However the movie has a nice cult following for a reason, and has proven to be a key film in the science fiction flicks which came out during the Cold War. Sure the ending will make you shake your head; but the acting is solid and Ro-Man is a truly memorable movie monster.