Robot Monster, Phil Tucker

3D ‘Robot Monster’ Boasts Sex, Destruction and Space Apes

Robot Monster‘s reputation as a best/worst movie might be challenged in this 3-D format showcasing a boy’s libidinous dreams.

Robot Monster
Phil Tucker
25 July 2023

Poor Robot Monster! Decked out in his gorilla suit and bubble space helmet with perpetually erect antennae, he came so close to wiping out all humans while starring in his own movie, and he gets no respect. Phil Tucker’s one-hour indie project from 1953, Robot Monster, has routinely been labeled one of the worst movies ever made, if not the worst.

Among those who laugh at its alleged “so bad it’s good” qualities, some of us have perceived it’s a smarter movie than it’s given credit for. Maybe that case can be made more easily with Bayview Entertainment’s lavish Blu-ray in association with the 3-D Film Archive, for Robot Monster has not suffered from being easily available in 3-D.

Working for Three Dimension Pictures, producer-director Tucker and photographer Jack Greenhalgh shot Robot Monster in Bronson Canyon, California, over the course of four days on a budget of $16k. These are more reasons why people assume Robot Monster must be lousy, which overlooks the point that it made quite a profit, as it could hardly avoid doing. True, it doesn’t boast studio production value, but Wyott Ordung’s script is doing something unusual.

Robot Monster is one of three movies of the summer of 1953 to be presented as a little boy’s dream. Another is William Cameron Menzies‘ full-color indie Invaders from Mars, which shares with Robot Monster the current mania for alien invasion paranoia. The other example is Stanley Kramer‘s Technicolor production, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, a musical scripted by Dr. Seuss that also has paranoid nightmare elements.

These films tapped into children’s fears, and Robot Monster goes so far as to use a child’s logic and resources. What do children do? They use whatever’s at hand and let their imagination fill in the blanks. If you gave a boy of ten a camera in 1953 and saidm “Make an alien invasion movie”, he’d go out to Bronson Canyon with his birthday and Christmas toys of space helmet and bubble machine and feel lucky to have a gorilla suit.

Another cinematic fad of the day was Freud. Over-educated writers larded Freudian concepts into mystery and horror movies. Consider the era’s big-budget, widescreen sci-fi spectacle, MGM’s Forbidden Planet, directed by Fred M. Wilcox in 1956. The story splices William Shakespeare’s The Tempest with Freudian ideas. The brilliant mild-mannered patriarch, played by Walter Pidgeon, is so possessively jealous of his beautiful daughter and so unconsciously hostile to everyone else that his mind unwittingly creates a bloodthirsty terror actually called “the monster from the id”. They spell it right out.

Robot Monster does the same three years earlier. Most of the film’s action is a dream inside the psyche of little Johnny (Gregory Moffatt). He’s introduced wearing his space helmet, playing with his bubble gun, and ducking the pleadings of bratty little sister Carla (Pamela Paulson) to “play house”. This “playing house” motif will be repeated until its sexual connotations are bashed over our heads during the wedding scene when Carla speaks of how the newlyweds are now going to play house. Sexual motives are emphasized throughout Robot Monster as driving the action.

Johnny and Carla arrive at the famous cave in the canyon, which has been used in a zillion movies. Caves, of course, symbolize both the unconscious mind and the womb. (Freud made that up, not me.) Working at the cave are two archaeologists. The unnamed Professor (John Mylong) is an older, accented gentleman the right age for Johnny’s mother (Selena Royle), and in about two minutes, Johnny will bluntly ask his mom if they will have a new father someday. As his dream will reveal, this fatherless boy has already mentally assigned the Professor to Mother.

The other scientist is something else again. In his first starring role, typical 1950s (homosexual) hunk George Nader plays beaming young Roy, which by a strange coincidence is Rock Hudson’s real name. Roy and the Professor learn that the kids are on a picnic with Mom and a beautiful older sister, Alice (Claudia Barrett). When the family naps after eating, Johnny sneaks away to the cave and somehow launches the dream that occupies the rest of the hour.

How do we know it’s a dream? The most subtle clue is that the transition is marked by Johnny’s costume change from jeans to shorts, as the commentary track points out. The more obvious markers are that we’re in an altered reality where the Professor and Mother are married, and Roy runs hot and cold with Alice, who resents his patronizing manner and failure to recognize her scientific brilliance. This is also the way children are patronized.

Alice is forever chafing at the men’s restraint (she’ll be literally tied up twice), so we get feminist anger as a secondary theme mixed with the dominating sexual drives. The biggest argument occurs when she pretty much states that she’d be willing to have sex with the Robot Monster to save them, and Roy shouts that he doesn’t think people should demean themselves to stay alive.

Yes, they really discuss this. What remains submerged in other movies about beautiful women kidnapped by gorillas or aliens or monsters or all of the above is acknowledged openly in Robot Monster as a viable strategy, although the monster declares that he doesn’t understand these feelings that possess him. If his feelings scare and confuse him, the sexual impulses of Alice must be suppressed or redirected into acceptable channels.

So must Johnny’s impulses, except that his can’t even be acknowledged, so they’re all projected into dream avatars of himself. Alice is also a transposed equivalent of Johnny, which certainly puts a spin on her attraction to Roy. Johnny’s three avatars are all drawn to each other.

In the surface story, Ro-Man the Robot Monster is the emissary of a dictatorial alien race guided by efficiency and logical data and disdainful of emotions or individual thought. He’s already wiped out everyone on Earth except this handful of people. In the understory that drives Johnny’s dream, Ro-Man is what he must be: a manifestation of Johnny’s inner hostilities and nascent libidinal impulses emerging from the cave – as will be seen by whom Ro-Man kills and whom he tries to claim sexually.

Roy is also an avatar of Johnny. All grown he-man, gratuitously exposing his hairy chest as often as possible, Roy is the man-scientist Johnny would like to become. This means he’s also a rival for Big Sis, which explains their tension and arguments. Roy and Alice both want and don’t want this relationship. The wanting wins out as we’re pretty much told they have sex and aim to have more on their honeymoon after the open-air, semi-pagan ceremony conducted by the Professor-Father in the ruins of their broken home.

While all this expresses Johnny’s confused desires, it also seals Roy’s doom. The deaths of Johnny’s two furry avatars must signal his awakening – that is, his return to conscious ignorance in his old status quo, where his fantasy boy-rages haven’t yet annihilated the world. Everything I’m saying is pretty much laid out schematically.

The Robot Monster is played by George Barrows, who specialized in gorillas because he owned the suit; he wears it in another 3-D film, Harmon Jones’ 1954 production Gorilla at Large. Barrows spends much of Robot Monster arguing with himself since he’s also in the dual role of Great Guidance, the mean, dismissive alien leader. The monitor through which they communicate can be seen as a kind of mirror, and the monster’s literalized schizoid nature is another reflection of Johnny’s internal conflicts.

As 3-D expert Bob Furmanek points out, Robot Monster employs a radical device not used in other 3-D films of the era. For the montages of destruction using stock footage, Tucker layers separate images on top of each other. In other words, the right-eye reel has one image, and the left-eye reel has another. If you close each eye, you see a different image through the glasses. Talk about one side of your mind battling another. Speaking of stock footage, we also get stock footage of battling dinosaurs from 1940’s One Million B.C. for no reason but to pad the running time. Behind all this is a splendidly lurid score by Elmer Bernstein.

On the Robot Monster Blu-ray, the main feature is offered in a polarized version for 3-D televisions in its original anaglyph version for the red-blue paper spectacles (included) or in regular 2D. The equivalent DVD edition doesn’t have the polarized option. The Robot Monster is clearly improved by its artful 3-D composition. In those several shots where the monster lumbers around the hills of Bronson Canyon, the depth is nicely conveyed, and that’s the purpose of the endless foregrounded bubbles floating around his cave base.

The bonus material is almost overwhelming. Extras include an interview with Moffett, the original pre-feature short with Slick Slavin’s celebrity impressions, examples of 3-D ephemera, a commentary track, trailers, documentaries on the 3-D process, how the film was found and restored, and, just for the heck of it, a 1953 segment of the TV series You Asked for It with guest Bela Lugosi. Seriously, you’ll end up watching this disc all day.

At last, Robot Monster gets the attention it deserves and looks better than ever. Will it be long before it’s drafted into the National Film Registry?