Monday, September 3, 2018

Cardboard Science: Calculate your chances... negative... negative... negative...


Somewhere between must-see surrealist psychothriller and complete Z-movie trash, I don't suppose there's any compelling reason why Robot Monster can't be both.

Directed by Phil Tucker
Written by Wyott Ordung
With Gregory Moffett (Johnny), Claudia Barrett (Alice), George Nader (Roy), John Mylong (The Professor), Selena Royle (Mother), Pamela Paulson (Carla), and George Barrows/John Brown (Ro-Man Extension XJ-2 and Great Guidance)

Spoiler alert: high; and likewise high for Invaders From Mars (1953)

Robot Monster is bad, of course.  Yet it is, in its way, flawlessly bad.  Practically every aspect of its production is some kind of Goddamn trainwreck—and, in good-bad movie tradition, practically every aspect of its production comes with some kind of fascinating anecdote to explain it, too.  Each bad element is mutually supporting in its badness: from bad script to bad acting to bad camerawork to bad editing to bad special effects to legendarily bad monster, all tied together by a score so surprisingly decent, and of such startlingly good pedigree (Elmer Bernstein?!), that it feels more like a joke than anything else—just one more thing the movie can't be coherent about.  And so it arrives in one single, dense package that runs (this being the most important part) only 63 minutes short.  In some respects it's funnier as itself than it is as a Mystery Science Theater 3000 presentation, though it's one of the jewels of MST3K's first season.  But it really might be, even so: for when you watch it by itself, you're paying more attention to all the endless ways it's so incredibly fucked—cinematically, structurally, sexually, sartorially.  Taken as a whole, the thing is as magnetic a bad movie as the 1950s produced.

Alien invaders had taken something of a vacation over the course of 1952, after a strong, studio-driven start in 1951 with The Thing From Another World and The Day the Earth Stood Still.  (In fact, though I know not why, cinematic sci-fi as a whole virtually ground to a halt in '52.)  The subgenre was set to strike back hard later in 1953: Paramount was getting in on the game with their enormously-budgeted (if not enormously-good) adaptation of The War of the Worlds.

But before that would-be watershed, you got a pair of curious B-sides, first Fox's Invaders From Mars, which our friend Brennan Klein so ably reviewed at my behest some time ago (he didn't like it, nor should he have); and then Robot Monster, made for no obvious reason other than it could be, hailing from an outfit established specifically for the task, "Three Dimensional Pictures," a creature of Monster's own ill-fated producer-director, Phil Tucker.  (As the name of Tucker's company implies, Monster was filmed and released in 3-D, during that fad's height; and, clearly enough, the biggest single fraction of Monster's $16,000 budget went to securing the necessary 3-D equipment, alongside the experienced cinematographer, Jack Greenhalgh, who knew how to use it.  Unfortunately, in its present-day two-dimensional format, little else about the production suggests Greenhalgh even knew how to keep fellow members of the crew from bumping into his camera.)

I mention Invaders purposefully, however, for it shares with Monster a particular conceit; and, taken together, the two form one of those remarkable theatrical diptychs that so often crop up, with two films released one atop the other taking on the same basic subject.  Apparently completely independently of one another, what both Invaders and Monster decided to do was layer upon their young subgenre an impenetrable layer of trippy metacommentary, years before that sort of thing could be recognized—let alone appreciated.  Specifically, both Invaders and Monsters are movies that occur principally inside a small child's dreams, and both films serve, one supposes, as a reminder that dreams are the place where all stories occur, as well as a reminder that they're also where all stories come from before they're released into the world (albeit, usually, with slightly more polish to the raw dreamstuff of their construction).

It was much cooler when Ben Sisko did it.

In neither case does it actually make the experience of watching the movie significantly better.  But it does explain some of what we've got here, even if "it was all a dream" still only explains about half of whatever the hell it is that's going on in Robot Monster—and, at some point, I probably ought to try to tell you what that is.

Our dreamer is Johnny.  We first meet him awake, as he makes the aquaintance of an archaeologist and his assistant during a family outing with his widowed mother, his older sister Alice, and his younger, annoying sister Carla.  After a picnic in the austere surroundings of Bronson Canyon (and why not?), Johnny naps, and when he "awakes," wanders off.  (I am not sure, to be frank, whether Monster's straightforward honesty about its underlying premise helps it or not.)  Presently, he finds a certain cave.  Then everything goes absolutely mad.  Time and space are flipped on their heads.  Stock dinosaur footage ensues from One Million B.C. and Lost Continent, soon to be joined by even more stock footage from Invasion U.S.A., amongst other now-obscure sources.  And ultimately Monster indulges in its own, homegrown "special" "effect," flipping back and forth between positive and negative images.  This, it turns out, was actually the end of all we know; and, when this holocaust has concluded, Johnny wakes up (again) outside the cave, which is now occupied by the creature we shall learn is designated Extension XJ-2 of the collectivist Ro-Man civilization—a cosmic being typically referred to by his human (or "hu-man") enemies as simply "Ro-Man," for the sake of convenience.

This is Ro-Man, Slayer of Worlds.  The resemblance to a gorilla in a diving helmet isn't coincidental so much as it is the natural result of most of your effects budget having been expended already by the rental of a Billion Bubble Machine, which receives an onscreen credit as prominent as any of the crew.

Ro-Man, in communication with his superior, Great Guidance, reports a successful extermination of humanity; Guidance corrects him with a new "estimate," informing him that eight humans remain.  Johnny, retreating, finds four of them—his mother, his sisters, and his new dad, the archaeologist from earlier, now recast as a genius scientist, whose inventions have shielded them from Ro-Man's planet-scouring death ray, as well as Ro-Man's omniscient tracking systems.  In time, we'll be reunited with this "Professor's" assistant, and Alice's paramour, Roy; we'll at least hear tell of those other two, and we'll even see (stock footage of) their attempt to link up with the garrison of humans still alive on some nation or other's orbiting space platform, in our race's desperate final bid to resist the Ro-Man.  Ro-Men?  Whatever.

Not for nothing, I guess, does Robot Monster begin with a title card (a damned well-designed title card, at that) that depicts a pile of mocked-up turn-of-the-decade science fiction magazines: Monster is pretty much built to be a feverish hallucination instigated by such fantasies.  The plot circles around the last humans' defiance of Ro-Man's siege, and, honestly, it's hardly a bad basic conflict, albeit a somewhat-repetitive one that also never has much menace to it, given scenes like the one where Johnny sallies forth to taunt Ro-Man a second time, calls him a "pooped-out pinwheel," and runs away while the lumbering giant gesticulates at him.  The story of Monster, however, is slightly more complicated, as it turns its eye toward that evergreen theme of mid-century horror (not to mention mid-century sci-fi posters), offering up in the process what I imagine must be the loest-fi rendition of a Beauty and the Beast fable they ever made, once Ro-Man, via his viewscreen, comes upon Alice, and, apropos of absolutely nothing at all, finds himself fascinated far beyond his ability to cope.

If Ro-Man is still alive, if wo-man can survive, they may find... they're in one more sci-fi/horror flick about a sympathetic rapist.

It gives us several amazing monologues memorializing Ro-Man's newfound inner conflict between his duty to kill and his desire to preserve, especially Monster's immortal answer to Hamlet, "I cannot, but I must!  How do you calculate that?  At what point on the graph do 'must' and 'cannot' meet?  Yet I must!  But I cannot!"  More than that, though, in conjunction with that all-a-dream narrative, it gives us a young boy's fantasy that appears to revolve almost exclusively around his hot grown-up sister getting fucked, though her partner alternates between a handsome leading man and the grotesque sex monster who (probably not coincidentally) popped his very first small boner whilst looking at Alice.  (Gorilla penis being, ironically, pretty puny penis, as you likely already know; though I'm pretty sure nobody was thinking in precisely these terms when they "designed" Ro-Man.)  Yet our dive into Johnny's deranged id goes even deeper than that, once we realize the only members of our principal cast whom Ro-Man successfully kills are Carla and Roy—the disfavored younger sister, who wants to play "house," and the competitor for Alice's attention, respectively—leaving Alice with only a Ro-Man (and on-camera Ro-sexual assault).  In the end, however, even mighty Ro-Man cannot persevere, brought down by his dishonor and the Great Guidance he has disobeyed, at the very moment the beast has finally gotten his hands around Johnny's throat.  "I cannot, but I must," indeed.

It's no wonder Wyatt Ordung has always bitterly denied his screenplay credit, blaming it successively upon Tucker, who came up with the concept after his ideas for a SF comedy were turned down, and then upon an unnamed furniture store owner, who (the story goes) discharged a debt owed him by co-producer Al Zimbalist in exchange for the opportunity to "write" a "real" "Hollywood" "movie."  Either way, I wouldn't necessarily want to take credit for this script, either.  Ed Wood may've made vehicles for his own fetishes, but even he rarely made a masterpiece-abomination of Freudian sublimation like this.

But this is just what makes the movie off-puttingly weird.  Actually, it's what might make the movie even sort-of work as a functional object, at least if it had any particular interest in being a functional object.  I mean, it clearly did; it's only the vanishing budget that gives it the appearance of having any other intention.  But whether by human design or by destiny, it often plays a lot more like a post-modern, kitschy art installation made decades later out of mid-century pop detritus than the narrative film made in 1953 it actually is.  As such, we find it absolutely beholden to its crazed stock footage montage to try to get across anything like the scope of the tale it wants to tell (and in incredibly strange ways, too, like Guidance releasing "prehistoric beasts" to finish the job), and chock-full of that aforementioned photonegative effect, representing Ro-Man's "calcinator death ray."

Yet even in the littler details, it's compellingly bizarre, feeling oddly deliberate in its brokenness, even though there's always some reasonable explanation for whatever it is that it's getting wrong: like the rather obvious way that every shot was done in one take, no matter how incompetently (film was expensive, 3-D moreso); the long (runtime-padding) vistas of Ro-Man stalking across the eerie scrubland, accompanied by a Bernstein score that gives no hint that what you're watching isn't supposed to be epic; Roy and Alice's pantomimed conversation-turned-tryst in a hidden glade (you may suspect that nobody felt up to writing credible romantic dialogue, which they surely weren't); the roofless bunker set that sort of alludes to the idea of a post-apocalypse, without actually making sense of that idea (and presumably was only ever an abandoned cinderblock shack, found in situ and then marginally dressed).  But then you have that Goddamn bubble machine, and whether it's a motif tying Johnny and Ro-man together or not, you still just have to wonder.  Because nobody would do that without a sense of irony, right?

And, of course, there's Ro-Man himself, who's become synonymous with 50s tripe, an icon as big or bigger than any other monster of the era.  Given life by George Barrows's tireless work sweeping his arms around while nobody much tried to match his gestures with radio personality John Brown's pompous "robot voice" baritone, this composite turn is, far and away, the best and liveliest performance in the film, earnestly, even passionately digging into all of Ro-Man's vaguely-mathematical-sounding dialogue and "must/cannot" dichotomies.  (But even though Ro-Man is the star, the whole film is almost as fun even when he's not around, thanks in large part to every other performance—all equally declamatory and lousy and hilariously crippled by a loopy, silly, jokey script that could scarcely have allowed the other actors to pretend, even if they were capable of it, that they're actually grappling with the existential horror of being the last human beings alive.  Upon being notified of Roy and Alice's engagement, the Professor declares, "And remember, it's the social event of the season!"  I guess you gotta laugh.  And the child performances, needless to say, are the absolute pits.)

But I was speaking of Ro-Man, perhaps the most inspired lunacy of a decade.  It's almost a pity to know the facts, and understand that it was, once again, naught but industrial reality shaping Ro-Man's form.  You see, Barrows was part of that peculiar phenomenon of "gorilla actors," and, coming at the low, low cost of $40 a day, Tucker modified his vision of robot invaders accordingly upon his realization that, with Barrows, he could get a monster who came with his own prop.  And yet that space helmet was Tucker's contribution (why, he even gives noticeably different space helmets to Ro-Man and to Guidance! he was trying), turning this goofy idea into a—well, still a goofy idea, but an unforgettable one.

Robot Monster comes with a tale of tragedy, too.  In the weeks following its release, Tucker spiraled into a depression, culminating in a failed suicide.  You hear it said, sometimes, that Monster's status as an object of cult mockery is what did it—hey, print the legend.  Yet this too was a more quotidian affair, though it comes with a reminder that Monster was enormously successful, somehow grossing somewhere around a million dollars—a million dollars that Tucker never saw a dime of, cheated out of his due by a distributor.  And yet, truth is, it did little to burnish his reputation, either.  It's occasionally reported that following the non-release of the director's second feature, The Cape Canaveral Monsters, he faded into nudie-cuties; interestingly, he also co-invented and patented a turbine engine, which also didn't get sold.  Happily, he reestablished himself as an editor and post-production supervisor in the 60s, and worked, mostly for Dino De Laurentiis, pretty much until he died in 1985—of natural causes.

His legacy lives on chiefly in this film, however, a one-of-a-kind descent into good-bad delight that at least somewhat transcends its paltry limitations, a kludge of a movie that nevertheless contains imagination unwilling to be bound, plus the kind of innocent ineptitude that's rarer than diamonds.  I shall attempt to give it the score I think it actually earns, on its merits; yet giving it any higher than a zero almost seems like a disservice to its achievement.

Score:  3/10

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
  • Robot Monster is uniquely resilient to nitpicking its science, thanks to its two-times-removed conceit of a lad's weird sci-fi-inflected sex dream, and the fact that nothing in it is attempting even surface-level realism.  But it did teach me a new word, and it turns out that "calcination" does not mean "reduced to calcium, i.e., bones," though it maybe would be cooler if it did.
The morality of the past, in the future!:
  • A major part of the third (let's say "third") act involves Alice volunteering to surrender herself to Ro-Man's ro-lust in exchange for "integrat[ing]" her family into "the plan."  Her family, including her beau, take exception to this, and tie her up despite her spirited resistance.  When she gets out, and finds Ro-Man, he tears her top off.  It's pretty gross regardless of which corner you investigate, then, but it is a ten year old's wet dream about his sister, so let's not be too harsh, nor lose perspective.  On the other hand, grown men did write it... grown men who were more aware than we that the biggest sci-fi hit of the previous year, which evidently cleared the field, was a re-release of King Kong.  Ah, yes; I see that glimmer of understanding in your eyes.
  • Besides second-hand objectification of women, there's also Monster's second-hand cruelty to animals, and while it's easier to give it a pass than the films (namely One Million B.C.) that it's taking the stock footage of "dimetrodons" fighting in a pit from, it's still pretty awful.
  • There is no actual sense of wonder to Robot Monster, but there is a sense of dislocation and disorientation, such as you rarely get from better-made and better-conceived films.  I called it a "feverish hallucination" above, and, between the eye-popping no-budget sci-fi world-building and the heady stew of sexual frustrations that forms the "plot," that really is what you get.  Whether that makes it worthwhile or not is, as always, up to you.  Nevertheless, I don't see how it's any worse than A Quiet Place, and it's way, way shorter.

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