ROBOT MONSTER (1953)
Robot Monster (1953)
Evil Moon robot Ro-Man Extension XJ-2 (Barrows), referred to as just Ro-Man, has seemingly destroyed all human life on Earth with a Calcinator death ray, all except for eight humans that remain alive. The survivors are an older scientist (John Mylong), his wife (Selena Royle), his two daughters, his young son Johnny (Gregory Moffett), his assistant, and two space pilots that shortly take off in a spaceship for an orbiting space platform. All eight have now developed an immunity to Ro-Man’s death ray, having received an experimental antibiotic serum developed by the scientist.
Ro-Man must complete the destruction of all humans, even if it means his physically killing them one by one, before his mission to subjugate the Earth is complete. After fruitless negotiations, Ro-Man, with a laser in hand, destroys the spaceship headed for the orbiting platform, killing the two pilots aboard. He later strangles the youngest daughter, Carla (Pamela Paulson), and tosses the assistant scientist, Roy (Nader), to his death over a cliff.
Ro-Man’s mission is waylaid, though, when he develops an illogical attraction to Alice (Barrett), the scientist’s eldest daughter. He refuses to eliminate her, forcing the alien leader, the Great Guidance, to teleport to Earth after first killing the disobedient Ro-Man. The Great Guidance then attempts to finish the genocide by releasing prehistoric dinosaurs and a massive earthquake on the remaining survivors.
But Johnny is alive, having just awoken from a concussion-induced fever dream. Up to now, all that has happened has just been his nightmare. His parents, who had been looking for him, rejoice and take him home.
Suddenly, Ro-Man, his arms raised in a threatening manner, rushes out of a cave.
Robot Monster was originally released with the Three Dimension Pictures short Stardust in Your Eyes, starring nightclub comedian Trustin Howard as Slick Slaven. In December 1953, the Los Angeles Times reported that “theater men” considered the film “one of the top turkeys of the year”.
The film is frequently considered one of the worst movies ever made, with film historian Leonard Maltin calling it “one of the genuine legends of Hollywood – embarrassingly, hilariously awful…just dig that bubble-machine with the TV antenna”.
The movie was included as a selection in the 1978 book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (And How They Got That Way). Robot Monster currently holds a 31% approval rating at the film review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, based on 13 reviews, with an average rating of 3.8 out of 10.
Despite rumors to the contrary, the film received some decent reviews, and it grossed $1,000,000 during its initial release, more than 62 times its original investment. The film was soon sold to television, where its infamy slowly spread to new generations of cult movie fans.
The Los Angeles Times called it “a crazy mixed up movie … even children may be a little bored by it all”. The review in Variety noted, “Judged on the basis of novelty, as a showcase for the Tru-Stereo Process, Robot Monster comes off surprisingly well, considering the extremely limited budget ($50,000) and schedule on which the film was shot”.
In December 1953, it was reported that Tucker tried to commit suicide at the Los Angeles Knickerbocker Hotel. He was only saved because he had written a suicide letter and sent it to a newspaper, who sent a reporter and some detectives to the hotel. He was discovered with a pass in his pocket from the psychopathic ward of a veterans hospital. In the letter, Tucker said he had not been paid for Robot Monster and was unable to get a job. “When I was refused a job – even as an usher,” Tucker wrote, “I finally realized my future in the film industry was bleak”. It was revealed that Tucker and the producer had quarreled, and film exhibitors had instructions not to let Tucker in to see the film unless he paid admission.
In Keep Watching the Skies!, a comprehensive history of 1950s and early 1960s American science fiction films, author Bill Warren claimed that Tucker’s attempted suicide was due to depression and a dispute with the film’s distributor, who had allegedly refused to pay Tucker his contracted percentage of the film’s profits.
The actors connected to Robot Monster included George Nader, who won the Golden Globe in 1954 as “Most Promising Male Newcomer of the Year” (although his award was not tied to his Robot Monster performance). He signed with Universal Studios, where he starred only in secondary features; other new male stars, like Tony Curtis and Rock Hudson, were assigned to major film roles.
Selena Royle, an MGM stock player, had a durable film career beginning in 1941, but it ended in 1951 when she was branded a Communist sympathizer. She refused to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and eventually cleared her name. By then the damage to her reputation had already been done; she made only two additional films, Robot Monster being her last.