This review is part of the Horror’s “Worst” Films: Tasteless Entertainment or Endurance Test? series.
Horror’s “Worst” Films – Robot Monster (1953)
In December of 1953 director Phil Tucker was staying at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Los Angeles. Despondent from a dispute with his film’s distributor, who was refusing to pay him, and unable to get work because he was saddled with the negative criticism his film had received, Tucker attempted suicide. Some reports say that he shot himself – and missed. He had sent an alarming suicide letter to a newspaper and, so the story goes, was saved when reporters and detectives found him unconscious in his hotel room. As Hollywood legends go, it can difficult to separate the fluff from the fact. Whatever the reasons or method, he lived on to make more films, but the specter of Robot Monster, which had been released the summer before in 3D, haunted his career.
Robot Monster is a no-budget children’s sci-fi tale about an alien named Ro-Man who has wiped out humanity save for a family who have found a way to hide from him. Ro-Man is a monster that looks as if a kid made him by going through stuff in his closet. He’s essentially a guy in a home-made gorilla suit with a fish-bowl shaped helmet with TV antennae sticking out. His communication device, which he uses to contact his superior on his home world, is a bubble machine. The movie was filmed in four days entirely outdoors.
The film is clearly geared towards kids – we even see sci-fi pulp magazines in the closing credits – though it’s unlikely to win their hearts or even keep their interest for more than a millisecond. We should remember that both sci-fi and horror were seen strictly as kids’ stuff in the 1950s, which is why so little of it is what modern audiences would consider serious horror entertainment.
Despite the film’s shortcomings it managed to showcase two actors of note. George Nader went on to win a Golden Globe the following year (not, of course, for Robot Monster). The film was also the last for actress Selena Royle. She had had an active career with MGM until two years prior when she was brought before the House Committee on Un-American Activities where she had refused to name names. Stigmatized as a Communist sympathizer, her career was virtually over, even though she successfully cleared her name.
The movie is bad, certainly, but it retains a modicum of child-like charm. Even Stephen King has a soft spot for it, for he agrees with the review from The Castle of Frankenstein which generously states that though the movie is “certainly among the finest terrible movies ever made” and is “one of the most laughable of the poverty row quickies… the pic does make some scatterbrained sense when viewed as a child’s eye monster fantasy” (Danse Macabre, pg. 213). The movie even has some similarities to Invaders from Mars, released just a few months earlier.
Robot Monster is innocent enough to be inoffensive in its failures as a legitimate film, and that’s why it’s tasteless entertainment. Believe it or not, there are far worse movies to come…