Back in the days of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, I and my two sisters were forced to endure only what our small six-channel broadcast TV library had available. This meant that we were regularly exposed to some small market syndicated packages that included some of the more forgettable Science Fiction and Fantasy gems that came out of the Golden Age. Without the advent of a TV Guide (much less the Information Superhighway), we only had ourselves and those occasionally laughable productions to keep us entertained, and we learned to make do no matter how illogical or how ill-conceived a feature was. It was – simply put – life in them there old days.
So, yes, I’ve had the good fortune of witnessing the splendor of Robot Monster (1953) probably not once but perhaps maybe a half-dozen times. (Mind you: I’m sure my sisters tuned out and played with their Barbies instead.) This was the kind of thing that made the rotations regularly, and – as I was even back then a fan of All Things Genre – I just couldn’t look away, no matter how hard I tried. Robots were in such short supply, and monsters were the kind of thing I looked on as modern legends. Pairing them up in the title alone meant that I had to sit there, and I’d like to think I’m a better person today because of it … though my wife might disagree.
But … I’d never had the opportunity to experience it as its producers originally intended: Monster was both conceived and shot as one of the premiere 3D experiences from the 1950’s, and audiences – probably youngsters like I was back in my days – flocked to matinees making it one of the (surprise surprise!) more financially lucrative attempts to break that fourth wall. It may not have been dramatically riveting. It may not have presented a space saga worth its weight in gold. Yet, somehow, Monster made money – and big money, for its day – and now thanks to the folks at Bayview Entertainment I’ve had the good luck to see what all the fuss was about.
(NOTE: The following review will contain spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
(Edited) From the film’s DVD slipcase:
“A cosmic catastrophe has wiped out humanity, and now the last six survivors must outwit that strange iconic alien menace, Ro-Man. Taking orders from the pitiless Great Guidance, Ro-Man wavers in his pursuit of human annihilation when he falls in love with a girl. Can dashing young Roy save her? Filmed in the Tru-Stereo process, Robot Monster boasts excellent 3-D that rivals big studio efforts of its day.”
While certainly not endemic to the story, I included that last bit about the 3D mostly because it’s largely why a little ‘something something’ like Robot Monster has survived to this day: it’s a curiosity that both demonstrates how stories were told and how studios tried to make them the ‘event pictures’ of that bygone era. From what I’ve read, Monster was completed largely to capitalize on the 3D craze of the 1950’s, and – despite the overwhelmingly negative reviews – it was rewarded for its effort: even IMDB.com reports that the feature grossed an astonishing $1+ million dollars on a budget of less than $20,000!
My two cents? Yeah. It looks like it was shot for less than $20,000!
No, I’m not nitpicking. I’m being honest as there’s very little cinematography in there that qualifies as anything other than ‘competent.’ Director Phil Tucker – this one of his earliest screen attempts – does very little but stand-by and allow the onscreen talent to do little more than deliver some of the most passionless dialogue in all of filmdom, perhaps only encouraging them to look aghast at such dark developments fleetingly. In fact, if it weren’t for a few rather grim predicaments, the actors and actresses would really have nothing to react to (including one another!) at all in the picture. It’s all so blatantly staged for audiences that at an astonishingly trim 66 minutes this one feels like it’s 30 minutes too long.
Still, because it’s short and because it’s got its own irrepressible 1950’s charm, Monster has endured. It has defied the odds and grown to be a bit of a cultural oddity. Some have even championed it as one of the better features employing 3D at a time when the technology was just emerging in theaters that – had it come along later – it may’ve been an even greater sensation than it was. (Color me dubious!) Personally, I think the lack of any marquee names as well as its curiously thin script would always have kept it in relative obscurity, and maybe that’s best for all involved, audiences included.
Earth lies in ruins, basically, and the few survivors owe their good fortune to the fact that the Professor (John Mylong) invented some serum (in events not show on film) that miraculously exempted his patients from susceptibility. (In case you’ve missed it, yes, the premise is more than a bit hackneyed and confusing.) Mankind’s fall has allowed Ro-Man (George Barrows) – the robot monster of the title who is not really a robot so much as he is a gorilla in a helmet – and his people to move in and claim residency over our world; and Ro-Man himself has been tasked with tidying up the place by murdering any who remain. Given that it’s a scant six-to-eight folks (depending upon one’s perspective), it shouldn’t take long. Lo and behold, Ro-Man becomes smitten with young Alice (and who can blame him when it’s the lovely Claudia Barrett?) and desires to keep her as his own. (I’m not sure how that coupling would work.) This forces him to fall into disfavor with his boss, the Great Guidance, and thus we have the foundation for the picture.
So there’s a reasonable SciFi/Fantasy construct around which Monster is constructed, and screenwriter Wyatt Ordung manages to even infuse the action with a bit of unrequited passion via the Ro-Man/Alice promise. Alice is already in love with Roy (George Nader) who’s around to expand this cinematic affair into a love triangle. Roy spends a good portion of the film running around with his shirt off so maybe those smitten with such costuming (or lack thereof) can see the appeal. As one might predict, this threesome (not that kind) comes to a head (also, not that kind), with Ro-Man kinda/sorta winning out as he resorts to Neanderthal tactics, seizing Alice against her will and taking her back to his cave (which really is a cave).
Yes, it’s all quite laughable, much in the same way that Mystery Science Theater 3000 built its reputation on lampooning the simplicity of such genre thrillers. But I encourage cynics to set aside their jaundiced view of life, liberty, and all that jazz to just enjoy Monster. On that level – and only on that level – it’s innocent fun. There’s not an ounce of toxicity in here, and I guarantee you that this is the kind of feature your parents and grandparents likely enjoyed in the days of their youth. It’s entirely meant for the young at heart. At a run-time of barely an hour, how could it be anything more or less?
Lastly, I’m willing to share a bit of insider knowledge I learned from the audio commentary. Without spoiling it for those who’ve never seen the picture, Monster utilizes one of Hollywood’s favorite techniques – the twist ending – in order to spin this particular yarn. (Because I’ve seen the film, I knew what was coming.) What I hadn’t realized is that there’s a – cough cough – costume change early in the film that most definitely spoils the narrative trickery for those watching closely. If you caught it? Then good for you! In all these years – and with all I’ve read about the flick – I’d never seen it. Now I encourage you to figure it out, and you’ve solved the minor puzzle.
Robot Monster (1953) was produced by Three Dimensions Pictures. DVD distribution (for this particular release) is being coordinated by the fine folks at Bayview Entertainment. As for the technical specifications? Wowza. While I’m no trained video expert, I thought that the sights-and-sounds to this black-and-white flick were damn near stunning, especially given its age as well as the fact that – from what I’d read – some of the footage had been presumed to be lost to the ages for quite some time. This is a damn fine presentation, especially also given the fact that it likely hasn’t been seen in this form for quite probably as long. Well done!
As for the special features? OK, bear with me a minute here, folks, as this might seem a bit technical. The film is available for viewing in both 3D and traditional 2D on the same disc, but keep in mind that those wishing to enjoy it in 3D must have the requisite 3D hardware (player, cables, and monitor) to achieve the proper effect. To kinda/sorta complicate matters a bit further, there are two sets of special features – one specifically for 3D viewing and another for 2D – so if you’ve all the right gadgets then there’s a wealth of stuff in here to enjoy. The 3D collection includes the shorts ‘Memories Of A Pooped Out Pinwheel,’ ‘Travels Through Time & Space,’ ‘Side Streets of Hollywood,’ ‘Adventures In 3D,’ ‘Return To Bronson Canyon,’ ‘Whatever Happened To Ro-man?,’ a Before/After restoration demo, and the new 3D trailer. The 2D collection includes the original theatrical trailer, ‘3D Movies In Los Angeles,’ ‘Monster From Mars,’ ‘Joe Dante, Trailers From Hell,’ ‘Mistakes & Innovations,’ ‘Robot Monster Diaries,’ and ‘Rescuring Ro-man.’ There are also a few extras available in both viewing formats, including a feature commentary, ‘Was I A Man,’ a memorabilia gallery, and a featurette on Bela Lugosi.’
Essentially – while there’s a lot to enjoy – it’s kinda/sorta confusing that producers would limit access to these extras by functionality. I can appreciate anyone’s desire to fidget with the obvious benefits of 3D for the home viewer, but I’m not so sure you’ll make friends with the consumer by shucking content that’s maybe just a bit too exclusive. (I know, I know: it is what it is.) Also, I will mention that – on the 2D content – the materials suggest that you can move from feature to feature by using the chapter forward button on your remote: for some reason, I couldn’t get mine to work in that way – it kept skipping all the way to the last feature – so I’m wondering if perhaps the disc’s core programming might be tad too complex for some conventional (non 3D players). Granted, it didn’t diminish my enjoyment; I only thought it worth mentioning as a possible technical glitch.
Recommended, but …
Robot Monster (1953) remains an imperfect film. It’s best left to genre fans who have the acquired patience to sit through long sequences of characters simply walking from one place to another, or maybe that contingent of aficionados dedicated to ‘films of yesteryear’ or even 3D enthusiasts will find more to love than just the Average Joe. On that front, the short feature film (just over 60 minutes) likely has greater appeal. For SciFi purists? Sure, it’s worth a one-off. Just don’t look for it to have the kind of enduring qualities many of productions from the 1950’s had because they’re not there.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Bayview Entertainment provided me with a complimentary 3D Blu-ray of Robot Monster (1953) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review. Their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.