Der Krapp

by Brad Linaweaver

Robot Monster I ~ Installment 5

As readers of this column know, I find pleasure in the two extremes of art: the best and the worst. Quality needs no excuse and crap speaks for itself. It is the middle-ground of mediocrity that draws me into the Land of Nod. I avoid the so-so, the insincere, and the trite.

This issue of Atlantes will probably run a series of glowing comments about a recent masterpiece in Sfantasy film; I refer to the latest Lucas film, the Empire Strikes Back (1980) . I will leave it to others who will write of “Der Quality” to supply the requisite adjectives. I have already seen the picture four times and have left on each occasion with my Sense of Wonder freshly stimulated. Empire is clearly an example of the best. (And so is another release many of you will have seen by the time you read this: Kubrick’s the Shining (1980), one of the most intellectual horror films ever made.)

To do my job, I will devote the next few columns to the worst. Originally I had intended to start my Godzilla series this month, but the big fella is just too much of a class act for what I have in mind. I’m going to the bottom of the bucket this time. Toho will seem like George Pal after that.

When I was an undergraduate at Florida State University, I belonged to a peculiar cult that revered the worst SF movie of all time: Robot Monster (1953). This was before it was chic, before that 50 worst movies book gave it new exposure. One TV viewing of the “classic” in 1974 made such an impression that I wrote a 2,700-word article about it. The piece was published in the semi-professional SF/popular arts journal in newspaper format known as Squonk (originating from State College, Pa.) in 1977. I intend to serialize the whole damn thing right here. There’s no escape! (Cliff should run Copyright © 1977 by Squonk” on each installment. That should be as much fun as doing the colophon. Didn’t think I could answer what you say in the colophon in my column, did you, Cliff?)

And now, hold onto your hats, 'cause here, with a minor alteration or two (and elimination of Squonk’s typos to make room for new typos), it is, complete with the original title:

Fall Of The Ro-Man: or What Do You Say To A Gorilla From The Moon?

Hung over on Sunday—I didn’t have too much wine or beer on Saturday evening, in and themselves, but the combination did something watery to my knees. It is the aftermath of the night’s giddy dizziness…empty stomach, light head, and thin blood in veins. The happy tension of earlier revels has been reduced to the prickly-skin feeling one gets from a low electrical field. I am ready.

What does one do on a Sunday evening at 11:00, with five other guys, all crowded around a twelve-inch television screen? William Buckley has just wrapped things up for the night, so we flip elsewhere and get Channel Seventeen! That’s a Georgia station specializing in movies, movies, and movies. Our hopes are high as we pick up 17 on our little TV in north Florida. In Tallahassee, where the college community throws creaking bromides at rednecks who scratch and spit back, we live with the incredible. It will take quite a film to excite our jaded sense.

An announcement. A science fiction movie is coming up—a 50’s bomb for sure. A hoh-hum voice announces, “Robot Monster is next on…” A cheer goes up. Ecstasy! Nostalgia, even. God bless America’s cable system. You see, we’re science fiction fans, steeped in that esoteric tradition; and we just happen to really cherish bad examples. There is nothing more marvelous for six of our persuasion than Robot Monster. Unique of SF films, it is perhaps the worst, hence a contender for the All Time Turkey Crown.

(The only possible competition in the fellow-abomination category is the Astro Zombies (1969), but it’s hardly fair to consider it. Only nominally SF, it is a horror flick shot inside a seedy motel infested by goons wearing rubber masks who recharge their drained batteries by pressing flashlights to sockets painted on their foreheads, and starring the most haggard John Carradine to date. When he says something scientific, the camera pauses lovingly on his furrowed brow. The bemused expression can only mean one thing: “What did I just say?” Can’t you see the director encouraging the performance of the year with, “That’s great Johnny; now let’s see more of that introspection stuff.” Ever wonder why it is that Carradine, severest critic of horror films among the horror actors, chooses to degrade himself so often? Anyway, to wrap up this rambling aside, I’ll make a silly comment and say that the Astro Zombies is too arty to be considered science fiction.)

Robot Monster, on the other hand, is a very speculative work of fiction. It stars no slumming pros. It stars slumming amateurs. (I mean, who the hell ever heard of John Mylong, or would want to after seeing this performance?)

It is possible that if you’ve seen Robot Monster only once, you may not have fully appreciated the exploits of Ro-Man. I trust that my observations will serve to illuminate the otherwise dark corner of your film viewing. Some deductions to start:

Imagine a script written for a robot with anti-social hang-ups, and a producer/director (Phil Tucker) with no money but who firmly believes that where there’s a will, there’s a robot suit. Well, there happens to be an old gorilla costume available. The director is nothing short of genius auteur. When he’s finished being creative, we have no mere collection of tin cans to amuse us. We got Ro-Man! The villain of the piece is still a robot, behaves and talks like a robot, but he looks like a fat and unkempt ape… except that he’s simian only up to his neck. The makers of Robot Monster didn’t want to stretch our credibility too far. The monster wears headgear—looks like a space helmet right out of a kiddy matinee, complete with antennae. Or is it a modified diving helmet? (Author’s note: Ive looked it up in the Fifty Worst Films Of All Time -- mentioned earlier -- and they report that it is a “plastic deep-sea diving helmet.” No wonder it looked so fake.) The brilliant touch is that you can see part of Ro-Man’s very human face through the visor. That’s acceptable because he’s wearing gauze over his features and the delicate illusion of alienness is preserved. (Author’s Note Again: the Fifty Worst Book reports that is a nylon stocking mask.) Ro-man gestures a lot when he talks.

There is a special flair to the incompetence of Robot Monster, a weird kind of charm it has. It’s difficult to discern one part of the production from the rest. Beginning, middle, end, all merge into one phantasmagoric whole where climaxes and lulls are fused. The only thing that holds it together is the singularly pretentious figure of Ro-Man sauntering in and out of a mock valley, fiddling with a set of rabbit ears atop his devilish machine—a bubble maker right out of Lawrence Welk—and seeking, every five minutes or so, invaluable advice from his overlord on the moon, the Great Guidance who directs cosmic traffic with the aid of electrical Jacob’s ladders and a violin bow.

Copyright © 1977 by Brad Linaweaver