“I cannot – yet I must. How do you calculate that? At what point on the graph do ‘must’ and ‘cannot’ meet? Yet I must – but I cannot!”
The final film of the day’s badfilm bonanza is the wonderfully kitsch Robot Monster, first acknowledged by the Medveds in their book, Fifty Worst Films of All Time, way back in 1978. It was also one of the primary reasons for its director, Phil Tucker, being nominated as Worst Director of All Time by the Medveds two years later (Tucker was defeated by Ed Wood). Since then, this movie has remained a firm favourite of badfilm aficionados, and it is widely acknowledged as one of the worst films of the 50s. Continuing the trends of the day, it also features a precocious child in a prominent role, but there’s no renditions of Row Row Row Your Boat here, sadly. That would have been too strange!
After an afternoon of particularly bad movies, Robot Monster actually emerges as a fairly successful film – in contrast to the terrible 90’s sheen of Troll 2 and the washed out incompetence of Manos: The Hands of Fate, this is actually rather accomplished. It’s shot reasonably well, the acting is not particularly stilted, and it benefits from a general kitsch appeal of old 50s sci-fi movies. Yet I make it sound better than it is, because a film about a robot monster called Ro-Man from planet Ro-Man who’s clearly a man in a gorilla suit with a space helmet on his head is never going to be very good. It is harmless, however, and quite endearing, despite being completely illogical and stupid.
Robot Monster has a tiny cast, and was reportedly shot in only four days. George Moffett is young Johnny, an adventurous kid with an active imagination who runs into some archaeologists during a day out in what appears to be a gravelly canyon. Then, for no apparent reason, there’s a sharp cut to some recycled footage depicting some (real) reptiles fighting and some (model) dinosaurs roaming around. When we next see Johnny, he’s living in a derelict building with his mother, older and younger sisters, and his father – the archaeologist shown previously. The world has been decimated by Ro-Man, we learn, who is now living in a cave down the road with a bedroom dresser (sorry, I mean a communication screen) and a bubble machine. The latter gets its own mention in the credits – its official title is the Automatic Billion Bubble Machine by N.A. Fisher Chemical Products, Inc.
It’s difficult to not be significantly dislodged by this sudden shift in narrative, but the story established in the opening sequence is easy to forget, namely because it isn’t referenced or acknowledged until the final scene. The recycled footage, which bookends the film along with its shock twist (followed by another shock twist, just to layer some more incoherence onto the already confused screenplay), is audacious and very obvious – it’s also really forced into the story by the Great Guidance, Ro-Man’s superior who dictates actions from the safety of a space craft somewhere. Both the aliens are played by George Barrows, a character actor renowned for playing gorillas – in fact, Ro-Man’s appearance was directly influenced by the fact that Barrows had his own gorilla costume. He should be commended for his role here; traipsing around the desolate desert landscape in a heavy outfit like this couldn’t have been easy.
While the hu-man cast are all quite generic – nice but forgettable – there is something endearing about Ro-Man. His conversations with the Great Guidance reveal him to be a rather pitiful, browbeaten character, who becomes increasingly conflicted because of his developing feelings towards Johnny’s older sister Alice. Despite his annihilation of all but six of the human race, and even after his brutal killing of one of those remaining, it is difficult to ever think of him as anything more than a pathetic, confused, and tragic figure. It is also Ro-Man who gets the most memorable lines (except, perhaps, the archaeologist’s assistant’s quick-fire retort to Alice: “I’m bossy? You’re so bossy you oughta be milked before you come home at night”) – Ro-Man and the Great Guidance discuss their mass genocide in theatrical, overblown language that is entirely incomprehensible, made all the more ludicrous by the physicality of the characters.
Certainly, there are elements of general badness throughout Robot Monster, but it would appear that the main reason for this film’s notoriety is Ro-Man. The recycled footage and negatively-exposed shots – not to mention the narrative incoherence – undoubtedly help, but it is the sheer preposterousness of this character that gives this little sci-fi/apocalypse picture its charm. It’s a harmless film, completely enjoyable and consistently entertaining and, in many ways, no better or worse than any number of equally low-budget 50s movies; a rather quaint addition to the elastic category of badfilm.