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July 27, 2005

Robot Monster

Phil Tucker - 1953
Image Region 1 DVD

It's summer, it's hot, and sometimes I have the need to sit back and enjoy some Grade A cheese. For those who are unfamiliar with Robot Monster, this is the movie in which Earth is threatened by a guy in a gorilla suit wearing a deep sea diver helmet. Even though it's listed at #55 of the Internet Movie Database's Bottom 100, this film is actually not without merit. The story is pretty silly with plenty of head scratching moments. What makes Robot Monster worth watching, or at least listening to, is a terrific score by Elmer Bernstein early in his career.

My favorite Bernstein scores were mostly those done in the early to mid Sixties. The influence of mentor Aaron Copland is very clear, most memorably in The Magnificent Seven and To Kill a Mockingbird. Bernstein's film scores fit in a time when movie composers were incorporating jazz tempos and dissonance, in general breaking away from the patterns set by traditional film composers like Max Steiner. Bernstein ended up doing the score for Robot Monster, as well as Cat Women of the Moon, during a time when he was temporarily gray listed for suspected left wing activities. The music for Robot Monster seems influenced by the jazz age French composers like Poulenc. The ultimate disappointment of Robot Monster is that within the confines of an extemely low budget science fiction film, only Elmer Bernstein demonstrated his creativity and soon established his very distinguished career.

The movie was written by Wyott Ordung, a sometimes actor and director as well as writer. His best known credit was for directing the first film produced by Roger Corman, Monster from the Ocean Floor. Like Ordung, director Phil Tucker has had a sporadic career with very low budget films that would usually appear on the bottom bill of a double feature. Tucker's other film of note, Dance Hall Racket, featured the young Lenny Bruce. While the most famous image of Robot Monster is of the creature, Ro-Man, carrying off starlet Claudia Barrett, a chord may have been struck with star George Nader. A minor beefcake star of the Fifties, Nader was also a closeted homosexual. After coming out in the mid-Eighties at the time of colleague Rock Hudson's death from A.I.D.S., Nader wrote a science fiction book titled Chrome. Nader's book is about homoerotic love between man and robot. Unlike Robot Monster, the reviews for Chrome have been generally positive. And yet I wonder it there was a mad moment when Nader had dreamt that it was he who was carried away to the cave instead of Claudia Barrett.

For me, Robot Monster is likeable enough for some its nuttier ideas of science fiction. Ro-Man's cave features a Salvation Army dresser that's suppose to be some kind of intergalactic television. There is also an old table with what looks like old audio equipment, a reel to reel tape deck, a television antenna, and a bubble machine. The scenes of revived dinosaurs include the creaky animation of special effects pioneer Willis O'Brien, as well as shots of two lizards playing Twister in extreme close up. Much of the lack of logic can be charitably explained by the twist ending.

Robot Monster ends with the image of Ro-Man walking towards the camera. The image is repeated three times. It is during these last few seconds that Robot Monster achieves its moment of goofball cinematic poetry.

Posted by peter at July 27, 2005 03:56 PM