Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Robot Monster (1953) – MST3K Review

Like many episodes from Season One, this one starts off with some Commando Cody and the Radar Men from the Moon. But instead of one episode, we get two! I know! Hold your excitement. In the first episode Cody (George Wallace) escapes from tumbling off a bridge and then finds himself once again pursuing the alien spies on earth. Meanwhile the lunar baddies send their thugs to pick up some more cash to finance their operations, but things go badly. Eventually they decide to kidnap Joan (Aline Towne) and try to whisk her away using a plane. But Cody is on the case and attempts a rescue. In the second episode he manages the rescue and continues to harass the gangsters. The moon men are getting fed up and declare this is the last chance for the loser gangsters. They attempt a heist and it ends with a car hurtling right at Cody! Will he escape this peril?

Robot Monster starts with little Johnny (Gregory Moffett) pretending to be a space man and tormenting his little sister Carla (Pamela Pauslon). He ends up somehow triggering an earthquake or something. Then dinosaurs from Lost Continent appear on screen and thrash around for a bit. Eventually we meet Ro-Man (George Barrows) a hulking hairy creature wearing a helmet and using bubbles to defend his cave/lair. Ro-man has destroyed most of the population of earth and is looking for the last survivors. These include Billy and Carla of course, but also the brilliant Professor (Jon Mylong), Mother (Selena Royle) big sister Alice (Claudia Barrett) and the rugged Roy (George Nader). The Professor has built a cunning shield to protect them from Ro-man.

But little Johnny can’t help but be curious about Ro-man and eventually gives away a vital secret! Ro-man goes on the rampage attempting to kill the rest of the family, but when he sees Alice, suddenly everything changes. Has beauty melted the heart of the beast? If so, is there a hope that these last people can tame the Robot Monster?

Movie Review:
She loves a man who looks like a hood ornament.
So here we are, deep into Season One of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and we have more Radar Men from the Moon to enjoy… or suffer through. You get two episodes this time and I have to say by pushing the action back to earth in these two segments you get less entertaining viewing. These two episodes consist of the evil gangster characters screwing up time and again. It is pretty funny that the evil moon men’s plot is foiled by lack of funds, and yet it is kind of realistic too. It has to be pretty expensive to fund an invasion of the earth right?

That said, most of the thrills here remind me a lot of the old Adventures of Superman television series, but with a rocket pack flying hero instead of the son of Krypton. The cliffhanger for the first episode, Flight to Destruction is the better of the two. Joan is trapped in a plane that is hurtling toward the earth. The evil gangster had pulled off the steering wheel (no I’m not even kidding) and threw it out the window. Then he jumped out wearing a parachute. Cody catches up to the hurtling plane, climbs inside the cockpit and attempts to do something. Joan just sits there watching when SMASH! The plane crashes and everyone dies and see you next time folks.

I can't decide who is less intimidating, the alien or
the gangster.
The whole time I’m wondering why Cody didn’t just pick up Joan and jump from the plane. Even if his rocket pack couldn’t quite compensate for her weight, they were probably close enough to the ground to survive a rough landing by rocket pack. Instead, when the next episode starts, Joan lifts up another parachute and jumps out of the plane. Um… really? Come on guys!

The second episode Murder Car, is pretty dull despite of its awesome title. It spends most of the time with lots of gangsters just doing gangster things and Commando Cody thwarting them. It all ends up with a car hurtling down a narrow road right at Cody and crashing right into his car and massive carnage. I’m sure he jumps out of the kaka-doody car at the last moment.

Most of the visuals are typical of these serials. The dialogue is still pretty ripe and goofy, which helps quite a bit. I especially like when the moon men berate the gangsters for being so useless. Kind of reminds me of cartoon villains hiring the dumbest henchmen they could find. Or when Calgon in Space Mutiny laments “I’m being undermined by my own disciples!”. Radar Men from the Moon feels like it is running out of steam at this point. The plot of these two episode is nearly identical and even the frequent fisticuffs are starting to wear thin.

Even the title card is in 3D!
Luckily Robot Monster comes right at us (in 3D no less) and wow is this movie something else. First off you have the alien being Ro-man. If you are a fan of classic horror monsters then odds are you’ve seen pictures of Ro-man before. And your first impression was probably the same as mine – he looks like a gorilla in a deep-sea diving helmet. Low budget monster gold, my friends, we have struck gold!

The monster costume for Ro-man pretty much spells out what we are going to get out of Robot Monster in general. It is low budget. It doesn’t make much sense. But it is so off the wall that it can’t help but being entertaining. Yes, Ro-man himself has a lot to do with that. Just watching poor Mr. Barrows wander around in that suit and wave his hands around his amusing. But when he gets the billion-bubble machine cranked up you know you are in for a treat.

Most of the film is filmed in and around Bronson Canyon, a Mecca for filmmakers on a budget. This location would turn up again and again in Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes. So I guess that makes Robot Monster a bit of a first. Roger Corman would come here for Teenage Caveman and Night of the Blood Beast. Decades later the cave would be the infamous cavern that houses The Lost Skeleton of Cadavera, a fun parody film heavily inspired by Robot Monster.

The camerawork is actually pretty good considering the fact that the crew was filming this with a new 3D process. When the movie was released it was actually praised for its use of 3D. It is no House of Wax but I can see how some of these shots of Ro-man and the billions of bubbles could be impressive or at least entertaining in 3D. So I would say it is competently filmed, especially compared to something like The Beast of Yucca Flats.

The Billion Bubble machine hard at work.
Where the budget does end up failing a bit is when the movie attempts to go anywhere outside of the canyon. Visual effects for the space platform are pretty funny. You can see the hand actually holding up the orbiter, no matter how much smoke they added to the shot. You also get a lot of stock footage in these scenes with rockets taking off (or landing when the film is reversed), as well as the cute stop motion dinosaurs from Lost Continent and the reptile battle form One Million B.C. (the 1940 version). None of this footage is blended well, so it just makes the whole thing look even sillier.

Luckily the acting isn’t too bad. The dialogue is a bit theatrical at times (and for good reason). But the actors tackle it gamely enough. Even the child actors aren’t terribly annoying. I’ve seen much worse on shoestring budgets.

When it comes to the sound effects, they work well enough. Most of Ro-man’s attacks and weapons sound like static or thunder. Stock sound effects are the name of the game here, but it all works.

What is really bizarre is the simple fact that the musical score was composed by Elmer Bernstein. Yes, the same man who gave us wonderful scores to The Magnificent Seven, The Ten Commandments and a couple of may 80s favorites Ghostbusters and Heavy Metal. How did this film score giant end up working on this goofy movie? Turns out Bernstein was under suspicion by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and was having trouble finding work. So he ended up working on low budget flicks like Robot Monster. It is good to know that Bernstein was able to bounce back with some late career classics, even working for Disney on The Black Cauldron.

I think Caesar Romero is hiding over to the left somewhere.
When it comes to direction and script, well that is where Robot Monster delivers (or doesn’t depending on how you look at it). Now this movie contains a huge TWIST at the end, and I’m going to SPOIL it because in order to discuss the plot, I’ll need to mention it. If you’ve never seen the film, don’t worry, the twist isn’t something like The Sixth Sense or Psycho.

The movie starts with little Johnny running around in modern times, tormenting his sister with his space gun and costume. Then the earthquake happens, and suddenly we get the post-apocalyptic horror featuring Ro-man and what is the bulk of the film. Then the final portion of the movie is when Ro-man’s failure at his job causes his boss to fry him remotely, and then Johnny wakes up. Yes, it is all some kind of dream.

I have to say this is kind of clever. It explains the stock footage, stock sound effects, and goofiness of the monster. All of this comes out a child’s brain while he is dreaming (after getting conked on the head after the earthquake, I think). The opening titles even appear over a bunch of comic books, hinting at another source for the madcap shenanigans we end up watching. Johnny’s subconscious fused all those elements into one 3D fantasia. This also excuses the strange plot points like Alice marrying Roy in a ceremony given by the Professor, the fact that little Carla is killed (how many times have older siblings wished their younger siblings into the corn field), and the billion bubble machine.

The post Ro-man invasion family.
So as wack-a-doodle as the movie turns out to be, that little end moment explains it all away. But that doesn’t make the movie good, just kind of clever with hiding the budget issues using a plot point. The movie has some issues with pacing. There are lots of scenes of Ro-man just wandering around Bronson Canyon as he searches for the “family”. Now this movie is pretty short, but those scenes go on way too long and really hurt any momentum. You end up wondering just how miserably hot George Barrows is in the fur covered Ro-man getup.

Robot Monster ends up being an entertaining if completely mental romp. I kinda wish I could see it in 3D as I think that would make the whole experience a bit more campy fun. Plus you get great lines like “To be like the Hu-man.” This is the perfect type of movie for Joel and the bots. But will the power of the Billion Bubble machine crush them?

Episode Review:

He rants and he raves, but it is so hard to take this
monster seriously.
In my mind this episode is the turning point for Season One. From this point on the riffing improves, the pacing improves and the way Best Brains approach the show feels more consistent. Joel and the bots feel less passive, just watching the movie and lobbing the occasional joke. Now they feel like they are participating in the experience, really building the humor in and around the film. It was something they did fairly well with the Radar Men From the Moon short they had worked on. But movies like Mad Monster and The Corpse Vanishes defeated them.

Robot Monster has so much going on in it, that they can’t help but use the wacky visuals and hilarious dialogue as a jumping off point for the riffs. For the first time the movie riffing actually surpasses the riffing of the shorts that precede it. To me this is the first classic episode of the series, and one that most fans will appreciate.

All that said, the pacing for the riffs is still on the slower side. Season One episodes just don’t have that wicked speed we’d get in Season Four and beyond. But there is plenty to enjoy here.

"This bra is just about finished."
The two Cody shorts provide some really good laughs, even if Joel and the bots feels a little sick of the whole thing by the end of the second episode. When the episode opens and Joel sees the cheat the director employed for the cliffhanger he declares, “That didn’t happen last time.” Crow replies with “They didn’t get the film back from the drug store.” Later on one of the moon men is talking via radio to the moon into what looks like a pinecone. Tom says, “One day it will grow and he will be talking into a tree.”

When the second episode starts up the bots start to lose it and try to escape the theater (something that happens again with Hobgoblins almost nine years later). Crow says it would be more fun to “cut an apple in half and watch it brown!” But when they get into the riffing Tom has a good one. Cody gets shot out of the sky and our robot friend says, “When you shoot down Cody do you call a park ranger, or an air traffic controller?”

Susy Derkins meets Space Man Spiff.
When Robot Monster starts with the picnic at Bronson Canyon Crow observes “Great a picnic at the slag heap. Thanks mom!” Afterward Johnny bumps his head and the dinosaur flashback/forward occurs. Joel declares that “it looks like outtakes from Mutual of Omaha’s 20 Billion BC.”

Ro-man’s cave provides plenty of laughs, especially his billion-bubble machine. When he goes up to his telecommunicator Joel gets excited, “Hey, they’ve got Asteroids!” Tom adds, “They must be advanced if they have Atari!” Ro-man then starts berating the surviving humans and says “Due to an error in calculations some of you still live.” Joel adds, “We apologize for any inconvenience we have caused you.”

By the time the twist ending is unleashed the bots are thoroughly confused. Crow finally asks, “I don’t get it Joel. Is it cool to make no sense?” Of course it is. But Crow will learn that in another season or two when he watches and Ed Wood movie.

Joel works the Cumber-bubble-bund.
Not all the host segments work for me in this episode. During the intro segment Joel provides a summary of the shows premise. This was something that happened quite a lot in this season. I’m not sure if Best Brains were concerned people would be confused, or if this was something Comedy Central insisted on. For the invention exchange, the mad scientists come up with a self-inflating whoopee cushion. Joel creates the cumber-bubble-bund, which turns any formal occasion into a bubble bonanza! At the first break Joel and bots discuss how movie physics and real physics aren’t the same. Commando Cody shouldn’t be able to fly… but neither should a bumblebee. This causes the robots’ heads to explode. At the second break Crow and Tom are Ro-men and Joel is the Hu-man. There is mutiny in the air… is it Space Mutiny? During the third break the bots are in agony over all the confusing elements of the movie, but Joel is digging it. He explains surrealism to them, and it helps them cope. When the movie ends Joel and the bots perform a pageant entitled, “The Life and Times of Ro-man, the Robot Monster.”

This is one of the best episodes of the first season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and makes for an easy recommendation. You get two Commando Cody shorts and a bizarrely hilarious movie. Compared to many other episodes this season it gets top marks. Keep in mind, I’d deduct one star from the review if you compare it to any later season episode due to the slow pacing.

I give it 5 (billion) bubbles out of 5 (billion).

This episode is available on the Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XIX.

Twas beauty that giggled at the beast.
Don't be like the Ro-man, click an ad before you go.


  1. I remember as a kid watching this unenhanced by MST3K on a Saturday morning back in the early 60s. Even then I wondered why an ape-bot would get the love-bug for a human. Wouldn’t a gorilla be more his kid of cutie? Why have lust a design feature in a killer-robot at all? I also remember thinking this might be the worst movie I’d ever seen – and I’d already seen The Giant Claw. Today I find both films a hoot for reasons you list.

    I loved Commando Cody episodes which also aired back then. I wanted one of those rocket packs – and that leather tunic. I still do.

    1. Yeah Ro-man is one of my favorite monsters featured in MST3K. His design, his plan and his character are just so bonkers. Bad movie magic.

      I still need to see The Giant Claw!

      You know Commando Cody does have some really cool ideas. I can see how it inspired "The Rocketeer". But it also inspired George Lucas. Boba Fett was obviously inspired by Cody, and in the Star Wars Prequels there is a character named Commander Cody who is a clone trooper. I actually got a chuckle out of that when I heard that back in 2002.

      MST3K increases my pointless movie knowledge!

  2. Man, where to start--good review. I've not seen Robot Monster other than bits and pieces, but in a weird cinema way it sounds interesting, and I'll have to check it out. It's funny how an ape was used as a monster or antagonist back then. The Phantom Creeps does as well (as did other films), and I wonder how much mileage that ape costume got back in those low budget days.

    Until you related the ending, I was beginning to think the story was not going to make any sense at all, but I have to admit it works given that. I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall at some of the brainstorming sessions when the director was pitching his ideas, but who knows, they many not have even done that much back then. If audiences thought Dune made no sense, what do you think they thought walking out of the cinema after this one?

    I was just trying to think what is the most incompetent film ever made? It might be Plan 9 because it doesn't have the sense to explain anything, and that may be why it is often cited as one of the worse films ever made, though it's just one of many.

    Yeah, it's hard to sit down and watch some of those serials at one go just because of the fact that they weren't intended that way. But some of the cliffhangers are a cheat, and hilarious. At times I love the old George Reeves Superman, and still occasionally watch an old episode. If anything the template for those old serials help to influence stuff like Indiana Jones, Star Wars, and movies like The Rocketeer.

    Speaking of Commander Cody, I guess I'll leave a link and a plug for one of my friends web comic, he hasn't felt well lately and he loved all that old stuff as well: http://www.captainspectre.com/1_1.html

    If you ever needed a glyph for a site, you've got it right there: Ro-man.

    1. Thanks for the compliment sir!

      In a way the movie does flow pretty well, and that twist at the end does help explain aways some of the more bizarre elements of the story.

      Now if you want to see real film incompetence you should check out (or don't if you value your sanity) "Monster A Go-go" or "The Beast of Yucca Flats". Both movies make almost no sense at all and to quite Crow "this movie was edited by a spaz!" Those are two of the absolute worst films I've seen on MST3K and are a good example of film makers who didn't care (Monster a go-go) or had no idea how to tell a story (Beast of Yucca Flats). Compared to either of those "Plan 9" is a bastion of sanity and skill.

      My wife will sometimes call me the Ro-man. To which I call her the Hu-man. The cat just rolls his eyes.

  3. I'll try and check them out, thanks. ;)