The peculiar charm of ‘Robot Monster’

Robot MonsterRobot Monster (Phil Tucker, 1953) is a terrible film, but it’s weirdly haunting. The film tells the story of a group of people who, after waking from a picnic nap, find themselves the remaining six people on Earth. Ro-Man, an alien with a diving-helmet head and the body of a gorilla, has destroyed the human population with a combination of nuclear attacks and rampaging prehistoric creatures. Now he’s out to kill the few survivors.

What’s notable about Robot Monster is that its low production values mean that modern viewers are likely to dismiss plot confusions as errors. When the young Johnny encounters Roy and the Professor they’re clearly strangers, yet minutes later we see him address the Professor as ‘father’. The appearance of dinosaurs is baffling, as if the fact that Ro-Man appears not to be able to locate the human survivors despite being only a short walk away. The sort-of sex scene, conducted almost entirely in sign language, is laughably chaste.

But all of these issues are addressed at the end of the film, where we learn that the events were only Johnny’s dreams, inspired by TV adventures. It’s a standard copout, but in this case it’s the only explanation that makes sense. If this were a less overtly awful film viewers would attempt to unravel the inconsistencies and come to the correct conclusion. Strangely enough, it reminded me most of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, in which baffling events and inconsistencies can only be explained as dreams. The narrative trick in Robot Monster somehow remains in plain sight, without making itself clear. It’s certainly not a deliberate effect, but it’s strangely satisfying.

The film is full of other treats. Like all my favourite bad films (the incomparable Troll 2 springs to mind), individual moments linger after the film has ended. Ro-Man’s conversation with Johnny is oddly collegiate. The wedding ceremony and subsequent honeymoon in the face of annihilation, whilst clearly insane, is affecting. There are a handful of moments that might act as starting point for genuinely interesting films, or literary novels.

Robot Monster is a terrible film. But I love it.

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