Down the Hill, Up the Hill, Into the Cave

Where the bad man in an ape suit and diving helmet touched me

<i>Robot Monster</i>
Robot Monster

The reason I'm so comfortable insisting that films work on many levels and can be read in many different ways is not because of a masterpiece by Godard, Eisenstein, Lang, Fassbinder, Resnais, or Kurosawa, but because of Phil Tucker's impossibly cheesy Robot Monster. Produced in 1953, it's the lowest of low-budget science fiction horror films and as dumb as they come. I saw it over a decade later when it was one of those films that got lodged into New York City's independent-station programming along with films like Wake of the Red Witch, Treasure Island, and The Boy With Green Hair. These films and others would pop up all over the schedule all the time: It was nearly impossible to make it through a weekend without seeing one of them. (The stations must have paid one licensing fee for unlimited screenings.) I have only watched it once since those times and certainly not for the purposes of this piece.

In Robot Monster, Earth's population is wiped out except for eight people. The villain who destroyed everybody shows up to capture the survivors. The villain is an actor in an ape suit with a diving helmet on, an antenna sticking out of it and the face plate covered, easily the least imaginative monster costume this side of Roger Corman. The ape in the diving helmet kills one earthling but desires her sister. Her sister, surprisingly, seems not at all troubled by any of this.

I was just hitting puberty when I saw Robot Monster. I don't know how, but it screwed me up sexually in ways I still don't entirely understand. The ape in the diving helmet and the girl he sexually desires, the romance, the other earthlings and their resistance whacked my personal sexuality gyroscope permanently off course. Long have I accepted the arguments that we really don't know how we consciously read a film, and that mise-en-scène can be a product of low-budget economics more than conscious decision-making while still affecting viewers. Robot Monster churned me up, as much as anything, because it had endless scenes of the ape descending and ascending a hill to go to the cave where he hid out. In true cheapie production economical fashion, these sequences went on forever, almost in real time, to kill time. The scene where the ape carries the girl up the hill for what seems like days was particularly disturbing.

In no way would I ever defend this film; I'm not even mentioning the dinosaurs roaming the Earth or the evil galactic leader. All I'm saying is that culture can affect our psyche independent of our personal taste or intelligent cognizance regardless of the work's quality, aesthetics, accomplishments, or intent. I was done in by an actor in an ape suit with a diving helmet climbing a hill, a woman slung over his shoulder. end story

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Robot Monster, Phil Tucker

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