The Cult of Director Phil Tucker’s The Cape Canaveral Monsters (Part One)

*contains spoilers

“Our freedom for our knowledge,” says a character in The Cape Canaveral Monsters (1960) in his bid to strike a deal of release from his alien captors as he then speaks Pig Latin to his cuffed girlfriend, something which fools these evil characters who are bent on stopping the Earth from ever exploring space. He then adds later foolishly but rather confidently: “We’re gonna lick these jokers.”

Directed and written by Phil Tucker (1927-85) who was considered by film critic Michael Medved (1948-) in his late 1970s book The Golden Turkey Awards as one of the worst directors of all time, The Cape Canaveral Monsters is one of two masterpieces made by Tucker, the other being Robot Monster (1953).

A romanticised vision of director Phil Tucker
A quad poster for Robot Monster (1953)
The Cape Canaveral Monsters (1960) art work

It all comes down once again to what your definition of a masterpiece is in terms of movies and for some or most people, Tucker’s movies are some of the worst ever made.

I will look at Tucker’s career briefly and then argue the case that Tucker was some sort of ultra-low budget auteur in terms of sci-fi movies who was ahead of his time.

Robot Monster (1953) claims to be a comic book story with the covers of comic books in its opening credit sequence and the cast with names such as George Nader (1921-2002 heart failure, stokes and pneumonia), Claudia Barrett (1929-), Selena Royle (1904-83), John Myong (1892-1975) and Gregory Moffett (1943-). Not names you’d probably recognise except perhaps for Nader who wrote the novel Chrome later in his career which was about a man having an affair with a robot which was also male. Talk about gender issues in terms of artificial intelligence! And let’s not forget the appearance of George Barrows (1914-94) who played a gorilla in Tarzan and his Mate (1934) which featured some nude bathing just before the Production Code kicked in. Barrows’s career dressed as a gorilla would be reignited again by his role as Ro-Man in Robot Monster. I guess that’s not saying much.

The comic book credentials of Robot Monster (1953)
Writer and director Wyott Ordung (right) in Monster from the Ocean Floor (1954)
Target Earth (1954) lobby card

The script for Robot Monster is credited to Wyott Ordung (1922-2005) who went on to direct the early Roger Corman feature Monster from the Ocean Floor (1954). This movie is not very impressive and had a script built around a one-man submarine jet pack. The monster in this one doesn’t appear until the end and the movie also spelt the end of Ordung’s career as a director. Perhaps he should have worked on the script. Ordung did contribute to a couple of other interesting low budget sci-fi screenplays though and they were Target Earth (1954) and the story for First Man into Space (1959).

As for the script of Robot Monster, it is reported to be different to the finished movie and Tucker may have improvised himself some scenes during production.

Robot Monster starts off with a child (Moffett) in a space helmet with a toy ray-gun, playing and ‘killing’ his little sister (Pamela Paulson).

“Am I dead now?,” asks little sister, who doesn’t yet mind the possible experience of death, which many individuals in the world seems be so preoccupied and worried about, and her brother replies: “You’re disintegrated.” The old saying from the Bible “unless you change and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” is relevant in terms of being happy and forgetting there even is such a thing as death or a heaven. But let’s not go there… Let’s instead overthink the most basic concepts!

Boy with a gun … while the girl just wants to play house in Robot Monster (1953)
Polite society and the family unit struggle to survive an Apocalypse in Robot Monster (1953)
Does eating cheese before you sleep give you nightmares?

“Can we play house now?… You promised,” says the little girl in this simple and yet classic opening which on a comic book level shows man’s dilemma of learning to be war-like and a woman’s innate desire to play intimate and peaceful games, even if it is only to create a safe haven and environment for a man to no longer ‘disintegrate’ himself, others and the planet.

However, this child with the toy gun faces a nightmare of his own in the form of a bigger and nastier monster than he can dream up with his imagination. This monster is Ro-Man and he is some sort of gorilla wearing a helmet with a pair of tv antennas attached. He seems to be named after the Roman empire builders of old who used war to conquer and he is also a type of neanderthal whose race with their use of technology want to destroy all life on the so-called civilised Earth. He is also the antithesis of Roman Catholicism or the monstrosity it is currently viewed as having become. The Ro-Man and his race want their new world order to reign without a trace of this white-bread American family which in the child’s nightmare are the only remaining survivors on Earth of six only people. It is a kind of Planet of the Apes in reverse with the warlike gorillas wanting full control in their quest to ethically cleanse the planet once and for all…

“You must die…,” says the kid with the gun to his father, who in return asks: wouldn’t it be better if we lived in peace together. Yes, there is wisdom to be found in Robot Monster.

“Okay, I’ll be from a friendly planet,” says the kid in a well-behaved manner, submitting to peace as his sister asks again if they could play house. The sense of peace and polite society before the beginning of the nightmare is symbolised by the picnic where the family involved apparently ate a piece of bad cheese which will give them, or at least the kid with the gun, a nightmare he will never forget…

The fantasy novel Chrome written by actor George Nader
Nader also later made a mark in the German Jerry Cotton movies of the 1960s
Bronson Cavern is a suitable place for a date

Robot Monster was filmed in Bronson Canyon and Cavern in Griffith Park, that place in Los Angeles where many a ‘bad’ movie was created. The movie Blood Diner (1987) pays homage to the canyon and cavern with a couple of teenagers going there to screw one evening. I’ve been there and I agree that at night it would be a good place to take a compliant date.

And so, after the picnic lunch, the nightmare begins… with stock footage of prehistoric monsters wrestling amid weather storms in some sort of premonition of what will happen to the Earth…Then there is the sudden appearance of technology in the form of an electronic bubble machine and a large screen for what appears to be satellite conference calls or alien Facetime which sit just outside the mouth of Bronson Cavern. Here the monster Ro-Man talks to his superior, who looks exactly the same as Ro-Man but who goes by the name of Great Guidance.

“I salute you,” says Ro-man to the mirror image of Great Guidance as we hear that Earth is the only planet suitable for attack because “it is our only rival”. Sports on channel one!

One wonders if we are alone in space or if Ro-Man and his race are picking on Earth because they are the smallest planet in the galaxy? This rivalry of the Alpha male collective over a ‘peaceful’ civilisation or planet is something the last intelligent and functional family on Earth must deal with.

The last survivors on Earth must face the deadly invasion by Ro-Man under the control of Great Guidance
Bronson Canyon’s barren landscape is a perfect setting for the end of the world in Robot Monster (1953)
A more exploitative poster for Robot Monster (1953)

The madness of Ro-Man talking almost to a mirror image of himself on his big screen and discussing the destruction of the human population shows the possible paranoia of imagined ‘rivals’ against organised war and destruction… But as civilisation beyond the peaceful family unit, Earth has definitely failed as a collective dream… Robot Monster says that things could definitely be worse. Warmongering is to be feared.

It was the Cold War when Robot Monster was made and the race for space was yet to begin. Tucker would look at the space race with The Cape Canaveral Monsters and the dangers lurking in the universe in the forms of alien lifeforms. Here he already predicts the use of the big screen and visual communication networks.

“Their resilience pattern showed some intelligence but all are gone now…” is mentioned as the entire population of Earth in Robot Monster has been destroyed by this ‘higher intelligence’ through their manipulation of opposing countries into using their hydrogen bombs on one another… If only it weren’t for the stubborn resistance and cleverness of the remaining family who have built an electronic wall around themselves. No, it’s not Netflix. It is a kind of wall of love, or an ego or family which is not broken. As well as some actual barrier which has been created electronically. The war-like Ro-Man wants to destroy this final family unit and see the Earth’s total annihilation as a result. What else is there to do?!

“If we could only find one way of communication with each other,” laments the professor father (Mylong) with a Germanic accent, who realises there is really no way of destroying the demon Ro-Man and his murdering invaders nor any possibility of making peace with them. There appears to be no female Ro-Men in this race to destroy the Earth but meanwhile the question of love and woman is raised with the tension of the genius elder daughter (Barrett) of the professor saying the object of her affection is “one miserable, egotistical, impossible guy”. This is Nader’s human character as opposed to the miserable, egotistical, impossible guy that is Ro-Man and his toxic cronies. Love in the world is still a problem four young couples even in the face of the Apocalypse, but hey, we’re only human. It’s a Ro-Man’s world… but it would be nothing without a woman or a girl!

Ro-Man, however, lives in a cave like some sort of caveman or monk who relies on technology and manipulation to kill mindlessly because he has been told so… it is the plan.

Elmer Bernstein’s music from Robot Monster (1953)
Composer Elmer Bernstein was blacklisted at the time he worked on Robot Monster (1953)

As we watch Robot Monster, we become aware of the music of Elmer Bernstein (1922-2004 cancer) who was later responsible for The Magnificent Seven (1960) score. Bernstein’s work adds immensely to the success of Robot Monster as it lifts its low budget trappings from the ordinary to the almost extraordinary. It is a surreal contrast where style triumphs over not necessarily bad content in terms of cinematography and script.

“You sound like a Hu-Man not a Ro-Man,” says Great Guidance to Ro-Man when Ro-Man doubts himself with the hint of a felling welling up within himself.

The humans hidden behind their electronic wall in their home have their own pistol “for us” should worse come to worst and that is if Ro-Man finds them and carries out his plans to torture them to death. For the United States (‘for us’) it is sad that the gun takes more lives in terms of individual suicides but that’s another story. There is still hope for the world in Robot Monster in the form of a serum or antibiotic which would save the humans from Ro-Man and his deadly electronic weapons. Medicine in terms of nano technology and Covid-19 vaccines ring in terms of hope in the current world.

Nader and Barrett are the only hope of rebuilding Earth’s decimated population in terms of off-spring but this is possibly at risk when Nader playfully tells his genius girlfriend: “You’re so bossy, you ought to be milked before you come home at night.” And he adds that she’s too beautiful to be so smart or too smart to be so beautiful! This chivalry and charm or even humour is lacking in the race of the Ro-Man. Perhaps they have a few drinks together after destroying planets and family units. Sadly, charm and humour is nothing in the face or organised evil.

A nice pose of Robot Monster actress Claudia Barrett
Can the world be saved from the clutches of Ro-Man in Robot Monster (1953)

The dialogue may not be poetry but it’s quite good and better than Tucker’s other directorial efforts which also have their admirers. Robot Monster was bought by Astor Pictures from the independent producers of the movie. The film was ground-breaking for a low budget effort not made by a major studio since it was filmed in 3-D and was reportedly one of the first movies with stereophonic sound. It was perhaps meant for cinemas as opposed to just drive-ins and so Tucker possibly had big dreams for this movie in terms of critical and financial success. However, the producers or distributors apparently ripped him off …

The year 1953 was a good roll of the dice for Tucker. He also directed Dance Hall Racket (1953) which was a dramatic movie starring ‘sick’ comedian Lenny Bruce (1925-66 drug overdose) who also wrote the screenplay before he became a legend. Dance Hall Racket, with its double entendre of how would you like “a trip to Hawaii” and the jump cuts in the surviving prints which hint at possible female nudity, is not a great movie and it was just another item by producer George Weiss (no info) who was known for exploitation. Tucker’s Robot Monster was apparently meant for a mass audience including children and not just the raincoat brigade and the related crew turning up for some cheap thrills.

Lenny Bruce wrote and starred in Phil Tucker’s Dance Hall Racket (1953)
Bela Lugosi (right) and producer George Weiss (centre) on the set of Glen or Glenda (1953)

When Tucker was reportedly dudded by the distributors, it’s reported that he wrote a suicide note and planned to kill himself. But historians say this was only just a business plan and that he only did it to draw attention to his business problems and to keep his cash flow in motion in terms of his other projects. Tucker was a contemporary of Ed Wood (1924-78 heart attack) – producer Weiss funded Glen or Glenda (1953) – and it is reported the pair knew each other but didn’t like one another.

A reported quote from Wood about Tucker said: “When he finds out his newest bad picture won’t sell, he comes up with the damnedest strategy: suicide… In one instance, he sat on a roof of a hotel with a can of film on his lap and his legs dangling over the street fifteen floors below, and then gobbled down sleeping pills. Of course, the police had been conveniently notified so they arrived in plenty of time.”

The difference between Tucker and Wood was that Tucker knew he was making bad movies while Wood really seemed to believe his movies were quality product which would change the world. Tucker’s son Phil Jr. said his father wasn’t the type of man to truly contemplate suicide.

Robot Monster (1953) trailer
Was the plan to make a bad movie or money? From left: Ed Wood, The Amazing Criswell and Paul Marco

If Tucker did indeed publicise a suicide attempt then it would have perhaps spelt the end of any immediate ambition to ever work within the studio system if he had any intentions in the first place. Perhaps he hoped Robot Monster was going to be the breakthrough he needed. Critics didn’t agree. Variety wrote: “Phil Tucker’s direction is off” while the Los Angeles Times said: “A crazy, mixed-up movie.” All reasons for it being a cult film.

The setback of Robot Monster led to Tucker directing a couple of sexploitation movies such as Dream Follies (1954), once again with Bruce as writer as well as Baghdad After Midnite (1954) and Tijuana After Midnite (1954) which were another couple of stripper movies.

Tucker turned auteur again with Broadway Jungle (1955) which showed just how fed up he was with the tough Hollywood system and his ability to become an insider. There was perhaps the possibility of another masterpiece lurking in Broadway Jungle as it is a legit movie without a myriad of strippers. It opens with shots of all the major studios and then dwells on the life of a director outside the system. Sadly, Tucker as the writer only has about five, or ten minutes, worth of material. Tucker either lacked interest or was hamstrung by those who provided the money to make a potboiler about themselves supplying money for the director depicted in the movie and the resulting murder plot. It’s too cheap to work right down the lashings of footage without synced sound and if Tucker’s direction was off it was in this movie. Its failure led to Tucker not making another film until Cape Canaveral Monsters five years later.

Producer Al Zimbalist perhaps on the set of Watusi (1959)
Nader is a sort of George of the Jungle in this scene with Amanda Blake from producer Al Zimbalist’s Miss Robin Crusoe (1954)

But back to Robot Monster and my mention of the music by Bernstein and the movie would make a perfect double bill with another Astor Pictures property Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) which also featured Bernstein’s music and has the same almost child-like naivety which makes for a universal cult classic. It should also be mentioned that both these movies were produced by Al Zimbalist (1910-75) who was known for “class exploitation films”. Bernstein only did work for these movies because he was blacklisted by HUAC. Another story…

To continue with the movie Robot Monster and it is a world where the fascist leads his mirror image in terms of uniform in taking territory from the innocent…. In his own image. The Roman Catholic church and organised religion empire building in the name of God also comes to mind. Churches like cinemas often charge an entry fee. Ro-Man is the proxy of a politician who is apparently unelected but who is followed blindly and the humans ask Ro-Man and his like: “What do you have to fear from us?”

The warrior or fascist Ro-Man is “built to have no feelings” and thinks the Earth as being full of “savage barbarians”. The Hu-mans want “peace with honour” but Ro-Man continues to manipulate as he has been trained and indoctrinated… One wonders if the Ro-Man is just some sort of hairy robot without feelings once created by a better civilisation which meant well and have since perished once its own robot creation became its ‘rival’? Or is this ape just the robot military branch for this civilisation which built it? There is no God or conscience in the world of Ro-man as he is sentient but a sociopath just the same.

“Is Alice going to have a date with Ro-Man?,” asks the little girl who wants to play house about her older sister’s plan to placate Ro-Man using her own weapon of sex as a solution. This is contrasted in a surreal scene where our genius older sister loses her cool over resistance to this plan as she tells her family they’re “sentimental idiots letting your emotions run away with you.” She wants to “degrade” herself by meeting Ro-Man and in the end has to be restrained by her family. This one short scene almost sums up the irony of the human condition in terms of drama within the family unit and the paradox of human emotions having to be restrained for and by polite society. There’s a time and place for everything up to a point…

Sex as a weapon in Robot Monster (1953)
A depiction of the Rape of the Sabine Women by Roman warriors
Churches like cinemas also charge an entry fee

“You are Hu-Man… your people were getting too intelligent. We could not wait till you were strong enough to attack us, we had to attack you first,” which is another basic aspect of the human condition which seems to be intergalactic or everywhere in its origins even among those who think but do not feel.

“I think you’re a big bully,” says the boy child with the toy ray-gun defiantly and Ro-Man reacts with the emotionless words: “Now, I will kill you…” Yes, as the critics said: it’s crazy…

This child who keeps running away from home to play on a new adventure doesn’t realise the true horrors of Ro-Man and the present-day world of the streets but he still wants to somehow solve the world’s dilemmas even though the world’s annihilation is at hand.

Bronson Canyon is the perfect landscape for this movie which has a running time of just over an hour. We really believe this place is where the end of the world is happening. Its landscape is almost lunar in its barrenness, although there is enough brush for Nader and his girl to make out in without being seen… After a quickie in the bushes, they go home to mother and father and Nader announces their wedding plans… Ro-Man’s civilisation may be pre- or post-Roman Catholic but Ro-Man’s omnipresence on Earth is eclipsed by the omnipresent God of the humans as the father marries the young couple and asks him or it to “watch over us all” as a part of God’s domain on Earth… Better to keep up appearances and marry rather than have an accidental child born out of wedlock! So, the couple jump the electronic home fence and go for a honeymoon in the bushes of Bronson Canyon once again. It is hope for the future and the hope of getting laid which seems to keep humans happy it seems while the serial killer Ro-Man wanders the wasteland lurking just because his mirror image tells him that it must be done… So, he murders the little girl who just wanted to go to Janie’s house and borrow her dolls… It is all a part of the breaking of the ego of the child and the family and the entry of unhappiness and evil… in the form of man or Ro-Man. It is the truth about the nightmare of strangers whether they’re local or from outer space. Yet Robot Monster tells it in a comic book fashion so even a child watching it would not really be disturbed…. And Ro-Man continues his reign of terror as he makes his diary entries with the God-like Great Guidance in command. A bit later the married genius girl prostitutes herself into Ro-Man’s arms in the hope of finding a solution for the world and her family.

The Blue Oyster Cult sings (Don’t Fear) The Reaper
Have a good time as it is later than you think…
It’s not the end of the world… Or is it?

“Act…,” Great Guidance tells Ro-Man when he tells him to kill her: “Fail and I will destroy you!” It is here where Ro-man questions himself with a paradox as though he really is some kind of robot on the verge of a breakthrough or a breakdown in terms of his feelings which seem to be latent. Or is it all caused by Ro-Man being on planet Earth? Does the history of human and animal existence spiritually influence Ro-Man as a feeling of omnipresence within this piece of rock circling the sun begins to have some sort of effect? The idea that Ro-man develops his own conscience and rejects “the plan” is a possibility for only a brief moment… Poor Ro-Man and poor planet Earth must bow down and resistance is useless… Both are irredeemable. And, so, the Earth is devoured by storms and dinosaurs return under the evil of the Great Guidance with Ro-Man as the anti-Christ making may for the reign of the devil and his crew forever and amen…

Luckily it was all a dream influenced by either a bit of cheese from the picnic or by demons or plain human bad karma that plan to influence the Earth in the future or who already disturb it. So, the film is bookended by the return of polite society as the family stands outside Bronson Cavern then depart as the spectre of Ro-Man or the Robot Monster returns with those strangling outstretched arms ready to destroy the Earth, if not en masse, then one by one, those who are lost or alone…

The invaders in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) include a robot named Gort who may be master
Are we headed the way of the dinosaur as predicted in Robot Monster. The Terminator (1984) poster.

Phil Tucker ends his masterpiece on a light note but it questions the possibility of individual thought in a fascist world or a communist one for that matter. It may not be George Orwell’s 1984, it is just comic book junk but while there is hope for the individual to think freely in the Judeo-Christian democratic world and other free-thinking democracies, it is still one that is ruled by dogma or doctrine just like the evil Ro-Man. The individual who thinks for himself is still sometimes seen as a monster even in democratic circles. Sadly, the conflict within man is self-perpetuating and we hope that we don’t further mirror that with the creation of an artificial intelligence or Robot Monster to further complicate things. Perhaps man will create a sentient technology which subtly cures the world’s problems rather than adds to them and that this AI doesn’t go on to destroy its “rivals” like we’re told in The Terminator franchise and hinted at by Robot Monster.

We look at The Cape Canaveral Monsters and wrap up quickly next in PART TWO.

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