History Makes Movies Better

There are 365 days in a normal non-freaky-leap year. Each of those days marks the anniversary of all sorts of crazy shit. Some of that crazy shit has been made into movies.

January 11

It was 1,970 years ago today that Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus – you can just call him Claudius, though – was accepted as Emperor of Rome by the Roman Senate. Childhood illness burdened Claudius with a heavy limp and partial deafness. Ironically, it was his physical afflictions – which caused him to be perceived as feeble all his life – that likely saved him from the machinations of his demented nephew, Caligula. While other nobles, who were seen as threats, were killed off, non-threatening Claudius squeezed by. But whatever. Despite inspiring one of the best mini-series in British television history – I, Claudius (1976) – I don’t want to talk about the fragile and often sickly human body. No, I want to talk about precision and unnatural perfection…

Let’s talk robots. Evil robots.

The word “robot” comes to us from the Czech play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), published in 1920 by Karel Čapek. Čapek himself got the word from “robota,” which means literally “labor” or “work” in Czech and other Slavic languages. Actual robots of course came to us long before the word “robot.” Mechanized appliances and contraptions date back to ancient Greece and China. Around 1495, Leonardo Da Vinci sketched his famous humanoid mechanical knight, now known as Leonardo’s robot. In 1739, French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson created a mechanized duck that could flap its wings and move its head. The first machine to truly fit our modern sense of “robot” was Ultimate, invented by George Devol in 1954 and installed in 1961 in a General Motors plant in Trenton, New Jersey. Ultimate lifted hot pieces of metal from a die casting machine.

Ultimate may have the distinction of being the first modern robot, but it was a later cousin of Ultimate, another die casting robotic arm, that was to have a more impressive credit. Surely, in the distant future, when robots have taken over the world, it will be the nameless robotic arm from a long forgotten Flat Rock, Michigan casting plant that will have statues erected in its honor. For it was this nameless arm that struck the first blow for robot-kind.

On January 25, 1979, 32 years ago today, Robert Williams, a worker at the Flat Rock casting plant, was the first human being ever to die at the hands of a robot (in an unfortunate accident).

Of course, we humans have been fearing machines long before they were actually killing us, as our movies clearly demonstrate…

Alas, I was pressed for time today, so this list is not going to be as thorough as I’d like, but it’s a fun one so I didn’t want to scrap it. In the interest of conserving my time, I’m not putting The Terminator or Blade Runner or The Matrix on here. Cause that’s just boringly obvious.

Let the robot killing begin!

The Chess Player (1927)
Not really what comes to mind when we think of killer robots these days, this film deserves mention simply for historical purposes. This late-era French silent film from Raymond Bernard, weaves elements from the real-life story of Hungarian inventor Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen with the aftermath of the Partitions of Poland in 1772. In the film, Baron von Kempelen (Charles Dullin) is a nobleman who builds automatons as a hobby, including functioning soldiers. Just like in real-life, his pièce de résistance is a chess playing robot named “The Turk.” The real Turk turned out to be a hoax. Here it actually works. But with echoes of history, the Baron helps our handsome lead (Pierre Blanchar), who is on the run from the occupying Russians, by hiding him inside the Turk. Before they can flee the country, the Baron is summoned to present the Turk to Catherine the Great. Fortunately our dashing lead is also a master chess player.


Metropolis (1927)
Fritz Lang’s silent masterpiece pretty much created the visual for the modern humanoid robot with the iconic metal exoskeleton of evil Maria, later covered in flesh and played by Brigitte Helm. The film takes place is the distant future of 2026! The populace is divided between the wealthy, who live in glorious futuristic splendor, and workers, who must toil underground.  Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), an upper class youth, abandons his privileged life to lead the oppressed workers in a revolt. The robot comes form the mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who is instructed to build a robot in the likeness of Maria, a pure of heart teacher involved in the worker uprising. But Rotwang has his own ideas, and soon evil robot Maria has run amok, driving men to homicidal madness. Arguably the single most influential silent film next to Birth of a Nation, creating the modern visual robot is just one of Metropolis‘s many artistic design feats.


The Phantom Creeps (1939)
This 12-part serial stars Bela Lugosi as Dr. Zorka, an inventor who loves creating crazy shit, like… a huge robot!  Zorka also has a piece of a meteorite that can freeze an entire army. The US Government wants this meteorite power. Zorka doesn’t want to give it. When his beloved wife gets killed, Zorka goes full-on Lugosi and decides to take over the world. Unfortunately for Zorka, his incompetent assistant, Monk (Jack C. Smith), is always fucking up Zorka’s efforts, either accidentally or on purpose. Evil robots were a popular random foe in b-movie serials, and they popped up in a lot of different series, like The Phantom Empire (1935), Mysterious Doctor Satan (1940), and The Monster and the Ape (1945).


The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
This classic Cold War commentary from Robert Wise, is about the arrival of Klaatu (Michael Rennie), an alien who comes to Earth on a good will mission and is of course immediately shot by US soldiers (way to go guys). Klaatu escapes from the military hospital and pretends to be a human boarder at a boarding house, where he gets mixed up with a widow (Patricia Neal) and her son (Billy Gray). Aside from simply being a great film, the picture is probably best remember for Gort, the towering robot who guards Klaatu’s ship. Gort isn’t a “killer” or “evil” robot, but what is keeping the earth standing still is the threat that Gort just might incinerate us all. In the original film Gort was played by the giant Lock Martin, in the 2008 Keanu Reeves remake he is re-imagined as a CG collection of nano-bots (zzzzzzz).  “Klaatu barada nikto,” the special words that Neal must eventually say to Gort, were of course re-purposed by Sam Raimi as the special words that Ash (Bruce Campbell) fucks up in Army of Darkness (1992).


Robot Monster (1953)
Like many junky sci-fi classics, new and old, this awesome disaster was shot in Bronson Canyon, mere minutes from my apartment. The center piece of the film is Ro-Man (George Barrows) a terrifying robot from space who has destroyed all but eight humans on Earth with its terrifying death ray (though two of these humans are orbiting in space). Lest its plans be foiled, Ro-Man must destroy these remaining humans to complete its invasion. As is so often the case in real-life, Ro-Man is distracted by a sexy chick, who it refuses to kill. Then, fuck you, the whole movie turns out to be a little boy’s dream. Best remembered today as a featured film on Mystery Science Theater 3000, even if you haven’t seen this film, you have most likely seen a picture or clip of Ro-Man, the worst evil robot in history. It gets this distinction because director Phil Tucker did not have the funds to make a robot suit. Instead of changing his script, he decided to portray the robot by putting a man in a gorilla suit and sticking a helmet on his head with antenna poking out. Robot completed!


Gog (1954)
Special  agent David Sheppard (Richard Egan) arrives from Washington to investigate a secluded government laboratory in the New Mexico desert where a space station is being constructed. He finds all the scientists dead. The culprits? A pair of murderous robots named Gog and Magog! Though it turns out they are being controlled by an enemy plane flying overhead that can’t be detected by radar. Shot in 3-D, the film was the third installment in Ivan Tors’ Office of Scientific Investigation trilogy, following both The Magnetic Monster (1953) and Riders to the Stars (1954).


Westworld (1973)
In this dry run at Jurrassic Park, Michael Crichton (here writing and directing) first explored the idea of a theme park gone wrong. Instead of dinosaurs, we’ve got robots. The setting is the seemingly innocent and fun “Fantasy Island,” a futuristic theme park in which paying tourists can live out various fantasies (gunfighting in the old west, for example) playing amongst robot “actors.” Of course, shit gets real when some malfunctioning happens, and two friends (Richard Benjamin and James Brolin) find themselves menaced by androids on the fritz, in particular a robotic gunslinger (Yul Brynner being awesome) from the Western sector. A success at the box office, the film inspired an uninspired sequel, Futureworld (1976), and a short-lived television series, Beyond Westworld (1980), as well as the classic The Simpsons episode, “Itchy & Scratchy Land.”


The Black Hole (1979)
This ambitious and well-intentioned, though fairly plodding, Disney sci-fi epic tells the story of a space crew – led by Robert Forster and featuring Yvette Mimieux, Anthony Perkins, and Ernest Borgnine – investigating a spacecraft at the mouth of a black hole. The craft is captained by Maximilian Schell, who we eventually learn has replaced his entire crew with robots. The film features two adorable robots voiced by Roddy McDowall and Slim Pickens, but more memorable is Schell’s enforcer Maximilian (not to be confused with the actor). Scarred permanently into my brain as a small child, watching this on the Disney Channel, is the image of poor Anthony Perkins feebly trying to defend himself with a book against Maximilian’s whirling blades of doom. 


Runaway (1984)



Deadly Friend (1986)
In the 1980’s teenage nerds could build robots. This seemed to be a general understanding, as portrayed by movies and television. This oddity from Wes Craven begins seemingly as a doofy comedy about a brainiac dweeb (Matthew Laborteaux), who, yes, has built his own fully functioning robot named BB, and is also in love with his cute neighbor (Kristy Swanson). But shit gets serious. Deadly serious! Swanson has an abusive father and long story short, she ends up dying. Now, any sane person making this movie would probably decide to have our nerd put Swanson’s brain in BB so that the character may live on! Nope. Maybe Craven figured it was more important to keep Swanson’s body on screen than her character. Cause nerdo puts BB’s brain inside Swanson’s corpse. Now his robot pet is a sexy creepy chick. Deadly Friend is not a particularly good movie, but it does have the distinction of being the only film on the IMDb with “Killed With A Basketball” as a keyword, which is the profoundly amazing end to the late-great Anne Ramsey’s character.


Chopping Mall (1986)
‘Where shopping costs you an arm and a leg!”

One of the classic VHS covers I remember haunting my mind in my pre-R-rated movie youth, this gonzo horror flick from Jim Wynorski tells the tale of four annoying young couples who decide to have a wild night of partying after-hours at the mall. Unfortunately for them the mall just got some new security: three freaky robots. And of course, the robots happen to malfunction this very night – though the robots still remember to say “Have a nice day” after killing each victim (part of their proper programming). Produced by Roger Corman, there are some Corman nods in here: Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov appear as their characters from Eating Raoul (1982), and Dick Miller’s character is named Walter Paisley, which was his name in Bucket of Blood (1959).


Hardware (1990)
Inspired by a 2000 AD comic (SHOK! Walter’s Robo-Tale), which is set in the Judge Dredd continuity, this film from Richard Stanley takes place in a post-apocalypse wasteland,  and stars Dylan McDermott as a scavenger who acquires a robotic head as a gift for his scrap-artist girlfriend (Stacey Travis). What neither of them know is that it is the head of M.A.R.K-13, a dismantled prototype war-machine. M.A.R.K-13 it turns out is capable of rebuilding himself, and promptly does so, ready to carry out its Bender-like objective: kill all humans. The film has a lot of half-cooked religious symbolism, sex, and co-stars rockers Lemmy (from Motörhead) and Iggy Pop.


Screamers (1995)
Ostensibly based on a short story from Philip K. Dick (aren’t most Dick adaptations?), this film is set on the mining planet Sirius 6B, which is embroiled in a war between the colony’s miners, the Alliance, and their former employers, the New Economic Block. To defeat the NEB, the Alliance created “Screamers,” little robots the burrow through the ground to attack and kill indiscriminately, and so named for the high-pitched sound they emit. When Joe Hendricksson (Peter Weller), the Alliance’s commanding officer, receives word that there might be a peace treaty in the works, he hopes for the best. But then they learn that someone has been making upgrades to the Screamers. Now there are Type 3 models, who can impersonate humans! Ruh roh! The script was co-written by genre legend Dan O’Bannon.

Alas! That is all the time I have. But I hope some of you will share a few more glorious films below and on the message boards. There are so, so many more killer robot movies!