Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Killdozer (1974) (TV)

Directed by:
Jerry London

You just gotta be somewhat amused by these wacky 1970s made-for-TV horror movies, which often went wayyyyyy outside the box in order to give audiences something they couldn't see on the big screen. The gimmicky subject matter ranged from ticked-off killer ants laying siege on a resort hotel (and - nooo! - eating Suzanne Somers) to a vicious werewolf haunting the grounds of Woodstock to a meek American woman transforming into a seductive German giant black widow spider to William Shatner as a drunk priest battling evil forces aboard a Trans-Atlantic night flight. The casting in these various films was almost always good and nearly all were filled with familiar guest stars. Every once in awhile one actually turned out to be a legitimately great film which was deserving of a theatrical release, as was the case with Spielberg's Duel (1971), both Kolchak movies starring Darren McGavin and Tobe Hooper's Salem's Lot (1979). However, these rare gems were certainly not the norm and most of these tele-terror films were just silly and campy. Others either attempted to rip off hit movies like THE EXORCIST (1973) and CARRIE (1976) or tried to cash in on then-topical news stories ranging from "Africanized" killer bees to the Bermuda Triangle legend.

As was customary with many of these films, Killdozer keeps the cast minimal and the location compact to ensure the budget stays low, yet provides us with a truly unique premise. How unique? Well, I'll venture a guess and say this is likely the only film centering around an alien-possessed killer bulldozer! Unfortunately, the makers pretty much botch the idea. This was all based off a novella written by Theodore Sturgeon (who gets a co-screenplay credit) that was first published in a 1944 edition of Astounding Science Fiction magazine. Believe it or not, there was also a tie-in Marvel Comics adaptation released before the movie. Just the cover of the comic book itself (see below) is far more exciting-looking than anything you'll see in the actual movie!

The setting is a small, unnamed island "two hundred miles off the coast of Africa" where a six-member construction crew are clearing off land so a company called Warburton (not to be confused with Haliburton) can set up a base camp and bring in equipment to drill for oil. While working, "dried out drunk" crew leader Lloyd Kelly (Clint Walker) and laborer Mac (a young Robert Urich) unearth a large metallic rock. When they attempt to move the rock (actually a fallen meteor), a blue light shoots from it right into the bulldozer. Mac is also infected by the light and dies soon after. The bad news for the others is that transport won't be back to get them for another five days so they "might as well be on the moon." 

The possessed "killdozer" makes a faint humming sound, has two glowing lights positioned to look like eyeballs, drives and operates all by itself and has a mind of its own intent on killing. Why? Well, we never quite know for sure. The men - also including Carl Betz as a smart ass shovel operator and Neville Brand as a cigar-smoking mechanic - attempt to cut the fuel line and damage it in various ways, but nothing seems to stop it. The dozer smashes up their camp, destroys their communication equipment and begins killing the guys off one by one, leading the survivors to concoct a last-ditch plan utilizing electric currents.

Though I like the general idea behind this movie, the concept doesn't work at all for the simple reason that the central killing machine is slow, loud, clunky and awkward, and thus completely non-threatening. This not only inhibits the potential to generate exciting action set pieces (though a more talented director possibly could have pulled it off) but it also requires the characters to behave like utter morons in order to get killed off. During one scene, the dozer slowly approaches one of the guys so he climbs inside an aluminum pipe to hide and - surprise! - the dozer just rolls over it and crushes him. During another sequence one of the men is in a jeep with the dozer at least a hundred feet away and he just sits in his seat as it slowly approaches and then just lets it roll right over him! And then there's a silly moment where the dozer gently tips over a truck and it miraculously explodes.

Corny dialogue and poor characterizations don't help matters and neither does the setting. The island the men are trapped on isn't a flat plot of land; you can see high, steep, rock-covered hills all over the place that I seriously doubt the dozer could reach. And even if it could, it would be a slow trip up there that would give the men plenty of time to move on somewhere else. Or better yet, they're on an island for Christ's sake, so why not just build a raft or go take a swim until help arrives? It's also worth noting that the guys mention a supply ship will be there in less than a day, yet they still frantically run all over the island making themselves vulnerable. I guess one shouldn't expect logic in a movie about a killer bulldozer, but it wouldn't have hurt matters either, right?


Man in the Attic (1953)

... aka: Jack l'éventreur (Jack the Ripper)
... aka: L'étrange Mr. Slade (The Strange Mr. Slade)

Directed by:
Hugo Fregonese

Marie Belloc Lowndes' 1913 novel "The Lodger," which centered around the unsolved Jack the Ripper killings in 19th Century London (and hypothesized about the identity of the killer), was a very popular book in its day and went on to be adapted for radio, stage, TV and screen numerous times. To date, there have been five credited film adaptations. The first was The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), a silent version directed by none other than Alfred Hitchcock. It starred Ivor Novello in the title role and is still frequently-viewed and discussed all these years later, due in no small part to it being the first actual suspense film from the "Master of Suspense" himself. Hitchcock and Novello were both offered the chance to make a sound version five years later but only Novello was interested in the project. Maurice Elvey stepped into the director's chair and the resulting film was 1932's The Lodger (which became better known later by its U.S. title, The Phantom Fiend). Twentieth Century Fox produced a new and quite lavish version in 1944 that was directed by John Brahm, starred the wonderful Laird Cregar and was such a big critical and commercial hit it prompted a loose "remake" (Hangover Square) from the same team the following year. I guess someone took note that there were versions of the book made in the 20s, 30s and 40s, and then figured the 50s needed one as well.

While Attic wasn't made by someone with the filmmaking clout of Hitchcock (Fregonese had previously made some forgotten westerns and crime-dramas), it does have something the other versions do not: a major, internationally recognizable star in the lead role. Jack Palance was reaching a high point in his early career by 1953. The year prior he'd received an Oscar nomination for the excellent film noir / thriller Sudden Fear (1952), playing Joan Crawford's shady, unfaithful husband. He struck gold again playing a supporting role in the western Shane (1953) and received his second Academy Award nomination. One wonders then what the appeal of this medium-budget production would be. Considering the fact Palance's back-to-back Oscar nods were for supporting parts, it was probably something as simple as jumping at the chance to play a top-billed lead role.

As the film opens we're already in the midst of Jack the Ripper's reign of terror. The foggy night streets of London are being heavily patrolled by hundreds of constables and nearly everyone's been warned not to go out at night. Belligerent drunk Katy (Isabel Jewell) doesn't heed those warnings and becomes the newest victim. Later that same evening at a boarding house run by Helen Harley (Frances Bavier, aka Aunt Bea of "The Andy Griffith Show" fame) and her hubby William (Rhys Williams), a knock sounds at the door and a silken-voiced stranger stands on the other side. He announces himself as Mr. Slade and claims to be a pathologist looking to rent one of their rooms. Seeing how the Harley's have fallen on hard financial times and really need the money, Helen accepts the friendly, yet odd, stranger's offer of renting two rooms. Slade wants both the downstairs bedroom to sleep in and the upstairs attic space as a place for him to conduct his "experiments." He warns of having "irregular habits," like sometimes needing to be out until very late at night, and seems to have a strange distaste for actresses.

Helen and William's attractive niece Lily (Constance Smith) is also staying in the boarding house while she tries to make it big as an (uh oh!) actress. She's part of a bawdy Moulin Rouge-inspired cabaret number that includes (corny) singing with a fake French accent, dancing, skimpy costumes, gratuitous underwear exposure and getting into a bubble bath on stage. When she meets the shy, lonely Slade she finds him unlike the other men constantly drooling over her and thus intriguing enough to get to know a little better. Through their talks she discovers that his mother was a callous harlot who drove his father to suicide with her infidelities and becomes empathetic enough toward the awkward boarder that she doesn't want to believe anything bad about him even when all available evidence points to the contrary. Her aunt isn't quite as convinced and begins snooping through Slade's room and personal belongings. A detective (bland Byron Palmer) investigating the crimes becomes romantically interested in Lily himself and begins frequenting the residence.

Man in the Attic is, in a word, adequate. The direction, photography, sets, costumes, production values and the majority of the acting is fine. However, I can't really give this too high of a rating because the same exact film had already been done, and done better, eight years earlier. Instead of exploring the book further or putting a new spin on the theme, this instead opts to lazily recycle the screenplay from the 1944 film. In fact it's so close to that version that the previous film's screenwriter, Barré Lyndon, was also credited for co-writing this one. I'm not even sure what exactly the other credited writer, Robert Presnell Jr., did since there are next to no real changes in the plot or the dialogue. The best thing going on here is Palance himself. He gives an effectively subdued performance and just looks really cool (and creepy) photographed in black-and-white because of how his large cheekbones, protruding forehead and sunken in cheeks manage to capture all of the shadows. He never looked quite as interesting or enticing photographed in color.

Distributed theatrically by Twentieth Century Fox, this has since fallen into the public domain so it's extremely easy to find these days. There are too many DVD releases to even mention and every film archive site seems to have it. Also in small roles are Lilian Bond as one of the victims and Lester Matthews as a police chief.

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