Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Killdozer (1974): or, The Very Angry Caterpillar

A group of wildcatting construction workers are plying their trade on a small island 200 miles off the coast of Africa, where they've been hired by the Warburton Oil Company to build a base camp for the oil workers who are going to be based there. But when this cadre of extremely manly men inadvertently dig up an ancient asteroid that contains an alien energy being with the ability to possess and operate heavy machinery, they soon find themselves running for their lives from forty-nine tons of terror: the KILLDOZER!

For a story that might have been written by a couple of grade schoolers looking for new ways to menace their GI Joe action figures in the neighborhood sandlot, the 1974 made-for-TV thriller Killdozer has quite an auspicious literary history. The original short story was written by famous science-fiction author Theodore Sturgeon and published under the title "Killdozer!"* in the November 1944 issue of the similarly famous pulp magazine Astounding. It has been anthologized and reprinted dozens of times in the intervening three-quarter century, and remains Sturgeon's most famous tale, if you don't count the two Star Trek episodes he penned (which, according to Chris Sims of Chris's Invincible Superblog, both involve "Spock going batshit insane and throwing bowls of soup around") . In addition to this TV movie, the story was adapted by Marvel Comics in 1974 for what I can only assume was a Massive Media Crossover Event. (See the aforementioned Superblog for more detail on that effort.)

*The decision on the part of the filmmakers to drop the exclamation point from the title can only be called dreadfully misguided.

Death Comes Dozing

After a brief opening shot of the eeevil asteroid making its way toward earth (an effect seemingly achieved by filming someone flinging a chunk of concrete at a pasteboard library globe in super-slow motion), we are quickly introduced to our protagonists. Foreman Lloyd Kelly (Clint Walker) is a dried-out drunk who failed disastrously at his last job thanks to the booze, and has been given this one last chance to do right. His crew consists of cynical "sourball" Dennis Holving (Carl Betz), affectionate hetero-lifepartners Dutch Krasner (James Wainwright) and Mack McCarthy (an extremely young and bright-eyed Robert Urich), token minority worker Al Beltran (James A. Watson Jr.), and crusty old mechanic Chub Foster (Neville Brand of Tobe Hooper's Eaten Alive). Kelly's no-nonsense work ethic and beyond deadpan delivery make him rather unpopular with his funloving, adventure-seeking crew.

The trouble starts when Mack jumps into his Caterpillar D-9 to clear out some dirt near some dilapidated WWII-era barracks, and runs smack into the buried asteroid. Despite its awesome earth-moving power, the dozer can't budge the modestly sized boulder. Irritated with the delay, Kelly has Mack jump out so he can take control; but when the blade of the bull hits the rock, it releases a blast of energy that fries Mack to a crisp--though not before he sees a strange blue glow pass from the asteroid to the heavy machinery.

"You hear that? It said, 'Suck my tailpipe, Squishy!'"

The death of their youngest and most popular workmate has a negative effect on the crew's morale, and Kelly doesn't help matters by cutting the beach-side funeral short and insisting they all report for work at the usual time the next morning. He further cements his asshole status when the boys pull out a bottle of whiskey--"Only one way to say goodbye to an Irishman!" Dutch reasons--and Kelly confiscates it after a few swigs. Meanwhile, Chub is concerned by the strange humming noise coming from the D-9...

You can probably see some of the narrative challenges inherent in the setup here. The cast of characters is absolutely tiny, and the lack of any female characters (and thus no recourse to the standard time-filling Romantic Interest Subplot) further limits the dramatic possibilities. Director Jerry London and Theodore Sturgeon (adapting from his own story) are therefore forced to turn the whole thing into a Foxhole Drama--a bunch of manly men, trapped in a relatively small space, waxing philosophical about life and death while the seemingly unstoppable foe stalks them from afar. (In fact, Dutch says at one point, "I'm beginning to get this, you know? Sorta like being on patrol in Viet Nam." Except with more bulldozing.)

Beltran discovers too late what the Killdozer's gearshift has become

As for that stalking foe, the Killdozer itself is actually fairly fearsome. Low angle shots of its massive steel blade bearing down on the tiny ant-like humans are well framed, even if they do get repetitive by the drama's end. It's also deceptively light on its feet--er, tracks. When Beltran loses control of the dozer and bails out, it quickly wheels on him and cuts off his escape. You'd think it'd be easy to outmaneuver a nearly 100,000 pound machine on foot, but Killdozer easily corrals the hapless construction worker and forces him toward a scrap heap. Granted, shock at the sight of a self-driving dozer may have been a factor in Beltran's immobility--but his final decision to hide from the machine by crawling into a barely shoulder-width metal culvert tube is as disastrous as it is obviously stupid. Somehow the men manage to bury him beside Mack, however--possibly by squeezing him out into the grave like toothpaste.

From there we progress at the rough pace of a death for each commercial break. Chub and his fuel truck go up in a ball of flame after an ill-timed ambush attempt, Dutch is summarily flattened, and antagonistic partners Kelly and Dennis must find a way to destroy the Killdozer, or at least stay alive until the supply ship comes in two days--no small feat, since the dozer no longer needs gas to run, can build its own roads to wherever it wants to go, and is absolutely impregnable as far as the puny non-armed humans are concerned. But then Kelly realizes it's not the Dozer they have to kill...

Even though he knew it was suicide, Dutch never backed down from a game of Chicken.

Most of the drama here is of the human sort, as Kelly wrestles with his need to stay in control and cynical Dennis espouses an every-man-for-himself philosophy ("You want a piece of advice?" he tells Kelly. "Never have anything you care about losing." The foreman deapans back, "As long as you're happy." Burrrrrn.) There are hints of class warfare between the brass of Warburton and the low-class workers ("Survival of the management!" Dutch complains to Chub. "Guys like you and me are expendable!") Meanwhile the simple-minded galoot Dutch is still in mourning for Mack, mixing nostalgic rememberances of his friend with good-natured non-sequiturs ("Man, that was the most crazy, beautiful kid!...Hey Dennis, did I ever tell you I played in the Cotton Bowl?") as he slowly gives in to madness.

It must be said that the relationship between Dutch and Mack, which we get a sense of mostly through Dutch's elegiac narration, is probably the most interesting part for the modern viewer--laying aside the rampaging bulldozer action, that is. I have no doubt that the two were meant to be seen as the most manly of best friends, in the sort of relationship that was common in fiction of the 40s but seems to have mostly disappeared today--and the reason for that disappearance is the rise of Homoerotic Awareness. It's hard not to chuckle when pre-cooked Mack seems uninterested in the photo of Veronica Lake Dutch slavers over, or when Dutch tells how they would have scored with some locals in a foreign port, but Mack ran in fright from the strange women, scuttling their chances. By the time Dutch meets his end en route to the beach to reenact the memory of a Mack & Dutch midnight swim--apparently one of Dutch's fondest memories, Cotton Bowl be damned--well, it's difficult to eschew a modern perspective.

To be fair, he does have a purty mouth.

Even at a lean 74 minutes sans commercials, Killdozer runs out of plot long before it runs out of time. It's helped out a little by some excellent performances by long-time character actors: Betz is great as the "sourball" Dennis, and Brand and Wainwright also manage to create interesting people out of what could easily be two-dimensional placeholders. I wasn't quite as moved by Walker's emotionless performance, but I guess if you like your Men's Man to be the strong and silent type, it could work.

That said, the final confrontation with the Killdozer is a little kid's dream come true--as the D-9 chases them toward the main construction area, Kelly and Dennis climb into the massive excavator onsite (why didn't they think of this earlier?!) to fight back. The ensuing battle reminds one of nothing more than the old T-Rex vs. Triceratops illustrations in the gradeschool dinosaur books, and was definitely a standout scene.

"Here's a message from Mike Mulligan, Killdozer: SUCK IT."

Still, it's hard to figure why the Killdozer mythology has had such staying power. Is it the childish fascination with the power of heavy machinery? Is it the John Henry-like struggle of man vs. machine? Or (more likely) was Sturgeon just fortunate to have coined such an instantly memorable neologism as KILLDOZER? The world may never know. But as for this cinematic adaptation, I liked it enough to recommend it softly with a 1.85 to 2 thumb rating. Your mileage may vary--depending, of course, on what you're a-haulin'.


Joe Monster said...

Fantastic review, Vicar! I remember reading about this movie in Jeff Rovin's "Encyclopedia of Monsters" back in middle school and I had always wondered what the film was like. Suffice it to say that your review has definitely given me an adequate taste of it so that I won't be seeking it out immediately. ;) Hilarious stuff as always, sir!

Karswell said...

Hell yeah, The Dozer!

Mary R. said...

I just made a couple of comments on your post about "The Strange Revenge of Rosalie" -- the creepiest film ever made!!!!

venoms5 said...

I remember seeing this in the TV guide back in the early 80's, but never got around to seeing it. I wonder if it was some inspiration to King when he wrote his short story, TRUCKS?

The Vicar of VHS said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone!

@Mary R.--I'll reply over there!

@venoms5--You know, while I was watching the movie I kept thinking of Stephen King's MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE, which seemed to have a similar idea but broader scope. I wouldn't be at all surprised if he was well familiar with Sturgeon's story, if not this TV movie version.

Darlene said...

Holy crap, I've had nightmares about this movie since I first saw it on late-night TV when I was a kid. My mom let me stay up because I couldn't sleep and I haven't slept since!!

Seriously, I've been searching for this one for 35-plus years. Thank you!

nightrider said...

good memories! I need the dvd cover! you know where you have to download?

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