Review by Thomas Scalzo
Posted on 18 October 2010
Source ModCinema.com DVD-R
Dying Room Only
Categories 31 Days of Horror VII
An oft-overlooked cinematic category, the made-for-television fright film subgenre that flourished in the 1970s contains some wonderful examples of creative, subtly crafted horror. Though many of these pictures were shot in 35mm, they rarely had the budget, or extended shooting schedule, of a theatrical studio film. Additionally, the strictures placed on such films by the FCC compelled writers and directors of made-for-television horror to focus their energies on character and mood, rather than relying on visceral exploitation. These unique creative circumstances resulted in several films that warrant a second look. Each Monday this month we’ll explore a memorable offering from the golden age of the horror telefilm.
Imagine for a moment that you are a malicious alien entity capable of implanting your evil essence into any inanimate object in the universe. To what nefarious purpose would you direct your energies? Destruction of a planet? Manipulation of a species? Alteration of history? No, too obvious. How about tormenting a group of six construction workers on a deserted African island in the form of a killer bulldozer? Bingo.
Released roughly ten years before Dick Maas made the world tremble at the thought of murderous elevators, Theodore Sturgeon and Ed MacKillop penned the audacious screenplay for this bare bones made-for-TV thriller about a different sort of machine run amok. And though the novel on which this film was based (which I sadly have not read), may well contain a more complex explanation as to the source of our mechanical monster, the backstory above is all the film has to offer. Whether the film’s 69-minute runtime did not permit a more detailed evil-origins explanation, or if the writers simply wanted to gloss over the details, I cannot say. Regardless, an evil extraterrestrial presence exists, and it has taken residence in a bulldozer.
A few touches of characterization aside, the human figures here are also rather hastily defined, rendered memorable only by the skills of the actors bringing them to life. Neville Brand and Clint Walker, in particular, manage to inject an appreciable sympathy into their respective roles of Chub and Kelly. And let us not forget Robert Urich’s all-too-brief role as Mack, the new kid on the team. After being exposed to a blue flash of light and some strange humming emanating from the bulldozer blade, Mack is inexplicably scalded. Within a few hours, he’s dead. But before he passes, Urich has the chance to offers his explanation of the alien presence: “It was… a thing. Oh man, it was weird.” Thanks Mack.
With the murderous impulses of the bulldozer thus established, and the next supply ship not due for days, the remaining members of the team realize they’re going to need to stay on their toes if they expect to survive. And so the battle begins: our heroes scampering about the tiny island, employing whatever patchwork strategy they can think up, the ‘dozer always managing to be one step ahead of them at every turn. As night falls, and the desperation mounts, the men argue amongst themselves as they hash out ways to destroy the machine. And all the while, the ‘dozer prowls the terrain, its exhaust pipe emitting breath-like fumes, its headlights glowing like cat’s eyes in the dark.
Despite the clear lunacy inherent in this story, the underlying structure of suspense is solid. For starters, we have an isolated island setting, with a clear indication that no help can be expected any time soon. Once the two-way radio is knocked out of commission, the men are completely cut off from the rest of the world. Next, we have an inexplicable and relentless source of evil that is at once capable of great destruction and seemingly invincible. In other words, we have an answer to the question: “What if Michael Myers were a bulldozer?” And finally, we have dissension among our protagonists, causing us to doubt that they will all act predictably when the chips are down. That we find ourselves calling out for Dutch not to indulge his penchant for night swimming means the film has successfully engaged us.
Indeed, the fact that the cast recognizes the soundness of the film’s narrative underpinning – despite the story’s ridiculous trappings – is what makes the film work. With the special effects limited to a few explosions and some flashing blue lights, and a location consisting of little more than some sandy hills and a few trees, if the players here weren’t able to gamely throw themselves into their respective roles, we’d be left with little more than a lame attempt at horror humor. As it stands, the spirited cast stays focused on the fear, the inanity is kept at bay, and we’re able to sit back and enjoy a simple but entertaining made-for-TV tale of terror.
The Thin Blue Line1988
The Ninth Configuration1980
Dying Room Only1973
Dracula Has Risen from the Grave1968
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde1920
I Know What You Did Last Summer1997
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark1973
To the Devil a DaughterUK / West Germany
The Town that Dreaded Sundown1976
Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later1998
Frankenstein Created Woman1967
I Still Know What You Did Last Summer1998
Let Me In2010
The Phantom of the Opera1925