Don Dohler’s “Fiend” : Have You Ever Made Anything This Cool In Your Basement?

Posted: September 24, 2010 in movies
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Original "Fiend" DVD Cover from Retromedia

The late, great Don Dohler made sci-fi/horror flicks in and around his suburban Baltimore neighborhood with a 16mm camera, some friends, a couple thousand bucks, and little to no concern for what anyone else actually thought about them. The most common “locations” he utilized were his own house and his backyard. He made movies for the most basic, and most compelling, reason of all — because he wanted to. What have you done?

Dohler was something of an accidental renaissance man, to be sure — as he relates in the superb documentary film about his life and work, Blood, Boobs And Beast, filmed before and during  the battle with cancer that he eventually lost, on his 30th birthday a guy broke into the office where he was working, held him at gunpoint, and as his life flashed before his eyes he asked himself — have I really done what I wanted to with my time on this Earth?

When he got out of the situation unharmed, Dohler, who already had a wife and two kids at the time, threw himself into his first love — the movies. Specifically, horror and science fiction movies and the techniques that effects technicians used to make that “movie magic” that so captivated him as a child.

He produced a magazine called Cinemagic that taught aspiring young effects whizzes how to make their own Hollywood-style not-always-so-special effects on a shoestring budget, and future FX legends like Tom Savini have credited Dohler’s mag with inspiring their later career choices. While bigger publications like Forest J. Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland showed eager young readers what the latest sci-fi and horror moviemakers were up to, Cinemagic showed even-more-eager young readers not only what they were doing, but how they did it and, most importantly of all, how you could do pretty much the same thing yourself.

But eventually writing about all this stuff wasn’t enough for our guy Don and he had to have a go at it himself. To that end, in 1978 he hacked out a bare-bones “alien-monsters-on-the-loose script,  got out his 16mm camera, assembled some local actors, friends, and family members into a makeshift cast, rigged up some rudimentary stop-motion effects, and the end result was The Alien Factor, a movie that he spent pocket change making and eventually sold to both local broadcast and then-nascent-and-desperate-for-product-that-didn’t-cost-much-to-secure-the-rights-to national cable television.

The end result? A movie that cost Dohler a couple grand to produce and didn’t get any theatrical distribution whatsoever, a movie that was plugged the hardest in his very own magazine, ended up being on late-night cable all the time and turning a small, but respectable, profit.

Having had his first taste of low-grade “success,” Don was ready to have another go at things in 1980, this time with the somewhat darker and more atmospheric Fiend, alternately known as Deadly Neighbor, a somewhat more polished (as far as these things so) and confident effort that nonetheless does nothing to betray its near-zero-budget roots and doesn’t represent any sort of compromise in Dohler’s vision, admittedly limited as it may be.

Most of the actors are folks who had worked on The Alien Factor and been pleasantly surprised when Dohler was actually able to eventually pay them for their work, so they were game to give it another whirl. He filled out the minor and non-speaking roles, as before, with friends, neighbors, and family members. The bulk of the action again takes place in his house (specifically his basement) and his yard.  And with an improved eye for shot composition and a scaled-down appetite for homemade effects work, he ended up with a film that is by no means great but certainly a hell of a lot better than it should have been or maybe even had any right to be.

Simply put, Dohler knew what he was doing, and can-do and want-to won the day over should-do.

Don Leifert looking very fiendish, indeed

Now, to be brutally honest, all Dohler films have essentially the same story — a monster, or monsters, from outer space threatens a quiet sleepy suburban community, and an ambitious local, or goup of locals, goes after them and eventually wins the day. This is the basic premise of both The Alien Factor and Fiend as well as subsequent efforts such as Nighbeast and The Galaxy Invader.

What sets Fiend apart from the others, though, and makes it my favorite of all Don D.’s flicks is that the emphasis here is more on the horrific than it is on the fantastic. And it’s not so much bloody horror, either — this movie is essentially a gore-free zone. In Fiend Dohler relies on atmospheric horror and a creepier-than-usual twist on his basic plot outline, and damn if he doesn’t pull it off to the best anyone possibly could given the limitations he had to work within.

From the very first scene, a suitably creepy night-shoot at a local cemetery where some weird red energy blob/giant insect from space descends into a grave, animates a corpse, and the zombie-from-space-thing sets about attacking and absorbing the “life energy” out of a young couple there to do some making out, the stage is set. The old-school horror, absolutely magnificent title logo adds to it, and the superbly over-the-top performance of Don Leifert as the titular Fiend, who immediately goes about buying a house in the suburbs, assuming the name of Eric Longfellow, and opening up a violin-lesson business in his new home is  sensationally tongue-in-cheek while not being overly coy or knowingly winking at the audience too obviously.

The Longfellow/Fiend has to recharge his biological batteries every couple of days or so by strangling someone and absorbing their “life energies” in a red hazy glow as he did with that first pair of young lovers, or else he starts looking pretty gruesome, and the cut-rate make-up effects Dohler utilizes to transform Leifert from “normal fiend” to “ugly fiend” are terrific. Leifert looks a bit like Ron Jeremy or Stan Van Gundy’s less successful brother on the best of days, but when he’s running low on juice he genuinely looks downright creepy.

Our “hero” of the story, such as it is, I suppose, is one Gary Kender (Richard Nelson), an average suburban Pabst Blue Ribbon-drinking guy who lives next door to Longfellow/Fiend and is sick of hearing all that godawful amateur violin playing at all hours. His wife, Marsha (Elaine White) thinks her hubby’s overreacting and is even considering taking some music lessons from their new neighbor herself! Every housewife needs a hobby, I guess.

Anyway, needless to say, as the local body count spirals ever upward, and a neighborhood kid who plays in the cul-de-sac Longfellow/Fiend and Kenders lives on is found dead in the woods behind their homes, good ol’ Gary suspects the creepy neighbor is somehow involved and doesn’t buy his line that he and his assistant, Dennis (the always-awesome George Stover, a regular in fellow Baltimorian John Waters’ films as well as appearing in each and every Dohler flick) were listening to violin music in Longfellow’s semi-swank (but still obviously unfinished) basement on headphones and didn’t hear a thing.

And let me make one quick aside here — the kid Longfellow kills (like all good psychopaths he seems to prefer young women, but he’ll settle for anyone in a pinch) was one of Dohler’s own daughter, and while there’s no on-camera child-murder,  he did have her get under a sheet and get carted into the back of an ambulance and everything! And one of Longfellow’s early strangulation victims, a single woman walking home from work, was played by Dohler’s wife! I told you he kept things in the family.

But I, as is my custom, digress. Look, there should be some pretty obvious plot holes visible here by now — foremost among them being why would an evil alien insect-energy creature choose to reanimate a corpse and kill somebody every day or two if all it wants to do is live in a house in the suburbs, hang out in the basement, drink wine, and listen to violin playing? If you’re gonna go through all that hassle to stay “alive,” wouldn’t you at least be looking to conquer the world or something? There are other little logical inconsistencies scattered throughout, as well — where did Longfellow/Fiend get the money to buy a house, for instance? And the amazingly convenient ways in which Kender begins to learn about insect-energy-corpse-animating evil creatures from outer space are downright laughably absurd. I mean, he may as well just pick up a National Geographic and find a cover article about them for all the sense it makes.

But if these kind of things bother you, then you’re not only seeing the wrong movie, you’re reading the wrong damn blog. Fiend is the absolute shit not because it’s a great wok of art with anything meaningful to say about the human condition or even an internally logical storyline, but because one guy with nothing more than a burning desire to make the kind of movie that he liked to watch as a kid went out and did it, near-insurmountable odds against him be damned.

"Alien Fiend" Double Feature DVD from Retromedia Featuring "The Alien Factor" and "Fiend"

And now, 30 years later, people — well, okay, some people — are still talking about Fiend, even though it’s a miracle the damn thing ever got made. Retromedia have released it on DVD on two separate occasions, once on its own as seen at the top of this review, and more recently as part of the “Alien Fiend” two-sided double feature disc with The Alien Factor. Both movies sport digitally remastered full-frame (as intended) transfers that, sure, look a bit grainy and have some artefacting here and there, but on the whole look way better than you’d ever figure they would. The touch-up job done on the prints is very nice indeed. The soundtracks for each are mono, as you’d expect, but are crisp and clear with no audible hiss or distortion to be found. And while you’d probably expect these to go out bare-bones with no extras at all,  each movie features outtakes and deleted scenes (mostly of the “blooper” variety), and feature-length commentary tracks by actor George Stover, who has a razor-sharp memory and not only manages to entertain, but also to inform. They’re a terrific listen. How’s that for a couple of near-nothing-budget backyard homemade space-monster movies?

Which brings us back to where we started — the late, great Don Dohler made sci-fi/horror flicks in and around his suburban Baltimore neighborhood with a 16mm camera, some friends, a couple thousand bucks, and little to no concern for what anyone else actually thought of them. The most common “locations” he utilized were his own house and his backyard. He made movies for the most basic, and most compelling, reason of all — because he wanted to. What have you done?

Comments
  1. Good review! I am a recent convert and fan of Dohler’s work myself and covered this film (and other Dohler stuff) on my podcast (website included with this review). This includes an exclusive interview with director of Blood Boobs and Beast, John Kinhart. Just thought you might be interested.
    Keep up the good work.

    • trashfilmguru says:

      Thanks for the link,I’ll check it out right now! Anyone who’s spreading the Gospel of Dohler is a friend of mine! Working on a review of “The Galaxy Invader” for my next batch of reviews that should be up sometime soon, so keep your eyes peeled for that. Thanks again.

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