Posts Tagged ‘don dohler’

If you’re a serious film geek, then you’ve played the “what if?” game on more than one occasion in your life. Seriously — whether you knew it or not, whether you called it that  (or even called it anything at all for that matter) or not, you’ve done it. Here’s how it works — you’re spacing out at work and your mind wanders onto the subject of movies. Or you’re spacing out in front of a movie and your mind wanders onto the subject of other movies. Or you’re spacing out while you’re supposed to be watching your kid and making sure he doesn’t put his head inside that plastic bag you’ve left laying on the floor and — you get the idea. Anyway, while your brain is occupied with cinematic side-thoughts at a time when you should be attending to your actual responsibilities in life, you start formulating hypotheticals that go something like this : “gosh, what if (insert name of a director who didn’t helm the movie your thinking of) had directed (insert name of the movie you’re thinking of) instead of (insert name of director who actually did make the movie you’re thinking of). Wouldn’t that be a trip?” Really. You’ve done this. Admit it. You do it a lot. All the time, in fact. Or at least every once in awhile.

Or maybe it’s just me. In any case, once you’ve exhausted all the waaaaayyyy furthest-out non-possibilities, like “What if Abel Ferrara had directed The Wizard Of Oz?,” and “What if Billy Wilder had directed The Texas Chain Saw Massacre?,” you move into the frankly-even-more-interesting realm of match-ups that actually could, at least in theory, have happened, like “What if Tobe Hooper had directed Halloween?’ and “What if George Romero had directed Zombieland?” The potential end results of these type of directorial swap-outs are admittedly less hilarious than the first ones I’d mentioned, but actually quite intriguing to consider because you can sort of see these folks making these films and fantasize about how they might have been different in more subtle ways.

Or, again, maybe it’s just me. And maybe my use of the term “fantasize” tells you that I need a hell of a lot more interesting fantasy life. In any case, somewhere  in-between those earlier “no way this shit could ever happen” unrealities I mentioned at the outset and the “hey, ya know, I could sorta see this” choices presented afterwards is a murky middle ground — “what if?” directorial scenarios that, at least chronologically speaking,  could have taken place, but just don’t seem all that likely for any number of reasons —and somewhere in that “murky middle” might be “What if Don Dohler had directed The Last House On The Left?”Well, friends, I’m here to tell you that you needn’t wonder any longer, because in 1987 Baltimore’s backyard monster-movie king did, indeed, unleash upon an unsuspecting viewing public his own take on Wes Craven’s horror classic (which was itself a take-off on Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, but we needn’t go too far down that particular road for the purposes of this review).  He called his typically no-budget opus Blood Massacre — and Don, if you’re looking down on us mere mortals from your lofty perch in wherever it is visionaries go to when they die, huge props for that title, since nobody buys a ticket (or in this case picks a copy up from the rental shelves since this was a DTV effort) for something called Blood Massacre expecting anything less than a movie that delivers the fucking goods. When you’re as upfront about your product as that, you’ve boxed yourself into a corner where you absolutely have to cater to our most base expectations, with no pretense whatsoever. Not that pretnese was ever a Dohler strong suit by any means.

I’m pleased to report that Blood Massacre does exactly that — if you can get over some shit that sounds seriously absrud on paper first, like baby-faced Dohler regular George Stover playing a shellshocked Viet Nam vet who leads his pals on a cross-state murder and robbery spree essentially for , near as I can tell, the hell of it and ends pretty much every sentence aimed at a member of the opposite sex with the word “bitch;” and “point-and-shoot” Don trying to adopt a Michael Mann-esque visul style (Miami Vice being pretty big at the time) with the film’s opening kill scene in a bar; and beheadings, sawblade-shooting improvised weapons, and slapdash, right-outta-the-Mekong-Delta homemade explosions all handled in Dohler’s signature “geez, that sure looks pretty phony but here’s an ‘A’ for effort” style. In other words, it’s bloody and gory — way bloodier and gorier than you’d expect a Don Dohler film to be — but it’s executed in such an ultra-cheap, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants manner that there’s still no doubt that only one man could be behind it all.

Still, it is a bit of a trip to consider that the guy who gave us The Alien Factor could also give us this splatterfest. Sure, Dohler had wandered into sci-fi/horror hybrid territory before with flicks like Nightbeast and Fiend, but there’s no space aliens to be found here — just a carload of violent psychopaths who are on a tear and find themselves out of gas and subsequently wander into a country home (the last one on the left side of the road, naturally) occupied by a family who are even crazier than they are — and happen to be cannibals, to boot.

Now, wait — before you cry foul and bitch at me for giving away too much, I should point out in my own defense that, Dohler being Dohler and subtlety and surprise being two words that don’t even come within sniffing distance of his vocabulary, this could-have-been-a-nifty-little-surprise is given away well before Krug — err, Stover and company arrive at the scene because Dohler has already taken the liberty of showing us the family’s patriarch, one Howard Parker (fellow Dohler regular Richard Ruxton — and for those who like to keep an eye out for other member’s of Don’s happy troupe,  look for a cameo from Don Leifert as a video store clerk early on) butchering up some dime-store simulated human remains in his shed about five minutes into the film. To his credit, when the first body (that they’re not responsible for) is found by a couple of our kill-happy interlopers in the trunk of one of the Parker family vehiles, a (very) slight frisson of dramatic tension pierces the hermetically-sealed Dohlerverse for the briefest of instances, but fear not — it dissipates quickly and we’re soon back in the familiar territory of knowing well in advance how all of this is going to play out, but still wanting to see how they manage to do it on such a miniscule budget and with such lovably crummy actors.

And that’s sort of the beauty of Blood Massacre in a nutshell — if you’re unfamiliar with previous Dohler efforts it’s really just going to come across as an ultra-cheap, ultra-short , subpar Last House rip-off with gore aplenty, none of it terribly well-realized, and an ending that comes out of left field and makes no fucking rational sense whatsoever yet still somehow feels utterly and hopelessly predictable. But if you’re already a veteran viewer of the somehow wholesomely-constructed and, dare I even say it, innocent little runarounds than our guy Don made with his friends, family, and neighbors, then it’s an almost surreal affair, as we watch him try his best to get his arms around a genre with which he’s clearly less than comfortable, but game enough to, pun fully intended, take a stab at. Whether it’s George Stover’s bloody “love” scene with the craziest of the Parker girls, or Richard Ruxton taking a sawblade to the guts, or the wannabe-trippy zombified ending that adds an element of the incongruously supernatural to a film that frankly has no place for it, you’re in a constant state of disbelief here — accentuated by the rotten film stock used and poorly-executed outdoor lighting at night that renders much of the flick well-nigh unwatchable — that the same guy we know and love from such damn-near-family-friendly Z-grade exploitation fare as The Galaxy Invader ever thought he could transfer his same basic filmmaking approach (namely keep it cheap no matter what and get it in the can in one take because we don’t have any more blasting caps/cow guts/red food coloring) to the realm of (at least wannabe) hard-core psycho ultraviolent horror. As with all things Dohler, only a guy blissfully unaware of, or unconcerned with, his own limitations would even attempt anything like this, which is why I’ve always said that, quiet and unassuming exterior appearances and mannerisms aside, Don Dohler had more balls  than just about any other filmmaker you’d care to mention.Unfortunately, the experience of making Blood Massacre wasn’t a happy one for Don, given that when he completed the film back in ’87  the guys who had “bankrolled” his effort were displeased with the initial print he delivered and demanded, for reasons I seriously can’t fathom, that he go back and re-shoot the whole thing on cheaper filmstock and with some filler material added in to pad out the runtime  — which still only came to a whopping 73 minutes. Dohler re-shot it as instructed but was displeased with final result, yanked his name off it, and never much gave it another thought until he learned in 1991 that his financial backers had gone ahead and inked a video distribution deal for it anyway, at which point he agreed to begrudingly give the effort his blessing by re-inserting his name on the credits since, as he said, at that point he was in no mood to shoot the thing a third time just to have a finished product he might have been marginally more pleased with. The whole thing left such a sour taste in his mouth that he swore off movies for a good number of years until starting up Timewarp Films in the late 1990s.Still, if you’re interested — and you should be — Blood Massacre is available on DVD as part of the six-movie, two-disc “Serial Psychos” set from Pendulum Pictures. Pendulum is a Mill Creek sub-label, so you know what to expect — a rotten-looking direct-from VHS picture transfer with no remastering done and a mono soundtrack that’s likewise untouched . And while the soundtrack in particular might have really stood to benefit from some tender lovin’ care of some sort, what with many of the murder scenes having been obviously recorded at a much higher level than most of the “talky” scenes, somehow a jarringly-assembled audio track and a picture that makes you squint to make out just what the fuck is exactly happening in many instances only adds to the overall otherworldly “quality” of what this flick is all about. It’s only fitting for a movie this awkward to look and sound awkward,  and given the bullshit that Dohler had to go through getting this thing in the can and out to the public in a form that he was far less than satisfied with,  it’s nice to see his one and only attempt at a more “straightforward” horror flick get some justice — ironically by getting none at all. Blood Massacre is best viewed, and appreciated, as what it is — a cheap, gory, unwatchable-to-all-but-the-most-masochistic-of- Dohler-diehards mess. No wonder I love it so.

In 2001, nearing, sadly, the end of his way-too-short life, Don Dohler went back to the well a little more explicitly than usual and, rather than simply reworking the plot of 1978’s The Alien Factor for the umpteenth time, decided to make what would be billed as the film’s official sequel, Alien Factor 2 : The Alien Rampage. And while you could make a pretty strong argument that movies like Nightbeast and The Galaxy Invader had more in common with the original Alien Factor than this thing does, that’s really neither here nor there since, as we’ve already established, pretty much every Dohler flick tells a variation of the exact same story anyway.

This time around the escaped alien baddie (headed for some type of intergalactic zoo, as in the first film) is an evil invader that traps an entire suburban Maryland town within it’s insidious time-warping forcefield (a concept Dohler must have thought was pretty neat since he named his at-the-time straight-to-video production company Timewarp Films). Backwoods locales are traded in for more sorta-urban environs like warehouses and the like, 16mm is swapped out for videotape, and while there are still some garage-level makeup and other FX on display, it’s worth noting that, sadly, poorly-done CGI has replaced a good chunk of that, as well.

In short, Alien Factor 2 is Don Dohler getting with the times, to the best extent that his $35,000 budget allowed him to do so. Venerable members of his “acting” stable are gone,replaced with more youthful (though no more talented) replacements (although watch for the bag lady in this flick for a whole new definition of fourth-wall-smashing pantomime self-parody — and yes, never fear, George Stover is still on hand), and frankly a lot of the cram from those earlier, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants-and-just-shoot-the-damn-thing’s efforts are lost io translation to the video age.

But it’s still about as far from a “professional” (whatever that even means anymore) filmmaking effort as you’re likely to find in this blighted 21st century we live in, and Dohler’s love for the DIY ethos can’t be completely buried under all that newfangled technology. You get the sense of a guy adapting to survive, but not quite comfortable with his new environs. And that’s a shame given that he was, unbeknownst to himself at the time, nearing the end of his rather remarkable run. But hey, we don’t always get to go out on a high note, I guess, and it would be unfair to say that Alien Factor 2 is no fun at all, because frankly it still is. I like to consider this one guy’s struggle to retain the essential characteristics of his work in the face of long odds and changing tastes, but in truth Dohler’s work appealed to such a small segment of the public that he probably didn’t actually need to bend with the times as much as he did apart from the fact that things like 16mm film stock were getting too expensive for him to utilize anymore and what have you. As always, the day-to-day practicalities of micro-budget moviemaking take precedence over all other considerations in Dohler’s work.

Alien Factor 2 : The Alien Rampage is available on DVD from Image Entertainment and actually features a smattering of honest-to-goodness extras including a “making-of” featurette and a cast-and-crew commentary. It’s presented full frame with 2.0 stereo (yes, you read that correctly) sound. It’s probably of interest only to hard-core (or pathetically sad, depending on how you look at these things) Dohler completists, but I still consider it 75 minutes of my life well-enough spent.

And that’s probably going to do it for our little Don Dohler wrap-up here at TFG for the time being. I’ve got several grindhouse goodies I’ve been meaning to review for ages now and I’ll start in with those in earnest shortly after the new year arrives. In the meantime, to anyone and everyone reading this, have a happy and safe New Year’s holiday, and I’ll see you again either a couple or a few days on the other side of the turn of the calendar.

In terms of the Dohler-verse, this is where it all began — 1978’s classic (for some)The Alien Factor, the story of a doomed spacecraft containing specimens bound for an intergalactic zoo that crash-lands in the suburban Baltimore woods, thus freeing three creatures of varying degrees of evil savagery, all out to kill as many local rednecks as they can before either getting killed themselves by the enraged and frightened townsfolk or else somehow escaping and either surviving on this unfamiliar new planet or, somehow, making it back to their home in the stars. Basically the baseline Don Dohler plot is Frankenstein minus the mad creator, and he would only tinker at the margins with the basic formula laid down here in all of his subsequent backyard epics.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, because warts and all — and yes, the warts here are plentiful — The Alien Factor is, as the kids once said, more fun than a barrel o’ monkeys.  Sure, it’s hokey beyond belief, but you’ve got to put conventional definitions of “good” and “bad” filmmaking aside when you’re considering a Don Dohler production. For instance, the average low-budget (or no-budget, as is probably the more apt description here) moviemaker, when realizing that his “alien” costumes and effects look like shit, is going to do all he or she can to minimize their on-screen appearance and obfuscate them with shadows, tricky camera angles and the like so as not to embarrass him or herself. But that’s not Dohler thinking — our guy Don shows you his first savage beastie attacking a couple parked in lover’s lane (or on lover’s hill, or in lover’s field, or whatever) in full, clear, broad daylight right off the bat. That’s because displaying his garage-made makeup and costumes and effects was the whole point of these films. Dohler himself admitted quite publicly on numerous occasions that he didn’t give much of a fuck about directing actors, staging effective-looking shots, writing believable dialogue, etc. — he just wanted to show off his effects work and prove to the readers of his small-circulation (but, as it would turn out, highly influential, given that kids-at-the-time like J.J. Abrams were reading it) Cinemagic DIY-special-effects magazine that, hey, you really can do all this shit at home with duct tape and bailing wire.

Seminal Dohler regulars like George Stover and Don Leifert make their first appearances here, and standard plot devices like the scientist-from-out-of-town-whose-goofy-theories-just-might-explain-everything (reminiscent of the setup in Ed Wood’s Bride Of The Monster, amongst others) pop up for the first time in a Dohler feature as well, and basically the whole film feels on first viewing like the laying down of a template which can be followed time and time again even though there’s no way ol’ Don could have known that at the time he was making the film, since he often said that he figured his career as a filmmaker would strictly be a one-and-done proposition.

While that, thankfully (by our standards here at TFG, at any rate) didn’t turn out to be the case, it is interesting to watch The Alien Factor with a keen eye for the elements used that Dohler would not go back to — like the stop-motion-animation monster “battle” at the end  (let’s just say Harryhausen it ain’t). So Don didn’t go back to the well for every single element of every one of his films after this, despite overwhelming appearances to the contrary. If something didn’t work, he was the first to realize it and wasn’t afraid to scrap the less-than-successful stuff he tried and move on. Practicality trumps inspiration every time, my friends.

Beyond that there’s really nothing of specific import worth pointing out when it comes to this film — it’s a solid Dohler effort (and the one I probably should have reviewed first, but I’m writing about these in the order they’ve made it into the DVD player lately rather than in the order they were made) that is of special interest to his small-but-loyal legion of fans simply for the fact that it came first and pretty much set the blueprint for all that was to follow, minus a small handful of tricks that he decided not to try again. It’s 80-or-so entertaining minutes of homemade- monster-movie nonsense, and around these parts that is hardly a derogatory description.

The Alien Factor is available on DVD from RetroMedia as part of its Alien Fiend Dohler double-feature release (the other flick included being, of course, Fiend)  — the 16mm print is presented full-frame, and while it’s been remastered it still has its glitchy moments (plenty of them, truth be told), the sound is remastered mono, and there are no real extras to speak of apart from a George Stover interview that makes for some fun watching. If you’re on the Don Dohler wavelength, it’s an essential purchase, but if you’re a more casual fan of low-grade cinematic trash (and this flick has, incidentally, received the “riff” treatment from Joel Hodgson and the Cinematic Titanic crew), you can get by with adding it to your Netflix queue, kicking back, enjoying the ride as a one-off, and forever wondering what all the fuss is about amongst the rest of us.

Next up in on our Don Dohler radar screen is 1982’s Nightbeast, considered by many aficionados of his work to be the pinnacle of his cinematic career, and not entirely without good reason. From the flashier (relatively speaking, mind you) opening credits to the downright acceptable prosthetic work on the titular beast itself to the numerous laser-beam “special” effects to the generous helpings of gore and inconsequential (and completely untitillating, unless you’ve got a thing for bog-standard average-looking women — honestly even ugly would’ve been more interesting) nudity, it’s obvious that this is our guy Don going for the commercial gusto to whatever extent that he’s even physically capable of doing so. Dohler came into a little money for this one — the total budget was $42,00, a king’s ransom by his standards — and the result is the nearest thing to a genuinely polished cinematic effort he ever came up with. Which, admittedly, isn’t saying a whole lot, because this is still very much a DIY effort — and that’s a good thing, because the DIY nature of these films is the best thing about them, by far.

Apparently Dohler was going for a straight-up reworking of his first film, The Alien Factor, with Nightbeast, albeit with a bit more money to play with this time, and smartly deciding to simplify the intergalactic menace from three creatures down to one. Apart from that, the story remains exactly the same, with many of the same actors even playing the same parts (and yes, since he’s the only Dohler “star” with anything like a fan base, I’ll drop a mention at this point that George Stover turns up in this one, as well). So anyway at this point you know the drill —space monster crash-lands in the suburban Maryland woods, goes on a killing spree, the local sheriff rounds up a posse to try to bring the creature in, and the closest thing Dohler could approximate to “chaos” given his limited financial resources ensues.

There are a few subplots of absolutely no consequence going on here, such as the aforementioned sheriff bedding down every female in sight and some interpersonal conflict(ish) dynamics within a biker gang, but if you want to truly enjoy this flick, it’s best to just push all that aside since little things like dialogue between characters aren’t exactly a Dohler strong suit. Just focus your attention on the main story, which shouldn’t be too difficult since it’s a straight line from A to Z, and you’ll be fine.

Yup, this is more standard, turn-off-the-brain-and-enjoy-the-dime-store-ride stuff. To be sure, the fact that a lot of it was shot at night — hence the name — sometimes makes the “action,” as it were, a bit difficult to follow given the grainy, half-assed 16mm film stock Dohler used, but as I’ve mentioned in previous Dohler reviews, if you’re on the guy’s wavelength, technical imperfections like that just add to the charm.

Anyway, the main twist spice added into the Dohler stew here is the gore and the nudity, and when the monster from the stars starts tearing shit up, it actually looks pretty good. I mean, these ain’t Tom Savini effects or anything, but they’re not an embarrassment by any means. Our guy Don, as always, delivers more than by any rights he should be able to, and the difference between a $10,000 Dohler production and a $42,000 Dohler production is pretty amazingly apparent — not in terms of plot, dialogue, or acting, mind you, but in every other respect, particularly on the technical side, it’s stark and obvious.

Nightbeast is available on DVD from Troma, which is appropriate enough, either as a stand-alone release or in a two-disc set that finds it paired up with the fine documentary on Dohler’s life and work,  Blood, Boobs And Beast. It’s presented full-frame, the picture has been remastered a bit (although the quality is still iffy in numerous spots), the sound is remastered mono, and the extras are the usual Lloyd Kaufman ego-fest crap. It’s not my personal favorite Dohler film by any stretch, I like ’em a bit more raw and unpolished (again, relatively speaking) myself, but it’s still a perfectly enjoyable diversion and a terrific example of how a guy can achieve an awful lot on willpower, “Junkyard Wars”-style technical ingenuity, and a little bit of money. Definitely worth the measly 80 minutes of your life that it takes to watch.

First off, my apologies for the lack of new reviews on this page lately — in addition to the usual holiday season madness (and I hope everyone’s — or should that be anyone’s –are going splendidly, wonderfully, joyously, etc.) we had something of a tragedy strike the TFG household when, on Christmas morning, we had to put one of our cats, barely-five-years-old Marty, to sleep. I won’t go into details suffice to say he was a loving little furball who spent most of his life purring away in a state of contentment that you honestly had to see to believe, and was hit by a short-fast-acting illness that made his last hours on earth way more unbearably painful than he could have possibly deserved even if he had been truly evil — which he wasn’t in any way, shape, or form. Anyway, corny and absolutely impossible as it is, I like to think of him now purring away on a giant version of his favorite black-and-white Ikea throw blanket somewhere up in the sky.

Which rather leads us,in a much less roundabout way than it would initially appear, to our subject here today — namely, comfort movies. Mrs. TFG and I are having a heck of a time adjusting to coming home to only one kitty greeting us, and taking our mind off the new emptiness in our household is of paramount importance around here lately. As you can probably guess, traditional “feel-good” Hollywood crap doesn’t do much for me, but something simple, predictable, and straightforward-as-all-get-go makes fora damn fine distraction these days, and they don’t come much more simple, predictable, and straight-forward-as-all-get-go than Don Dohler flicks, do they?

I’ve sung the praises of suburban Baltimore’s premier backyard-monster-epic-maker before on these virtual “pages,” but honestly never could have predicted just how mind-numbingly reassuring films like the one we’ll take a quick look at today, 1985’s straight-to-video The Galaxy Invader, could be until now.

As with almost any Dohler film, the plot here revolves around an alien invader who crash-lands in the Maryland woods and for some reason decides to wander around rather aimlessly instead of sending out a distress signal or trying to fix his ship or anything that would actually, you know, make sense. If said alien is truly evil (not so much the case here), then he might kill somebody, thereby attracting the attention of the local yokels, and if he’s not, then he might just be seen by somebody and that’s good enough to get the country bumpkins to form a search party and head out looking for blood. In this particular instance, evidence the guy-in-a-rubber-suit’s passing is stumbled upon by a backwoods redneck-type, who sets out to assemble a posse and find the “invader” and/or his craft in order to get rich quick.

Sure, there’s some pointless sidebar drama revolving around the daughter of the hillbillyish family at the center of the story dating some guy from a rival quite-likely-inbred clan that her dad, predictably enough, doesn’t approve of, but none of that bargain-basement Hatfields-and-McCoys stuff matters much here — the country folk are going to go out and find the alien, a cheaper-than-cheap “battle” is going to ensue that will allow Dohler to show off some of his homemade special effects quasi-wizardry, and it’ll all end with the spaceman either getting killed or leaving. I’ll refrain from saying exactly which ending transpires here so as not to give away the entire film in less than a hundred words.

Needless to say, the plot isn’t the only Dohler constant here — the cast is composed of the usual assemblage of family members, people who would never act in another film, and people who would only go on to act in other Dohler productions (including cult favorite George Stover). The shooting locales are all within a stone’s throw of the late, great Don’s house. And the dialogue is impossible tin-eared, to be generous about it.

But you know what? Sometimes none of that matters, and in fact, if you’re on the Dohler wavelength, it all just adds to the charm of the overall production. This ain’t no Cecil B. DeMille production — it’s a quick cheapie (the total budget here was less than $10,000) churned out by a guy who made monster movies for two reasons — because he loved them, and because he could. If you don’t respect that, get off this blog and go read Pauline Kael or something.

Being that the rights to The Galaxy Invader have lapsed into the public domain, it’s available on multiple DVD releases(heck, it’s even received the MST3K treatment), none of them, I’m willing to bet, treating it to any sort of sound or picture remastering, much less going to the extent of including any extras or anything. The version is my possession, a pressed-to-order DVD-R from an outfit called Synergy Entertainment, serves just fine. Shot in 16mm, it’s presented full-frame, warts-and-all, and features mono sound. Works just fine for me. Nothing about The Galaxy Invader is supposed to be great, after all — it just is what it is (and truth be told, as far as Dohler films go, it’s even more routine and frankly uninspired than usual — it’s pure Don-by-the-numbers fare), and when you’re trying to take your mind off other matters, it does the job quite nicely without taxing one iota of your mental energy. So thank you, Don, and if I believed in heaven, I’d ask you to go on over and keep my cat company.

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?