Many filmmakers working in the industry today were themselves genre fans that aspired to make science fiction, fantasy and horror films like those they had grown up with. A few of these filmmakers, such as Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi, have enjoyed extraordinary success, while others for one reason or another - often an absence of talent but also sometimes just plain bad luck - never got beyond the outer fringes of the industry. Don Dohler has been kicking around for 30 years and is still at it. The Alien Factor / Fiend - The Don Dohler Collection is a double-feature disc of his first two productions.
The Alien Factor (1978) is oddly likable, in spite of all the shortcomings associated with no-budget filmmaking and inexperience. In a story possibly suggested by an episode of Lost in Space, an alien spacecraft containing three zoological specimens crashes in the woods outside Baltimore, and the disparate trio began killing area residents, much to the consternation of Mayor Wicker (Richard Dyszel), a Murray Hamilton-type who's behind a deal to build $30 million amusement park/entertainment complex. Sheriff Jack Cinder (Tom Griffith), a shameless McCloud imitator, and Deputy Pete (Richard Geiwitz) are joined in their investigation by local reporter Edie Martin (Mary Mertens) and mysterious Ben Zachary (Don Leifert), an authority on unexplained phenomenon.
The film is cheap with bad sound, laughable stuntwork and, except for Leifert, amateurish acting, but it's also made with a kind of naive enthusiasm that's infectious and almost endearing. Though still very sluggish at 80 minutes (one particularly gratuitous scene was added later to bring the film up to then-standard feature length), Dohler's script is crammed with interesting concepts, and though something of throwback to '50s films like The Giant Gila Monster (1959)**, he and his effects crew are also clearly aiming for something a bit different from and more imaginative than other ultra-low budget horror films of the period. Shot during the fall and early winter of 1976-77, The Alien Factor predates the post-Star Wars sci-fi boom, and attempts a large number and variety of visual effects almost unheard of for a film of its scale.
The film boasts numerous opticals, a reasonably impressive foreground miniature, elaborate if not terribly convincing creature costumes and make-up, and even a Harryhausen-esque bit of stop-motion animation near the end. There's also one good, honestly-earned scare. Dohler can't shoot exposition at all; dialog scenes are static and disinterested, but he throws some energy into the fantasy sequences, cheap as they are.
The monsters are obvious men-in-costumes, but show some imagination and a desire to do something different. The "Inferbyce" has the general look of Creature from the Black Lagoon (as if Blackie had been covered with hot tar), but with the characteristics of insect life rather than something aquatic. The "Zagatile," a furry monstrosity with equestrian-type legs (probably pattered after the Cyclops in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad) that are obviously stilts, but its designer deserves credit for trying to come up with something less anthropomorphic than most.
Probably because its release pretty much coincided with Ridley Scott's Alien (1979), The Alien Factor got more exposure than it would likely have had otherwise. Its theatrical release was extremely limited, but soon after that began turning up on local television in the wee hours of the morning.
The Alien Factor's co-feature, Fiend (1980) is by contrast an almost complete failure, primarily because it's much more dependent on Dohler's storytelling and direction, and his skills aren't up to the task in either department.
A lively animated thingy, vaguely resembling another famous fiend, the spinal cord baddies of The Fiend without a Face (1958), swoops down over a cemetery and (awkwardly offscreen) reanimates the corpse of middle-aged man, who after several months settles into suburban Baltimore, where he assumes the alias Eric Longfellow (Don Leifert again), buys a ranch house (how?) and earns a living selling sheet music and offering private violin lessons in his basement.
Every so often, the fiend's human shell begins to deteriorate (hair grows gray, skin rots, etc.), and as Longfellow the fiend must absorb the life force of some unfortunate victim. As unsolved murders begin piling up, Longfellow's surly next-door neighbor, Gary (Richard Nelson) begins to suspect something's up with the weirdo next door.
Unlike The Alien Factor, where one forgives much of its basic crudity in light of its obvious enthusiasm and ambitions, Fiend is simply threadbare and amateurish, and also curiously devoid of any clear effort to rise above its budget level. At the time it was made, Dohler was editing a magazine called Cinemagic, which professed to teach amateur filmmakers working in 8mm, Super-8 and 16mm how to make films (focusing mainly on optical and on-set effects) just like the pros. But if Fiend is any indication, Dohler was himself barely working at the level of his 14-year-old readers.
It's hard to imagine to whom Fiend was intended. If Dohler was hoping to make something purely commercial, his concept of what was marketable in the 16-to-35mm indie field was wildly off-target. It's not remotely scary or suspenseful, has no sexual content and no gore -- in other words, it contains nothing remotely exploitable. (Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead, an altogether different story with considerably greater success, was made about the same time.)
What Fiend does have are a lot of in-jokes and shameless plugs for Film Magic, a softcover book/magazine that was apparently Dohler's forerunner to Cinemagic. The film overtly nepotistic, with proud father Dohler casting son Greg (who doubles as production assistant) in a key role, and various other Dohlers in small parts.
The picture runs 90 excruciating minutes, with little plot and no characters to latch onto. Leifert and Nelson, both beefy guys with mustaches, probably should have switched roles. Leifert had given the only thing like a real performance in The Alien Factor, but Longfellow is the much more limited part with no shading at all; he's just a glowering, unpleasant guy who kills people. Curiously, in Dohler's script Nelson isn't much better, a thoroughly unlikable, crabby neighbor who whines to his wife all the time. Maybe Dohler was trying to draw the same parallels between hero and antagonist that Hitchcock liked so much. Or maybe not.
In the end, no one in the cast is any good, though in their defense Dohler's script is of no help at all. The film is full of clunky dialogue, especially the way Longfellow formally addresses everyone, and how everyone emphasizes the word "Mr": "Mr. Longfellow." "Yes, Mr. Kender?" There's a complete absence of storytelling logic throughout. Does Longfellow think he can go on killing day-after-day without ever being discovered, especially when his victims are always screaming their heads off? Why does he always take photographs of his future victims? Why does he always get pissed off, tearing the photos to shreds after the deed is done?
Visually, the film is insufferably dull, except for some fleeting stop-motion and lots of colorful hand-painted animation (by David W. Renwick), a red glow whenever the fiend is sucking the lifeforce out of somebody.
Video & Audio
Unfortunately, Retromedia's presentation of both films (one on each side of the DVD) is extremely poor. Filmed in 16mm (but shot with 1.85:1 cropping in mind), both are presented in full frame transfers that seem derived from very old videomasters, made worse by singularly weak DVD transfers. Blue Underground showed just how good 16mm can look with Shock Waves, produced at about the same time, so Retromedia really has no excuse. The image is extremely soft with weak color, no detail and non-existent contrast. Further, there's a great deal of digital artifacting. Of course, you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, but both films deserve much better. There are no subtitle options.
Both films include an Audio Commentary Track with actor George Stover, who's in both films and has a good memory about each film's production and admirably credits all the actors and technicians as their work appears onscreen.
Each feature is accompanied by several minutes of Bloopers, as well as two sets of Still Galleries one with behind-the-scenes production photos, storyboards, etc., the other provided by Stover covering his scenes.
The Alien Factor also includes and an interesting Deleted Scene, featuring crude stop-motion animation that was later replaced with new footage shot by Ernest D. Farino, who'd go onto bigger and better things.
Fiend is little more than a backyard movie not worth anyone's time, but The Alien Factor will appeal to tolerant fans of cheap science fiction pictures. Unfortunately, Retromedia's presentation of both films is as rock bottom as the movies are, ultimately making this one a pass.
**Like many '50s science fiction pictures, there's even a rock number, though it can't compare with Gila Monster's "The Mushroom Song," or Scream and Scream Again's title tune.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.