Jul 14, 2008

It Came From Baltimore


Last week, in preparation for an article I'm writing for "Micro Film" magazine, based out of Illinois, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. John Paul Kinhart, for his wonderful, recently released documentary Blood Boobs and Beast, which chronicles the life and work of Baltimore filmmaker Don Dohler. Before his first film, the micro-budget cult classic, The Alien Factor (1978), Mr. Dohler had already established himself as a "do-it-yourself" inspiration, with his self-published underground comics in the 1960's, and his well-remembered "Cinemagic" magazine in the 1970's, whose coverage on how to do special effects was an influence on contemporary Hollywood players.

I have long been a fan of Don Dohler's work as a director, as his precocious no-budget wonders are infectious in their adulation of the "oh golly gee" mindset of 50's sci-fi and horror flicks, while adding modern staples of gore and flesh. Many of his early works belie their costs with the inclusion of some geniunely nifty special effects. Admittedly, I have only seen Dohler's first four films, before his hiatus until he appeared back in the 1990's direct-to-video horror market in partnership with Joe Ripple. Yet his early work (The Alien Factor, the brilliant suburban black comedy Fiend, the gonzo effects-laden Nightbeast, and the hilarious rednecks-in-peril spoof Galaxy Invader) demonstrate that, despite the obvious liabilties of working with limited actors and resources, this guy clearly "had something", and won high marks alone for being a low-budget regional filmmaker whose heart is in the right place.

In late 2006, I had made a new year's resolution to try and track down Mr. Dohler for an interview in 2007, however I had no idea at the time that he was sick, and was therefore shocked to learn that he passed away from cancer in December of that year. Dohler's work strikes me with the same giddy enthusiasm that befits many of the 50's sci-fi films that influenced him, but also, with all of his independent pursuits (in not just filmmaking, but also in publishing) he continued to be a positive role model for movers and shakers like myself who continue to toil in the trenches. When Don Dohler made the unprecedented feat of selling his $3000 wonder The Alien Factor for broadcast in cable television packages, I was among the many in the 1980's who caught it during its constant runs on the late late show, usually at 4 AM, and was ingratiated that such a film could be seen by many: "Hey, I can do this too!"

Thank God for Mr. Kinhart's documentary, which had been shot for over two years, and wrapped just before Mr. Dohler's passing. While Don Dohler is surely not a household name, I was delighted to hear that a documentary was being made to honour his work. As such, I would have been content just to see a work with the typical framework where Dohler talks about his films, intercut with bountious clips from his little wonders. But much to my delight and surprise, Blood Boobs and Beast (whose title refers to the three requisites to sell a direct-to-video horror flick), goes much further than that. Within a few minutes of this layered documentary, I was hooked. Its 75 minutes is a compulsively fascinating look at Dohler's work (generously featuring his publishing in tandem with his filmmaking), and is surprisingly candid in his personal life off-camera. It is fitting that you come away knowing even more of Don Dohler as a person. The films are secondary, much as they were in Dohler's own life. There is also a darkly amusing meta-narrative, with behind-the-scenes footage from (what would be his final work) Dead Hunt that, intentionally or not, shows us that even doing a little movie like this is also beset with problems. As such, I did something in one week I seldom do with a movie: I watched it twice. After the initial viewing of garnering my notes, I just had to see it again to visit Dohler's world some more, and was equally rewarded.

In an age where there are so many "behind the scenes" documentaries made about filmmakers (often for DVD extras), it is gratifying to find one so thorough, aptly portraying a deeply complex man. Blood Boobs and Beast is still being screened sporadically, and will hopefully be released on DVD for all to see. To learn more about this film, and other works by John Paul Kinhart, please visit the filmmaker's website here.

Jul 2, 2008

The Analog Video Enthusiast Book Four: Randy, Where Are You Now?

Upon preparation for this blog entry, over the weekend I pondered just exactly how many video stores (including convenience stores who had given over significant retail space for movie rentals) had existed in my home town during the boom years of the VHS revolution. In 1983, there were three stand-alone video stores. In 1988, four-- plus five or six convenience stores. In 1993, there were perhaps eight convenience stores doling out video rentals. In the interim, the three original stand-alone video stores had closed, and two more sprung to action. The more I thought of this, I was reminded of an old National Geographic documentary about cowboys in the 20th century, and the oldest ones would talk at the dinner table about how many saloons there used to be.

Among the three stores that had closed up, the smallest, yet the one with the most interesting history, was Hollywood Nights, which was located at in a strip plaza on West St. Its amusing slogan was "Take home an Oscar tonight"-- a misnomer for two reasons. At first, like many video places, it stocked a lot of low-rent sleaze, because people would put anything in their stores, as VHS was such a craze that customers would virtually rent whatever they could find to play on their newfangled VCR. And then, in its twilight years, the inventory became more geared towards art-house stuff that the Academy would ignore... and here is where my episode begins.

In 1990-1, back home from university, I had begun my "art film" phase. While still devouring whatever schlock I could find, I also opened a window for whatever foreign or art-house pictures would fleetingly appear on the shelves. In truth, previously, ever since acquiring a VCR, I had probably rented from Hollywood Nights once a year- tops. But in the intervening years that I was away, the inventory had given itself over from things like Beast of the Yellow Night or 1990: The Bronx Warriors, to well-regarded art-house films like To Kill a Priest or The Unbearable Lightness of Being... titles that were always available for rent, if you catch my drift. And as such, I became friendly with Randy, the manager, as he had some interesting out-of-the-way titles that would satisfy my new interest. It was through him that I had my first real taste of Kurosawa (I don't count the time I fell asleep through Rashomon in film school), as he had a few of the Connoisseur VHS releases that he would lend to people. Why he didn't rent out his copies of Ikiru and Throne of Blood is beyond me, but maybe he didn't want to lose them.

His renting policy was certainly curious-- when you paid your money to rent a movie, he'd only write down your name next to what titles you took out. He never asked for your phone number, because if you were trying to rip him off by giving him a fake name, the number would be fake too, right? THAT is a business built on trust.

I believe he was the sole employee in Hollywood Nights' later years, and his store was the one video outlet in the county that was led on a singular vision. In others words, he stocked his store with titles that interested him, instead of things that interested the customers. A risky move for sure, especially in a small town whose residents think that Truffaut is the name of a chocolate. And as such, the adage of "Build it and they will come" didn't work.

Another curious entrepreneurial ambition was that in the latter weeks of the store's life, he was also renting his record collection! Another video store in town was renting CD's, as compact disks still cost an arm and a leg those days, but Randy, God bless him, was really going old school by renting out LP's at a couple of bucks each for a weekend.

But alas, this presumed attempt at bringing in some more business was not to be, as in late spring of 1991, Hollywood Nights ended with a whimper, as the door was chained up, and soon his stock disappeared from the shelves. Perhaps my most enduring image of Randy was late in 1990, when a friend and I went to the Pizza Delight next door in the strip plaza. He had come in for a drink after work, then went back to the store. After we were done, and pulled out of the parking lot, I looked back out of the passenger window and saw the interior lights of Hollywood Nights giving a dull glow into the empty lot. There was Randy in his sports jacket, sitting at the counter, smoking, watching something on a little TV set-- whatever it was I'm certain was unique fare, once again playing to an audience of one.