Oct 3, 2011

Fiend (1980)

Director, Writer: Don Dohler
Producers: Don Dohler, Ted A. Bohus
Cinematographers: Don Dohler, Richard Geiwitz
Music: Paul Woznicki
Special Effects: David W. Renwick
Cinema Enterprises; 90 min; color

Don Leifert (Eric Longfellow), Richard Nelson (Gary Kender), Elaine White (Marsha Kender), George Stover (Dennis Frye), Greg Dohler (Scotty), Del Winans (Jimmy Barnes), Kim Dohler (Kristy Michaels), Debbie Vogel (Helen Weiss), Richard Geiwitz (Fred)

Don Dohler's Amazing Cinema magazine,
which often plugged his own films.
Before Don Dohler had ever picked up a movie camera, he was already a "do-it-yourself" legend for having published underground comics in the 1960's, and with his influential "Cinemagic" magazine, which was a primer for aspiring filmmakers to create their own special effects.  His first feature, The Alien Factor (1978), shot for a paltry $6000, proved he was a trailblazer for another medium- once a film of such small budget succeeded in being sold to cable, many "DIY" filmmakers were alerted to the possibility that "Hey, I can do this too."

Don Dohler would produce or direct another ten features in his native Maryland during the next three decades, until his untimely death in 2006.  His first four early features (before his late 1980's hiatus) are gems- full of the same wide-eyed "golly gee" innocence as the 50's sci-fi/horror films that no doubt influenced him, and whose small budgets are contrary to the impressive special effects.  For my money, his second feature, Fiend (1980), remains his greatest achievement.

All of Don Dohler’s films are ensemble pieces, in which a mosaic of characters is thrown into a fantastic situation.  However, by comparison, Fiend only has a handful of key characters.  Don Leifert was always given colourful characters to play in Dohler’s work, but with his lead role, this picture rests comfortably on his shoulders. 

The charming opening features a red cartoonish, ectoplasmic demonic looking entity that travels through the night sky and then disappears into a gravesite.  Then the corpse digs its way out of the earth and strangles a girl in the cemetery.  The corpse touches its face, delighted at the notion of being alive again.  That shot is perhaps the crux of this brilliant satire from writer-director Don Dohler.  The monster simply wants to live a normal –human- existence in suburban Maryland.  And so several months later we see the fiend, under the name of Eric Longfellow, moving into the quaint neighbourhood of Kingsville, opening a lucrative music publishing business and even offering lessons from his bungalow.  However, there’s one problem.  The fiend needs to survive by killing others and absorbing their lifeforce (as seen with the red glow emanating from its body upon doing so), otherwise the host body it controls begins to decompose (as seen a couple of times with convincing makeup). 

Longfellow’s neighbour Gary Kender (Richard Nelson) has been reading about the mysterious strangulations in the county.  He’s already been irritated by music coming from next door, and has commented on Longfellow’s strange behaviour. Kender delves further into the truth about the killings (including a hilarious sequence with a graveyard custodian who so happens to carry around a newspaper clipping of the graveyard exhumation that began this movie), and begins to suspect Longfellow, especially after a girl in the neighbourhood is killed.

The idea of a monster trying to be human is as old as Frankenstein itself- the subhuman creature usually wants to feel love.  However, one cannot think of another movie monster that simply wishes to embrace the most everyday mundane things, like sipping wine or washing the car, however all while still dressed in the same black suit he was buried in. Dohler creates a picture postcard of the film’s suburban setting with candid shots of kids playing street hockey, a man mowing the lawn, and cut-ins of birds, skies and branches.  We are also witness to the daily ritual of the Kender couple.  Richard is the typical suburban husband who comes home from work and expects to unwind while his wife Marsha prepares dinner.  Also, Marsha is an obsequious surrogate mother to her cub scouts, and obsessive about helping them make a movie in the spring.  She even recruits her husband to make the trek to buy a book on special effects, Film Magic, at 704 Market St. (a clever way for Dohler to plug his own product).  Because Richard Nelson and Elaine White (who plays Kender’s wife Marsha) are obviously unschooled actors, their tendency to overact, intentionally or not, actually makes this setting larger than life. Dohler presents this landscape that is familiar to us, and slyly turns it into a satirical cartoon.

Most importantly, Fiend works as a horror film as it sustains a creepy mood.  The old-fashioned special effects do not date the work, but rather compliment the low-key tone of the narrative.  Although it slowly builds to its climax, it is exciting to watch for its plethora of ideas, inventive visual touches, and another brooding electronic score, this time by Paul Woznicki.  Kudos to Don Leifert for his commanding performance as the fiend (his delivery reminds me a lot of Orson Welles’), and we would also be remiss to forget Dohler's regular actor George Stover’s appearance as Dennis Frye (likely named after the immortal horror movie lab assistant Dwight Frye), who plays Longfellow’s cloying employee (a modern variation on Renfield, perhaps?).   This film is also a family affair as Dohler’s son Greg has a supporting role as Scotty who confides in Kender about some strange encounter, and daughter Kim was hired to play the poor little girl whose death advances the plot!   It is too bad that Fiend only played for the small screen (in the golden days of VHS, it became a mini-favourite among genre fans).  Here was a film deserving to be seen in the drive-ins, thereby begetting revivals on the late late show. 

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