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Monday, June 30, 2014

The Alien Factor

Baltimore’s amateur/indie filmmaker, Don Dohler, wrote, produced and directed this obscure sci-fi film. The Alien Factor (TAF) was Dohler’s first feature film project. It was shot locally, with a mostly local amateur cast. Wikipedia states that TAF had a budget of only $3,800, which seems much too low. The monster costumes alone could have cost that much. Yet, there is no denying that TAF was a very low budget film. Don would go on to create several low-B grade indie horror films in the early 80s, developing something of a cult following. TAF was his first major film project.

Quick Plot Synopsis
An alien craft crashes on earth, outside of Perry Hall, Maryland. A young couple out ‘parking’ in the woods are attacked by an insect-man-creature. Rex is killed, but MaryJane screams a lot and escapes. Sheriff Jack (modeled after Dennis Weaver’s McCloud) and Doc Sherman think it must have been a bear or bobcat. A different alien takes on human form (sort of). Another couple in the woods separate when she spurns his advances. She stumbles upon a lumpy space ship and the semi-human alien. She runs and badly injures herself, but the semi-human heals her. Three restless young men decide to hunt the killer animal. (Side note: Dohler himself plays one of the doomed youth: Ernie. He’s the one with the white-guy afro.) They are attacked and killed by the insectoid too. Only the girl escapes. (we’re told later that high-pitched noises hurt the insectoid, so screaming girls repel it.) Cut to a low-rent bar with a generic rock band (Atlantis) taking their one shot at the big time, which did not pan out. A man leaves the bar, goes home, and gets killed in his basement by a tall hairy monster. Another man is attacked outside his home by an invisible monster. Some children find him, a dried up mummy-corpse. Sheriff Jack wants to call in the State Police over the murders. Mayor Bert wants to keep the bad news under wraps, lest it scuttle his pending “deal” for an amusement park development. Jack reluctantly agrees. Meanwhile, Bert is visited by a man named Ben who says he’s from the observatory. He wants to investigate. Bert, eager for quiet fixes, agrees to let him. They go in the woods and discover the space ship and a dying alien who does a mind transfer to Ben before dying. No one believes their story, since the space ship blew up. But, Jack agrees to let Ben try to get the ‘animals’ first. Edie, the town reporter, goes into the woods with a gas can to try to burn the aliens. She and Steve are chased by the insectoid. Before it can kill them, it is killed by Ben using high frequency sounds. Mayor Bert is killed by the tall hairy alien. Jack and others investigate and are almost killed by the hairy one. Ben shoots it with a poison dart made from the insectoid’s venom. Jack finds out that the observatory knows nothing about this Ben. Edie is traipsing around in the woods alone again when a semi-transparent reptile alien. Ben fights with it, eventually triumphing. Ben survives but is weakened such that his human disguise is gone. Edie can’t see him well, but sets him up for lots of loose-thread tidying questions so Ben can exposit. Ben is an alien sent to earth to hunt down the three escaped zoo specimens who escaped when their transport ship crashed on earth. He came to save the people of Perry Hall from the monsters. Edie sees Ben’s true (ugly) alien self and screams. Jack instinctively shoots whatever makes women scream, killing Ben. Poignancy. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Because it is a bold effort by a bunch of non-Hollywood types to make a movie themselves. The result is clearly not up to “Hollywood” levels of polish, but one cannot help but admire Don and his group’s ambition. Since it is SUCH an amateur production, everything in the film — the hair styles, the clothes, the cars, the bar, the houses, just scream Small Town 70s!

Cultural Connection
Homemade Movies — Before videotape technology trickled down to the consumer level, there as Super 8. Introduced in the mid-60s, Super 8 was initially a silent film product — the source of those silent birthday party and vacation films that parents would bore their guests with. In the mid-70s, Kodak added a magnetic tape strip for instant synchronized sound. Suddenly, the masses had an inexpensive technology to create “real” movies. Amateur Spielbergs were empowered. Videotape would eventually replace Super 8, but the videotape generation did not have the same DIY ethos of Dohler’s Super 8 age group. The advent of CGI would take movie magic back away from the hands of the common man. The 80s will be THE era for grassroots movie making.

Cinemagic — Don Dohler was the publisher of a small quarterly called Cinemagic Magazine. Issues contained how-to articles on making space ship models, making monster masks and recipes for the best on-screen blood. Dohler and his circle of friends had the zeal of youth. They felt that with a bit of skill here and there and a large dose of audacity, just about anyone could create a reasonably good sci-fi or horror film. Cinemagic had a regular section to announce and promote indie projects. The late 70s and early 80s certainly did not lack for amateur ambition. TAF was Dohler’s chance to prove that the average Joe could make movies too.

Meet The Monsters — Only the third monster is identified by name in the script. It is the 2-legged, tailed reptilian beast that is only semi-visible. Ben identifies it as a Leemoid. The hairy monster and insect-man are identified in the end credits as a Zagatile and Inferbyce, respectively. Their names do not matter to the plot. This is just a nerdy detail.

Commoner Casting — Most of the people who acted in TAF were locals who had never been in a film before, and never were again. It shows. They look and act like ordinary folks — not all made up and costumed per the Hollywood norm. The credits call out “Johnny Walker” as a guest star. He played Rex, the first to die from the Inferbyce, so had very little screen time. Walker had some minor roles in a few episodes of “Hawaii Five-O,” so amounted to the cast’s one “professional.” Some of the cast would become Dohler’s regular acting pool, getting roles in others of his low-budget indie films.

TAF Times Two — In 1982, Dohler would produce a remake of TAF. Nightbeast would use much the same story line, same setting and even repeating some of the characters, such as Sheriff Jack, Doc Sherman, MaryJane and Mayor Bert. The remake would have only one alien monster who crash lands outside of a small Maryland town and goes on a rampage of killing, etc. etc.

Bottom line? TAF could easily be panned as worse than Ed Wood might have created, but like Wood’s efforts, there is an earnestness that is compelling. That doesn’t make TAF a good film. It’s not. It’s quite bad, actually. Far too much footage is spent watching people walk through the woods past a fixed camera. Yet, Dohler manages some bursts of effort, such as the forced perspective shot of the model space ship, and some camera angles, that feel like a Little League base hit. Run Don, Run! One has to admire his spunk. Film making is hard work. For all those who kvetch about the quality, go make a movie yourself. See how well you can do. Don’s work might look pretty good then.

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