Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Halloween Havoc: FIEND (1980)

True story: when I was a kid, the VHS cover for Don Dohler’s FIEND scared the hell out of me.  I only glimpsed it once at a video store (never got to rent it) and the combination of green cracking skin and drooping eyelids sent my mind reeling.  What happened to that guy?  Is he in pain?  Does he have a desire to peel that scaly skin? And will someone touch the exposed pink flesh under his eyeballs (my biggest worry)? And, most importantly, who would win in a fight – FIEND or THE GRIM REAPER (aka ANTHROPOPHAGUS)?

The image was cheap, but oh so effective and that sums up the career of Don Dohler perfectly.  Dohler was a regional filmmaker based in Maryland who started making feature length in the late 70s.  They were generally short on plot (usually just involving an alien crash landing in, of course, Maryland), but high on enthusiasm and creativity.    

FIEND, Dohler’s second feature length effort, is no exception.  The film opens with a random red orb flying into a graveyard and zapping into the ground.  It enters the plot’s occupant (Don Leifert), who rises from the dead decomposing but with a red glow.  Amazingly, there is a couple cuddling among the tombstones (“Hey, at least it’s quiet” says the romantically-challenged boyfriend).  With the beau off to get a blanket, Fiend strikes and sucks the lifeforce from the girl, resulting in him having a renewed, normal appearance.  So in order to live, Fiend must kill every now and then.  No biggie I guess as he moves into a vacant house in a cul-de-sac (apparently you can just pull out the “for sale” sign and no one will ask questions).

George Stover: Fashion Icon
Cut to 6 months later and Fiend is doing quite well for himself. He has taken the name Eric Longfellow and established a successful music lesson studio (!) with assistant Dennis Fry (the great George Stover).  And being an undead, soul sucking monster isn’t his scariest attribute as he is also a wine connoisseur and cat lover.  He is also a pretty lousy neighbor as Gary Kender (Richard Nelson) is tired of hearing that violin screeching at all hours.  His wife Marsha (Elaine White) doesn’t want Gary to makes waves with the new neighbor, but it is bad enough that Gary wishes the Johnsons hadn’t moved out.  And y’all remember how bad the Johnsons were!  Of course, the violin playing would be the least of the neighborhood’s worries if they knew about Longfellow’s two most recent murders.

The horror hits home though when Longfellow kills a young girl behind the Kender’s home.  No one in the neighborhood was home when it happened except Longfellow, who told the police he was listening to music with his assistant. Boy, if I had a dime for every time I got out a major crime with the “listening to music” excuse.  Gary ain’t buying it and goes to confront Longfellow about it.  Longfellow invites him into his damp basement (“I prefer it that way”) and, while his host is preparing drinks, Gary snoops and finds a strange altar, knife and witchcraft books hidden in the corner.  I knew there was something wrong with guys who play the violin!

Intrigued by what he saw, Gary digs deeper by getting a “Witchcraft & Demonology” book (while buying his wife multiple copies of Dohler’s “Film Magic” for her Boy Scout den; nice plug, Don).  He reads the section on a “Fiend” and slowly starts putting it all together.  Didn’t his wife say the Johnsons had a relative whose grave was robbed? Gary should check that out.  He does and finds the world’s most resourceful cemetery caretaker who just happens to have the dead man’s obituary in his wallet!  No newspaper microfiche montages for Dohler.  OH…MY…GOD…the man whose body disappeared, one William Dorian, is a dead ringer for Eric Longfellow.  Gary must stop him now because he continues to kill and a kid (Greg Dohler) witnessed his latest crime.  What Gary doesn’t know is Longfellow now has his sights set on Gary’s wife and lures her over by calling to ask for a “mild pain killer.”  Boy, if I had another dime for every time a neighbor used that line on me.

Fiend no like kickball!
I’ll be honest and say FIEND is no great shakes when it comes to plot. In terms of Dohler’s filmography, I prefer it less to his “aliens fight rednecks” trilogy (THE ALIEN FACTOR; NIGHTBEAST; GALAXY INVADER).  The film is pretty slow and suffers from moments of nothingness.  Had the script been fleshed out a little bit more (why not make the little girl the leads daughter, for example), it could have been more intriguing.  Dohler was also slow to embrace the more exploitive elements that the genre (and distributors) demanded from him so you don’t get any gore or nudity.  It does, however, benefit from a great, working class do-it-yourself feel.  As with all of Dohler’s early films, you can almost sense the amount of passion that went into making the film.  And Dohler takes risks (the child killing; the death of the wife) that most filmmakers would shy away from.  This is also definitely for you if you are a fan of 80s cul-de-sacs replete with games of kickball and lawn mowing (who isn’t).  Sadly, my first viewing was prompted by the news of lead Don Leifert’s passing this month.  He appeared in a few Dohler features and is good in his part.  Rest in peace Fiend.  I hope no red blobs hit your grave.

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