06 December 2006

The Dohler Factor: 1946-2006

Seems like all I do lately is write about another person who's died...but here's someone you've probably never heard of who definitely merits a mention to anyone who grew up making movies in high school at a time when the format wars were between Super 8 and the Polaroid "Instant Movie".

Baltimore filmmaker/publisher/author Don Dohler passed away on December 2 from cancer. While he shared some supporting players with fellow Marylander John Waters (chief among them, the one and only George Stover), Dohler never made it out of the direct-to-video schlock bin, where he seemed to happily toil for most of his career, working with local friends and family in his hometown. In 1976, 30-year old Dohler had a shotgun held at his head during a restaurant robbery--a life-altering experience that inspired him to devote himself to realizing his life-long dream to making movies.

Amazingly, his first feature, 1978's "The Alien Factor", made it to the cover of Forrest J. Ackerman's "Famous Monsters Of Filmland", and while it was quite terrible by any reasonable person's definition, he managed to sell it to Ted Turner's then-new superstation for a profit (riding the s.f. boom launched by "Star Wars") and it became in immediate late-night staple (I'm pretty sure I stayed up to watch it on the CBS Late Movie, which always played the coolest stuff).

I've spent the better part of my adult life ripping Dohler's astonishingly amateurish and ineptly-acted films to shreds for some admitted easy laughs ("you think "Plan 9" was a bad movie? You ain't seen this thing called "Night Beast"!), and perhaps I'm just being sentimental now that he's passed, but I've got to admit that Dohler was something of an inspiring figure to me when I was a high-school Super 8 filmmaker. During an era before AfterEffects, mini-DV, and YouTube, backyard filmmaking was damned hard and expensive work--no matter how grand your vision, you were always fighting the limitations of the technology. Getting an indoor image without blasting the location with floodlights was nearly impossible. There was no "undo" button when you applied your splicing cement incorrectly onto the magnetic soundstripe. A hair in the gate meant you spent another $25 for 3 minutes of film (providing you shot at the cheapy-speed of 18 fps). Hell, you couldn't even show your films to anyone without trucking over a projector and a screen. Some of you know what I'm talking about...

Dohler was a kindred spirit who self-published a magazine (later sold to Starlog Press) entitled "Cinemagic", which for its too-brief run was the Bible for us Spielberg-wannabees. Each issue was packed cover-to-cover with fun and enormously informative how-to's on creating Rick Baker-style latex makeups, constructing stop-motion armatures ala Harryhausen, as well as effective illusions from forced-perspective miniatures, backwound double-exposures, and most importantly to aspiring sleaze merchants like myself, the ideal mixture for stage blood (red food dye and corn syrup, as I recall). Best of all, you could send in a photo, synopsis, and crew list of your film and they'd print it, just like in "Variety"!

My own "Deliverence with zombies" gorefest--"Blood Hunt"--got a mention (but the photo of my friend Colin in rotting ghoul makeup didn't get printed or was lost when someone opened the envelope). Thanks to Dohler, we all felt like real filmmakers! Who care that our movies weren't any damn good? They were fun to make--and that's exactly the way Dohler's so-called "professional" films (straining the definition until you can hear the tendons snapping) should be regarded. In the right mood, some of that spirit could spill over into a reasonably satisfying viewing experience.

After 1985's "The Galaxy Invader", Dohler stopped making films to focus on his day job, editing newspapers and publishing books on low-budget FX. He returned in 2001 with "The Alien Factor 2" (shot as "Alien Rampage"), a sequel in name only (retitled by Fred Olen Ray for DVD release on his Retromedia label). His "Timewarp Films" company, formed in 2000, produced several micro-budgeted thrillers over the years, the latest being "Vampire Sisters".

Here's a fun audio interview with Dohler from Ourmedia.