Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Blood, Boobs and Beast

Documentaries about film makers are a dime a dozen these days but few are as enjoyable and as affecting as this 2007 portrait of Don Dohler, a Baltimore director and producer who specialized in ultra cheap Sci-fi and Horror pictures. Dohler may not be a household name but chances are you've come across one of his films at some point. His debut feature from 1978, The Alien Factor was a staple of late night TV (and still shows to this day on TV in the UK and Ireland), while his subsequent films Fiend (1980) and Night Beast (1982) were two of the more memorable films from the early VHS era, if only for their striking sleeves which commandeded attention from the shelves of the video store. Blood, Boobs and Beast begins in conventional enough fashion when director John Kinhart caught up with Dohler during the production of 2007's Dead Hunt, and found Dohler at an impasse in his career - to continue working in the stressful world of no-budget film making or to focus on family commitments. Ultimately, Dohler had to abandon film production entirely when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and Kinhart's documentary assumed a much higher calling, as an epitaph for an unsung but much loved film maker.

Don Dohler interviewed in 2007

In some respects Don Dohler could be compared with Andy Milligan - despite making films at the low end of the exploitation market, both were talented artists in their own right and lived rich and fascinating lives. Unlike Andy Milligan, Dohler was not a psychotic prima donna, but a quiet, soft spoken family man who made films out of sheer love for the craft. Kinhart's film picks up Dohler's story in the 60's when Dohler began publishing Wild! a comic fanzine that would later mutate into underground comic Pro-Junior (securing Dohler's lofty position in the world of underground comics). In the 70's Dohler shifted gears and published Cinemagic Magazine, an influential journal for aspiring special effects artists. Dohler's first film The Alien Factor from 1977 rode the coattails of the Star Wars craze, and was a schlocky sci-fi-monster movie hybrid which became a favourite on local TV networks. Dohler made sporadic films throughout the '80's including 1991's Blood Massacre, said to be Dohler's best film, but the film went unseen for four years when the film's backers high-tailed it with Dohler's workprint only to be recovered by chance some years later. Exacerbate by the whole business, Dohler took an extended leave from film making not returning until 2001 for a belated sequel to The Alien Factor


Blood, Boobs and Beast includes many clips from Dohler's films and it must be said that most of them look terrible. Dohler would later branch into video production (with collaborator Joe Ripple handling directing duties) and these are especially gruelling. In discussing his career Dohler makes no claim that his films are great art, and seems genuinely amazed that fans would seek him out at conventions to autograph DVDs, let alone that he would be the subject of a documentary. Unlike say American Movie, Kinhart maintains a great respect for Dohler throughout the film especially in the sequences chronicling the weekend shoots of Dead Hunt, a blue collar production plagued by misfortunes that would otherwise be ripe for a Spinal Tap-style parody (the unexpected departure from the film of the leading man when his wife goes into labour, or the film crew routinely triggering an alarm at the warehouse where the film was shot, much to the security company and owner's annoyance). To his credit, Kinhard maintained a respectful distance from Dohler as his illness took over and the film includes just one very poignant scene where a visibly frail Dohler hands over his personal film archive to Joe Ripple.


The documentary gathers together a number of Dohler friends and family, many of whom were at the centre of his film world, like Dohler's kids who pop up in various bit parts, and Dohler often shot his films in and around the homes of friends and neighbours. Also featured are two Dohler fans who offer an amusing Greek chorus style commentary on their hero but interestingly cast an uncertain light on Joe Ripple suggesting that Dohler's films took a sharp decline when Ripple came on board, citing the shot-on-video silicone pole dancer antics of 2004's Vampire Sisters as ample proof. In fact Dohler cringed at the idea of sex in his films and included it only when a distributor demanded (the title of the documentary is supposedly the three essential ingredients for a profitable horror picture). Also featured in the film are Tom Savini and Tom Sullivan who discuss Dohler' Cinemagic magazine with some fondness, (Sullivan recalls bringing issues of Cinemagic to Tennessee when he was designing the special effects for The Evil Dead) as well as J.J. Abrams who composed the score for Night Beast when he was still in his teens.

Don Dohler poses with a fan

As much as it pains me to recommend a Troma DVD, Blood, Boobs and Beast is required viewing for fans of independent Cinema, and amateur film makers. Aside from the usual Troma junk, this DVD is a fine package, with a very welcome second disc containing Night Beast. The documentary itself looks excellent, with a crisp fullscreen image (a sharp contrast to the scuzzy clips from Dohler's films). The main extra on Blood, Boobs and Beast disc is an informative commentary from director John Kinhart.


Night Beast

Night Beast, Dohler’s second feature from 1982 can be approached in two ways – as an affectionate tip of the hat to '50's monster movies, or a documentary about a bunch of non-actors struggling with a screenplay they may not have read. In the film, an alien from the far side of the galaxy crash lands in a rural American town, and promptly begins disemboweling and vaporising the inhabitants. The only thing standing in it's way are the town sheriff and some brave locals...


Night Beast is quite frankly a terrible film, and after some 87 collossal minutes, it's a relief when the film comes to a close. Whatever suspicion one might have about Dohler's film making skills, a large part of the problem is the film's ultra low budget which has Dohler cutting corners throughout, like a scene where the creature is breaking down a basement door, but rather than seeing the beast destroy the door, Dohler simply tosses bits of wooden debris before the camera. Optical effects are embarrassingly crude as well, like the alien's laser blasts turning its victims into glowing silhouttes (much like the starkicker logo seen on the BBC's Old Grey Whistle Test). Fortunately the alien soon loses its gun (prohibitively expensive to run no doubt) and is reduced to ripping his victims apart, at one point resulting in one of the worst severed head effects I've ever seen.


Of the cast, only Jamie Zemarel delivers anything approaching a performance and proves far more resilient than leading man Tom Griffith who plays the utterly ineffectual sheriff who sports quite an extraordinary hairdo. Griffith also gets to bed his leading lady in a truly unflattering and protracted love scene that will have viewers pressing the fast-forward button in a desperate frenzy. It would be unfair to rest all the blame for Night Beast at Don Dohler's feet. In fact Dohler shows some occasional talent, and is well capable of framing a shot and putting together an action set piece, and there is at least one inspired moment in the film when the alien is electrocuted, the scene illuminated only by subliminal blue slivers of light given off by the discharge. By far the most successful element of the film is the excellent electronic score partly attributed to a 16 year old Jeffrey Abrams.


To put it delicately, Night Beast is like all of Don Dohler's films, an aquired taste, but if you're a fan of Without Warning and The Deadly Spawn you might not want to pass this one up. Troma's DVD of Night Beast is decent enough. The fullscreen image looks suitably lo-fi with grain by the truckload and colors that lack vitality - but still a strangely agreeable transfer considering the film's poverty row budget. Audio is fine, if limited. Extras include a 6min collection of outakes and bloopers, some behind the scenes footage and a director's commentary.

6 comments:

  1. Fantastic post, Wes. Reading was like uncovering a newly found treasure! I've just had to rush over to youtube to sample Mr Dohler's work. I'd heard of him and the films from the VHS days but had completely forgotten about them. I'll be watching the rest of Alien Factor in the next few days, but think I might give Night Beast a miss. Also, had a look at IMDB - didn't realise Dohler also made FIEND (1980) another very familiar video cover from the 1980s and I think on the BBFC list.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0080730/


    Didn't

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  2. Thanks Jon, probably a bit too long, so thanks for reading.... Yep, Fiend was one of those instantly memorable sleeves - with that eerie corpse face. I should point out that I watched Night Beast before watching the Blood, Boobs and Beast - had I watched Night Beast second, the review might have been a little less harsh, so it is what it is, and I don't blame you for skipping Night Beast - it's quite an endurance test even for the hardiest of trash fans !

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  3. I tried to post a comment before, but it dosen't seem to have processed. I recently discovered your blog, and now I can't get enough of it.

    Keep up the good work, my friend :)

    BTW - you really deserve more comments.

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  4. Many thanks Tumac, and I appreciate the perseverance with the comments - blogger, these days is about as stable as a North Korean rocket. Also a big thank you for the kind words - there's a whole ocean of brilliant film blogs out there and it's always an inspiration to find someone is diggin' this one. Please stay in touch. Do you have a page of your own ?

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  5. Hi Wes, this is John Kinhart, director of BB&B. Just wanted to say thanks. I really appreciate your thoughtful review!

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  6. Many thanks for the comment John, and thanks too for Blood, Boobs and Beast and shedding much light on this otherwise foggy chapter of Exploitation Film history... Now I need to track down a copy of Joel DeMott's 1980 film The Demon Lover Diary

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