Unlike most SOVs (frack, I know it’s shot in 16mm), this second feature film by Don Dohler — his follow up to The Alien Factor (1978) — foregoes gore or excessive, lingering nudity to give us old school, drive-in creepy atmosphere of the Amicus and Hammer variety. Since Fiend was shot on 16 mm and blown up to 35 mm, it’s actually better classified as a “regional horror,”* as it received a limited drive-in theatrical run in the Northeastern U.S. in and around Baltimore, Maryland — before the rest of us discovered Fiend as a VHS release. But truth be told: If there was a letter after the 26th letter of the alphabet, this would be ___ – grade horror. It’s also a movie — as are all of Dohler’s work — with a lot of heart.
As is the case when shooting in film stock, in this case 16mm, no-budget guys are shooting on short ends and, with the cost of said film stock, are one-take charlies: so no retakes, reverses or coverage. It’s all very Ed Woodian, but not as wooden as an Ed Wood film. To that end: Is the acting painful in places. Yes. Are the effects chuckle-enduing. Do you want to jump into the film with a flashlight to see what the frack is going on. Yep. Is it one of Dohler’s best? Yes. The story is great and it’s only held back by its no-budget.
So, did you know that evil spirits “see” in a red optical effect? Okay, it’s a misty, red cloud. But did you know a “fiend” is more than just a Funk & Wagnalls dictionary entry: it’s a supernatural entity — again, a red misty thing (that looks like a bloated red worm or fat and fucked up two-tentacled octopus) — that absorbs evil during its timeless travels. So, our red-filtered lens effect drifts into a graveyard and reanimates the corpse of (violin; if you care) music teacher Eric Longfellow (Don Leifert; of Dohler’s The Galaxy Invader and Nightbeast).
Well, the Fiend needs to absorb the life of the living to continue its existence and needs a human vessel to harvest the life force of others. And also, so the vessel it possesses doesn’t rot away. Don’t ask where our spooky red cloud came from. Don’t ask why it picked poor Longfellow (perhaps he was the freshest corpse in the cemetery).
So, Longfellow digs himself out, well, there’s no “digging”; the Fiend just sort of “drifts-rises” out of the grave — since Longfellow is just a fleshy, transportation device for the Fiend. And taking its cues from George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, we have a young couple in the cemetery (“They’re coming to get you, Barbara!”) for our zombie-fiend thing to feed on (and the queasy-sickly music here takes from Bach’s famed “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor BWV 565,” so cool).
And, with that, our Fiend moves to Kingsfield, Baltimore, where every day is a pleasant valley Sunday with kids on bikes and playing ball as dad mows the lawn . . . until the Fiend (now a bloated-set guy in a Walrus-mustache) comes to town and the dark storm cloud roll in. But life is pretty sunny for Longfellow: his house is fully furnished, he enjoys nice bottles of wine — and he even has Dorien, a cat. Yeah, you heard me right: the Fiend hates women, but love cats.
Like any vampire, or any vamp-chick jazzed-up on wasp juice (see your ’50s horror schlock), Fiend-Longfellow starts to rot, so he needs to suck up some spiritual juice to reverse the process. Of course, of the female persuasion. Of course, the snoopy neighbor (who rocks the mutton chops and plaid sports coats) who don’t take too kindly to da-dem dere newcumers (yep, the old “outsiders” trope of many horror films of old) — and hates Longfellow’s now seven-months of violin screeching — becomes obsessed with the strangulation murders plaguing rural Baltimore and thinks the quiet-weird violin guy, aka Longfellow, is the killer. Seriously, as stiff-as-cardboard liner-reader wife-Kender points out, in a roundabout way: Mr. Kender’s kind of a dick that itches to pick fights. The dude needs — deserves — to have his soul homo-sucked dry. And cool it with the faux-detective third degree on little kids. And berating your wife. If anything, ol’ man Kender is the real “fiend” of Baltimore. Someone red-optical effect his punk ass.
So, I am going over the razor’s edge of quality to say Fiend is the best of Don Dohler’s ’80s efforts?
As with Constantine S. Gochis’s (fantastic) The Redeemer, Fiend is so close: it’s almost there, to a John Carpenter Halloween-level, but misses the mark to be the next Bob Clark’s Deathdream (which Fiend reminds with its dead, rotting antagonist) or Alan Ormsby’s Deranged. Or Don Coscarelli’s so-awesome Phantasm. Why Dohler ditched the Hammer-Amicus creeps direction of Fiend to, essentially, remake The Alien Factor to a lesser-and-lesser effect with Nightbeast and The Galaxy Invader — then retire-vanish for a decade until bringing us Blood Massacre (1991), is an opportunity missed. Why? Because of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind making aliens and sci-fi en vogue?
While it has its weakness — Don Leifert is actually very effective as the emotionless Fiend-Longfellow (but that cheesy ’70s mustache; yikes, only in the ’70s), and the decomposing face reanimation is equally effective on-the-cheap — all SOVs should be as well-written and shot as Fiend. (Unlike SOVs, Fiend received a drive-in and theatrical release.) Yes, I rank Fiend alongside Deathdream, Deranged, Halloween, Phantasm, and The Redeemer as one of those special, self-made nostalgic creep fests. As result of the Dohler lineage, Fiend is easily purchased on digital and hard media platforms in the online marketplace — and you can watch a free VHS rip of Fiend on You Tube.
* Sam discussed Fiend during our “Regional Horror” tribute week back in March. Look for it!