The Alien Factor (1978) is so archetypal of 70s ultra-low-budget sci-fi/horror that it almost seems like a SCTV parody of the genre. Loaded with awkward blocking and long snatches of blandly delivered expositional dialogue, its strength is in its simple charms: a few good ideas, some amusing characters, and enough money-shot visuals to inspire 100 great screen captures. These folks clearly worked hard on the monsters—one of which has anatomically built-in platform heels—and in general, your entertainment will come from the earnest and colorful visual effects and primitive, in-camera and stop-motion techniques. Make no mistake, The Alien Factor is eyeball-pleasin'; the title sequence alone should be canonized as some kind of holy representation of 70s goodness. If I seem to disparage The Alien Factor, it's only because Dohler's next feature goes straight to the heart of my aesthetic nerve centre.
Everything that The Alien Factor may lack in sophistication is more than made up for by director Don Dohler's next movie, Fiend (aka Deadly Neighbor, 1980), a genuinely creepy, witty and highly original living-dead scenario. In the film, a mysterious alien force, an ethereal red-glowing flying thing, for reasons unknown to us, reanimates (or possesses) a buried corpse, and the combo adds up to one nasty character, an intense sadist named Mr. Longfellow. The trajectory is quite unpredictable, as our zombie pal takes over an empty house, opens a music school (!), and generally irritates his neighbors (whose somewhat banal interactions also provide their own amusing little subplot, especially as the length of the wife's hair keeps changing from scene to scene.) And oh yes, there's Longfellow's murder/sustenance rituals, which also consist of shouting and stabbing at photographs of his victims (and a lot of black candles.)
After Alien Factor, Dohler must have learned a lot about shot framing, suspenseful editing, and economy of dialogue, such that Fiend is elevated from being merely a visually charming, colorful oddity like its predecessor, to being an aggressively weird and disquieting horror tale. I'd also be remiss not to mention that both of these films feature a melodic, burbling synthesizer score (The Alien Factor by Kenneth Walker; Fiend by Paul Woznicki), so well done and so evocative of the time as to give me a super-warm fuzzy. See the My Castle of Quiet blog for a downloadable cinelogue audio excerpt from Fiend.
It's obvious that despite challenges of budget, Dohler and his crew worked hard to try and make good, entertaining movies, and, at least with Fiend, came pretty close to some metaphysical horror fan's ideal. Dohler is something of a legend, especially in his native Baltimore, and now I see why. Many thanks to James for the loan of the two-in-one DVD (released 2005), and for insisting that we give these bent pictures an eyeball.
Another Don Dohler film, Galaxy Invader, can be viewed or downloaded for free here via archive.org. There's also a well-reviewed and relatively new Dohler documentary, released on DVD earlier this year.