Friday, December 4, 2015

Past Misdeeds: Fiend (1980)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

A strange red energy descends upon a graveyard by night. It seems to have plans with one of the corpses which are so peacefully rotting away. Conveniently, a pair of lovers has decided to spend some time together there, and the freshly revived dead guy (Don Leifert) can have some fun strangling the female part of the duo with red glowing hands. Looks like he is sucking out her life force too - at least he looks much fresher after the rude deed is done.

Some weeks later, we see the former dead guy move into a house in the circle of hell known as the suburbs. Another jump in time forward, and we finally learn a little more about him and what he is up too.
Dead guy now goes under the name of Eric Longfellow, owns a music school and drives his choleric and paranoid neighbour Gary Kender (Richard Nelson and yes, ladies and gentlemen, our hero) bonkers with his proclivity to play the violin until the early evening hours (terrifying, I know).

When he's not fiddling away merrily, Longfellow sits in the cellar of his house, pets his (of course black) cat and swills wine. From time to time, he drives out to kill another woman to replenish his energy levels.
This could probably go on forever if Longfellow wouldn't start to get sloppy. He kills his victims ever closer to his home until he one day strangles a child in the woods just behind his house. The police might not suspect anything, but his categorical statement that he hasn't heard or seen anything out of the ordinary when the child was slain is more than enough to put the aggressive lunatic that is Gary Kender on his case.
Gary is soon convinced that his hated neighbour hides something terrible behind his facade of arrogant politeness.

For once, there are no evil aliens invading Baltimore in a Don Dohler film. We are in fact not in Maryland at all but in Delaware, and the change of scenery does minor wonders for Fiend. It's the peculiar case of a Dohler movie that is actually more good than just stupidly entertaining.

Sure, Dohler still provides all of the flaws that characterize his films in copious amounts, but their impact on the film as a whole is not as bad as I'm used to in his works. As a director, Dohler often had trouble reaching a level above "technically barely adequate", probably thanks to the shoestring way he had to budget his film, but also thanks to a decisive lack of visual imagination. Fiend still isn't a festival of the senses, yet there are enough moments that show a higher amount of style than one is used to from the director. For once, Dohler is out to evoke a mood through his film's visuals instead of just pointing the camera in the direction of his actors. Don't get me wrong, he isn't suddenly transforming into Mario Bava, but in the context of his other works and the way American local independent horror films had to be shot to be shot at all, it's quite an impressive development for Dohler.

The acting is also quite a bit better than in other Dohler films. Of course, there are still enough bad line readings to make viewers unaccustomed to backyard filmmaking flinch. Nelson and Elaine White as his wife however are at least coming over as natural instead of wooden, which is all I ask for in a film like this, really.
Don Leifert's performance as the film's Big Bad is a little more difficult to evaluate. On one hand, he does some truly fearful mugging for the camera, like a chimpanzee trying to imitate Vincent Price (and of course failing), yet on the other hand he hits some notes of real creepiness, sometimes even of evil, when one would least expect it.

Also better than usual in Dohlerland is the script, or at least the plotting. The pacing is very deliberate (meaner people than I might call it slow), yet also lacking the rambling, disconnected quality of Dohler's other films. Calling it tight would probably go too far, but it's pretty solid.

What I found especially interesting about the film was the character of Kender. The viewer is obviously meant to identify with him, but his irascible nature and extremely rude manners and the initial irrationality of his antipathy towards Longfellow made this completely impossible for me. Our hero here is the kind of guy who, living in a totalitarian state, would go around denunciating people with the smugness of one perfectly unable to have empathy with anyone but himself. In this, he is ironically enough just like the monster he is after, both of them perfectly punchable.

Now, I'm not arguing this is something Dohler put into his film on purpose; looking at the politics of his other films I rather think Dohler sees Kender as "good people", and as someone perfectly in his rights when being an insufferable arse. To me, it just seems to be one of the beauties of art, and something that happens especially often in this type of local filmmaking, that aspects and ideas an artist never planned for still find their way into it, making it stranger and quite a bit more interesting than anyone could expect.
Of course, one would be perfectly in one's right to call this pretentious crap and just let oneself get distracted by Fiend's perfectly annoying synthie soundtrack.

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