Friday, September 16, 2016

Past Misdeeds: The Alien Factor (1978)

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 small town in Maryland is hit by a series of gruesome and inexplicable murders. Sheriff Cinder (Tom Griffith) is clueless what to do about the problem, and even if he had an idea, it would probably be difficult for him to set a plan into action, given that he seems to be fused to his desk and also possibly one of the walking, moustachioed dead. In a sense, I'm quite glad he loves his desk so much, because another sex scene featuring him rubbing his moustache about some poor woman like that nightmarish episode in the later Nightbeast would probably shatter my sanity for good.

Anyway, the Sheriff knows well that he has no clue and no talent for police work and would very much like to call the state police on the mass slaughter. The town's mayor (Richard Dyszel) however, won't hear of it. You see, there's a large "entertainment complex" (I imagine a very pink bordello) going to be built on the edge of town, and the mayor doesn't want the investors to get nervous. I'm sure they prefer a series of unsolved murders to a solved one.

Fortunately, Ben Zachary (Don Leifert) arrives in town, with a moustache as excellent as that of Cinder and carrying a bag full of gadgets. Zachary purports to work for a nearby observatory and also to be something of an expert in strange things, following a fallen meteorite into town. He'd just love to solve the murders for the mayor while he's at it.

Zachary quickly finds out that the killings are carried out by a trio of malevolent aliens who have escaped from a crashed interplanetary zoo transport, and he knows astonishingly well what to do against them. One could begin to think the observatory worker has a completely surprising secret of his own.

But can one exceedingly hairy man stand alone against the power of Lame Insect Guy, the Abominable Stiltman and Coloured Spot That Moonlights As A See-Through Lizard Monster?

The Alien Factor is the first film directed by the singular Don Dohler, Baltimore's king of dubious yet charming monster movies. Not surprisingly, his debut film presents itself with all the flaws Dohler's later movies would continue to show.

Throughout, The Alien Factor tests its audience's patience with the slowest imaginable pacing, created by Dohler's tendency to fill out his movies' running time with long and pointless sequences of boring and rather ugly people doing nothing of interest or relevance, and doing it very very slowly.

The film isn't exactly getting more thrilling through the peculiar way acting is practiced on planet Dohler. Nobody on screen seems to have a clue how human beings speak, move or look, and so each and every one of the actors has decided to imitate a different object or animal. Dyszel, for example, reminds me of nothing so much as of an excitable dog in a suit, while Griffith prefers the immobility of his beloved desk. The latter is quite understandable, because one can't help but notice in Griffith's regular downward looks that his dialogue is lying on the desk before him. That thing is a regular life saver, if Griffith does in fact possess a life to be saved. Of course, acting this singularly peculiar might not make a film more believable, yet it can't help but amuse.

The only exception from the rule of bad acting is Don Leifert, who always was one of the more talented participants in Dohler's films. I'm not talking about great acting here, but Leifert does possess at least a little charisma and screen presence and does not talk like a broken robot.

Dohler's direction is not exactly masterful either, but for something that was made by a group of people in Baltimore, on an absurd budget and with little experience in commercial filmmaking, The Alien Factor is quite nice to look at. Dohler is obviously a point and shoot guy at heart, he does however usually manage to keep his camera pointed in the right direction. From time to time, scenes are even filmed from more than one camera angle, which might not sound exciting if you're not acquainted with many products of regional filmmaking, but is far from a matter of course in films like this, usually for budgetary reasons.

Dohler might not be visually ambitious (I suspect his ideal SF movie was made in the 50s, in the US), yet he genuinely seems to care about making a watchable movie. While a lot of what we see on screen is pretty boring, Dohler achieves some moody or effective shots from time to time, probably through pure bloody-mindedness more than anything else.

Bloody-mindedness is also what comes to mind when looking at the monsters - three creatures designed with obvious care and enthusiasm and utterly ridiculous, yet ridiculous in a way that speaks of love and the willingness to do stupid things when those stupid things help to get a movie made.

Later Dohler epics would go on to feature a lot of local colour, granting a look into a provincial life that is five to ten years behind what is going on in the cities and imbuing the films with a peculiar charm that is the saving grace of many a local film production of its time. The Alien Factor isn't quite there yet - there's a bit of frightening fashion and ugly living rooms to gawk at, but not as many of the bizarre local characters doing things that might be edgy or funny when you're living in the less exciting parts of the country. Where the later films are set in bizarro Maryland, this one takes place in a more generic small town USA, the fact that Sheriff Cinder and some of the other characters would return in the very Maryland Nighbeast notwithstanding.

Dohler's later films would also feature a bit more gore and (if you want to call it that) sex, the former quite helpful in keeping the viewer awake, the latter the thing nightmares are made off. The Alien Factor for its part seems largely satisfied with displaying the amount of violence and sexuality of your typical 50s monster film.

All this might sound like The Alien Factor should be a rather dreary and boring experience hardly even fit to laugh at, but I find the film much too enthusiastic in its imitation of the structures of its models from the 50s and too determined to be an actual movie like those old ones were - even if neither the money nor the experience are there - to do anything else but love it a little bit.

It's true, I found myself laughing while watching the poor guy in the stilt suit trying to keep his balance while threatening the most wooden actors on the planet, or seeing Leifert wrestle with the See-Through Lizard, but I wasn't laughing about them, or Dohler, I was laughing with them about the strange roads to which this moviemaking lark can lead the people making them.

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