A 1950s-style grade-Z monster movie that, for some unknown reason,
has a cult following. Retromedia has released on Blu-ray THE ALIEN FACTOR, the
1978 invisible budget sci-fi horror opus from Baltimore, Maryland producer/writer/director
Don Dohler. Shot in 16mm on a reported budget of $3500 during the winter of
1976, THE ALIEN FACTOR, needless to say, never made it to your local multiplex
or drive-in (even after a post blow-up to 35mm). However, incompetent-at-best
Dohler’s amalgamation of a standard 1950s aliens on the loose plot line
with diverse elements of JAWS and TV’s McCLOUD thrown in, has become a
known entity for aficionados of bad, bad moviemaking thanks to repeated
cable showings and a well-received skewering from Cinematic Titanic. In addition
to the new 2K scan of THE ALIEN FACTOR, Retromedia has included a brand-new
cast and crew commentary track, along with a behind-the-scenes featurette, alternate
special effects footage, cast and crew reunion footage, a blooper reel, and
more (some of which have already appeared on a previous standard DVD release).
Horny Rex Walker (Baltimore D.J. Johnny Walker) and Mary Jane Carter (Eleanor Herman, NIGHTBEAST) are about to get it on in Rex’s fancy VW station wagon. However, highly varnished and buffed insectoid “Inferbyce” (Larry Schlechter) has other ideas: he pulls Rex through the car window and kills him, while a terrified Mary Jane escapes. Town sheriff Jack Cinder (Tom Griffith, FIEND) thinks maybe it was some kind of a bar’ or somethin’, but coroner Dr. Ruth Sherman (Anne Frith, BLOOD MASSACRE) and her assistant/nephew Steven (George Stover, DESPERATE LIVING) suspect something else when they discover Rex was poisoned. A bar stool jockey (Dave Geatty) is the town’s next victim, clawed and strangled to death in his basement by a “Zagatile,” a large, Yeti-like creature with matted fur and a really serious foot arch problem. Next, a local becomes mummified by an invisible “energy” creature, the “Leemoid.” But that ain’t all: a blonde in the woods one night brushes off her too-eager boyfriend only to get zapped by a passing cycle punk. Low and behold: here comes another alien creature with flesh-peeled musculature and a head that resembles a giant mud wasp nest. He breathes new life into the dying girl. So...what is going on in this small Maryland hamlet? Whatever it is, girl reporter Edie Martin (Mary Mertens) wants to find out; town mayor and chief weasel Mayor Bert Wicker (Richard Dyszel, THE GALAXY INVADER) wants to keep it hidden, lest that future multi-million dollar amusement park decides to relocate somewhere where aliens won’t kill the patrons; and “adventurer” astronomer Benjamin Zachary (Don Leifert, NIGHTBEAST) knows...but won’t tell.
I didn’t see the Cinematic Titanic thrashing of THE ALIEN FACTOR, but I do have vague memories of seeing it on one of TNT’s late night movie shows years back. What I thought of at the time as just another anonymous drive-in B flick wasn’t really that at all, once I did some online research. Don Dohler, who had some minor recognition in the 1960s and 1970s underground comic and movie monster/special effects magazine scenes, apparently decided after a near-death experience that time was short, and it was time to actually make a movie, not just write about them. Tapping seven friends and family members for $500 bucks each, and enlisting more of the same for unpaid acting and crew work (along with help from associates he knew through a local amateur moviemaking club), Dohler began shooting in the fall and winter of 1976, pretty much in his Baltimore suburb’s backyard, surrounding woods and farms...and in his basement. Admitting that the production was haphazard and chaotic for all the moviemaking novices, Dohler still hoped to get his effort onto a big screen. Of course, not even the smallest distributors wanted anything to do with a crappy little 16mm horror/sci-fi mystery, so Dohler somehow scraped up a then-whopping 10Gs to get a 35mm blowup—just in time for the moribund sci-fi genre to explode with the success of STAR WARS in the summer of 1977. Although Dohler still couldn’t get a major (or even minuscule) big-screen distribution deal, he did finally manage to sell THE ALIEN FACTOR straight to television (as part of a syndicated package deal), and the rest was history. Dohler went on to shoot 10 other low, low budget horror outings over the next couple of decades (with breaks in-between because, as he admitted himself, he didn’t much care for directing), before, relatively young, he passed away in 2006.
So that inspiring biography should ensure our admiration for the director’s Hortio Alger-meets-Orson Welles efforts, if nothing else? Right? Wrong. Reading quite a few reviews for THE ALIEN FACTOR, I knew there was trouble when virtually everyone prefaced their critical remarks with near-joyous, gee-whiz excuses for Dohler’s ineptitude, peppering their articles with phrases such as “charmingly rough,” “endearingly bad,” “raw energy and infectious feeling of pure go-for-it ‘Do-It-Yourself” enthusiasm,” and the dreaded, paralyzing, patronizing “labor of love.” That entirely dubious aesthetic rationale—the “love me because I’m a plucky loser if nothing else” dodge—sets the bar impossibly low: as if someone’s high ambition alone is as good or worthy as someone else’s actual achievement (a scurrilous sentiment all too common today). Dohler was on record numerous times, apparently, deriding his own contributions to movie directing...so why should slack be cut for efforts he didn’t seem all that passionate about in the first place? Miniscule budgets and amateur actors and crews frequently produce questionable material in this arena of indie moviemaking, but they don’t necessarily have to. Others have done wonders with little money (intentionally or not). A sh*tty movie is a sh*tty movie whether it cost a hundred million or a hundred dollars. “Trying” doesn’t get you an award. There’s either doing or not doing...and THE ALIEN FACTOR ain’t doing (nor is it truly bad enough or unique enough or weird enough—or just “other” enough—to merit the “good times at a bad movie” hilarity that so many reviewers profess for it).
Now, to be fair: there were two or three things I did enjoy in the movie. The look and feel of that opening credit sequence from pro Ernest D. Farino (THE TERMINATOR, TV’s the Pillsbury Doughboy!) took me right back to the days of Shick-Sunn Classics epics like CHARIOTS OF THE GODS? and THE OUTER SPACE CONNECTION (I love that you can see the reflectors on that lamp subbing for the sun). Some of Kenneth Walker’s music cues have that agreeably creepy low-budget feel to them (or they do the one or two times the visuals actually match the music’s mood). The monster costumes, if woefully inept, are at least widely varied in their design. That forced perspective shot of the crashed space craft is A-level trickery (someone on the commentary track said it was a toothbrush holder). And I did enjoy the lead singer of "Atlantis", not for his singing, but because he looked remarkably like Shecky Greene in one of Pete Townsend's out-of-date velvet jackets.
Technically, THE ALIEN FACTOR looks worse than the first-year student films we used to screen back in college (and that’s saying something). Shots are mismatched almost consistently, eye lines are all wrong, and continuity is often out to lunch. The sets are pitiable (the autopsy “room” is a wrinkled bedsheet...and, according to the commentary track, it took a week to fabricate that sheriff’s office? It’s a desk, a map, a chintzy gun rack, and the world’s tiniest filing cabinet. Including painting the cardboard walls, you’re talking two hours max). Except for Leifert, who’s having a good time with a seriously stupid role, the acting is either non-existent or grotesquely mugged (you can sort the two out to your own taste). The action, when it comes, is laughably choreographed and devoid of even the smallest hint of suspense, let alone terror (that final Leemoid attack is...astonishing for every possible wrong reason), while the script’s solutions for the monsters’ demise are even more ludicrous (apparently, you need a lot of speaker wire out in them woods, and a gun that blows not darts but actual syringes...never mind how the plunger is activated). Dohler’s humorless script tries to rip off JAWS (the venal town official Dyszel who wants to keep schtum about a local calamity; the arrival of unconventional “adventurer/expert” Leifert who tells everyone this wasn’t a boating accident) and McCLOUD (the story’s cop/mystery angle, with Griffith a reasonable cheapjack version of Dennis Weaver), but he does nothing with that material, being instead content, apparently, in having his characters endlessly talk and talk and talk and walk and walk and walk, as if nothing too terribly pressing is happening to their town and its people. You can commit a lot of crimes, both structural and thematic, when it comes to low-budget horror/sci-fi genre moviemaking, but you better never commit the cardinal sin of boring you audience to death. THE ALIEN FACTOR isn’t good, and it isn’t so bad it’s good...it’s just bad.
The new 2K 1080p HD widescreen 1.75:1 transfer for THE ALIEN FACTOR looks far better than I expected, even though the original elements are rough in spots. Shot on 16mm and then blown up to 35mm, THE ALIEN FACTOR was never going to look digitally perfect on Blu. Scratches are the big worry here...but considering how often dark the image is, you may not notice unless they’re the green ones. Image detail is frequently soft (a focus problem, considering the equipment and the operator), and grain is certainly a factor considering the film medium. Still...this looks pretty good, considering. The LPCM 2.0 English stereo mix fluctuates with some pretty jarring music cues versus some softer dialogue passages. Hiss is noticeable at times—something you don’t often hear with Blu releases, so don’t adjust your equipment.
Extras include a new commentary track, “hosted” by George Stover, who freely admits he has nothing new to say about the movie since his last commentary track, and who then cobbles together new snippets of commentary from various cast members and crew who phoned in their reminiscences. My favorite moment is when Ferino just sighs in exasperation at the opening credit sequence before his audio clip is cut off. Some good info on the production: the original cinematographer quit on day one (he knew what was up...); Griffith had all his lines taped to his car dashboard; good detail on John Costino’s involvement with the two-day reshoots; Mary Mertens’ refusal to get on board with remembering how great all this stuff was (she’s obviously not on the commentary track); and my second favorite moment—someone sets us up for a juicy story about controversial Baltimore D.J. Johnny Walker...only to have the person deliver this, “if you want to know more about him, Google him.” Classic!
Next up is some noisy camcorder footage (32:01) of the FANEX convention from 1993, where Stover, Richard Dyszel, Don Leifert, Dave Ellis, Anne Frith, and Christopher Gummer have a reunion of sorts, answering questions (I think) from a handful of fans (the audio is so garbled it's often difficult to know what's going on). Next, "Meet the Cast and Crew" (35:19) finds Stover, out in a backyard somewhere, introing little video clips of the movie's cast and crew telling us what they've been up to over the years, along with some interesting behind-the-scenes photos taken during the shoot. My favorite extra comes next: "The Television Years" (38:17), which features clips from Dyszel's stint as Count Gore De Vol (clever name), a Baltimore-area late night "Creature Feature" host. He's seen interviewing some of the crew involved with THE ALIEN FACTOR (director Dohler shows up, and he's embarrassingly unimpressive-—this is how you drum up enthusiasm for your local movie production?). You can tell Dyszel's scrambling. Best part? All those nostalgic channel bumpers for upcoming airings of the movie. "Behind the Scenes" (6:18) has Stover again, lurking in someone's backyard, displaying his collection of THE ALIEN FACTOR memorabilia (you want to believe someone was goofing on purpose, displaying his two "costumes" by simply hanging them on hangers off a stockade fence, but then this is THE ALIEN FACTOR, so...). "The Alternate Leemoid Sequence" (2:13), with commentary by cinematographer Britt McDonough, is interesting when comparing the evolution of the monster (and for seeing how badly shot that original live action footage was). A blooper reel (3:38), which isn't funny at all, and a "Retromedia Drive-In Theater Intro" round out the extras. In a nice touch for collectors, George Stover has autographed copies of the Blu-ray's back cover. (Paul Mavis)
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