Sunday, August 23, 2020

Fiend (1980)

... aka: Angst der Verlorenen (Fear of the Lost)
... aka: Deadly Neighbor
... aka: Demonio (Demon)

Directed by:
Don Dohler

A red specter floats through a cemetery and sinks into the ground; possessing one of the corpses. Seeing how shuffling around in a rotting body is no way to go, the "fiend" (Don Leifert) also has the ability to "renew" itself by strangling the lifeforce out of victims, as one poor woman hanging out in the cemetery late at night soon finds out. Now with an acceptable human-like appearance, the "fiend" desires to integrate itself back into society and live a normal life. The only problem is that it must continue to kill to keep up appearances.

It chooses to move into a home in the family-friendly Baltimore suburb of Kingsville. Well, it actually just removes the realty sign from the front yard of a vacant home and then takes possession of it. It gets a pet cat named Dorian (cleverly named after Dorian Gray and played by "Pepper," though it would have been more amusing if they doubled down on the reference by using a gray cat instead of a black one!), opens a music academy (!), starts giving violin lessons out of its home and and takes the new identity of Eric Longfellow, along with a hilariously pretentious and pompous attitude, to boot! As not to draw too much attention to itself, it doesn't associate with the neighbors, has delegated most of the work at the academy to manager, accountant and all-around wimpy pushover Dennis Frye (George Stover) and tries not to kill anyone nearby (at least at first!), opting to travel to surrounding counties to claim victims instead. However, it's still close enough to put those in the suburb on red alert.

Longfellow's habit of both giving music lessons and sitting around sipping wine and loudly listening to classical music late into the evening starts grating on his next door neighbor Gary Kender's (Richard Nelson) nerves. Even though they've been putting up with the noise for months now, Gary's loving-but-smothering wife Marsha (Elaine White) refuses to let him confront him as to maintain the peace. Longellow kills a woman in the woods who's walking home from work then stalks a woman at a grocery store, follows her home and strangles her with a chain. He then starts getting complacent and sloppy. He plots to kill a woman who comes over for violin lessons until he finds out her boyfriend is waiting outside for her in the car. Instead, he opts to kill poor little Kristy Michaels (Kim Dohler), who's out behind his house playing with her Barbies. When her dead body is found in a stream with her neck broken, Gary becomes convinced that the bizarre-acting Longfellow has something to do with it.

Defying his wife's advice, Gary goes to confront Longfellow at his home, where he's put off by his nonchalant attitude about the little girl killed right behind their homes. He also finds an altar in the basement with candles, skulls, shredded pictures and a knife. Gary goes to the music academy and questions Dennis, whom he suspects lied to the police to give Longfellow an alibi but he's unable to get anything concrete. After finding out a local grave had been robbed months earlier and the corpse of one William Dorian (the cousin of the former occupant of Longfellow's home), Gary starts reading up on witchcraft and demonology. Meanwhile, a neighborhood boy named Scotty (Greg Dohler) also grows suspicious of Longfellow and starts following him around. He catches him right in the act of killing and stealing a victim's life energy. Can the neighborhood pull together to stop the fiend?

One thing I always admired about Dohler was his desire to actually make a decent film despite having very little money to work with. Unlike a lot of other cheap movies, which fall back on over-long static takes, medium shots and all manner of lingering filler to save time and money, this one has comparably ambitious camerawork and you get the felling the director thought through exactly what he was going to do for each scene prior to shooting it. Enough raw material was shot, from a wide variety of angles, to put together a fairly slick movie. There's good use of fades and panning shots, effective camera placements and shot framing, some nice scene transitions and little montages of suburban life to establish the setting and such.

Dohler is also sincere and unapologetically old school in his approach. Clearly inspired mostly by classic 50s sci-fi and horror, this one flagrantly defies the early 80s slasher-gore and sex craze as there's no nudity, very little blood and barely even any profanity. Of course there are also obvious issues with the film. Most of the acting isn't great (aside from the very entertaining Leifert), though the cast is at least comprised of likable amateurs who try their best. It gets a bit talky at times and some of the dialogue scenes, especially between the couple, feel redundant and pointless. The special effects and make-up won't blow you away either. However, this is still charming and a lot of fun in spite of all that and even manages to be fairly creepy in spots thanks to the gritty photography and eerie synthesizer score by Paul Woznicki., who doesn't appear to have done any other films.

Dohler takes time out to plug his 1979 book Film Magic: The Fantastic Guide to Special Effects Filmmaking, which the wife inquires about as she's planning on making a Super 8 sci-fi movie with a boy scout den. Actually Film Magic gets plugged three different times in three different scenes! The director also used his own magazine Amazing Cinema to promote the film. Fiend is given the cover and a generous eight pages of coverage in the June 1981 issue. In the article written by Bill George, it states the budget was "less than $60,000" though pretty much every source online claims the budget was actually "6,000" dollars.

Don also wrote, produced, edited and did additional photography. In addition to both of his kids being featured, wife Pam Dohler also has a small role as one of the victims. The associate producers were Stover, Anne Frith (who has a small role and roles in most of Dohler's other projects) and future director Ted A. Bohus (who also has a bit part sitting in a car). The cast includes cinematographer Richard Geiwitz and Tom Griffith, who'd later star in Dohler's NIGHTBEAST (1982), along with most of the rest of this film's primary cast.

This was filmed in Milford and Perry Hall, Maryland over a three month period. Dohler's own home was used for the killer's home. After playing a very limited theatrical release in 1980, it received home video releases in the U.S. (starting with a 1982 VHS from Force Video) and throughout Europe. Retromedia were the first to issue a DVD in 2003 and Blu-ray editions followed in 2018 from Massacre Video and CMV Laservision out of Germany.

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