Don Dohler: Uncontained Imagination
Don Dohler was a Baltimore native who became a comic book artist, a self-published magazine creator, and is a largely forgotten horror film legend whose B-movie horror films are among some of the best of the genre. When the films of Don Dohler are being discussed, the name Edward D. Wood Jr. is often referenced or alluded to. If you aren’t familiar with the name, or the 1994 Tim Burton film Ed Wood, he was a man who created films of an impeccably terrible quality and often featured prevalent themes from the science fiction or horror genres. Working with almost nonexistent budgets, nonprofessional actors, and with dialogue being written on the set, Wood believed that his films really were masterpieces; and many of his films, such as Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 From Outer Space, would later be remembered as classics, but not for the reasons he intended. What distinguishes Dohler from simply being deemed “the Ed Wood of the 1980s” is that he knew the quality of the films he was producing and he played into the fact that his films were low-budget, schlock horror.
Dohler was born in Baltimore on January 27, 1946 and ever since he was a child he has had an affiliation for the cinema. When he was young, his mother purchased a film projector for him, and he proceeded to draw stick figures on a piece of scotch tape, and rap the tape through the projector; the animated figures that danced on the wall before the tape burned up inside the projector were the inspiration behind his lifelong passion for film art. He went on to develop an equally elaborate obsession with science fiction, the 1956 film Forbidden Planet being one of his personal favorites; and this passion would go on to have a perpetual impact on his filmmaking career.
In 1961, 15-year-old Dohler started WILD magazine, which was comparable to a MAD magazine-esque publication. He also designed the magazine’s mascot, “ProJunior”, a creation of Dohler’s from middle school. Many artists who would later go on to become big names in the comic book world submitted contributions to Dohler’s publication, such as Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Jay Lynch and Skip Williamson; and all of whom would later form the “underground comix” movement of the late 60s and 70s. Dohler participated in a 1971 comic, which featured 22 artists’ interpretations of ProJunior, and which was prompted by Lynch, Spiegelman and Crumb. WILD only lasted for 11 issues and ceased in 1963.
Dohler decided to merge “his twin passions of publishing and sci-fi/horror amateur filmmaking in 1972 by launching Cinemagic, a magazine that he published out of his home.” The magazine was marketed primarily to filmmakers making films on negligible budgets and “placed a critical emphasis on how-to articles, often written by the filmmakers themselves” and featured such how-to’s as “Creating a Giant Spider” and “Creating Your Own Moon Surface.” Cinemagic has been cited as an inspiration to J.J. Abrams, Tom Sullivan, Ernie Farino and Al Magliochetti. Cinemagic, like WILD, went on for 11 issues; it was purchased in 1979 by Starlog, which is the most prominent science fiction film magazine of all time.
The story of how Dohler finally got motivated to get behind the camera is wonderfully summated by his website’s biography page, which reads, “Meanwhile, catalyzed by a real-life incident considerably more frightening than anything depicted in the pages of Cinemagic, his filmmaking career got under way after years of dithering–“I had been talking with friends [about making a feature], but there was a lot of skepticism, like, ‘You don’t make movies in Baltimore.'” The date: January 27, 1976, Dohler’s 30th birthday. He was working in the D.C. offices of Eddie Leonard, where he’d ascended to the post of payroll manager. “Out of the corner of my eye I notice this guy walking through the offices,” he recounted. “I thought, ‘We’re getting robbed.'” The “Dog Day Afternoon scenario lasted more than an hour and Dohler said of the incident, “Afterward I called a friend of mine in D.C. who had dabbled in filmmaking…and I told him, ‘I almost got killed today. I’m making a movie!’”
The trashy, grungy horror film aesthetic that is apparent in Dohler’s work is exceedingly reminiscent of grindhouse films or Ozploitation films (Australian exploitation films of the 70s.) This film style had not been prominent in the Baltimore art scene until John Waters’ Pink Flamingos release in 1972, six years before Dohler would come out with his first feature.
The Alien Factor was Dohler’s debut film, and was released in 1976. Like his films to come, they were made on a shoestring budget, which meant unprofessional actors and the utilization of techniques similar to the tips suggested in Cinemagic to help amateur sci-fi/horror filmmakers craft their own authentic sets, props, and special effects. The Alien Factor never had a theatrical run but has played at midnight in some Baltimore theatres and had a long T.V. run through the 80s, which regrettably can’t be said for any of his later work.
The homemade aesthetic that pervades Dohler’s work and similar B-horror titles had, and continues to, fail at appealing to a mainstream audience, the majority of whom dismiss it because they find it too goofy to be taken seriously. For those who have the capacity to appreciate it, there is a charm and an intrinsic beauty that can be found in Dohler’s, and many other great B-horror filmmakers’, work. Their mise-en-scene and uncompromised vision is ubiquitous if a director is talented enough, no matter his budgetary constraints. Dohler’s ideas were never held back by production value and his twisted, fantastical creations were brought to life exactly how he envisioned them. These visions included: Fiend (1980), Nightbeast (1982), The Galaxy Invader (1985), Blood Massacre (1991), and Alien Factor: The Alien Rampage (2001.)
On Alien Rampage, local police officer Joe Ripple played an FBI agent and performed several production chores. Seeing an opportunity to finally leave the directing chair and focus on his true passions of cinematography and editing, Dohler asked Ripple to take over directing duties on the rest of their projects. In the summer of 2000 they formed Timewarp Films, first producing the film Harvesters, which was shot on video instead of on film (like Dohler’s previous film Blood Massacre.) They then went on to make the two vampire-themed features Stakes and Vampire Sisters, which were followed up by Dead Hunt and Crawler. While Crawler was in production Dohler was battling cancer, which he had learned he contracted shortly after Dead Hunt premiered in 2006; Dohler passed away on December 2, 2006 at the age of 60, and having lived in Maryland all his life.
A 2007 documentary made by John Paul Kinhart and released by Lloyd Kaufman’s Troma Entertainment, entitled Blood, Boobs & Beast, tells this same story of Don Dohler and his films and is a must-see for any Dohler fans.