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ANALOG ABATTOIR: Don Dohler’s “FIEND” is a Surprisingly Earnest Low-Fi Nightmare

Monday, November 20, 2023 | Analog Abattoir


Starring Donald Leifert, Elaine White and George Stover
Written and directed by Don Dohler
Massacre Video

There is a phenomenon of the “horror-movie-within-a-horror-movie” that fascinates me. It comes into play when a fan of the genre sees specific scenes with in-universe elements in a movie, for example, when a character picks up a rental VHS for a fake slasher, when a TV set gives us glimpses of a marauding alien killer or when the prop department creates a realistic-looking gothic horror poster seen just out of frame on the wall of the protagonist’s bedroom. When we, as horror fiends,  see these things, we want to know them. We want to experience the celluloid within the celluloid that compels (or, in some cases, repels) the characters we are watching. The most obvious example is in the horror club meeting in Brainscan. Ed Furlong’s Michael and his horror-fanatic friends watch a sequence of gritty vampire gore during their get-together. Facing the very Tipper Gore-esque principal in a later scene, Furlong states that the name of the film is Death Death Death. I would find out the actual movie is The Dracula Saga, a Spanish gothic horror film that will be right in your wheelhouse if you love the films of Paul Naschy. Every time I saw Furlong watching Death Death Death, I wanted to see the whole thing. 

Don Dohler is one of the few directors who made movies that feel like they would exist within a horror movie. There is an earnestness in them, a regional charm tempered with primitive effects, that just makes you want to take a bite out of the film grain. 

FIEND, released in 1980, epitomizes this feeling. A departure from Dohler’s early preoccupation with aliens menacing small towns, FIEND instead focuses on a supernatural threat. The film begins as an unknown force enters the body of the deceased Eric Longfellow (Donald Leifert). Emerging from the grave, the malefic entity inside the corpse resumes Longfellow’s former career as a music teacher. However, its true passion is stealing the life force of the innocent through the act of strangulation. As the body count grows, Longfellow’s neighbors grow suspicious and eventually confront the evil puppeteering his decaying body. 

The soul of FIEND, all credit to Dohler, is what elevates the film from the average studio monster mash. The movie drips with the mood of half-forgotten nightmares, as scenes of suburban tranquility contrast with Longfellow’s reign of terror. Dohler presents a cul-de-sac baseball game between local children, letting us get used to the languid pace. Then, the dreamy calm is interrupted as we cut to Longfellow stalking backyards at dusk, the synthesizer soundtrack lingering like an eerie fog over the proceedings. The eponymous Fiend ultimately finds a victim, its hands and silhouette glowing an eerie red as it violently takes their life. Dohler wants us to be aware that, while the nature of his film is to entertain, the evil that Longfellow perpetrates is horrifying and shatters the idyllic calm that this suburban community once had. 

The soundtrack, composed by Paul Woznicki, only enhances the mood of FIEND. An improvised score composed over one sleepless weekend, the music combines melancholy piano compositions and brutal synth tracks. (The soundtrack was recently released in a beautiful vinyl LP edition by Mystic Vault Media.) 

While the end of FIEND sees Longfellow thwarted, the images from the film will remain seared into your brain long after the credits roll: Longfellow’s moldering face, the red glow of his supernatural powers, and the compelling low-fi soundtrack are figments of midnight movie, drive-in purity – irresistible, yet dangerous, in the right hands. Thank the Devil they were Dohler’s. 

Death to false horror,
Dr. Benny Graves

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