Thanks to a very good performance by Don Leifert FIEND comes very close to being a good movie. Goodness knows it's at least watchable.
Dohler shot in 16mm. Watching this, I kept thinking that if he were working today with digital video he might have the luxury of more retakes, more flexibility with the camera, and this might have given him the opportunity to make this into the movie Dohler saw in his head.
The premise is great. A corpse is reanimated by a mysterious force, rises from the grave, and heads not for London or a castle in Transylvania but a Wonder Bread suburb in Maryland.
The freshly risen corpse takes on the name Mr. Longfellow and opens a music academy in his home. The neighbors find him strange and reclusive, but at first he doesn't seem menacing. It seems strange that I don't remember anyone in the film playing a musical instrument, but oh well.
What the neighbors don't know is that on a regular basis Mr. Longfellow has to go out and kill someone, wrapping his hands around their necks and draining their life essence. When he does this he glows red as he feeds on the innocent victims. He's not a vampire, at least not a traditional one: most of his attacks are in daylight. In the back of my mind there's the thought that filming in daylight is cheaper and faster than setting up lighting, but I'll let that slide.
He needs this life force to continue to live. He looks to be in his late thirties, but when his life force runs low he looks like a man of about seventy and if he goes too long between feeding he looks like the rotting corpse he is.
His next door neighbors are a young couple named Gary and Marsha. How nice a person is Marsha? She leads the local Scout troop. Although they don't have any children (there are a couple of oblique references to children, but we don't ever see them) she's a stay at home housewife content to clean house and cook like a good Stepford wife. If she's ever read THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE, she never shows it.
With the passage of time they begin to suspect that Mr. Longfellow isn't as harmless as he'd like people to think. Then one afternoon, in the woods right behind their house....
Sure, this idea has been used before. It goes back to the Alfred Hitchcock/Thornton Wilder masterpiece SHADOW OF A DOUBT in which a girl in a small town in California comes to suspect that her much loved uncle is actually a cold blooded murderer. And I suspect that the circle at the end of the dead end street is actually Dohler's own neighborhood. But it's an effective use of setting.
The fatal flaw of this movie is the same one that affects so many ultra low budget ones. We have footage of people talking, then the fiend goes out and kills someone, then people talk some more.
If you use the standards of community theatre, these are good performances. Don Leifert makes a nice bad guy. I watched FIEND right after ALIEN FACTOR in which he plays the hero, and there is a clear difference between the two characterizations.
Dohler's direction is more assured here than in ALIEN FACTOR. I guess he learned on the job. He understands the basic structure of film (establishing shot, medium shot, closeup, reaction, etc.) well enough that the story in both films is told coherently. Here he really tries to go a little farther in adding some depth to the characters.
The movie makes extensive use of children, including Dohler's son in a key role. Somehow I don't think that there were the usual complications of child welfare workers and limited hours. Most if not all of the actors probably got pizza instead of a paycheck.
The thing of it is, though, great performances are a collaboration between a great writer, a strong director, and the actor. It's not a coincidence that Robert DeNiro's best performances have been under Martin Scorsese's direction. Look at the number of times Tom Hanks has worked with Spielberg. Adaptations of plays by Tennessee Williams brought out something in Elizabeth Taylor that wasn't there in many of her other films.
And if Dohler had been given the opportunity to tighten up the script (ideally under the guidance of William Goldman, the ultimate unsung script doctor) FIEND could have been a really engrossing little movie.
A big budget doesn't guarantee anything. Look at the expensive flops that Hollywood squeezes out every year. ISHTAR, anyone? How about HEAVEN'S GATE? Star salaries don't guarantee results. Julia Roberts can get $20 million per film, but she still has a limited range and still isn't all that good an actress.
It would be nice if the people who made FIEND had been given a chance to go on and work on bigger projects. But watching the outtakes makes it clear that they had a lot of fun doing this. Since I got this from Netflix I didn't pay a lot to see it; if I'd paid even matinée prices at the movies, though, I'd have been royally ticked.
Parents' note: Nothing that would really disturb children. The violence is more suggested than shown. There are some situations where children are in peril, but there aren't any disturbing images. No nudity. No sex. No cursing. No graphic violence. This would probably have gotten a PG reason because it is about a serial killer, but it doesn't stray too far from G territory.