It could be argued that audiences owe two of this decade’s biggest space operas to the mad genius of Lloyd Kaufman, founder of Troma Entertainment. Not only did James Gunn, writer-director of Guardians Of The Galaxy, get his start at the New Jersey-based studio, but The Force Awakens’ J.J. Abrams got his first film credit there, supplying music to the Troma-distributed Nightbeast.
Released in 1982, Nightbeast is a sci-fi/horror hybrid directed by Baltimore native Don Dohler. Dohler was a publisher and filmmaker who conceived the magazine Cinemagic, which provided amateur Super 8 filmmakers in the ’70s step-by-step articles about special effects and shooting tips for their low-budget films. Abrams was an avid reader of Dohler’s magazine, and recounted how he got the Nightbeast gig—at the age of 16—to the Washington Post in 2011:
“I remember writing him, you know, writing letters to the magazine, either asking questions or requesting certain kinds of articles. He wrote me back and I told him I was into music and doing these sound effects and scores for these movies I was doing. He literally out of the blue asked me if I’d be interested in doing music for his movie, having never heard any music that I had done. It was classic.”
Dohler’s films are perhaps best described by Abrams as being “kind of like adult versions of the movies that we made when we were kids.” His movies generally followed a man in a rubber suit terrorizing clueless townsfolk while the long arm of local law enforcement attempted to keep the beast at bay. Dohler’s first feature, The Alien Factor, was released in 1978 as a sort of Jaws from outer space; an extraterrestrial being crash lands in Baltimore and begins killing off the locals one by one. The sheriff is tasked with solving the alien murders, while the mayor wants the body count kept under wraps so it won’t interfere with a multi-million dollar amusement park that is set to be built in town. Over next few years, the director built a career out of basically remaking The Alien Factor as Nightbeast and 1985’s The Galaxy Invader. 1980’s Fiend featured a re-animated corpse in lieu of an alien, but that’s about as far from the formula as it gets. Nightbeast is arguably the most enjoyable of Dohler’s output.
Much like his fellow Baltimore filmmaker John Waters, Dohler had a stable of actors that would appear in his low-budget films, such as Donald Leifert, Tom Griffith, and Anne Frith. The acting was amateurish and over-the-top, but Dohler’s low-budget visual effects are certainly notable.
Dohler’s films were relatively forgotten but The Galaxy Invader gained some notoriety in that it is featured in the credits of the French-Spanish, E.T. rip-off, Pod People, which was taken to task on a 1991 episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000. In 2011, the RiffTrax team took on The Galaxy Invader in its entirety.
“You know, it was such a crazy thrill to be asked to be involved in one of his movies. He would send me scenes on videotape,” Abrams recalled of the schlock director. “I would watch a scene that Don Dohler sent me and I would time it with a watch and write down where things would happen. And then I’d go upstairs, and I would use whatever instrument I could use. I had a little porta-studio, a four-track thing or a reel-to-reel tape deck. It was just the most preposterous set-up and I would send him back music, some of which he used in the movie.” Abrams shares a music by credit with composer Robert J. Walsh, who has gone on to make a name for himself scoring Saturday morning cartoons such as G.I. Joe, Transformers, and Jem.
Doheler took an 11-year break from filmmaking after 1988’s Blood Massacre, returning in 1999 with Alien Rampage, a pseudo–sequel to The Alien Factor. The making of the director’s final film, Dead Hunt, was chronicled in the 2007 documentary Boobs, Blood & Beast. “He made these crazy movies that were made with incredible passion and love of genre,” Abrams told the Post. “There was a real charm to them.”