Fast, Cheap & Out of this World
The Blood-Splattered Bargain Basement Cinema Empire of Don Dohler
We took a five-cent story, a 10-cent budget, and a two-cent leading man, and we put it over." -- producer Kirk Douglas to director Barry Sullivan regarding their B-movie hit The Doom of the Cat Men in the 1952 inside-Hollywood drama The Bad and the Beautiful.
Not long into filmmaker Don Dohler's 1987 Blood Massacre, a truculent Vietnam vet (George Stover)--who before the opening credits viciously garrotes a bar owner and repeatedly stabs the proprietor's trashy girlfriend--and two cohorts case a mom-and-pop video store that they intend to rob. Attempting to look nonchalant, the ex-grunt browses through the shop's merchandise, picking up two videotape boxes, the camera lingering perhaps a few seconds longer than normal on films entitled Nightbeast and Galaxy Invader. Then the hoods brandish their weapons, reveal their purpose, and order the customers to lie facedown on the floor. When a store clerk makes the inevitable move for a concealed gun, all hell breaks loose, with the clerk taking a slug to the chest and collapsing, her blood spraying across a tacked-up movie poster. >
Standard action fare, to be sure, seen countless times in countless shoot-'em-ups on television and the big screen, but in this particular instance with a wink-wink fillip detected only by the most vigilant and devoted of B-movie cineastes, who recognize the video shop's seemingly obtuse inventory--Nightbeast and Galaxy Invader--as the work of writer/director/producer . . . Don Dohler. A surreptitious self-homage!
Off and on for the past 27 years, Dohler, while failing to register on the mainstream movie-biz Richter scale, has been cranking out low-budget, no-stars horror and science-fiction fare: 90-minute features chockablock with decapitations, eviscerations, impalings, murderous nuclear families devoted to cannibalism or organ harvesting, thong-clad vampirettes, cleaver-wielding housewives, switchblade-flicking psychos, trigger-happy yahoos, marauding aliens, reanimated corpses, fog machines in overdrive, enough fake blood to fill several Olympic-sized swimming pools, more running through woods than a battalion of Green Berets on maneuvers, and some of the scariest Baltimore accents in the history of cinema. All of them conceived--and several of them executed--at Dohler world headquarters in the Last House on the Left of a Perry Hall cul-de-sac, his home for the past 30 years.
"He's found a niche, he's stuck with it, and he's been doing it a long, long time," observes another Baltimore filmmaker, John Waters, who has seen one-third of Dohler's oeuvre. "God knows I respect his defiant longevity."
Definitely defiant. Hamstrung by what exploitation-movie connoisseur Joe Bob Briggs, in his review of Dohler's 2001 Harvesters, termed "25-cent budgets"--actually, from a low of $4000 to a high of $42,000--and vexed by cold-footed investors, butter-fingered crew, and T&A-obsessed distributors, Dohler has nonetheless persevered, infusing his films with a homespun charm, a deadpan wit, and a dogged DIY sensibility, even though at one point he grew so embittered that he forswore the business for a dozen years. And he has persevered solo--writing, directing, and producing his first six features for the most part himself, before recruiting part-time actor and full-time Baltimore County cop Joe Ripple to direct his three most recent movies so that Dohler could concentrate on cinematography. He is, in effect, an auteur, if a reluctant one.
Dressed in jeans and a plaid flannel work shirt, Dohler, 57, sits in a chair in the club basement of his home--the same chair, incidentally, that the homicide detective protagonist occupies while absorbing backstory from a trio of vampire hunters in last year's Stakes. Courteous, congenial, and composed, Dohler comes across as the antithesis of Mark Borchardt, the motor-mouthed, hyper-kinetic low-budget Milwaukee horror filmmaker whose highly dysfunctional life is memorably captured in director Chris Smith's 1999 cinéma vérité documentary American Movie. But if people don't stop and stare and point at Dohler when he strolls the aisles at the supermarket, they do clamor for his autograph at annual horror/science-fiction hoedowns such as Balticon and Horrorfind.
"Sci-fi and horror have a [built-in] market, especially low-budget [stuff]," explains Dohler, "so it's a fairly safe bet. We could move into some other genres that have a built-in market--urban, Latino, gay--but I'm not into those. I like action movies best--spies, cops and robbers--but they're beyond our realm. We can't do car crashes and buildings blowing up. If we were to do a detective movie, forget it. Unless it had [marquee] names in it, people won't rent it--but they'll rent a low-budget horror movie."
Like most underfinanced filmmakers, Dohler survives courtesy of the rental market. While his first six features were shot on film, none enjoyed a theatrical run, although his debut, 1977's The Alien Factor, wound up on television worldwide. Two years ago he converted to digital video, shooting his last three films, including the forthcoming Vampire Sisters, in that format. Remarkably, everything issued so far has at least broken even.
These days he's hustling to finish the final edit on Vampire Sisters, made under the Dohler/Ripple aegis of Timewarp Films, so that the completed feature and its trailers can be sent to the movie company's distributor by mid-May. In turn, the distributor will unleash Vampire Sisters DVD "screeners" to wholesalers and rental buyers, who'll determine how many copies they want to purchase. With luck, the film will appear by the end of August on the shelves of the bricks-and-mortar chains Blockbuster, Hollywood, West Coast, and indies such as Video Americain, as well as the virtual shelves of the online Netflix.
Ripple brainstormed the film's concept (see sidebar), Dohler fleshed out a screenplay, and shooting took place over five weekends this past November and December, because, as Dohler points out, "We all have day jobs," including himself--he serves as editor of the monthly Harford Business Ledger. Total production costs: a mere $15,000. "Vampire Sisters was kind of an experiment in doing a film really fast," Dohler notes, "with a really small cast and crew, and one location basically. And it took only four, four and one-half months from start to finish."
That one location was Ripple's Hampstead home, with some scenes also shot at Dohler's Last House on the Left, which served as the primary setting for Harvesters and 1980's Fiend, and appears in nearly all his movies. Similarly, he built part of a spaceship in his back yard for 2000's Alien Rampage. "That's what you've got to love about Don Dohler," says Donna Sherman, 36, star of both Alien Rampage and Harvesters. "The creativity--the idea that he would build a spaceship in his back yard as a movie sound stage."
Dohler has shot his films primarily in Baltimore County, often in and around Perry Hall. Hawk-eyed viewers will detect Chapel Hills Nursery, Mountain Road Deli, Timber Creek Tavern, the Treehouse, Roxy Video, and downtown's Jeppi Nut Company building. And Dohler, like Waters, plays to the hometown fans with insider references. Waters: "You can let me off at the Etta Gown Shop." Dohler: "Get anyone you find over to the Perry Inn."
Additionally, the patch of woods adjacent to his back yard figures in six of his films, while nearby Gunpowder Falls State Park appears in three. In fact, you can count on seeing pursuits through woods in just about all the pictures. "When I think about Don Dohler's movies, that's my clearest experience--running through various woods," adds Sherman, a booking agent for Young Audiences, a nonprofit arts and education organization. "It was both a wonderful experience and a horrible experience. Arduous, long, late-night shoots. Bitter cold. But I appreciated the style of it all, what they were trying to do without tons of money to throw at a production."
Such budgetary constraints mean no box-office names. Until recently, in truth, Dohler depended mostly on a mix of friends, family, and neighbors, sprinkled with a handful of local semi-professionals. Just as had been the case with Waters' early features, a resident rep company coalesced around Dohler for his first five films. Where Waters regularly fielded Divine, City Paper columnist Mink Stole, Mary Vivian Pearce, and Edith Massey through the '70s, Dohler used George Stover, Don Leifert, and Dick Dyszel (loopy vampiric host Count Gore De Vol on WDCA-TV's Creature Feature in the '70s and '80s), plus his son Greg, daughter Kim, and half-brother Glenn Barnes. (That's Barnes having his entrails ripped out by a bad-ass alien in 1982's Nightbeast.)
"My sister and I would spend our weekends on film sets rather than hanging out with our friends," notes Greg Dohler, 35, photo editor for the suburban Washington Gazette newspaper chain. "But it never seemed odd. We definitely wanted to be there. I remember literally racing home from school, running from the bus stop, throwing my books down, and going to Gunpowder Falls Park, where my dad and his crew were filming. We knew that our father was different."
While outwardly reserved, inwardly Dohler teems with a relentless enthusiasm for the warp and woof of moviemaking, becoming especially animated when discussing its mechanics: the hardware and software, the editing and sound design, the location scouting and set construction.
"I've never really liked directing," he confesses. "It was thrown on me by default when we made The Alien Factor. I prefer the behind-the-scenes kind of stuff--camera-work, editing."
"If you watch the films carefully, they're really saved in the editing room," comments Don Leifert, 52, an English and theater arts teacher at Towson High. "He would sit and chain-smoke cigarettes and work at that editing machine for months and months and months--no one would see or hear from him."
On the other hand, do not parse for the thematic rune in Dohler's work. "I've never gone into a film with any intent on inserting a subliminal message or philosophy," he contends. "It's strictly trying to make a story that's entertaining."
As a boy growing up in the Idlewylde neighborhood just east of Stoneleigh, Dohler feasted on 1950s horror and science fiction pictures each Saturday afternoon at a gaggle of now-defunct movie houses: the Boulevard, the Paramount, the Vilma. Favorites included 1956's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1954's Creature from the Black Lagoon, and anything made by stop-action special effects godfather Ray Harryhausen.
Dohler readily discerned--and appreciated--those films' superiority to the connect-the-dots scarefests routinely dished out in the '50s and early '60s, the kind of cheese now celebrated as kooky kitsch on cable's Mystery Science Theater 3000. "I saw very few of these really crappy B-movies that are now cult favorites," he recalls. "Even then I didn't like the bottom-of-the-barrel kind of movies."
Conversely, he found 1956's Forbidden Planet--essentially Shakespeare's The Tempest in outer space--completely bewitching, and still speaks of it with reverence: "It was such an awe-inspiring movie to a kid, unlike anything we'd ever seen, because Hollywood's big studios never made these type of movies--a big studio sci-fi movie with big production values and great effects."
Forbidden Planet nudged young Don toward wanting to make his own movies. For a Christmas present in 1958, 12-year-old Dohler asked his mother for a movie camera, and received an 8mm Kodak. He and a childhood buddy immediately set about devising kiddie productions. "One was called The Mad Scientist," Dohler remembers with a laugh. "They were crude and silly, but that's what got me into filmmaking."
Three years later he also became a teenage publisher, inaugurating Wild, a "version of Mad magazine," as Dohler characterizes it. Using a ditto machine, he ran off approximately 100 copies for each issue of Wild, laboring in the basement of his Aunt Ev's house. The fanzine attracted contributions from like-minded enthusiasts, including cartoonists Skip Williamson and Art Spiegelman, who'd later achieve considerable notoriety--Williamson for his character Snappy Sammy Smoot, Spiegelman for his Maus graphic novel.
With a paid circulation of 30 to 40--"a big deal then," notes Dohler--Wild lasted for 11 issues, petering out in 1963. This allowed Dohler, who'd ditched high school at age 16, to experiment more with his "crude and silly" homemade movies, eventually graduating to a Super 8 camera. By then he'd scored an office job with Eddie Leonard Restaurants in Washington, and in 1967 joined the D.C.-based Washington Society of Cinematographers (WSC), "a pretentious name for a bunch of amateur weekend moviemakers," he says now. "I started doing more serious efforts. They were still shorts, but they had plots and stories and characters and special effects."
In 1967's stop-action Mr. Clay, for example, Dohler plays the protagonist, pitting himself against "this animated clay thing" that looks remarkably like the prototype for the perpetually victimized Mr. Bill on TV's Saturday Night Live. Dohler upped the production values, building his own elaborate miniature sets, for 1968's Pursued, creating the prototype for several of his later features with FBI-type agents and a mystery man on the run. "In the end," he explains, "it turns out that he's an alien, and he kills these two agents. Then you see this flying saucer take off from behind the trees."
Emboldened by the profusion of underground comics popular at the time, Dohler merged 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. In addition to profiling aspiring moviemakers and their films, Cinemagic placed a critical emphasis on how-to articles, often written by the filmmakers themselves: "Creating a Giant Spider," "Making a Miniature Flying Saucer," "Creating Your Own Moon Surface." Starting with a 1000-copy run, Cinemagic approached a 5000-copy circulation when, after 11 issues, Dohler sold it in 1979 to the publishers of genre heavyweights Starlog and Fangoria. "I was getting burned out by the whole mess," Dohler recalls, "and needed to get it off my back.
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 recounts. "I thought, 'We're getting robbed.'"
Sure enough, after barreling in, two gun-toting thugs laid siege to the premises, holding the business' three on-duty employees--Dohler and two women--hostage. "They had us on the floor, facedown, and I had a sawed-off shotgun held to the back of my head" (prefiguring Blood Massacre). The company's manager had departed only minutes earlier to make a bank deposit. "I said to these guys, 'You're gonna have to shoot me, because we can't open the safe. We don't know the combination.'" This Dog Day Afternoon scenario lasted for more than an hour, until the manager finally returned and opened the safe, whereupon the robbers vamoosed with bags of coinage.
"Afterward, I called a friend of mine in D.C. who had dabbled in filmmaking," Dohler remembers, "and I told him, 'I almost got killed today. I'm making a movie!'"
Bidding sayonara to his job, Dohler set about assembling the cast, crew, and investors for his debut feature: For cast he enlisted family, friends, some semi-pro actors, and a pair of Baltimore/ Washington media celebs; for crew he tapped into the reservoir of amateur filmmakers he knew through Cinemagic and the WSC; and for investors he hit up eight different people, including his Aunt Ev, for $500 each.
WFBR Radio's adenoidal Johnny Walker, the city's top on-air personality in the mid-'70s, put in a cameo, while Dick "Count Gore De Vol" Dyszel took on a more substantial role. Also on-board was George Stover, who'd previously appeared in Waters' Female Trouble and Polyester, and who one year later would earn screen infamy in Desperate Living as "Mink Stole's husband who Jean Hill sits on and kills," Waters says with a laugh.
Like Dohler, Stover dabbled in horror and science fiction fanzines, publishing consecutively Black Oracle and Cinemacabre in the '70s. Now 56, he works for the state insurance administration and holds the distinction of being the only actor to appear in all nine Dohler films, noting that he even "participated in one of his little 8mm shorts. I think I was in a scene in the woods." (The woods! Of course!) Stover brought in Leifert, who had trained professionally as an actor, for The Alien Factor, and after Dohler hammered out a script (see sidebar), filming began in October 1976.
"We were all kind of tripping over each other trying to figure out how to make a movie," Dohler says a bit ruefully, "The whole thing was shot in a frigid, snow-covered environment."
After overcoming a handful of rookie vexations in postproduction, Dohler, hoping to wow distributors and snag a theatrical deal, blew up his 16mm print to 35mm, scrounging $10,000 from already stretched investors for the purpose. When no serious offers materialized, the film's fate looked bleak. Then serendipity intervened. With Star Wars registering in the box-office red zone in the summer of 1977, local TV stations craved product to sate the sci-fi zeitgeist. Through a friend of a friend, Dohler sold The Alien Factor to a television distributor as part of a 15-movie package.
"He enjoyed beginner's luck with [The Alien Factor]," comments Stover. "It was shown all over the country and in some Spanish-speaking places, too. WCBS in New York showed it, and so did WTBS, Ted Turner's Superstation.
"They probably didn't know what they were showing, because they bought a package," he kids, "so they might have had regrets about showing it nationwide on TV."
While The Alien Factor never snared a legitimate theatrical run, it popped up for local midnight screenings at the Perring Plaza and Security Square cineplexes. Simultaneously, Walker chatted up the movie on radio; Dohler appeared on Dyszel's Creature Feature the night The Alien Factor aired locally; Famous Monsters magazine splayed the film across the cover of an issue; and the tabloid National Insider blared "Bargain-basement aliens in new movie are scarier than the over-priced beasts from Star Wars."
"It has a charm about it," Stover allows. "I met this one guy at a convention who told me that it was one of his favorite movies, because he saw it when he was a kid and it made an impression on him. My jaw dropped. I'm thinking, 'Didn't you see Forbidden Planet or The Day the Earth Stood Still?' But if you see something when you're eight years old, then that's the movie you love for he rest of your life."
Ultimately, The Alien Factor grossed more than $300,000. "We were getting these nice $10,000 to $11,000 checks coming in every three months," relates Dohler, who used the cash to pay the actors and crew. "The investors made a hell of a lot more than they ever expected." Plowing ahead, he began scheming his second feature, Nightbeast, knocking out a script about a deranged alien terrorizing a houseful of people in a remote area.
Never enamored of the prospect of directing, Dohler relinquished that key post to a minor participant from The Alien Factor, who lobbied zealously for the job. This proved a huge mistake. After several months of shooting in the summer of 1979, Nightbeast was way behind schedule and way over budget, with the cast and crew on the cusp of mutiny. Dohler steeled himself to dismiss the director, but was spared the agony when the guy bowed out voluntarily.
Scarred but smarter, Dohler soldiered on, abandoning Nightbeast altogether in favor of making a self-contained horror picture, one that would require few special effects and minimal location shooting. He corralled Leifert and Stover as principals, used the Last House on the Left as his set, and reinserted himself as director.
Gothic and claustrophobic, Fiend (see sidebar) exudes an unnerving tautness, its aesthetic success helped considerably by Leifert's seething depiction of the Poe-like music teacher Longfellow. Dohler shot Fiend between March and May 1980, low-balling production costs by filming not only in his own home, but also at his Aunt Ev's. Total budget: a measly $6,000.
"I'm thinking, 'Hell, if we get a TV deal for Fiend, we got it made,'" Dohler recalls. "What I didn't realize was that this was just around the time that [the] TV syndication market for low-budget stuff was drying up." Fiend failed to fetch a syndication deal. "But video," Dohler notes, "was coming in strong."
During the early '80s, VCR sales exploded, mom-and-pop rental stores mushroomed, and Fiend found an audience, eventually recouping its expenses through domestic and foreign rentals. Meanwhile, money from The Alien Factor continued to pour in, encouraging that film's backers to give their assent when Dohler proposed upping the production ante for an alien monster film replete with gonzo special effects.
Not one to allow something to go to waste, Dohler resuscitated the Nightbeast title while dusting off and reusing elements of The Alien Factor, shooting over two months in summer 1981 on a $42,000 budget. Paced relentlessly, the film (see sidebar) boasts feverish gun battles (laser versus rifles), ample gore (a decapitation and a disemboweling), some comic relief courtesy of Dyszel as a tippling mayor, and a curiously gratuitous sex scene.
Palpably uncomfortable, Dohler squirms in his chair when explaining the flesh-baring. With The Alien Factor, he recounts, nudity hadn't even been a consideration, and he made Fiend with the intention of selling it to TV, which would've excised anything sexually provocative. But his distributor considered those films too tame, and, mindful of the burgeoning video market, told him, "'We want more action, more violence, and we want nudity. The stuff will sell better if it's R-rated.' So I thought, 'OK, we're just going to pull out all the stops.'"
Stover likes Nightbeast best out of all of Dohler's films: "With Nightbeast he added a little gore and a little titty, and that probably satisfied more people. It moves the fastest, it's more action-packed, and it delivers the goods a little bit more than the others, although I couldn't show Nightbeast to my grandmother." (Had Stover allowed her, his granny could've seen it on the big screen, because Dohler cadged midnight showings of Nightbeast at the Towson Theatre--now the Recher--over a weekend in April 1982. Posters screamed, "The Sci-Fi Thriller Made in Baltimore!")
After securing video rights for Nightbeast, Dohler bundled the picture, along with Fiend, into a 12-movie package for TV syndication, which he peddled to an Oklahoma-based distributor. But fearing that he'd accepted too cheap a price for Nightbeast, the film's investors voted to deep six the deal. With his coalition of the willing in shambles, Dohler persuaded the distributor to advance him $15,000 to make a new movie as a replacement for Nightbeast, one he'd need to write, shoot, and edit ultrafast.
Borrowing the rudimentary idea of a benign alien hectored by humans from the brilliant 1951 anti-nuke film The Day the Earth Stood Still, Dohler fashioned a script that exposed mankind's exploitative instinct, while providing the requisite rubber-suited extraterrestrial toting a ray gun. He collared Leifert, Stover, and Dyszel to shoot Galaxy Invader (see sidebar) in the fall of 1984, handing over the final cut in April 1985, only to suffer yet another setback when the TV deal evaporated, although the distributor at least issued the movie on video.
Exasperation piled onto exasperation. In early 1986 an Los Angeles-based film producer and video packager adept with low-budget fare secured an investor to pony up $200,000 to realize Dohler's screenplay Graveyard. He even whisked Dohler to Hollywood to complete negotiations, plus financed preproduction location scouting. With cameras set to roll, however, the investor pulled out. Acting fast, he secured $6000 from a different Los Angeles backer to make a seat-of-the-pants horror movie on video, while holding out hope that Graveyard could be salvaged later. Production on Blood Massacre (see sidebar), a fanciful family-that-slays-together fable, began in August of 1987.
"Blood Massacre was just a terrible experience all the way around," Dohler says now. Responding to a request from the investor, he sent along 50 minutes of completed video footage; the backer flipped for what he saw, asking Dohler, "'How much would you need to reshoot this on film?'" Dohler quoted a price tag of $25,000, and the money came through. He pulled the plug on the video version, and filmed Blood Massacre over the summer of 1987, extracting a bravura performance from newcomer Robin London as the psychopathic daughter of a family of corpse-grinding cannibals. "She stayed in character between takes," Dohler remembers, "and started wigging out everybody."
Pressured by the investor to deliver the film sooner than he'd been promised, Dohler reluctantly complied, with the proviso that he'd eventually be allowed to finish refining the final 15 minutes. But that never happened. According to Dohler, "The backer disappeared. The distributor who was supposed to buy it disappeared. The movie fell off the face of the earth."
Four years later his agent discovered that the son-in-law of the vanished distributor finally had issued Blood Massacre on video. "It got out," Dohler scowls, "but after the whole experience of making the movie twice and having nothing to show for it, I just said, 'This is just too aggravating. The hell with this.'"
Even before the Blood Massacre debacle, Dohler had returned to 9-to-5-dom as a journalist in 1986, and has written and edited at sundry suburban publications ever since. While loath to resume moviemaking, he nonetheless remained an ardent aficionado of classic 1950s horror/sci-fi, and, together with Leifert, launched a literate film appreciation magazine, Movie Club, in 1993. Dohler ran the business side, Leifert the editorial. Unlike the how-to articles featured in Cinemagic, Movie Club celebrated the genre's heyday with a dozen themed issues--killer plant movies, haunted house movies, female monster movies--before giving up the ghost in 1997.
Inevitably, in 1999 Dohler succumbed to the allure of making movies again, enticed back when local attorney/filmmaker Joel Denning proposed a collaboration. "I guess I just never shook it," Dohler confesses. His tabula rasa would be Alien Rampage (see sidebar), shot for $35,000 in late 1999/early 2000 with an array of new actors, plus the stalwart Stover.
As if on cue, Dohler's unshakable bad luck resurfaced when the person engaged to create postproduction visual effects went missing. "And there're laser battles all over the place," Dohler still laments. So he tackled the special effects himself, while Denning fussed with the sound, redubbing everything. Although the movie premiered for cast and crew in November 2000, it wasn't entirely finished until the end of 2001, and appeared at rental outlets only recently.
But whatever its headaches, Alien Rampage provided Dohler with a critical career opportunity--introducing him to Joe Ripple, who played an FBI agent and performed several production chores, including crowd control during a scene with 35 extras shot in the middle of the morning. "I watched him," recounts Dohler, "and he really took charge with all the people." Eager to divest himself of directing and assume full-time cinematography responsibilities, Dohler invited Ripple to helm the next film; Ripple agreed, despite having worked only as a part-time actor, principally in commercials.
The division of labor established, they formed a partnership, Timewarp Films (www.timewarpfilms.com), in the summer of 2000, selecting as their initial venture Harvesters (see sidebar), in essence a shave-and-a-haircut of Blood Massacre. "I never had a satisfied feeling about that movie," Dohler offers, "so we remade it, put a different spin on it, and brought it up to date."
The pair sat at the Perry Inn and brainstormed 13 different death scenes, almost all of which Ripple, 36, devised: "We used a lot of military tactics, trying to get away from the things you would see in a typical horror film."
They also used digital video instead of film, shooting Harvesters in the fall of 2000 for $25,000. "I realized that there were ways to shoot it to make it almost look like film," Dohler explains. The switch resulted in significant savings, permitting Timewarp to splurge by paying the cast and crew half their fees up-front rather than waiting for rental money to dribble in later.
Satisfied with their collaboration, the duo dived into Stakes (see sidebar) in mid-2001, spending $30,000 while turning up the nudity quotient--a full-on sex scene between consenting vampires--they'd broached with Harvesters. "The distributor who picked up Harvesters specifically told us that if its bathtub scene [an erotic fantasy sequence with an actress luxuriating in fake blood] had not been in the film," contends Ripple, "he wouldn't have picked it up."
Adds Dohler, "He's told me as recently as six months ago that he'd like to see more nudity in our films, and asked me a couple weeks ago how many nude scenes there were in Vampire Sisters, although there's probably more sexuality than there is nudity."
Better-scripted, better-paced, and demonstrably better-acted, the newer movies nonetheless lack the endearing naiveté of Dohler's early work. "Slicker," in Stover's estimation.
Having drained vampirism of its precious bodily fluids, Dohler and Ripple are pondering a return to alien invaders for their next picture. "It will be some type of creature film," Ripple asserts. "We've done a psycho-thriller in Harvesters. We've done two vampire films now. So that's three horror films. Timewarp was designed to do sci-fi and horror. So now we're going to slip back over to the sci-fi edge of things for a little while."
For the moment, though, marketing and distributing Vampire Sisters command their immediate attention. They've lined up the movie's public premiere at Balticon over Memorial Day weekend, and a screening at Horrorfind in mid-August seems virtually assured. Two weeks later you should be able to find it at Blockbuster.
Reserved as ever, Dohler evinces a discernible lack of concern about whether Vampire Sisters will represent his breakout after toiling for so many years in relative obscurity, insisting that simply making movies sustains him. "I don't expect gangbusters from it," he shrugs, "but it just might be quirky enough that it takes off. Who the hell knows?"
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