Blood, Boobs, And Beast Takes Stock Of Underheralded Diy Maverick Don Dohler
The young woman behind the bar at the Perry Inn on Belair Road takes an order for a couple of burgers and indulges a customer's curiosity: Has she ever heard of a guy named Don Dohler? Made sci-fi and horror movies? Lived just up the road, used to hang out in here?
She offers a shake of the head with a small puzzled smile before heading back toward the kitchen.
Dohler was far from a household name, even just around the corner from his house, but for connoisseurs of low-budget sci-fi and horror flicks he needs no introduction. As recounted in John Paul Kinhart's new documentary film Blood, Boobs, and Beast, Baltimore native Dohler came of age during the golden age of 1950s and '60s genre films, obsessed with movies and special effects. After having a gun held to his head during a robbery at age 30, Dohler was inspired to give his lifelong dream of making a feature film a go and shot 1978's The Alien Factor on a shoestring in and around his home turf in Perry Hall. The movie wasn't very good, but TV networks were so hungry for anything sci-fi in the wake of Star Wars mania that it was picked up for syndication, where a whole generation of equally hungry fans and future filmmakers would see it over and over again. The money from the Alien Factor deal helped finance another movie, and Dohler was launched on a part-time career as an independent auteur (he worked day jobs as a journalist most of his life). He would eventually direct, write, edit, and/or shoot 11 features (two as yet unreleased), with titles such as Blood Massacre and Vampire Sisters, before his death in December 2006.
Dohler not only hoisted beers at the Perry Inn regularly but also shot scenes for 1999's Alien Rampage and 2002's Stakes here. And back in May 2004, this workaday bar and restaurant is where he met a young filmmaker who wanted to make a movie about him. Almost three years later, Kinhart pulls up a barstool on a rainy afternoon to talk about Blood, Boobs, and Beast, which very well might establish Dohler's legacy more firmly than any of his own films ever did.
Kinhart, boyish behind a scruffy beard at 27, remembers his first encounter with Dohler's work: In 2002, the MICA grad and horror/sci-fi fan bought a brand-new DVD of The Alien Factor and popped it in the player. His initial impression was, he acknowledges, "Maybe I should return this, because this is not a very good movie, and I don't know if I'm ever going to watch it again." He says he kept it because the movie was shot in and around Baltimore, and because one of the characters made mention of being from Harford County, where Kinhart grew up.
Not unlike Dohler, Kinhart wasn't initially supposed to be a filmmaker. Coming from working-class roots--his mom was a janitor, his stepdad a truck driver--Kinhart had scraped for scholarship money and overcame his parents' modest expectations to enroll at MICA in 1998 to study painting, his lifelong passion. At the same time, he says, he had been helping his friend Steve Greenstreet make "goof-off" videos on weekends. "I wasn't taking it seriously, because my stuff was painting," Kinhart recalls. But when Greenstreet went on a Mormon mission to Venezuela, Kinhart took a few video classes at MICA. "I thought, When he comes back, I'll show him some stuff," he says. "In the process of doing that, I found that the medium was more interesting to me than painting." (Greenstreet is now a filmmaker himself, with the 2005 documentary This Divided State to his credit.)
After wrestling with whether or not he wanted to ditch painting for filmmaking--"It was like a breakup almost," he says--Kinhart threw himself into the new discipline, spending every available hour in the school's editing suites. (He now works as a film editor in Silver Spring.) While he says that Errol Morris' documentary classic The Thin Blue Line had had a profound effect on him, he had no particular desire to become a documentarian. "I had no direction as a filmmaker, even though I wanted to be one," he says. "I had no education in how to develop a script and then go from there."
He wound up taking his camera to his job as a futon maker one day, and the resulting footage became his first documentary short, "Futonmaker." Part of the allure of doing documentaries, he acknowledges, was convenience: "You didn't need to have a cast and crew. Coming from an art-school background, I was kind of a loner the way I worked. I kinda took the same approach to documentary filmmaking." A more ambitious feature-length documentary, Non-Player Character, which interwove footage of a ventriloquist, a comedian, and a role-playing gamer, followed in 2005. When looking for his next project, he thought of something he'd read in his local alt-weekly.
"I had read the article about Don Dohler in the City Paper that [former CP editor] Michael Yockel wrote," Kinhart says of the March 23, 2003, cover story "Fast, Cheap, and Out of This World." "I had known about Don before, but that article let know me a lot more that I didn't know. So that popped into my head."
Yockel (who appears in BBB) met with Kinhart and passed on Dohler's contact info, and Dohler agreed to meet at the Perry Inn. "I let him know what I liked about his movies, things that I wanted to do to approach his movies," Kinhart says. "We just sort of chatted it out, two guys in a bar." Did Dohler seemed surprised at his interest? "I think Don always seemed a bit surprised that complete strangers would tell him that they liked something that he did. I think it was satisfying for him that someone was looking at his movies and taking them seriously."
BBB takes Dohler and his work seriously, and with good reason. In addition to a well-assembled brace of interviews with his collaborators and fans about his movies, and extensive footage from the 2004-'05 shoot of Dead Hunt, directed by Dohler's longtime collaborator Joe Ripple, BBB also explores Dohler's surprisingly influential forays into underground publishing. His early underground comic Wild! featured contributions from future luminaries Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, and Skip Williamson. And Dohler's homemade '60s/'70s special-effects fanzine Cinemagic proved enormously influential on an entire generation of horror and sci-fi filmmakers, as talking-head interviews with makeup wizards Tom Savini and Tom Sullivan and Lost creator J.J. Abrams attest. "It's kind of fascinating to know that somebody from Baltimore who doesn't really know what they're doing managed to teach other people who went on to become big Hollywood players," Kinhart says.
Kinhart also addresses one of the more controversial subjects among the small circle of Dohler fans: Whether or not Dohler films became more prurient, more obsessed with the first and second "B"s of the title, after he started working with Ripple on 2001's Harvesters. Blood, Boobs, and Beast features one antic Dohler superfan opining that Ripple, despite his on-screen protestations, "steamrolled" the mild-mannered Dohler into including more gore and nudity. While Kinhart says he included the scene because it's an opinion other fans share, he doesn't believe that's the case. For distributors of low-budget films, blood and boobs are extra insurance that they are going to make their money back, a fact that no one is shy about repeating on the record. Even though Dohler might have preferred to do more chaste sci-fi films and became visibly uncomfortable even discussing nudity, Kinhart says, "[Don] realized, `If I'm gonna do this, I'm gonna be successful, and the market's changed since I've been in the game.'"
Dohler, who saw a cut of Blood, Boobs, and Beast just weeks before his death in December from cancer, was also uncomfortable about some of the material included in the documentary, especially anything that provided, as Kinhart notes, "dramatic conflict," such as a sequence about an actor who drops out of Dead Hunt, inspiring recasting and reshoots. "I didn't get the impression he liked [the film] very much," Kinhart says. "His e-mails to me about the movie were always brief, and he never said anything complimentary. It was always like, `I would like you to cut this, this, and this.'"
And yet, BBB provides an intimate and affectionate portrait of the filmmaker, documenting his love of the movie version of West Side Story and detailing the joys, struggles, and heartbreaks of his family life. Kinhart's camera is even there as a cancer-weakened Dohler passes on equipment and video tapes to Ripple and listens to one last script pitch. Whether or not you could sit through even 10 minutes of 2004's Vampire Sisters, it's hard to come away from Blood, Boobs, and Beast not feeling the loss of Dohler a little.
Kinhart's film certainly provides a counterweight to anyone who would dismiss his subject's life's work as cheap crap cranked out by a cynical exploitation hack. "I think that's something Don struggled with, because I think deep down he wanted to be a good filmmaker," Kinhart says. "He didn't want to make movies that were going to be made fun of on Mystery Science Theatre. He dealt with it and let it roll off his shoulders, but he wanted to make movies that people took seriously. He just didn't have the chops to pull it off."
Of course, making a documentary, even a skilled one, about an obscure filmmaker known, if at all, for making bad films isn't necessarily a no-brainer route to the A-list either. As BBB heads for its premiere at the Maryland Film Festival and Kinhart starts to contemplate his next project, he indulges a reporter's curiosity: Why do people like Don Dohler's films? Why do you like Don Dohler's films?
"There's two types of fans who like filmmakers like Don Dohler," Kinhart generalizes gamely. "One is people who watch the movies because they like to make fun--they get a laugh out of poorly made movies. And the other type of people, who Don surrounded himself with, are wannabe filmmakers. They can kind of relate to his struggle. Part of the enjoyment for them is understanding who made this movie and what they went through."
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