A spaceship filled with specimens bound for an intergalactic zoo crash-lands near Baltimore. A resuscitated corpse remains alive by strangling his neighbors. A quartet of deranged citizens picks on the wrong flesh-eating zombies.
John Paul Kinhart first encountered the films of the late Don Dohler - Baltimore community newspaper editor by day, schlock filmmaker by night - about six years back, when he bought a tape of 1978's The Alien Factor.
"I wasn't very impressed with the movie," is how Kinhart remembers that moment, perhaps understating the case slightly. But if he wasn't taken with the film, the aspiring documentarian was eventually taken with Dohler, who was not only a filmmaker of some renown, but also a pioneer in the underground-comics movement and founder of a magazine that inspired a generation of Hollywood special-effects artists.
Knowing a good documentary subject when he had been introduced to one, Kinhart would eventually spend two years following Dohler, interviewing him and watching as he worked on what would turn out to be his last film.
Kinhart queried Dohler's friends and associates to determine just what drove this bespectacled father of two - who made his home in an unobtrusive house on a Perry Hall cul-de-sac - to create nine films as director or writer, with names such as Fiend, Nightbeast, Stakes and Blood Massacre.
The result of Kinhart's work, a 74-minute film documentary, gets its world premiere at this weekend's Maryland Film Festival. The portrait it paints of Dohler, who was 60 and editor of the Times-Herald, a newspaper serving northeast Baltimore City and Baltimore County, when he died of cancer in November, is one of a complicated man who loved making films that reveled in their amateurishness and their schlock value, but who also shrank from his financial backers' demands that he make them schlockier and more exploitative (by including, for example, more graphic violence and topless women).
"He doesn't exactly come across as a guy who's an exploitation filmmaker," says Kinhart, who graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2001.
By spring 2004, Kinhart, a video editor for a Washington-based nonprofit, already had two rough documentaries behind him - Futonmaker, which he had begun as a student at MICA, and Non-Player Character, which had its debut at the 2005 John Hopkins Film Festival. Convinced that he was ready to tackle his first full-length project, Kinhart approached Dohler about making him the subject.
He was "cool with the idea," Kinhart remembers, but then the real challenge for a filmmaker began: how to make this quiet, introspective guy, who made bad movies most people had never heard of, interesting? Kinhart decided to focus on the conflict between the kind of movies Dohler wanted to make - low-budget sci-fi shockers - and the movies he was being pushed to make - exploitative gore-fests.
"That was a bit of a struggle," Kinhart acknowledges. "You know, 'This guy doesn't make great movies. Why make a movie about him?' "
Blood, Boobs and Beasts, as the movie is titled, was named for the three things that every low-budget filmmaker supposedly holds dear. It traces Dohler's career, from his early days in the underground-comics scene, through his pioneering stints as a movie-magazine publisher focusing on special effects and low-budget sci-fi, to his career as a movie writer-director-cinematographer with a dedicated, if decidedly non-mainstream, fan base.
"Given the fact that there was a local filmmaker with a cult following, we felt it was time to pay tribute to him," says Maryland Film Festival programmer Skizz Cyzyk, who is among the dozens of fans and fellow filmmakers interviewed in Kinhart's documentary.
"I just knew him as this horror filmmaker. I never knew that he was in the underground-comics scene," Cyzyk says. "I had vaguely heard about these movie magazines that he did. I found it fascinating that here was a guy from this area who had done so much stuff."
BB&B;, shot while Dohler and his partner, Joe Ripple, were making their final film, Dead Hunt, proves a compelling portrait of an intricate man - one whose love of movies, and the unnatural worlds they can create, was nurtured in him almost from the start.
"When he was a kid and his mom took him to see King Kong, it just scared the pants off of him," says Dohler's son, Greg, 40, photo editor for the Gazette newspapers of suburban Washington. "He was just fascinated by the whole film. He really did love the special effects and the whole magic of that."
As a teenager, Dohler drew a comic strip centering on the adventures of a tuft-haired wanderer named Pro Junior - one of the earliest underground cartoons, and an influence on such comics artists as Art Spiegelman, Skip Williamson, even R. Crumb.
"He was seminally involved in that which would become the underground-comics movement," Williamson says in the film.
Then, beginning in 1972, Dohler published Cinemagic, something of a how-to manual for special effects in the movies. Among those interviewed in BB&B; who revere Cinemagic as an early inspiration are J.J. Abrams, creator of the TV series Alias and Lost, and Tom Savini, whose career in movie makeup and special effects dates to 1974's Dead of Night.
"I think the thing [Dohler] was most proud of," Kinhart says, "was Cinemagic, which he felt was a great idea. It was original. He felt that he really made a difference with Cinemagic."
But it was as a movie director, writer and cinematographer that Dohler earned his most rabid fans. His films never approached the mainstream; they rarely cost more than a few thousand dollars to shoot, and it showed. The lighting was often poor, the effects rudimentary.
Dohler recruited his actors wherever he could, casting his friends, his relatives, whoever was around. His backyard frequently doubled as a movie set, as did the woods surrounding his home.
"There was this wonderfully simplistic, uncomplicated kind of feel to his films," says Richard Dyszel, who acted in several Dohler films and gained a measure of fame during the 1970s as Count Gore DeVol, host of WDCA-Channel 20's late-night Creature Feature. "They look like they were shot in suburban Baltimore. The people look and act like they're real people, not professional actors. And the stories were simple."
"His vision was science fiction, pure and simple," says Jim Wood, a New Jersey ad editor who has memorized the entire script of The Alien Factor. Asked to describe a typical Dohler fan, he says, "You have to find someone that appreciates film, you have to find someone that appreciates bad acting. They need to be able to immerse themselves in a low-budget film. You need people with passion, you need people who understand the genre, you need people who enjoy adult beverages."
If Dohler's films were bad, it wasn't because he and his actors were trying to make them bad. Just as he was uncomfortable with sex and gratuitous violence, Dohler was never into camp.
"He had his moments of blood and gore," says Wood, "but he did it tastefully. Intentional campiness and gratuitous nudity ... that's Don diluted."
Dohler returned to filmmaking in 2001, this time with Joe Ripple, a full-time police officer and part-time actor. Ripple handled the directing duties, while Dohler concentrated on the writing, editing and cinematography. A handful of films followed, including Harvesters, Stakes, Crawler and Vampire Sisters. The Dohler that Kinhart captures on camera in BB&B; is an often discomfited filmmaker clearly frustrated with the direction his films are heading.
"That was the source of conflict," Kinhart says. "How was he going to remain interesting to an audience that's constantly evolving, wanting something bigger and bigger and more shocking? He's a man of contradictions, and that's how I tried to sell him."
Before Dohler died, he and Kinhart e-mailed each other about the documentary. After Dohler had seen a rough cut of BB&B;, Kinhart remembers, "he never said anything complimentary. He only said what he would like me to change." Chief among the suggested changes? He didn't like the title. Don Dohler never bought into the idea that the three B's constituted what his films were all about.
"I don't think he had any delusions of greatness," says his son, Greg. "A friend of mine once said, 'Did it ever occur to you that your dad was an artist, that he just had to do this?' I think that's an accurate description. He was an artist, who just had to do his stuff."