For most of his life, Evan Dossey generally avoided horror films. The genre made him profoundly uncomfortable. This meant he had enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Over the years, he has asked family and friends which essential horror movies he needs to see and spent the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. Once again, he’s sharing the month with those folks — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.
More than any other genre, horror is rife with stories of filmmakers who jumpstarted their careers by making something incredible with very few resources. Halloween, The Evil Dead, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and countless other titles inspired ceaseless sequels and imitators while turning their directors into Hollywood mainstays. And while those microbudget classics remain among the greatest American films of the last 50 years, they look like Transformers movies compared to the work of Don Dohler.
When it comes to DIY filmmaking, Dohler — who sadly passed away in 2006 at the age of 60 — was about as authentic as they come. Sci-fi and horror flicks shot in the woods on grainy 16mm that have everything you’d want from a homemade Z-movie — wonderful claymation monster effects, rubber masks, terrible acting, copious gore and gratuitous nudity. They’re movies that should be unwatchable by every metric yet are wildly entertaining thanks to Dohler’s clear enthusiasm behind the camera. This is true-blue weirdo cinema, folks.
Nightbeast is likely the best place for Dohler newbies to start and contains the exact same premise as his other two alien invasion movies (The Alien Factor and Galaxy Invader), which can be deftly summarized as “malevolent alien lands in small-town Maryland and starts murdering a bunch of locals until a heroic sheriff and his motley crew take action.” Unlike so many other exploitation films, Nightbeast isn’t a glacially paced slog punctuated by a few shocking bursts of violence. In fact, it has better pacing than most modern blockbusters with nine-figure budgets.
The opening shot follows a spaceship making its way towards Earth before crash-landing in the middle of the woods (a common setting in the Dohler-verse). The explosion attracts the attention of some townsfolk, including the valiant Sheriff Cinder (Tom Griffith), and we get our first glimpse of the Nightbeast in a genuinely striking low-angle shot, its silhouette shrouded in fog.
Within the first 15 minutes alone, the Nightbeast kills over a dozen people, ripping intestines, slashing faces and twisting off heads. The movie’s pleasures, however, aren’t just limited to dismemberments. One of Dohler’s strengths lies is how he populates his films with amusing side characters and digressions that may be superfluous to the main plot but nonetheless add to their charm and sincerity.
Take, for example, the character of Drago — a homicidal biker caught in a love triangle with a local woman and one of the sheriff’s friends. Drago’s subplot contains its own arc involving murder, body disposal and revenge that could be removed from the movie entirely without affecting anything, but it’s those kinds of non sequiturs that make Nightbeast more than just a by-the-numbers slasher.
And speaking of non sequiturs, this has what might be the greatest sex scene in all of No Sleep October history. And by greatest, I mean the most hilarious and awkwardly staged. About halfway through, the story grinds to a halt for a scene in which the sheriff and his office assistant, Lisa, stop at a motel for Lisa to take a shower and tend to a wound on the sheriff’s upper thigh. When you hear dialogue as scintillating as, “You know, you’re a very attractive girl, Lisa. I guess I never really noticed before,” you know you’re about to witness a landmark moment in erotic filmmaking.
While Dohler’s career never took off the way it deserved to after Nightbeast, it does mark the first official credit of one J.J. Abrams, who co-scored the movie alongside Robert J. Walsh. At the time, Abrams subscribed to Dohler’s self-published special-effects magazine Cinemagic. When he wrote a fan letter to Dohler about film scores and sound effects, he offered Abrams the chance to submit his own music for Nightbeast.
Years later, in an interview for The Washington Post, Abrams described the appeal of Dohler’s work as “kind of like adult versions of the movies that we made when we were kids.” It’s a fitting characterization for a director who proved auteurism doesn’t need a budget — or even conventional talent — to flourish.