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Hipster Holy Grail: The Alien Factor (1978) and Alien Factor 2: The Alien Rampage (2001)

The Hipster Holy Grail is my ongoing quest to review an obscure movie before it becomes cool to talk about it. Good, bad, doesn't matter.  It just has to be at least 10 years old and have less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

The Alien Factor and its twenty-three year late sequel, The Alien Rampage, each have unique merits and drawbacks.  If you could somehow draw the best parts from each into a new whole, you'd have a fun, low-budget alien invasion movie.  As they stand, they're both kind of middling, but still very respectable efforts from a guy who literally just set up a camera in my backyard.

My Rating: 3 / 5

The Plot Summary

It turned out to be more fitting than I expected to do this double feature as my final entry for Don Dohlember.  The Alien Factor was Dohler's first film and features his regular stable of actors, whereas The Alien Rampage features quite a bit of crossover from the cast of Harvesters.  And where Harvesters was a straight-up remake of Blood Massacre, The Alien Rampage is kind of a reboot of The Alien Factor.

But here's the thing.  Harvesters was not directed by Dohler, and I felt it was a step down from the glory of Blood Massacre.  The Alien Rampage, on the other hand, was directed by Dohler.  So instead of being a step down... it's more of a step sideways.

Anyway.  The plot summaries.

The Alien Factor

An alien spacecraft lands in the boonies and surprises some campers, then its inhabitants go on the prowl and start killing unsuspecting locals.  Sheriff Cinder (Tom Griffith) discovers the bodies and consults with Medical Examiner Steven (George Stover), who can't quite say for sure what was behind the deaths.  They figure it's probably the work of a wolf or some other wild beast and they issue a general warning to the town.

Frustrated by a lack of answers or retribution, some of the other townies go off hunting for the creature(s) and end up getting killed.  In the meantime, Edie Martin (Mary Mertens), a reporter, tries to go digging for answers herself, but comes up empty-handed.

The movie then enters a second act lull where there isn't very much plot progression, but more people die.  To be honest, this is one of those stretches of movie that's so unmemorable that I'm probably skipping over crucial details.  One way or another, they see one of the creatures in action and realize they're up against something not of this Earth.

Enter Ben Zachary (Don Leifert), a scientist.  Strangely, he doesn't show up until about halfway through the movie, but he's the protagonist.  Zachary is a researcher of the paranormal and offers his help to track down and capture the alien creature(s).  However, he urges a caution to the townsfolk: he prefers to work alone, so he needs them all to stay out of his way.

They do not.  Steve and Edie go wandering off in the woods, ostensibly to hunt down one of the aliens, and end up falling over themselves and screaming for mercy as it looms over them.  Then a terrible radio wave breaks the silence and drives the creature into madness, and it dies.  A bit later, Zachary emerges from his hiding place and reveals that he had been devising a sound-based weapon to hurt the aliens based off some preliminary research, and now he knows how to take down the rest of them.  Then he yells at Steve and Edie for ignoring his very simple instructions.

Another creature chases after Cinder and wreaks havoc in town, and it escapes into the wild.  Zachary goes chasing after it while Cinder, suspecting that there's more to Zachary's past than he has shared, does a background check on him.  He finds out that there is no "Ben Zachary" and goes off to confront him about this.

In the meantime, Zachary kills the last creature, then has a bizarre psychic fight with a stop-motion animated lizard creature that appears to fade in and out of existence.  I'm pretty sure that is as clear as I can describe it.

The lizard bites and injures Zachary, and clearly he's suffering from some kind of physical disfiguration because of it.  However, the movie hides him in shadow so you can't quite clearly see what happened.  Edie sneaks up behind him - apparently she was following him - and asks him what the deal was with that crazy phantom lizard.

So then Zachary delivers all the exposition you were probably expecting at the beginning of the movie (and which serves as the IMDb plot description): the alien spacecraft was carrying a variety of intergalactic specimens, basically an alien zoo, which all escaped during the crash.  Zachary was one of the ship's crew and is now trying to recover / eliminate all the specimens before they can do any further damage.  He has succeeded so far, but his fight with that psychic lizard has hampered his human disguise, so now he's in his true form.

He asks - nay, begs - Edie not to freak out when she sees him.  Then he steps out of the shadows and she freaks out.  She screams so long and so hysterically that when Sheriff Cinder drives up a second later, he assumes she's being killed and he shoots Zachary to death.  Then Edie finally calms down and goes, "No, you just killed Zachary!" and the credits immediately roll. The End.

Alien Factor 2: The Alien Rampage

We open with a high speed chase through some Maryland country roads.  Side note: I'm always curious what folks from "the country" in any other part of America think about Maryland's version of "the country." I mean, sure, at a certain point, idyllic rural life is kinda the same, but there are no places in Maryland that are more than an hour drive from either the suburbs or a major highway.  Even when you get all up in Washington County.  Do people from, say, Kansas see Maryland's countryside and go, "Oh, how cute?"  Like, are they snobby about our rural spots the way New Yorkers are snobby about Baltimoreans?

Back to the movie.  FBI Agent Frank Love (Patrick Bussink) and his partner are chasing some unknown suspect.  We cut back and forth between their banter inside the car and an FBI office where their bosses discuss the chase.  Then we get introduced to some of the local law enforcement: Sheriff Allison Smith (Donna Sherman), Deputy Sinclair (George Stover), Deputy Woodson (Steven King), and Julie (Shannon Bucci).  The police department is crazy busy, so Smith is forced to call Julie in from her vacation, which has just started.  Her vacation appears to be nothing more than hanging out in the backyard in a bikini.  To each their own, I guess.

We also cut to a weird hillbilly commune of some sort.  I'm really not clear on what this is supposed to be; a group of squatters, maybe?  They are thrown into the movie with no context, and all you really come to know is that one of the guys here is very protective of one of the women, and after she is hit on by another one of the squatters, there's a fight.

Also we get introduced to David Tackett (Either Jonas Grey or David Parker, depending on which credit you look at) and his wife(?), Lisa (Jaime Kalman).  They are a young couple passing through town and they're lost, so they stop at a diner to get directions.

Anyway, back to that high speed chase.  The suspect jumps out of her car and runs through the forest, and the FBI guys give chase.  Then one of them gets tired, I guess, so he decides to end the chase by shooting her in the back.  Justice!

We get to see the suspect up close for once and we, the audience, immediately realize she's an alien because she's got sharp features and a protruding brow.  The FBI guys don't catch on right away; they put a call into HQ and say they've seen something weird.  Then Agent Love digs around the alien's body and finds a strange black box and starts to mess with it.  This sends a signal to a nearby spaceship, which zaps a translucent force field up in the air.

The force field wraps around the town and encapsulates it, Under the Dome style.  The upshot of this plot device is that the various characters we've seen so far are all stuck inside the force field and can't get out, but it took me forever to realize that they were all on the inside of it; for the longest time, I assumed that they were split up.  I blame this on a few bad shot compositions, which alternate the directions from which the people are looking at the force field and completely screw up any sense of geography.

Anyway.  Agent Love's partner touches the force field and gets zapped by electricity, then dies.  Deputies Sinclair and Woodson witness his death and realize the field is bad news.  Elsewhere, a random dude touches the field and dies the same way, and his death is witnessed by David and Lisa, who realize the field is bad news.  Almost immediately after that, one of the commune guys is about to touch the field, and then one of his buddies basically says, "Knock that shit off, idiot.  It's clearly going to zap you."  This, I think, was the best part of the movie.

While everybody's freaking out about the force field, an enormous alien robot thing comes out of the spaceship and starts gunning random people down with a laser blaster strapped to its wrist.  It kills one of the commune guys, wipes out that diner where David got directions earlier, and otherwise wreaks havoc.  All the miscellaneous characters gradually coalesce at the Sheriff's department where they try to get answers.

Not much is forthcoming.  Agent Love reveals that the suspect / alien stole some Uranium 235 from a nuclear power plant, which is why he was chasing her in the first place, but he doesn't reveal the black box.  And then it comes out that David used to be in the Army, where he was an explosives expert.  But aside from these revelations, nothing of substance is learned.

There's some bickering between various factions and then the commune guys decide to go hunting for the alien on their own time.  This right here - this, above all else, seems to be Don Dohler's thesis statement.  I've now seen six and a half of his movies (only got through half of Nightbeast), and of those, five feature gangs who decide to "go hunting" when faced with a problem.  I'm not sure where Dohler grew up, but it was clearly a different part of Maryland than mine.

After some more filler, we cut to the medical examiner's office, where they are observing the alien's (apparently) near-death body.  The alien suddenly grabs the examiner's throat and starts using her voice as a vessel to speak to everyone else.  We now get a massive exposition dump, of which I only really followed a few key pieces.  The main points are:

1) The alien has a robot protector, which is now attacking the countryside;
2) The robot is looking for a microchip that is needed to launch the ship back into space; and
3) The planet is at risk of exploding.  To be honest, I'm not sure why.  It either explodes if the robot can't take off, or it will explode if the robot does take off.  Point is, the spaceship is bad news.

Agent Love for some reason continues to hide the black box, which clearly contains the chip that the aliens are looking for.  And after everybody consults about the matter, Sheriff Smith decides the best thing to do is blow up the ship.  So she asks David to build a bomb that they can remotely detonate and save the day.

David goes with a few deputies, Love, and Smith into the forest to look for the spaceship.  In the meantime, the robot busts into a crowded bar and massacres a couple dozen people.  There's a lot of back and forth in the woods as the robot chases the remaining survivors this way and that.  Along the way, we find the dead bodies of all those commune guys, and eventually David breaks from the group to go inside the spaceship and plant the bomb.

Then Agent Love is gunned down, right after he reveals the black box and starts to offer an apology / explanation (apoxplanation?).  The robot snatches the black box and starts heading back to the ship.  David leaves at that exact moment, and the robot shoots him in the back.  Sheriff Smith runs over to his corpse and grabs the detonator out of his hands, then pushes it and blows the ship apart.

The survivors suddenly find themselves standing in a field in the middle of the day - even though it was night only a moment ago - and they are lost for answers.  It seems they've been caught in a weird time bubble.  Smith is accosted by more FBI Agents, who are looking for Agent Love.  She stares at them in confounded silence.  Then the movie cuts back to the medical examiner's office, where the alien turns to the camera and the music swells.  The End.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

What's kind of funny about this is that despite each film having a unique set of strengths, they each fail most spectacularly for one single reason: the casts are too goddamned big.

The problem is a little more pronounced in Alien Rampage, which feels kind of like a SuperFriends of Don Dohler regulars.  It's like he just couldn't bring himself to make the movie unless he found a way to give screen time to every single one of his friends, so he shoved them all in there no matter how poorly they fit.  The result is that you never feel like you've got an anchor.  Ironically, it's the same problem I have with giant, overproduced special effects features - you throw too much shit at me, and after awhile I just find it impossible to pay attention.

Alien Factor has at least three protagonists, but only one of them is a legit, plot-progressing character, and he doesn't even show up until forty minutes in.  So until he appears, you're left witnessing a lot of stuff and going, "Okay, but why?  Who's doing stuff about this?"  In Alien Rampage, the first twenty minutes are spread across four or five different characters' vantage points, so you can't tell who's important and who isn't.

Here's a perfect example: look at Julie.  There's a whole sequence where Sheriff Smith says, "We've got to bring her in," before calling her at home.  Then we cut to Julie getting surly about having to come into work on her day off.  The whole thing plays out as if she's some hotshot renegade that kicks shit and takes no prisoners.  Like, you get the sense that maybe she's taking a vacation because she spent the last week arresting sooooo many people, and goddamn does she need a break.  Then Julie comes to work... and she doesn't do anything.  She's barely in the movie.  I don't even remember if she lives the whole way through or not.

There are too many Julies in these movies.  At the end of the day, Dohler just needed some focus.  Alien Factor needed Zachary to come into the story at minute fifteen.  He could have shown up mysteriously and been like, "I'm an independent investigator," and then the movie could try to play up the suspense about who this weirdo is and why he showed up suddenly at the same time as all the strange murders.  And Alien Rampage needed to just focus on David the Bomb Guy.  Like, he's just passing through town and he gets trapped and has no idea what's going on, and we learn about the alien presence through him as our surrogate rather than cutting between a bunch of damn cops.

If Dohler could have honed his storytelling a bit, the merits in each movie would have shined much more brightly.  There's an infectious B movie spirit in both movies, that same kind of rapid-fire, "throw all the corny sci-fi tropes that'll stick" attitude that I loved in Blood Massacre.  The special effects in both films are charming, if not believable.  The concept is fun.  The acting is serviceable.  The run time and pacing are fine, the screenplays have jokes that could work if you cared about who was telling them... there's a lot to love here.  It just gets lost in the noise.

How Much Hipster Cred Are They Worth?

Obscurity is on both ends of the scale this week.  Alien Factor has over 500 ratings on IMDb, so it gets no bonus, but Alien Rampage has right around 100 and would get 45 cred.  I'll average them and go with 22.5.  (I'm being very precise this week.)  We'll go with another ten cred for Don Dohler and another fifteen for his usual cast(s) of "you've probably never heard of them"s.

I'm going to give the pair a collective boost of ten points for having hipstery content - these are prime B movie premises - and another ten points for the special effects.  These last ten points, by the way, go moreso to Alien Rampage, which was made in the 21st century and could have used CGI exclusively, but which still made copious (and effective) use of practical effects.

That adds up to a total of 67.5 hipster cred out of a possible 100 for the pair.  And if you're playing at home, give yourself a ten point Completist Bonus if you watch both.

Where You Can Watch

Both films are available on Youtube via the DonDohlerFilms channel.