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Hipster Holy Grail: Fiend (1980)

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

There's a lot of good in Fiend - much of which I didn't expect.  Unfortunately, some poor acting, some bad lighting, and one too many cheesy effects put it the overall experience in a weird place.  It's too laughable to be serious, and too serious to laugh at.

My Rating: 2.5 / 5 (Almost Good Movie)

The Plot Summary

Fiend opens with its worst special effect, which mars it throughout: an ominous red glow superimposed on some footage of a graveyard.  It's supposed to be an evil spirit wafting through the air until it dives into a grave and possesses / reanimates a corpse.  Later, said corpse will strangle people and the red smudge will surround it again to imply that it's sucking the life force out of its victims and fortifying its corporeal form.

But it never looks like that.  It's a fuzzy red blotch that was crudely animated on top of the film.  Somehow, the obvious handmade quality never becomes charming the way bad effects normally are in low-budget movies.  It just looks like one of those situations where you say, "If you knew it looked this bad, why did you still do it?"  I think I'm getting ahead of myself, though.  I'll save that for later.

The point is, the spirit possesses a corpse and it goes to strangle a young couple who are getting ready for some hot cemetery sex.  The corpse starts out as a decaying, grizzled mess, but then morphs into a healthier-looking dude named Eric Longfellow (Don Leifert).

Cut to the suburbs, several weeks later.  Longfellow has bought a house and set up a studio in the basement where he teaches violin lessons whenever he's not running a music store.  Where he got all the money for a house and a small business, I don't know - the movie is cut in such a way to imply that it's only been a few months since the opening scene.  I guess the spirit possessed a banker at some point and stowed some cash away for just this reason?

Anyway, Longfellow's running a fairly successful con here.  He seems to all observers to be nothing more than a cantankerous old grouch, but secretly he's a murderous spirit from beyond.  Occasionally he'll stalk some poor sap - usually a young woman - and drain his/her life force to keep his physical form in good shape, and then he'll return to his lair and play his violin.

I have to question the "cantankerous" part of this, though.  You see a few scenes where Longfellow acts like a total dickhead to his neighbors - he's curt with the adults and he's not fond of kids.  He's basically the "Old Man ______" cliche, the spooky guy whose lawn you never go near for fear of death.  Isn't that a bad identity to assume if you're trying to allay suspicion that you're secretly a monster?  That's like Satan taking the form of a seedy arms dealer.  You'd be much better off pretending to be, say, a friendly high school principal.  After all, you can't spell "friend" without "fiend," amirite?

Pause for laughter... no?  Ugh.  Fine.

Anyway, to prove my point, Longfellow has in fact drawn unwanted suspicion: one neighbor in particular, Gary Kender (Richard Nelson), keeps a close and spiteful eye on him.  At first, Gary is simply annoyed with Longfellow because of his constant violin playing.  This leads him to speculate on Longfellow's habits, and he starts to get nosy and look for more reasons to hate his neighbor. Gary's wife, Marsha (Elaine White), thinks Gary is over-reacting and just doesn't like having a neighbor - apparently Gary has a history of judging people like this.

But one day, things take a turn for the disastrous.  A little girl goes wandering in the woods behind Longfellow's house, and Longfellow - desperate for some life energy (he tried to drain the life force from another target earlier and it didn't work out) - strangles her to death.  I have to give Dohler credit: this scene is pretty well put together.  He uses some good staging and editing to imply rising terror, and it ends in a way where you clearly know that poor girl is about to die - but you never see Longfellow actually strangle her.  It ends up being the most gut-wrenching murder in the movie, and not just because a kid is killed.

Gary does not react well.  (I mean, really, you never react "well" when a small child is strangled to death, do you?)  He refuses to believe the alibi Longfellow gives to the police, which is that he and his assistant / store manager, Dennis Frye (George Stover), were listening to music in his creepy basement and didn't see the murder.  Between Longfellow being a creep in general and the murder occurring so close to his house, Gary rightly suspects that he's up to no good and sets out on a quest to prove it.

From here, the movie is kind of plot-light / atmosphere-heavy.  Everything so far has taken about half an hour to get going, and the remaining hour is spent following Gary's amateur detectiving as he snoops around Longfellow's house and history.  The minutiae doesn't make for a very interesting plot recap, so let me cut to the chase.  It boils down to basically two threads:

1) Gary asks the neighborhood kids to keep an eye on Longfellow and report back to him if they see anything strange.  This inspires one of them, Scotty (Greg Dohler, the director's son), to follow Longfellow through the woods one afternoon.  There he witnesses Longfellow murder Frye in order to wrap up a possible loose end in the police's investigation.

2) Gary reads an occult book where he learns about vengeful spirits inhabiting corpses, then traces the murder victims back to the original graveyard.  He visits and talks to a very informative groundskeeper who gives him a newspaper clipping of Longfellow from his former life, before he was buried and his corpse was possessed.  Gary buys the clipping off the groundskeeper and returns home with concrete evidence that Longfellow is up to no good.

The movie builds up to a climax when Gary returns home from his graveyard visit, and you think he's about to blow the lid right off the case.  However, instead of immediately telling Marsha what he's found, he says that he needs to go splash some water on his face.  This face-splashing is apparently an ordeal and a half, because while he's off doing that, Scotty comes by to tell him what he witnessed and just barely misses Gary.  Marsha shoos Scotty away, and when Gary comes back from the sink, he hears Scotty came around and rushes out of the house to go hear his story.

Now, far be it from me to criticize a man who needs to convince his wife that the dead have risen and taken up residence in the house next door - I can't say I've ever been in that situation.  But couldn't he have said anything to Marsha during this time?  Even just a quick aside - "Hey, I've got proof that Longfellow is a murderer, so keep the door locked?"  No, apparently he can't.  Gary's just in and out without a single hint dropped.

Naturally, Marsha has no idea that there's anything strange afoot, so when Longfellow calls and asks if she can stop by with some aspirin, she wants to be a good neighbor and complies.  She heads over to Longfellow's house while Gary visits Scotty and hears about Frye's murder.

Gary now has two smoking guns and plans to call the police - just as soon as he talks to his damn wife.  Except now she's not home!  Oh, no!

He and Scotty bust into Longfellow's house just in time to see that he has killed Marsha.  This would seem like the perfect time to call the cops, but Gary is so full of revenge lust that he tries to choke Longfellow instead.  They all get in a big scuffle and Longfellow starts to suck Gary's life force out with spirit magic.  It seems like he's going to get away with it all...

...and then Scotty notices a pair of swords hung on the wall.  He grabs one and stabs Longfellow with it.  The spirit leaves Longfellow's body and floats off into space, and the movie promptly ends.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

It's so frustrating to see movies like this.  Fiend alternates from a laugh-along B-movie with cheesy music and overblown schlock to a tense, low-key thriller about paranoia and doubt.  Parts of it work incredibly well and draw you in, only for you to scoff right back at it the next time a goofy murder takes place.

The acting doesn't do it any favors.  I praised Blood Massacre last week because the cast had a breezy, theatrical attitude to everything they did.  The hammy moments worked because the movie as a whole had an over-the-top "just go with it" tone.  Fiend isn't that.  Fiend is supposed to be understated.  Fiend is supposed to make you say, "Hmm, that weirdo next door may be up to no good... I wonder if we have a murderer in our neighborhood?"  It's hard to pull off a slow burn when half your cast is overdoing it and the other half sounds like they've never read a screenplay before.

And of course, there's the special effects, which I already touched on earlier.  I'm still baffled that Dohler went with the red fuzz animation.  The thing is, when you look past the red stuff and just focus on the physical effects - the grotesque corpse makeup - the movie looks totally fine.  It's got a nice, quiet, low-rez horror feel to it.  I actually liked the scenes where Longfellow is reverting to a corpse because they looked appropriately gross and disquieting.

At the end of the day, you don't need the red spirit animation.  You know that Longfellow is absorbing people's "life force" when you see him transform from a rotting corpse to a healthy dude.  And you know the fiend spirit has left his body at the end of the movie when he slumps over and starts to instantaneously rot.

It seems like Dohler overthought it.  Like, he made a perfectly fine movie, but then he was thinking, "Ooh, I don't know if people are going to get what the fiend is.  I should animate a red thing over top so nobody gets confused."  Then he did and immediately made the movie worse.

All that stuff aside - this is a nifty little movie.  I enjoy movies about quiet paranoia, and the idea of building that tension out of suburban disconnect was still somewhat new and fresh when Fiend was made.  There's enough merit to the idea and to some of the sequences that I'd put it in the category of "Almost Good Movie."

Here's the irony.  Usually the AGM category means that a movie would be perfect for a remake, since a second pass would help to even out the bumps.  But the subject matter of Fiend is no longer timely enough for it to be effective.  I don't want to say it's irrelevant - if anything, it's more relevant now than ever before, since so many people are actively suspicious of horrible things despite a massive nationwide drop in violent crimes.  But the subject matter has been addressed so often (and better) in other movies, and the average American's suspicion of his neighbors is so much worse now than it was thirty-six years ago.  A remake simply wouldn't make sense.

Really, just picture it.  "I think my neighbor is a murderer."  "Okay.  Call the cops."  "Say, good idea!"  Fin.

On a similar train of thought, I'm not sure whether it helps or hurts to show that Longfellow is the murderer early on.  In some ways I feel like this ruins the tension since there's no mystery.  But then again, that wasn't really the point of the movie - it's not supposed to be a whodunit, it's supposed to be a whatareyougonnadoaboutit.

I'm on the fence about recommending this movie.  There's definitely an audience for it.  If you're a fan of Hammer horror from the 1970s, for example, you may dig parts of this.  For everybody else, it's a clear pass.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

Fiend has just under 200 ratings on IMDb as of today.  I'll give it 35 obscurity points instead of the usual 40 for a sub-200 rating since it's right on the border.  I'll give it another 10 for Don Dohler and a 15 point "you've probably never heard of them" bonus for the cast as a whole.  Let's go with another 10 point bonus for tackling suburban horror back when it was still a relatively new thing.

That adds up to a total of 70 hipster cred out of a possible 100.  It's a step down from last week, but still respectable.

Where You Can Watch

As with several of his movies, a user named DonDohlerFilms - which is billed as Dohler's official Youtube feed - has uploaded the entirety of Fiend to Youtube.  I have no reason to think it's not legit, so go enjoy some legal streaming.