The Alien Factor (1978)
I discovered this entertaining low-budget indie on a 100 movie Mill Creek DVD collection. I always like to check out the cast and crew in the credits and did a double take when I noticed some of the special effects were rendered by Ernest Farino (The Abyss, 1989; The Terminator, 1984; The Thing, 1982). I wondered to myself how do I know that name? Well, it dawned on me that he just published and released the seminal biographical editions Ray Harryhausen, Master of Majicks (Vol. I, II and III), with Volume I just being released, as well as the rare FXRH also re-issued. I had been corresponding with him impatiently waiting for Majicks Volume I (the book is the BOMB and one the finest books on RH ever, and worth the wait).
The Alien Factor (1978) is a regional sci-fi alien invasion film shot in the rural environs, bars and backyards of Maryland. It has a lot to offer —4 funky aliens, an interesting and early example of a plot line with a bounty hunter-like alien hunting down other aliens (several years before The Hidden, 1987), resourceful and creative special effects, grainy photography (blown up from 16mm?), an electronic score, ridiculous dialogue and inept acting (I didn’t say the film offered positive attributes). As far as films of this nature go, this one is unusual, fun, and clearly a labor of love for director Don Dohler (Editor of Starlog’s CineMagic Magazine) and crew. One IMDb user notes in a review that “The Alien Factor is infused with [a] weird low-budget horror sensibility that makes it even the more intriguing.”
The plot is simple enough —townies, a Sheriff (Tom Griffith) in McCloud garb, the town mayor and a mysterious telepathic outsider (Don Leifert) investigate a series of strange deaths occurring in a rural town. Along the way we learn that an alien ship and cargo have crashed, and it’s up to the team to stop The Alien Factor.
The film offers a bounty of crude special effects and illusions —men in suits, prosthetics, stilt-walkers, stop-motion animation, optical lens effects, big ass props, rotoscoping, but no matte work after the opening credits as far as I can tell. Ernest Farino animated the Leemoid creature, which reminds me of a cross between the vine-creeping ravine lizard in King Kong (1933) and a Tarsier. The animation is fluid and the creature is really cool, but the live-action shots and animation do not intercut well, with some scenes revealing a transparent Leemoid! Oh well, this is an energy monster after all.
The strangest moment in the film has outsider Ben Zachary (Don Leifert) taking on the bizarre Sasquatchesque Zagatile creature with a hypodermic blow gun.
Messin’ with Zagatile….
Yes, that is a hypodermic needle stuck in the Zagatile’s chest….
For me the ultimate barometer for grade Z film watchability is the “significant other” test. I drive my girlfriend crazy watching these crappy old films and occassionally she asks ‘What are you watching?’ knowing fully well that it is a piece of crap, but sometimes she gets intrigued and sits down for a gander (she likes MST3K lampooning and Philip Kaufman’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), but hated the masterful Night of the Hunter (1955)). She watched all of The Alien Factor and laughed quite a bit along the way.
I think it’s a terrific bad film. Does anyone know if there is a decent copy anywhere?
Don Dohler’s The Galaxy Invader (1985) and Nightbeast (1982) are also on my list to watch.
Here’s an excerpt from Ernest Farino regarding animation of the Leemoid:
The Leemoid came after all that work had been completed. Britt McDonough had animated it first, but the results were deemed unsatisfactory. So Don wanted to start all over again from scratch. Britt had “permanently” double-exposed his stop motion creature directly onto the as-yet unprocessed live action (I’ve yet to understand how he was able to line things up and figure out any kind of shot lengths or frame counts). In any case, this, then, required that the live action for the sequence be completely re-shot. At that point, Don only had a batch of 16mm VNF (Video News Film) stock on hand, so he used that. This stock (no longer made) was designed to be compatible with TV, and thus had a blue-ish cast. This is why the overall color scheme suddenly shifts from normal daytime tones to what appears to be very blue “day-for-night” filtering.
In any case, they re-shot it and sent me the film, and I edited the sequence myself. I was shocked to see that there were numerous camera tilts and pans in the backgrounds. With no way to track or match these movements, I could only try to animate the Leemoid in and out of these shots and avoid the camera moves as much as possible. Thus, in some shots the creature steps in, takes a swipe at the guy, and then makes a hasty retreat. At which point the camera tilts down as the guys rolls down the hill (or whatever). Really clumsy, but there was no re-shooting the live action a third time.
It was established earlier in the film that the Leemoid was an energy creature, and was therefore supposed to be transparent. We thought this would let us get away with not having background projection or optical compositing, so I animated the creature against black, and the animation and background were combined in the lab by standard A/B-roll printing. However, the idea of the Leemoid being an energy creature was long-forgotten by the time the sequence showed up at the end of the film, and that concept was never repeated or reinforced for the sake of the viewer. So, as has been correctly remarked upon here, the result just looks like bad effects. It was bad effects work, of course, but we hoped the explanation of the nature of the creature might cause the audience to cut us a little slack.
I built the armature for the Leemoid in a weekend and completed the model in the evenings during the following week, mainly building it up in foam padding and covering it with latex skins. I had read that this was the way Jim Danforth had created the Mother Dinosaur in When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, so thought this would be an effective shortcut approach. (Of course, I wasn’t very skilled with the technique, and the Leemoid will never cause anyone to forget Jim’s brilliant Mother Dinosaur model…). The head was sculpted and cast in the traditional fashion.
Don basically gave me carte blanche with the sequence, and I remember him telling me on the phone, “Do whatever you think is best…” So it was with some frustration that I read a comment by Don quite a few years later that what I delivered “still wasn’t what I wanted.” The fact that Don never told me what he wanted didn’t seem to be important to mention.
Final anecdote: In 2003 I was the visual effects supervisor for the Sci-Fi Channel miniseries Children of Dune. After spending six months in Prague during pre-prodution and principal photography, I returned to dig in to the post production, which was set up at a company in Burbank called Area 51 (which I had previously hired to do work on From the Earth to the Moon for HBO and the previous miniseries, Dune). It was our routine to start every other day with VFX “dailies,” in which we would all gather around to see the latest versions of shots, tests, and eventually, completed shots which I would approve and sign off as Final. On my first day of watching dailies, they cued up a shot that had the official VFX slate and all the details, slated as a test of our saber-tooth tiger “dying.” They pressed Play and, of course, it was the Leemoid dying. Verrrry funny…
Here’s a recent shot of the Leemoid:
N. Pettigrew. 1999. The Stop-Motion Filmography, Volume 1. McFarland.
*Image of decaying Leemoid and excerpt article from The Classic Horror Film Board (CHFB) courtesy of and used under permission of Ernest Farino.