The Galaxy Invader (1985) -**
John Waters may be the Baltimore-based underground filmmaker that everyone knows about, but by no means did he have the place all to himself. Don Dohler was another perennial fixture of the local movie scene, and he was at it almost as long— from his debut feature, The Alien Factor, in 1978 until practically the day he died 28 years later. Dohler never attracted anything like the attention that eventually came to Waters, however, and a comparison of the two men’s fortunes— one a footnote remembered only by the most dedicated seekers of the odd and offbeat, the other the most counterintuitive favorite son a major American city ever had— may tell us something about what it takes to succeed in a moribund business.
Truth be told, the only thing Don Dohler and John Waters really had in common was that they both spent as little money as possible making movies in Baltimore with the help of a loyal cadre of more or less amateur associates whose names appear in the credits of film upon film throughout their careers. Waters was always a misfit among misfits, whereas Dohler held down a day job as a law-office payroll manager until an afternoon playing hostage to a gang of armed robbers convinced him that life was too short to let his artistic daydreams remain in the realm of fantasy. Waters had auteurism in his blood from the get-go, but Dohler turned to directing only because he could find no work in the region as a cinematographer or film editor except by becoming his own employer. And most importantly, the two men’s creative aims were fundamentally at odds. Even (indeed, especially) at the very beginning of his career, Waters wanted to be whatever was avant of avant garde. Dohler, on the other hand, would have liked nothing better than to devote all his efforts to making crime dramas and spy thrillers; the only reason he made monster movies instead was because car-chases, stunts, and pyrotechnics cost more money than his investors ever had, and required expertise that he and his followers lacked completely. Rubber suits and stage blood they could handle, however. Dohler would never have made a Pink Flamingos or a Polyester, any more than Waters would have made a Nightbeast or a Blood Massacre, and that, I suspect, was precisely Dohler’s problem. The 1980’s were a distinctly hostile environment for regional filmmakers looking to get their movies into theaters. The last of the single-screen independents were dying like bugs under the strain of competition with the new multiplexes, and inflation combined with a sudden spike in the cost of film development to push production expenses toward the point where making movies for release on a less-than-national scale could no longer make any economic sense. To survive, let alone to thrive, a small-scale producer/director had to come up with something truly unique— something audiences couldn’t get on any of the four, eight, ten, or however many screens there were at the mall. John Waters did that— nobody else would give you Mortville, Lady Divine’s Cavalcade of Perversions, or the Filthiest People Alive— and even he had trouble in the early 80’s, before home video gave his back catalogue a new lease on life. Don Dohler was offering nothing but monster rampages on a slight update of the 1953 model, and he wasn’t even conspicuously good at making those. Conventionality was thus his curse, for what looked marketable on paper actually put him in competition not merely with the chain theaters, but with recycled antique drive-in fare on late-night and Saturday-afternoon television as well.
Watch The Galaxy Invader, and you’ll quickly see what I mean. A fireball behaving very much unlike a meteor streaks through the sky over the little northern Maryland town of Harleyville, and crashes to earth in a trackless stretch of woods. It’s just before dawn, but for some reason David Harmon (Don Dohler’s son, Greg, whom he also cast in Nightbeast and The Alien Factor) is up and about already, and he’s one of the few who see the weird object fall. When David was in college, one of his professors was a big UFO buff, and Harmon hurries to a phone booth to bother Dr. William Tracy (Richard Dyszel, of Stakes and Crawler, better known to people of my generation who grew up in the Washington DC television market as “Creature Feature” host Count Gore DeVol) with the story of what he just saw. David knows his old teacher well, and Dr. Tracy swiftly overcomes his initial irritation at being woken up at the ass-crack of dawn once he understands what Harmon is calling about. In fact, he’s so excited about the chance to see a real UFO landing site in person that he determines to make the five-hour drive to Harleyville at once.
Inevitably, the thing that came down in those woods has a living pilot aboard. The alien is a hulking, reptilian humanoid with a somewhat counterintuitive skull-like head; Paul Blaisdell would be proud to see that somebody was still keeping the tradition alive. Its first act upon leaving the spacecraft (well, its first act apart from wandering around in the woods— wandering around in the woods doesn’t cost anything, so Dohler was always big on having his characters do that) is more than a little on the antisocial side, or at least looks that way at first glance: it sneaks into a house, and kills the couple who live there. Closer consideration, however, reveals that the humans were the first to resort to violence, slashing at the creature with a carving knife the second they got a look at what was rummaging around in their cellar. That first encounter sets the pattern for just about all the space traveler’s interactions with the natives.
Speaking of natives, I suppose we ought to introduce the main characters here. I know— that’s what I thought David Harmon and Dr. Tracy were going to be, too, but The Galaxy Invader actually has us spend most of its time hanging out (and wandering through the woods) with the intensely dysfunctional Montague family. Joy. Most of their dysfunction comes courtesy of clan patriarch Joe (Richard Ruxton, from The Curse of the Screaming Dead and Maxim Xul), whom 25-year-old middle child Carol (Faye Tilles) describes with considerable justice as a drunk and a bum. You know the type— probably threw his back out on the job five or ten years ago; hasn’t done an hour’s honest work since; spends his days making life miserable for his wife and kids, and his nights drinking up his disability checks with some similarly no-good crony. And of course he’s a great lover of guns. When we meet the Montagues, they’re having breakfast together, and Carol is fighting with Joe over her boyfriend, Michael Smith (Cliff Lambert), whom her dad despises because of some bad business with his father untold years ago. Mother Ethel (Anne Frith, of Fiend and Blood Massacre) tries to intervene by reminding Joe that Carol is a grown-ass woman now, and that he has no business trying to run her life anymore. Way to put out a fire with gasoline there, Ethel… The argument escalates until Carol storms out of the house, little sister Annie (Kim Dohler, another of Don’s offspring, and another Nightbeast-Alien Factor cast-member, too) essentially goes into hiding, and Joe makes to go after his rebellious older daughter with a shotgun. Big brother J.J. (George Stover, who worked for John Waters almost as often as he worked for Dohler— look for him in Desperate Living and Female Trouble) attempts to restrain him, but he lacks the nerve to get physical with his old man in a manner sufficiently forceful to make any impression. He ends up just loping impotently along a couple dozen paces behind Joe as he rampages through the forest on the hunt for Carol. That means J.J. is there to see it when his father encounters a most unexpected distraction. That’s right— it’s the big, scaly spaceman, and Joe’s reaction to the chance encounter is dismally predictable. The charge of birdshot the creature takes square in the belly can’t penetrate its armored hide, but apparently it smarts enough to make the thing take to its heels. The barrage of pellets also dislodges the more enigmatic of the two devices the alien had hanging from its belt, a translucent, white sphere that glows and gives off sparks when a switch at one of its poles is engaged.
Joe has just enough imagination to convince himself that the alien contraption might be worth money. With that in mind, he brings it home with him, then summons his best drinking buddy, Frank Custer (Don Leffert, from Crawler and Fiend), to come have a look at it. Custer is what passes for a mover and a shaker in Joe’s stunted conception, an avaricious creep whose senses are perpetually attuned to the potential for advantage in any and every situation. Joe rather wishes Frank hadn’t brought along his trash-glamorous girlfriend, Vickie (Theresa Harold), but Custer keeps his pimp hand strong enough, or so he imagines, to forestall her blabbing anything they don’t want the neighbors to know. Once he’s heard Joe’s story, Frank immediately concludes that his friend is thinking small. Sure, the sphere is pretty neat and all, but if the two men really want to get rich on this deal, they should be thinking in terms of capturing the device’s owner. That evening, just in time for happy hour, Frank and Joe pay a visit to the local bar and grill, where they announce that they’re recruiting volunteers for what promises to be an extremely lucrative hunting expedition. They won’t say what the prey is just yet, but anybody who wants in on the windfall should meet up at the Montague place after sundown. This, incidentally, is the same bar and grill where Harmon and Dr. Tracy stop in for dinner after a fruitless day of UFO-tracking, and where Vickie goes to kill time while Frank is chasing aliens. A strong pimp hand turns out to be no match for a bunch of booze on top of a garrulous nature, and Vickie blabs to anybody who’ll listen about what Frank and Joe are up to out in the woods that night. David overhears her, and soon Dr. Tracy is offering to buy Vickie another drink in exchange for the full story. Meanwhile, the alien finds its way to the Montague house, where it relieves J.J. of the white sphere. You remember how I said the creature had two gizmos on its belt earlier? Well, the sphere is actually the power source for the other one, which is some kind of directed-energy weapon. So I’m thinking Joe, Frank, and their hunting party are going to a have a tougher time of it than they anticipate in the event that they succeed in finding their quarry. Indeed, I’d say it would be better for all concerned if Harmon and Tracy got to the alien first, but we wouldn’t have much of a movie then, would we?
Honestly, we don’t have much of a movie here as it is. The Galaxy Invader reminds me most of one of the crummier episodes of “The Outer Limits” from out toward the end of its original run. It scrupulously follows the “humans encounter man-in-a-suit beastie; havoc ensues” template that underlay all but a few wildly atypical “Outer Limits” scripts, but as was generally the case with that show, it attempts to tell something just a tad more sophisticated than a straight monster-rampage story. Specifically, by making the humans the aggressors, The Galaxy Invader aligns itself with the tradition of The Day the Earth Stood Still and 20 Million Miles to Earth— although the execution puts it closer to Phantom from Space in terms of both sensibility and effectiveness. The alien commits no violence except in self-defense, and it’s hardly the creature’s fault that we humans are so breakable. The incongruity of taking such a position in a film called The Galaxy Invader hints at where Dohler went most wrong, and again it’s a routine that fans of “The Outer Limits” will recognize all too well. In the simplest terms, Dohler didn’t think the scenario out far enough. Most conspicuously, he never goes into the alien’s purpose in coming to Earth on even the most superficial level. Is it an explorer? An ambassador? A castaway? A private citizen on the transgalactic equivalent of an epic road trip, who happened to pick the worst spot in the whole sector for an overnight campout? Or indeed might it truly be an invader, a scout sent to assess the suitability of our planet for conquest and colonization? We don’t know, and more importantly, Dohler offers no sign that he knows either. In fact, not one of the characters— not even Dr. Tracy, who we might assume to be accustomed to thinking about stuff like this— even raises the issue. The humans’ activities have plenty of unexamined implications as well, the biggest of the bunch being that it looks as though the events of this story kill off a good 15% of Harleyville’s menfolk. The final scene in particular leaves the protagonists with some very awkward questions to answer in that direction, but again nobody ever steps forward to ask them. Finally, there’s one major respect in which a substandard “Outer Limits” episode is actually preferable to The Galaxy Invader. An hour-long television timeslot imposes a certain amount of discipline with regard to narrative efficiency. True, there were fewer commercials per broadcast hour in the 1960’s than we face today, but you still can’t afford to screw around when you have just a hair over 50 minutes to get from setup to wrap-up. In this film, though, Dohler takes a story that would have fit snugly but comfortably into his era’s even more abbreviated TV hour, and stretches it to meet 1985’s minimum definition of feature length. Even without all the time given over to forcing upon us an intimate knowledge of the woods around Perry Hall, Maryland, The Galaxy Invader would be one of the been-there-done-that-iest movies of the mid-1980’s. With all the arboreal padding, it becomes positively soporific.