It was 1982, the year after Return Of The Jedi, that Steven Spielberg called up two young Super 8 enthusiasts to restore his own battered collection of film reels, setting off the chain of events that eventually led to JJ Abrams‘ big hearted 2011 blockbuster Super 8.
The director’s film career – one that would eventually take him to Lost, Alias, Star Trek and now Star Wars – did begin in 1982, but it owes far more to a less widely known filmmaker, the incomparably demented Don Dohler, than the Hollywood titan behind ET.
A native of Baltimore, Maryland, Dohler’s career took in underground comix publishing – where he launched a magazine for would-be filmmakers called Cinemagic – and then horror. His directoral debut, 1978’s The Alien Factor, was a cheapjack sci-fi/horror film that made up for its pitiable budget and suburban locations with manic energy and oodles of imagination. Followed by 1980’s Fiend, Dohler’s status as a sort of backyard schlock auteur was well and truly cemented.
Speaking to The Washington Post in 2011, Abrams recalled corresponding with Dohler through Cinemagic. “He wrote me back and I told him I was into music and doing these sound effects and scores for these movies I was doing. He literally out of the blue asked me if I’d be interested in doing music for his movie, having never heard any music that I had done. It was classic.”
This collaboration lead to Abrams’ earliest ever film credit on Nightbeast, which picked up the alien-runs-amock themes of The Alien Factor, instead depicting a solitary, reptilian fiend painting smalltown America blood red. There’s a rubbish sex scene, game special effects, a cameo from the future director of Shark Night 3D and Final Destination 2, David R Ellis, and it made its way onto the Director of Public Prosecutions Section 3 list of troublesome tapes alongside the likes of The Hills Have Eyes, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Night Of The Living Dead.
To say Nightbeast is cult is definitely an understatement; in fact, this movie is so positively underground that it’s fossilised.
“You know,” Abrams continued, “it was such a crazy thrill to be asked to be involved in one of his movies. I would watch a scene that Don Dohler sent me and I would time it with a watch and write down where things would happen. And then I’d go upstairs, and I would use whatever instrument I could use. I had a little porta-studio, a four-track thing or a reel-to-reel tape deck. It was just the most preposterous set-up and I would send him back music, some of which he used in the movie.
“It was just a very exciting thing, to be involved in a movie on any level. And then to get a credit on a movie was literally the thing that all my life I had said, if I get my name on a movie, a credit on a film, I could die happy. That was all I needed.”
Sadly, Dohler died in September 2006, and while he probably got to see Abrams on the rise with Lost, Alias and Mission: Impossible III, we can’t help but feel Cloverfield, Super 8 and Fringe would have made him proud beyond belief.
And Star Trek and Star Wars would have just blown his mind.
Nightbeast is available to stream in its entirity on Troma’s YouTube channel. You can buy Star Wars: The Complete Saga on Blu-ray from Amazon.co.uk for £57.99