That's what Joan Rivers will look like if she doesn't lay of the plastic surgery. Judge Harold Gervais, ever the lover of gentle, pastoral films, takes a look at this gentle, pastoral 1950s film.
It's like some sort of mental vampire.
From the creators of the special edition, Criterion, comes the "B-film" classic, Fiend Without A Face. In typical Criterion fashion, considerable time, trouble and respect has been given to a movie that many have never heard of. As usual, the disc features a beautiful picture, the original soundtrack cleaned up in all its one-channel glory, and a bevy of interesting and entertaining special content with the only down side being a pretty steep price tag.
Facts of the Case
The time is the late '50s and the place is a United States Air Force base outside of Manitoba, Canada. At the base they are testing a new and top-secret anti-Soviet radar that is powered by an atomic reactor. Without warning, strange deaths of a truly grisly start occurring in the town. The victims are found with an odd bite mark on the back of their necks and their brains and spines missing. Sooner than you can say "frightened villagers firing up the torches," the locals want to know what the Air Force has done to their village and how they are going to fix it.
Not wanting a riot on their hands, the Air Force sends its best man into the field. Investigating the deaths is Major Cummings (Marshall Thompson), a no-nonsense soldier who does manage to find the time to fall in love with the sister of one of the victims, and also discover a mysterious scientist named Professor Walgate (Kynaston Reeves).
Are these creatures roaming the countryside the creation of the Air Force, Professor Walgate, or something alien from beyond the stars? Will the creatures be destroyed in time to save the lives of our young lovers? Will Major Cummings' girlfriend Barbara fall out of her bath towel? The answer to these and many more questions will be answered with a Saturday afternoon screening of Fiend Without A Face. If you value your very soul, you dare not miss it!
An influence on modern horror classics such as Night of the Living Dead and John Carpenter's The Thing, 1958's Fiend Without A Face surprises on many levels and still makes for an entertaining frightfest.
Originally designed as the back end of a double bill, the star of the show was supposed to be The Haunted Stranger starring Boris Karloff. Both films did well, but it is Fiend Without A Face that has stood the test of time. Watching it several times, it is easy to see why.
Upon first viewing, it's clear that Fiend Without A Face is executed in crisp and efficient fashion by veteran director Arthur Crabtree (Horrors of the Black Museum, West of Suez). Crabtree, a former cinematographer, knew how to take tight spaces and milk every last drop of tension out of the scenes. Under his direction, the film's expert pacing builds quickly as the movie enters its second half. He is not afraid to shy aware from the effects of the violence pictured onscreen. It is his matter-of-fact style that lends Fiend Without A Face a strong sense of reality and one that helps move the film beyond the formulaic screenplay of Herbert J. Leder. It is also this clarity in the way it presents the battles with the creatures that makes it easy to see why the film was trimmed for the censors upon its initial release.
Besides the taunt direction the movie has a number of things working in its favor. Certainly the film boasts an innovative and oh-so-creepy sound design that boosts the tension level on a consistent basis. It is this sound design that gives Fiend Without A Face an unsettling edge that the filmmakers are wise to take advantage of. The crunchy, slurping and rhythmic sound that signals the approach of the fiends is one of the movies scariest and most memorable calling cards.
The monsters—the fiends themselves—were the handiwork of Munich-based special effects artists Ruppell & Nordhoff and Peter Neilson. They stand as some of the scariest looking and most grotesque monsters in genre history. Oversized brains that crawl along by their spinal cords, the stop motion effects that bring them to life are some of the finest special effects of the period and stand in strong competition with the finest work of the master, Ray Harryhausen. If a horror movie is only as good as its main monster, then Fiend Without A Face is a great horror movie. Invisible creatures that crawl towards their victims, strangling them with their tail or spine and then sucking the brains and spinal column out of each victim leaving the dead person with an expression of horror to terrify the ones unlucky enough to find the corpse. This is the kind of monster we are dealing with and its one that makes a lasting impression.
Leder's screenplay adaptation was based on Amelia Reynolds Long's short story "The Thought Monster," which appeared in 1930 in one of the great pulp magazines, Weird Tales. Represented by the legendary Forrest J. Ackerman of Famous Monsters of Filmland fame, the rights were purchased by producer Richard Gordon who quickly set up a deal with MGM to distribute the two movies.
Performances are unusually strong for this kind of low budget '50s affair. The understated performances match quite well with the matter of fact style of direction that director Crabtree has given to the proceedings. The characters are all of a cardboard cutout nature. You know the kind of movie I'm talking about…one single male for one single woman, mad scientist who has pushed the envelope too far, and the like. Doing what they can with the material, the actors fill their roles well. Marshall Thompson (Command Decision, First Man In Space), is both solid and sturdy as Major Cummings, while Kim Parker (Fire Maidens of Outer Space), fills out her performance (not to mention her bath towel) very well as the female lead, Barbara Griselle. Veteran character actor Kynaston Reeves (The Stars Look Down, Four Sided Triangle) has the unenviable task of having to sport the movie's most difficult and corniest dialogue as the scientist who has seen his work go far, far astray. Reeves handles these words with ease, and in the process creates a man misguided, yet hardly evil. It's no small feat to his performance that when his character pays the price for his folly, I certainly felt his loss.
While the characters may be basic, it is to Leder's credit that the science is not so completely implausible as to send intelligent people laughing out of the theater. While I don't think anyone today would try to dynamite the control room of an atomic reactor, almost everything sounds like it could make sense. It is this mix of science fiction and horror that gives Fiend Without A Face its place in cinema history as one of the first sci-fi/horror hybrids, and it is one of the most effective films of this subgenre.
For this presentation, Criterion has windowboxed the film at its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 and given the disc anamorphic enhancement. Simply put, it is a beautiful transfer. While the movie shows some wear and tear at the very beginning, it quickly levels out to one of the best black and white movies I have watched in some time. Blacks are deep and solid, while shadow detail is very strong. The source material from which this transfer was struck was restored by Criterion and, with the noted exception of some nicks and scratches at the very beginning, looks quite stunning. These people know how to make a movie look great and most other studios could learn a thing or two from them.
Sound is of the Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono variety and it's effective in what it needs to do. Dialogue is clearly recorded and the movie's unique sound effects are easily heard. There are limits to the amount of fidelity a recording of this vintage can possess—it occasionally sounding a bit shrill—but overall I was impressed. It should also be noted that the track is also free of most background distortions like pops and tape hiss.
There are generally two price points for single Criterion discs. $29.99 means it is usually a movie only disc, while $39.99 means it has a number of special features. Pricing here is the latter and Fiend Without A Face does indeed pack quite a few goodies. First up is a commentary track with producer Richard Gordon and genre film writer Tom Weaver. It is one of the best alternate tracks I have ever listened to. While it is most certainly not screen specific, it is one of the best discussions of getting a film made that I have ever heard. All of the ins and outs of getting a British film produced from the time frame are talked about, and it is quite the educational experience. I was so impressed with this track that after listening to it I went back and listened to it again. I can tell you that I don't think I have ever done that before, and for me the commentary makes the price of the disc worth it. The disc also features still photographs with commentary from Gordon, as well as trailers from other Gordon produced films such as The Haunted Stranger, Corridors of Blood and The Atomic Submarine. One of the highlights of the disc is its illustrated essay on British sci-fi/horror filmmaking with film historian Bruce Eder. Loaded with photos, its like a walking tour of film history, and it is most informative. The package is closed out by vintage advertisements and lobby cards.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If the sight of crawling brains being shot and splattering everywhere offends you, Fiend Without A Face is probably not for you…but then, neither is Hell Night or Hannibal for that matter. This is a movie that does not shy away from its gore and believe me, by most standards, especially late '50s standards, the movie gets pretty messy. Messy in a cheesy way to be sure, but if you are not a fan of this kind of thing, it's probably best if you leave this disc alone.
Yes, the movie is pretty dated in its science, yet put in perspective, it does not play any more fast and loose with the facts than most other sci-fi movies produced today, so it's tough to hold that against it. Plus, it's very much a "B" movie, so what do you expect?
Of a more serious nature is the price of the disc. At a full retail of 40 bucks, it is a pretty tough nut to crack for a "B" movie about invisible crawling brains. I know Criterion puts a lot of money into the restoration of their films, and the money it takes to purchase the licenses can't be cheap, but still it seems to me that they are pricing themselves out of the reach of most people who might get into this stuff. In this age of super duper two- and three-disc special editions from other companies that still cost less than a one-disc Criterion, the idea of value for the money comes into play. I would be the last person who would want to see Criterion ever go away but it is an issue that Criterion should look at.
I'm quite the fan of British made horror films, normally associating them with studios such as Hammer, Amicus and Tigon, so discovering Fiend Without A Face and its history was kind of like opening a door I never knew existed. It was a door I was more than happy to walk through.
A shining example of the genre, Fiend Without A Face is well directed, by the genre's standards quite well acted, and features excellent special effects. The disc itself certainly holds its head high as another in a long list of excellent DVDs from Criterion. It also has the advantage of featuring one the best commentary tracks I have ever heard. The only holding me back from a full purchase recommendation is the price tag. If you are a fan of sci-fi and or horror movies give Fiend Without A Face a rental and go from there.
Fiend Without A Face is acquitted of all charges, while Criterion is given a slap on the wrist for taking so much money out of my wallet. Unless there is anything else, this courtroom is dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Producer Richard Gordon and Genre Film Writer Tom Weaver
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