Fiend Without a Face [DVD]
Screenplay : Herbert J. Leder (based on the short story "The Thought Monster" by Amelia Reynolds Long)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1958
Stars : Marshall Thompson (Major Jeff Cummings), Kim Parker (Barbara Griselle), Kynaston Reeves (Professor Walgate)Terrence Kilburn (Cpt. Chester), Michael Balfour (Sgt. Kasper), Gil Winfield (Dr. Warren), Stanley Maxted (Col. Butler), James Dyrenforth (Mayor), Peter Madden (Dr. Bradley)
Fiend Without a Face is considered by many to be the best movie of the brief, five-year outpouring of science-fiction/horror hybrids in Great Britain in the late 1950s. Although shot on a tight budget, Fiend is a well-crafted and generally suspenseful genre flick that has held up surprisingly well, despite its sometimes dated dialogue and reliance on Cold War-era paranoia and fears about atomic energy to drive its narrative.
Adapted by screenwriter Herbert J. Leder from a short story originally published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales in 1930, the narrative in Fiend Without a Face takes place around a small town on the U.S.-Canadian border (the entire feature was shot in England, something that is readily evident in the small town's architecture). There is a sudden outbreak of mysterious deaths around an American air force base, and the local townspeople immediately suspect that atomic radiation is to blame. When Major Jeff Cummings (Marshall Thompson), the military base's chief of security, begins to look into the mysterious deaths, he is informed by the doctor who performed an autopsy on one of the deceased that the dead man's brain and spinal cord are missing. Where did they go? Apparently, they were sucked out by someone or something that left two small holes in the back of corpse's neck.
Major Cummings delves deeper into the mystery, looking for some kind of scientific, rational explanation for these apparent "mental vampires." He crosses paths with Barbara Griselle (Kim Parker), a young woman whose brother was the first victim, and it is of little surprise that romance begins to bloom. Barbara works as the secretary for Professor Walgate (Kynaston Reeves), a doddery old scientist whose work in supernatural phenomena and thought materialization turns out to be crucial to explaining the strange happenings.
Catching the postwar wave of fascination with science fiction and melding it with the kind of graphic (for the time) horror that would become the stock-in-trade of the British Hammer Studio throughout the 1960s, Fiend Without a Face is superb at crossing genre boundaries and taking the best of each. Although it was very much a product of its time, it was also somewhat ahead of its time in its urge to locate the monster not in outer space, but right inside ourselves.
It turns out that the "mental vampires" are actually Prof. Walgate's thoughts brought into material existence through scientific tampering. Feeding off the power from the military base's atomic reactor, these materialized thoughts seem to be the living embodiment of Walgate's worst human instincts--that is, they do nothing but consume and breed. Although they are invisible for the majority of the movie, as they continue to draw in power from the atomic reactor (and, ostensibly, from the brain matter and spinal cords they suck out of their victims), they become visible, and we see for the first time that they are brain-shaped monsters with waving antennae, long, spider-like legs, and a spinal-cord tail. There is something deeply Freudian about these monsters, not only in their physical manifestation of the id, but in the fact that, when they slither across the ground, they look like nothing so much as giant sperm.
Fiend Without a Face was helmed by Arthur Crabtree, a cinematographer-turned-director with a marked skill in developing suspense. Fiend was lambasted by many critics in 1958 because of its gore. When the fiends are shot, they ooze large glops of viscous matter and expire with a grotesque wheezing that, as one critic noted, sounds like a leaking bicycle tire. Coupled with the nasty notion of these things sucking your brain and spinal cord out through the back of your neck, Fiend is quite gruesome even today, which makes it abundantly clear why teens looking for a good shock loved it and respectable adults hated it when it first came out.
But, look beyond the visceral in Fiend Without a Face, and you will notice that its success is based just as much on restraint. While it is at least partially due to the limited budget, the fact remains that we do not see the fiends in material form until the last 15 minutes of the movie. Prior to that, they exist wholly in an invisible state, and all we see are glimpses of their victims being attacked by an unseen force. Thus, like Steven Spielberg did in Jaws (1975), Crabtree teases the audience with the idea for a long time before finally springing the monster on us. And, while some may find them a tad silly, the fiends are generally unnerving creations, and kudos should go to the special effects team of Ruppel and Nordhof who brought them to life with expert stop-motion animation.
Fiend Without a Face also works well because of the acting. While certainly short of Oscar-worthy, the performances throughout are convincing and natural, which is a boon to a movie whose low-budget genre is usually marked by bad acting. Marshall Thompson, already a veteran of some 39 films, including the sci-fi classic It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), makes for a worthy leading man in Major Cummings. His romantic relationship with Kim Parker's Barbara is effective in its general understatement. Character actor Kynaston Reeves is also quite good as Prof. Walgate, a role that could have easily slid into silly caricature.
But, in the end, what everyone will remember from Fiend Without a Face are those brain-monsters, both visually and aurally. One of the greatest technical achievements in the movie is the soundtrack, which is filled with a profusion of gurgling, squishing, oozing sound effects that follow the fiends wherever they go. Like the shark fin in Jaws, the fiends' slimy sound is the their frightening calling card that announces their presence long before we see them in their entirety.
The final 15 minutes of the movie constitute a small masterpiece of horror-suspense, as a group of characters is trapped inside a house with dozens of the fiends, now fully visible, swarm outside, trying to get in at any cost (for a while this final sequence was available as a separate Super-8-mm reel that could be viewed at home). Analogies between this nightmare-like sequence and the similar set-up in George A. Romero's zombie classic Night of the Living Dead (1968) are quickly evident, which emphasizes not only Fiend Without a Face's impact on future horror films, but also its capacity to tap into primal fears and exploit them to great effect.
|Fiend Without a Face: Criterion Collection DVD|
|Audio||Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Supplements|| Audio commentary: Interview with executive producer Richard Gordon by genre writer Tom Weaver|
Illustrated history of British sci-fi/horror films by film historian Bruce Eder
Gordon Films trailers: Fiend Without a Face, The Haunted Strangler, Corridors of Blood, First Man Into Space, and The Atomic Submarine
Rare stills gallery with ephemera, with commentary
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision|
|Presented in anamorphic widescreen in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, the black-and-white image on Fiend Without a Face looks fantastic. The transfer was made from a 35-mm fine-grain composite master and further enhanced with the MTI Digital Restoration system. The result is a sharp, clean image with excellent contrast and generally solid black levels. The image has a high level of detail, with the exception of some scenes that obviously utilize stock footage that is of notably lesser quality. There are some instances of scratches and a few vertical lines from time to time, but it is nothing that would not be expected from a low-budget film made more than 40 years ago. The elements used for the transfer seem to have been in relatively good shape, and the image is particularly impressive when compared to other DVDs of low-budget films from the same period. Like their work on Carnival of Souls and The Blob, Criterion has done an outstanding job of breathing new life in a cherished cult classic.|
|Usually Criterion cites the elements from which the soundtrack was mastered, but in this instance they did not. No matter, the soundtrack, presented in Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural, sounds very good. There are almost no aural artifacts or hissing to be found, and the repulsively slimy sound effects used whenever the fiends are approaching are well-projected in all their skin-crawling effectiveness. The limited use of Buxton Orr's orchestral score also sounds good throughout.|
| The audio commentary takes the form of an extended interview between executive producer Richard Gordon, who produced 16 horror movies from 1957 to 1981, and genre writer Tom Weaver. Weaver, an expert on science fiction and horror movies of the '30s, '40s, and '50s, has published several collections of interviews, including 1988's Interviews With B Science Fiction and Horror Movie Makers (which was expanded and updated in 1999) and 1994's Attack of the Movie Monsters: Interviews with 20 Genre Giants (which will be republished later in 2001 in an expanded edition). He knows the right questions to ask, and he has no trouble getting Gordon to elaborate on the details (Gordon either had a lot of notes in front of him during the interview or else he has an excellent memory, as he could rattle off names and movie titles at the drop of a hat). The commentary is not screen-specific, but it is fascinating, especially to those viewers interested in the back alleyways of film history that are not often covered in the major texts. Gordon and Weaver discuss multiple aspects of the film, from its fidelity to the original short story, to its relation to Cold War fears, to an extensive recounting of the movie's special effects, not to mention Gordon's still-unrealized desire to remake the film on a bigger budget (!). |
Also included is a nice illustrated history of the brief outpouring of British science-fiction/horror films that spawned Fiend Without a Face. Written by noted film historian Bruce Eder (a regular contributor to Criterion discs) and illustrated with dozens of stills from movies ranging from Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926) to Roger Corman's Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), this historical essay is a quick read, but it is quite comprehensive and serves as an excellent means of putting Fiend Without a Face into a historical context.
Further context is offered by three stills galleries: one that features movie ads from half a dozen different newspapers from around the U.S.; another that features color lobby cards; and a third that features stills and ephemera from the movie, including photographs of its New York premiere and stills of the brain-monster model. The first two galleries can be viewed at the viewer's pace using the step function, but the third gallery plays at its own speed with commentary by Richard Gordon. The newspaper ads in the first gallery are made even more interesting by the fact that the entire page is shown, not just the ad itself, so you can see what else was being advertised at that time (Fiend was shown on a double-bill with the Boris Karloff film The Haunted Strangler, and its ads were usually near ads for cheesy nudist-camp films).
Finally, this disc contains the original theatrical trailer for Fiend Without a Face in anamorphic widescreen, along with trailers for four other Gordon-produced films: The Haunted Strangler, Corridors of Blood, First Man Into Space, and The Atomic Submarine. The trailers for Fiend Without a Face and Corridors of Blood are presented in anamorphic widescreen, while First Man Into Space and The Atomic Submarine trailers are in full-frame. Oddly, though, the The Haunted Strangler trailer is presented in nonanamorphic widescreen.
©2001 James Kendrick