[box cover]

Fiend Without a Face: The Criterion Collection

Home Vision Entertainment

Starring Marshall Thompson, Kim Parker, Michael Balfour

Written by Herbert J. Leder,
from a story by Amelia Reynolds Long

Produced by Richard Gordon
Directed by Arthur Crabtree


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Review by Mark Bourne                   


Q: "When newspapers are saying that your movies are too revolting to be called entertainment and when somebody in Parliament is saying it's a crime that your movie got released, what goes through a movie producer's mind?"

A: "What went through my mind was that I never could have afforded to buy that publicity."

— Executive producer Richard Gordon from the audio commentary to Fiend Without a Face

 

You'd be forgiven a comedy spit-take in the Borders DVD aisle if, while searching for the latest Ingmar Bergman release, you come across the words "Invisible monsters suck out your brains!" staring at you from beneath the Criterion Collection logo. By the usual standards this modest and mostly forgotten opus from 1958 is by no means a — as the marketing from art-house paragon Criterion puts it — "nightmarish chiller" or "a special effects bonanza." It's certainly no "high-water mark in British genre filmmaking." But movies are like astrophysics in that everything's relative, and Criterion's typically sterling DVD presentation makes a good case for giving Fiend Without a Face its long-delayed due.

After all, if you're looking for a representative slice of Space Race-era, zapping-the-zeitgeist genre filmmaking, or a movie that imprinted itself upon kids who grew up to become genre filmmakers in their own right (we're looking at you, George Romero and John Landis), you could do worse than Fiend Without a Face. It's got that touch of Cold War paranoia (those radar experiments exist to keep an eye on those sneaky Russkies), the fear of atomic power, the can-do American military protagonist, the "dabbling with forces Man is not meant to know" scientist, a sexy girl in a tight twin-warhead sweater (Kim Parker), and electronically created monsters from the Id (à la Forbidden Planet) that put a somewhat embarrassed smile on your face every minute they're on screen.

Produced by Richard Gordon (whose B-movie portfolio with his brother Alex Gordon received further Criterion treatment in 2007's Monsters and Madmen boxed set), Fiend Without a Face is a lovable lesser cousin in the Addams Family of British sci-fi/horror hybrids. The exemplar of all flying-lethal-disembodied-brain movies, it's memorable for some of the oddest antagonists to slither across a screen, for an unusually high amount of grue and gore for its time (it was banned in some countries), and for a climax that, if you first see it when you're under ten years old, you remember for the rest of your life. If, however, you're significantly older than ten, you'll still remember it because, frankly, it's likely that you've never seen anything quite like it before. And honestly, how much animus should any percipient genre enthusiast ever direct at a movie bearing the tagline, "Invisible monsters suck out your brains!"?

Set at a remote U.S. military base in Canada, Fiend depicts the age-old story of a scientist's thoughts, enhanced by Cold War atomic-powered radar experiments, coalescing into invisible marauders that kill character actors by boring holes in their skulls and extracting their brains and spinal cords. Our hero is Major Cummings, and as played by Marshall Thompson (It! The Terror From Beyond Space, also '58, and Gordon's First Man Into Space in '59) he's as dull as any square-jawed American menaced by invisible brain-suckers could be. Wisely, the monsters don't become visible until the climax (forcing their early victims to scream and react to thin air), but the payoff is worth the wait when giant antenna-sprouting brains finally materialize and fly around or inchworm themselves along with their spinal cord tails, chasing after human prey and giving new meaning to the term "brain food." And the sounds the "fiends" make when they're on the prowl — a squelch-slurp backed by a lub-dub heartbeat — are effective, especially when the damn things are invisible.

For some, Fiend Without a Face is beloved as a favorite memory from British creep'm filmmaking. Nowadays (let's be honest) it's hardly what one would call scary, or even good, really — but there's not a mean-spirited cell in its wriggly little gray matter, and it's as goofy as its title suggests. It does, however, have more going for it than most other schlock you might otherwise associate only with summer drive-in theaters c. 1960 or Mystery Science Theater 3000 c. 1995. Taken at face value, folks getting their brains and spinal cords sucked out is pretty cool stuff. As this DVD's bonus essay on British horror movies tells us, the sheer nastiness of its plot (unfolded through a straightforward and unpretentious script) is one of the reasons why Fiend Without a Face has held its reputation across the decades.

Director Arthur Crabtree kept the formulaic story moving forward and the mood grimly earnest. His straight-ahead style serves the material without ruffles or flourishes, although his pacing is too leisurely through the first half. But when the monsters show at the climax, that's when the oh-boy starts. They're brought to life via Harryhausen-style stop-motion animation that's better than you might expect while still maintaining a pleasurable cheese factor. Naturally, expect to whistle past gaps in plot logic (where's all that light coming from in that sealed windowless crypt? Is dynamiting the control room to a nuclear reactor ever really a good idea?), which should be all part of the fun.

On one hand, these 74 minutes are utterly moronic, a drive-in kitschfest, silly kid stuff, the kind of "sci-fi" that's pronounced "skiffy." On the other, here's an example of a period and style of filmmaking that (let's respect our elders) deserves better than to be dismissed as mere Midnight Shock Theater trash. It's a slice of cinematic gouda that's recommended for those nights when the mood is all wrong for Lawrence of Arabia. If you can turn your couch into a reasonable facsimile of the front seat of a '54 Chevy — or you're under ten — all the better.

The Criterion DVD

This Criterion Collection edition — Criterion, "A continuing series of important classic and contemporary films," fer chrissakes — continues the dazzling standards we've come to associate with Criterion releases. This new high-definition, anamorphic transfer was mastered from a 35mm composite fine-grain source, and restores Fiend to its original length (previously truncated by the MPAA for being "too gruesome") and theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The image quality displays exceptional definition and black-and-white contrast. Dirt, debris, and scratches were cleaned from the print, though some white flecks remain, and scenes originally created from stock footage still betray their lower-grade sources. Also, I counted three instances of sudden shifts in brightness from infelicitous splices remaining in the master source print. The Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural audio is free from the distortion, pops, and fuzz common to these late-night sleeper-creepers.

A prime attractor here is the audio commentary track, an affectionate and spirited dialogue between executive producer Richard Gordon and genre film writer Tom Weaver. Gordon's history with the British "Bs" is venerable, and both gentlemen contribute a wealth of insightful facts and trivia driven by unabashed love of the material.

Also on hand are

Oh, yeah — this DVD has one of the most entertaining animated main menus I've seen yet. Squelch-slurp....

—Mark Bourne



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