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FIEND WITHOUT A FACE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Marshall Thompson, Kynaston Reeves, Kim Parker
Director:  Arthur Crabtree
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Widescreen 1.77:1 Anamorphic
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  74 Minutes
Release Date:  January 30, 2001

Film *** (on the cheese scale)

Fiend Without a Face almost dares its viewers to categorize it as a cheese film.  I do, mostly because it doesn’t really fit in any OTHER recognizable genre, but I do so with some reservations.  For starters, despite being a late 50’s atomic age paranoia monster flick, it has far better special effects than any of its contemporaries, and I kind of liked the way the movie surprises you with them near the end.  The entire picture up until the last stretch has been about an invisible enemy, and features lots of footage of actors pretending to wrestle with something that’s strangling them.  But just as you’ve settled into thinking it’s a cornball film, the creatures turn visible, and the finale is both effective and surprisingly gruesome. 

The setting is in and around a special military base in Canada, the result of cooperation between their country and the United States.  Their objective is the creation of a super radar system whose range will be as far as the Soviet Union…no more fear of sneak attacks.  To accomplish this, they’ve built a huge nuclear reactor for the extra power, a fact that doesn’t set well with some of the local townsfolk.  It gets even worse when some of the inhabitants begin turning up dead, with their brain and spinal cords removed and a look of pure horror on their faces.

Major Cummings (Thompson) is spearheading the radar project, but decides to investigate some of the strange deaths.  One of the victims was the brother of a beautiful (naturally) girl, Barbara (Parker).  When he visits her at home (the famous poster-shot of her clad only in a bath towel), he meets up with her employer, the strange, sickly Professor Walgate (Reeves).  Becoming intrigued and suspicious about the professor’s experiments on thought materialization, he continues his investigation (as the town folks keep turning up dead) until the truth is finally revealed.

The professor, it turns out, had been illegally harnessing the base’s atomic energy for his experiments.  At first, he found himself able to turn pages and move other objects with his mind, but as the atomic power grew more potent, he eventually materialized a thought into an invisible living being; a so-called “mental vampire”.  These fiends were multiplying and feasting on the central nervous systems of their victims.

At the end, a power surge brings the creatures into visibility, and we can finally see what the fuss was all about:  they look like giant brains with antennae, spinal columns, and tentacles for moving.  They crawl, ooze, and fly through the air with deadly accuracy.  When a group consisting of the professor, the girl, and some of the base’s personnel get surrounded  by them, their only hope is for Cummings to make it through the throes of fiends to the base and destroy their power source.  Will he make it in time?  Probably…but in the meantime, enjoy the rather graphic effects of the battle, as the humans with their guns blow the brains away one at a time, with blood-oozing gruesome results.

As mentioned, prior to the brains becoming visible, there was no trace of the enemy on screen apart from the actors’ reactions, but the picture makes good use of some rather pedestrian effects up to that point (screen doors being slit open, buckets tipping over, etc.).  But the real triumph in the early going is the sound effects.  The creatures appear on the scene with a rather unnerving combination of slurping, sliding and loud impact noises.  It conditions us to react to the monsters that we can’t see.  Then, at the end, when we finally do see them, the payoff is tremendous.

The special effects, as pointed out, really are ahead of their time.  Though mostly traditional stop-motion techniques, I was impressed with the way the things moved with much more fluidity than you might normally expect.  They also had a great look—I don’t know about you, but personally, I can’t get enough of giant brains with flailing appendages.  Not only did they look good, but what a target for the protagonists’ gunfire!  After watching Fiends, you can definitely say you’ve seen brains blown to bits.

As a last thought, I found it curious that a U.S. base would exist in Canada, but then it occurred to me:  if you put all our military big wigs and leaders in a typical setting like Washington, then there wouldn’t be a movie.  The thoughts would materialize into physical beings and then do nothing.  ;-)

Video ***

For an old campy horror movie, this is a terrific looking anamorphic transfer from Criterion.  Though the box claims a ratio of 1.66:1, it’s actually closer to 1.77:1.  The black and white photography is impressively crisp and clearly rendered throughout, and telltale spots, scratches and other aging artifacts are at a minimum.  I noticed no softness, no grain, and no compression throughout the viewing.  Even in lower light settings, the images maintain a strong sense of integrity.

Audio ***

Criterion has to be the top studio for taking simple, 1-channel mono soundtracks and turning them into something special.  The dynamic range for this film is remarkable, particularly when the thumping menace of the invisible fiends comes into play.  The music is also potent, and dialogue clarity is exceptional throughout.  Despite occasional (and acceptable) bits of noise heard during quieter moments, this is an impressive listen for an older picture.

Features ****

A typically loaded Criterion disc, this DVD starts off with a commentary by executive producer Richard Gordon and genre film writer Tom Weaver, which is an informative treat for fans of popcorn horror.  There is an illustrated essay on British sci-fi/horror by Bruce Eder, a collection of five trailers for Richard Gordon films (all of them are trips!), a series of rare stills that run with the same two gents on commentary, plus a collection of vintage ads and lobby cards for the aficionado.  The animated menus and graphic design are a real plus, too!

Summary:

Fiend Without a Face is a better than average atomic monster film from the 1950’s, given stellar treatment by Criterion on this terrific DVD.  If you’re a fan of the genre, you really should check this one out.  After all, a mind is a terrible thing to waste.