FIEND WITHOUT A FACE
Review by Michael Jacobson
Thompson, Kynaston Reeves, Kim Parker
Director: Arthur Crabtree
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Video: Widescreen 1.77:1 Anamorphic
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
(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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.