Fiend Without A Face

Fiend Without A Face (1958)
Criterion Collection
Cast: Marshall Thompson, Kynaston Reeves, Kim Parker
Extras: Commentary Track, Illustrated Essay, Trailers, Still Photographs, Vintage Advertising

Almost everyone I know has small fragments of "Fiend Without A Face" lodged deep within their childhood memories. To a generation of addicts glued to the flickering of a late-night TV set, the monochromatic stop-motion brain monsters of the 1958 MGM film unnerved as assuredly as any of the ghoulish denizens spawned from the Hammer or Universal nightmare factories.

Turns out, someone at Criterion must have shared the same trauma. Their new respectful DVD of Arthur Crabtree’s horror/science fiction hybrid boasts impressive technical credentials and enough collateral materials to qualify as an entry in the Criterion Collection library, normally reserved for such classics of world cinema as "Brazil," "Amarcord," "The Third Man" and "Kwaidan." Yes, our slurping, flying medulla oblongata munchers finally have received their rightful spot in the cinematic food chain.

Marshall Thompson (he played the lead on "Daktari," another cherished memory of 1960s television) stars as Major Jim Cummings, stationed at a US Army base somewhere in the wilds of Canada. The local townspeople do not view the American outpost with admiration. Their misgivings first stem from an inexplicable drop in milk production, blaming the atomic experiments taking place at the base and the frequent jet traffic around it for affecting their dairy cows. Soon, a more sinister problem arises: bodies start turning up, their faces stamped with a frozen look of utter horror and their brains and spinal cords completely evacuated through two small holes behind the head.

As local animosity grows along with fear of this new danger, Major Cummings gambles on investigating the secret experiments of Dr. R.E. Walgate (Kynaston Reeves). Soon, the horrific truth behind the subterfuge emerges: Dr. Walgate has been siphoning off power from the base’s nuclear reactor, creating an army of invisible thought-eating creatures or "mental vampires" as Cummings coins them. Their unseen presence accompanies a crunchy yet fluid sound whenever they are near. Growing in legion and strength, they eventually take the visual form of motile brains complete with spinal stems and spindly antennae. As with all "us versus them" movies, the inevitable showdown draws near between resourceful humanity (Cummings et al) and arrogant science with a lone country house for a battlefield.

As you can tell from my florid prose, I have fond memories of this excursion into the twilight of reason. Even for its time, "Fiend" set itself apart from 1950’s science fiction and horror films. The plot may be strictly formulaic, but nothing like the brain monsters had been seen before. The stop-motion effects by the Munich-based special effects house Ruppell and Nordhoff contribute greatly to the unreality of the grey-matter antagonists. Shots where they dangle lifelessly on trees or sitting as dormant props sometimes detracts from the shock, but the visions of them inching along using their spinal tails or locating a victim with their searching antennae feeds into our worst fears about lack of control…of the environment, science and, by extension, our own hidden impulses.

Amazing how a movie 74 minutes long claims immortality strictly on its last 15 minutes: the final battle sequence. The script does a better than average job of getting the viewer to that moment, following events coolly and logically with minimal interjections about man’s meddling with the unknown (an all too frequent component of lesser genre excursions). Thompson, Parker and Reeves give believability to their roles precisely because the whole affair, except for the gory finale, underplays in direction, script and action. When the creatures appear, there is nothing subtle about them: they move with disquieting patience, they strike indiscriminately and when they take a bullet, the blood oozes and gurgles freely. Maybe a harbinger of the viscera yet to be conjured (the lone country house figures prominently a decade later in George Romero’s "Night Of The Living Dead), "Fiend" still jolts forty years later because it plugged into the collective anxiety of living in a technologically accelerated world, a realm we still inhabit.

The video transfer is so good, for many fans (like me) watching it is akin to seeing the movie for the first time. The liner notes trumpet the use of enhancing processes that removes dirt, debris and scratches from the image. While the source (a 35mm composite fine-grain master) still shows some blemishes, the resulting picture displays exceptional detail delineation and depth, down to the lobes (yuck!) on the creatures. Black levels are deep and solid, with occasional high contrast. The image is touted as 1.66 <$16x9,anamorphic>. In observation, the matting looks to be somewhere between 1.66 and 1.78, which fits the image perfectly on a 16×9 TV set. The complete lack of digital or compression artifacts typifies Criterion’s commitment to technical excellence, even for films that on the surface might not deserve such meticulous care.

The original monophonic soundtrack presented in <$DD,Dolby Digital> mono, replicates on par for its age and its origins. With sound effects an important component of "Fiend’s" effectiveness, the audio has to be as dramatic as possible. Happily, mastered from seemingly pristine elements, the audio plays back sharp and distortion-free. My center channel speaker projected every gurgle and every crunch with unsettling accuracy.

Extras are plentiful on the disc, exemplifying Criterion’s scholarly approach that has endeared film lovers to the label for almost two decades. Not only are fans treated to an historical examination of the film, but also an attendant examination of the cultural and social factors that give birth to it.

The <$commentary,commentary track> by genre film writer Tom Weaver and executive producer Richard Gordon runs the length of the film. Weaver is very good at drawing out Gordon’s ruminations and the resulting dialogue may not necessarily uncover any decades-long secrets about the film and the special effects, yet keeps perspective by periodically introducing review quotes and citations from other sources. Gordon responds with such tidbits as how genre legend Forrest J. Ackerman shopped the property around Hollywood (originally published as a short story in the pulp "Weird Tales") and also how the violence and gore in the film became part of a Parliamentary discussion about the failure of censorship in England!

Weaver and Gordon also bring their aural insights as part of the "collection of ephemera" section (identified in the menus as "Exploitation!"). Basically a narrated journey through the publicity materials for the film, the segment showcases poster artwork, newspaper clippings and press photos taken from the premiere New York engagement where one of the prop brains was displayed outside the theater, complete with sound effects and rigging for movement. (Gordon states that the display had to be removed two days into the engagement because the police complained that the attending crowd was becoming a public nuisance).

In the "It Came From" section, frequent Criterion contributor Bruce Eder examines "Fiend’s" standing amongst genre entries in an "illustrated essay." His insights tie together the atomic jitters of the 1950’s, the embracing of psychological concepts in popular cinema and childhood fears as well as the films that preceded "Fiend" as well as the subsequence films influenced by it. The essay is presented in type with a generous helping of stills from such diverse genre fare as "Things To Come, " "Metropolis," "Attack of the 50 Foot Woman," and "The Blob," probably its closest cousin. (One of Eder’s best audio essay resides on the Criterion laserdisc of "The Devil and Daniel Webster," a film which I hope one day will appear on DVD…with Eder commentary intact).

Vintage advertisements and lobby cards are highlighted in their own individual still-frame galleries. In the case of the lobby cards, two shots are provided for each of the eight cards: one with caption copy plastered across the artwork and one with a clean rendition of the card. The vintage advertisements highlight the newspaper ads run in different cities during its premiere engagement. The captions not only show "Fiend," but other films during the period in local rags from Oklahoma, North Carolina and New York. (One ad touts the film "She Shoulda Said No," advertising a personal appearance by a "hygiene commentator!")

"Fiend" and four other horror/science fiction movies comprise the "Trailers" section, possibly representing a reasonable facsimile of what a moviegoer witnessed just before the main feature (mercifully, no concession trailers with the infamous singing hot dog appear here). "Fiend" is represented as well as "The Haunted Stranger," "Corridors of Blood," "First Man Into Space," and "The Atomic Submarine." The snippets vary in quality, with "Fiend" and "Corridors" in the best shape as well as <$PS,letterboxed>. The rest are full-screen with some contrast too low and some just plain beat-up.

The curators at Criterion have done "Fiend" proud with their DVD efforts. In a collection that houses Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa and Powell, we can now add the name Crabtree. Go figure.