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DVD SAVANT

FIEND WITHOUT A FACE


Fiend Without a Face
Criterion
1958 / B&W / 1:85 enhanced widescreen
Starring Marshall Thompson, Kynaston Reeves, Kim Parker
Cinematography Lionel Banes
Original Music Buxton Orr
Special Effects Ruppell & Nordhoff and Peter Neilson
Writing credits Herbert J. Leder from a story by Amelia Reynolds Long
Produced by Richard Gordon and John Croyden
Directed by Arthur Crabtree

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Criterion goes slumming . . .

The Criterion Collection has brought us rare classics both domestic and foreign and presented them with special added content praised by fans and filmmakers alike. Criterion started out the whole concept of Special Editions back with their pioneering laserdiscs in the '80s. What they've done with the lowbudget, low-concept Fiend Without a Face from 1958 is something of a surprise, and not a surprise that reflects well on Criterion's standards.

Synopsis:

A Canadian air base is blamed by the locals for scaring livestock with jet noise. Public relations break down completely with a rash of gruesome killings involving punctures at the base of the brain. Airman Jeff Cummings (Marshall Thompson) tries to get to the bottom of the mystery with little luck. As it turns out, a local professor (Kynaston Reeves) doing experiments to condense mental energy into physical energy, has inadvertently created a race of energy monsters in the form of invisible creeping brains, with eyes on antennae-stalks and inchworming, leaping spinal cords for mobility. Taking new sustenance from the Air Force's nuclear reactor, they have gotten completely out of the professor's control. The brain-monsters invade the power plant and turn up the juice, which makes them visible just in time for an onslaught on a handful of civilians holed up in a besieged house.

Traditionally, horror and science fiction movies are the cultural victims of condescenscion (not always unearned) and scorn. When asked to help market them for Home Video, Savant has found that a contemptious, dismissive "MST3K" attitude usually prevails. Criteron's DVD of Fiend Without a Face doesn't know how to reveal the movie as an unheralded classic, mainly because it isn't one. So they take another tack, and resort (for the first time?) to lazy cinema writing.

Fiend Without a Face is referred to in Criterion's special essay as 'a high-water mark in British Science Fiction.' This is total hooey. It's also described as being well-acted and well-directed, which it is definitely not. On their previous low-budget '50s outing The Blob, Criterion had the star-power of Steve McQueen and a notoriety of a genuine primitive filmaking success to rely upon when dodging the issue of quality. Here they come right out and misrepresent Fiend, giving it the status of some kind of British filmmaking landmark and inventing some very flimsy (and for Criterion, very un-academic) qualifiers ... including misleadingly calling it an inspiration for The Night of the Living Dead, made a decade later. Unlike their beautifully done Carnival of Souls DVD that made a not-universally admired ghost story seem like a national treasure, this Special Edition takes the attitude that lowbudget science fiction movies are beneath serious examination.

The truth be known, Fiend Without a Face is a lacklustre and formulaic monster movie. Marshall Thompson is more engaging almost anywhere else and the rest of the English cast, probably because of the flat and static direction of Arthur Crabtree, can best described as enthusiastic to no positive effect. The photography is dull and the plodding development of the mystery offers little suspense and few thrills.

Then comes the remarkable finale. Animated puppet brains assault the country house, smashing through boarded windows and bounding down chimneys to wrap themselves around idle necks and, 'Slurp Slurp', do God-knows-what to the backs of people's heads. Although none of the action is particularly well-staged, an every-shot-a-new-monster feeling of panic takes over for a minute or so as bouncing, disgusting brain monsters assault the cringing humans from all sides. This ending has kept fans happy for 40 years, it's true, but it's no masterpiece as claimed by Criterion. The amusing animation is nowhere near the quality of Ray Harryhausen even during his high-school fairy tale years. There's some good cutting in the brain-fight but in general the animated monsters and the live-action people stay safely isolated in their own footage. This makes perfect sense when you discover that the animation effects were farmed out to German Trick-Filmen experts in Munich. Fiend was made with the same cookie-cutter as scores of other uninspired monster movies -- fill up seventy minutes with anything at all, followed by a few minutes of monster payoff. The precocious grue quotient of Fiend was noted in the Daily Variety of May 28, 1958: "It oozes and gurgles with Grand Guignol blood and crunching bones, easily one of the goriest horror pictures in the current cycle."

Daily Variety pegged it right ...Fiend is just a 1958 Sci-Fi film, slightly more gory than most but not all of its kin. There were dozens of movies like Fiend out between 1955 and 1959, and far from being a high-point of anything, it was just another Fiend in the Crowd. Creature with the Atom Brain in 1955 had atomic zombies being blasted down by a squad of cops, a scene just as tasteless (if less gory) than here. Another British picture, Strange World of Planet X, showed a screaming man being devoured by a giant spider on-camera, complete with stomach-churning munching sounds. The Crawling Eye had a six-pack of truck-sized brain/eyeball monsters, completely revolting in appearance ... by comparison, the clever leaping brains in Fiend look almost amusing.

Criterion's lauded desire to be authoritative on the subject of cinema falls victim to typical elitist snobbery with Fiend ... it being a lowly monster movie, the only possible attitude is condescension, which in this case means thoughtlessness. Elitist film criticism doesn't recognize merit in fun monster movies, only 'meaningful science fiction.' "The high-water mark in British Science Fiction after The Quatermass Xperiment? Almost all of the films named in the 'extra essay' in the extras section are far better, especially Quatermass 2 and The Abominable Snowman., not to mention These Are the Damned and The Day the Earth Caught Fire. Fiend, an acceptable movie that need make no apologies to anyone, is not the victim of Criterion's attitude .. that's Criterion itself. Savant looks forward to Criterion's upcoming new Michael Powell DVD releases. They RESPECT that kind of movie.


. . . simply excellent picture quality. . .

Savant's pique is with Criterion's flip attitude, not the quality of this disc. The DVD presentation of Fiend Without a Face is simply excellent. The movie never looked better and even the dull photography of the bulk of the movie is well-served. Analyzing the effects is a lot of fun on DVD, looking for wires and rods and other means of supporting the bulging brain creatures, whose texture looks more agreeably slimy than ever. One accurate piece of reporting by Criterion: The gurgling, glorping, crunching sound effects (accompanied by a shrewdly effective heartbeat noise) bring the monsters to life far beyond the quality of the animation. If you can sit through the first sixty minutes, this can be a fun movie to watch.

The excellent commentary track is hosted by noted author Tom Weaver, who knows where the charm of of Fiend is to be found. He elicits dozens of good stories from producer Richard Gordon and reveals interesting angles on the movie. Mr. Weaver has a fine sense for the Science Fiction film and probably more knowledge on their actors than anyone; Savant was surprised to find that second lead Terence Kilburn was an MGM child star, playing Tiny Tim in one of the more popular versions of A Christmas Carol. He's also the syrupy kid who says the immortal line, 'Goodbye Mr. Chips.' The commentary is informed and thoughtful, unlike the illustrated text essay on the movie that annoys Savant so much. The essay does have a number of attractive stills in its favor. One from Things to Come appears to be a closeup profile of Rowena, Oswald Cabal's 'missing' wife who once caught Savant's interest. Another still from Tarantula is misidentified as being from Them!, the kind of harmless goof Criterion simply doesn't make on its 'serious' product.

The Disc menu design shows a Thought-Monster Brain tearing its way through a boarded window and flying past the camera. Just about the only suspense that low-concept pix like Fiend could muster was by witholding a clear view of the monsters everyone came to see. By revealing a Brain right in their menu, Criterion robs Fiend Without a Face of its only real surprise. I don't think they'd put a sled in the menu of Citizen Kane.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Fiend Without a Face rates:
Movie: Fair, with one scene monster movie lovers probably can't live without.
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailers for other Richard Gordon films, commentary with Richard Gordon and Tom Weaver, Newspaper ad collage (this is fun), pictorial essay on science fiction movies
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: January 27, 2001



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