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Well, they can't all be timeless classics. Actually, 1958's Curse of the Faceless Man 1 is too endearingly simpleminded not to find a warm place in the hearts of monster movie lovers. Pretty much near the bottom of the spectrum of real Hollywood filmmaking, it is barely feature-length, uses almost no sets and for thrills relies almost completely on a reasonably good monster costume.
Originally released on a double-bill with United Artists' It! The Terror from Beyond Space, the show is part of a low-budget series of programmers from producer-writer Robert E. Kent. Director Edward L. Cahn was a fearless veteran of countless "B" pictures, as well as some fairly distinguished work much earlier in his career. Kent must have contracted to turn out cheap westerns, teen pix, monster movies and crime sagas for UA by the yard. Other fantastic fare in Kent's filmography includes the impossibly cheap space zombie movie Invisible Invaders and The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake. Curse of the Faceless Man's credited screenwriter is the accomplished author of science fiction stories Jerome Bixby, who also wrote It! as well as famous episodes of TV's The Twilight Zone and Star Trek. The highly exploitable story idea imagines a romantic but murderous Golem from ancient Pompeii, but the cheap and artless production guarantees that almost all of the idea's potential comes to naught. Its best audience is going to be smaller kids, and adults who remember being frightened by it as children.
Writer Bixby claimed that his more elaborate original script was rewritten by director Cahn to be filmed for under $100,000 dollars. The final story takes place on a few nondescript sets, a beach, and the exterior of the very familiar Griffith Observatory, standing in for an Italian research museum. The petrified corpse of Quintillus, an Etruscan gladiator killed in the Biblical-era eruption of Mt. Vesuvius is unearthed and brought to the museum, where it proceeds to come to life and murder various individuals, beginning with an unlucky truck driver. While researcher Dr. Paul Mallon (Richard Anderson) and various Italian experts debate the mystery, Mallon's artist girlfriend Tina Enright (Elaine Edwards) becomes enchanted by the stone figure's magic spell. As it turns out, Tina is the reincarnation of Quintillus' great love from long ago. Reanimated by the radioactive dirt in which he was entombed, (?) the stone monster eventually seizes Tina and carries her off. Dr. Mallon realizes that Quintillus thinks the eruption is still happening, and is trying to take Tina to safety.
Before dismissing this narrative as a crazy hodgepodge, we have to admit that it has all the necessary ingredients to motivate a potentially interesting monster movie. Quintillus is a pasty white, face-challenged Golem with a one-track mind, controlled by the magic of an ancient amulet and his own spark of romance. The reincarnated love angle is borrowed from various Mummy stories and the superb original Karloff version, but it does lend the monster a better-than-usual reason for carting the heroine around for publicity stills, the trailer, and UA's crude 2-color poster, used for the disc cover. The film's ending communicates a fairly original macabre irony; I remember fellow horror enthusiast Susan Turner once explaining to me that Curse was especially popular with female monster fans. 2
Like any farfetched fantasy-horror-sci fi, this story needs careful handling: an eloquent script, moody performances, expressive lighting. Every appearance of the stone monster needs to be a new scare. None of this happens. The mostly flat-lit sets look cheap, the dialogue is padded with irrelevant chatter and the unfortunate actors mostly stand rooted in place to read their lines. A droning narrator is heard at frequent intervals, re-capping the story and telling us what we're seeing, as if nobody's expecting us to pay attention. Worse, Edward Cahn's direction creates very little in the way of mystique around the stone monster, which mostly looks like a mannequin covered with plaster. The flaky white statue is on view from the very first shot, and nobody seems to be particularly frightened by it. Deprived of a scare factor, our minds wander to thoughts of how the costume bends and wrinkles when Quintillus walks ... he's the first-ever rubberized plaster man. 3In more than one shot Richard Anderson looks outright embarrassed, and unengaged in the drama before him. Elaine Edwards, the character with a psychic connection to Quintillus, does the best that she can; when hanging limp in the statue's arms, she appears to be holding her head up, especially when being carried through door. Attractive Adele Mara (The Sands of Iwo Jima) plays the secondary female lead, a former girlfriend of Paul. Her accent sounds pasted-on, and definitely not Italian. Almost everybody else just stands still and reads their lines in director Cahn's cost-saving static master shooting style. Charles Gemora's blank-faced monster costume might have looked better with a more creative lighting scheme. The actor inside does his best to move in a rigid fashion, even when his plaster-like skin wrinkles and stretches.
The odd situation of Curse of the Faceless Man (lively idea, poor execution) brings up the issue of remakes. Look up the great science fiction movies of the 1950s and early 1960s and you'll find that quite a few of the better-known titles have been remade, some of them twice. Very few are improvements over the originals. The central concepts of others have been looted enough times to render a remake redundant. Curse belongs in that category of pictures that ought to be remade, because its potential for scares and bizarre imagery wasn't exploited the first time around. The idea of a lovesick Etruscan shuffling down modern streets in search of his dream girl is too good to pass up. Quintilllus may not pass the acceptability test for a prize boyfriend, but one has to admit that he's a loyal cuss, and persistent, too. And don't forget durable.
I suppose a proper remake would want be more of a straight horror show, with another Pompeii-like ruin excavated. An ancient curse or other hoodoo voodoo would be needed to "explain" what happens when the archeologists pour plaster into those old volcanic ash molds. Out pop amazing 'statues' of long-ago citizens caught by the eruption while engaged in compromising crimes or scandalous behavior -- and like in a fairy tale, when they're given 'bodies' again, they pick up where they left off.
Well, the idea is just as rational as a zombie or a vampire...
Curse of the Faceless Man gets little respect from today's impatient monster fans, but I have to say that it was good enough to pass muster when it was made. The sunset for micro-budget monster fare distributed by major labels was only a year or two away. Ed Cahn's Pompeii quickie was just good enough to make the bottom half of a 1958 double bill.
The MGM Limited Edition Collection DVD-R of Curse of the Faceless Man is particularly frustrating in that the MGM people have once again fielded a transfer that isn't up to minimum format requirements in the current state of home video disc collecting, now that we all have widescreen TV monitors. The transfer is flat, when almost all studio-distributed product in 1958 (there are exceptions) was matted to 1:85. With its featureless sets and artless art direction Curse of the Faceless Man doesn't come off well un-matted -- the actors and all the relevant action are squeezed into a horizontal area across the center of the frame, and the rest of the image is "dead space". The last image included here is a scan of the title card -- most everything above and below the area covered by the title text was meant to be matted away for theater projection.
This picture is particularly frustrating because MGMHD is currently showing a beautiful widescreen 1080i version, although not that many viewers yet subscribe to the MGMHD cable channel.
The movie's original trailer is not included, which does not enable me to see the shots that scared me in a theater back in 1958!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Curse of the Faceless Man Blu-ray rates:
2. Let me SPOIL this fine ending here, so stop reading if you haven't seen the movie yet: Quintillus carries Tina to the ocean in the hope of saving her from the erupting volcano (he thinks he's back in 79 AD). Unable to stop him, Dr. Mallon expects poor Tina to be drowned. But when Quintillus' chalky body hits the surf, he dissolves. Like a giant walking Alka-Seltzer, Quintillus disintegrates, leaving our heroine unharmed and eminently rescue-able by the dimwitted leading man.
3. This 'not scary' assessment of course does not count if Curse of the Faceless Man catches you at a susceptible age. I was six when I saw the film's trailer, I think at a screening of Man of the West (I remember only one scene from that, and the red desert color). I had no idea what a trailer was, nor that it represented another movie that would soon be shown at the theater. The stone hand reached through the back of the truck and choked the driver, which really impressed me -- my dream-enhanced childhood memory of the scene is much scarier than what happens in the film itself.
4. Note from Alan Rode, 7/5/11:
I was shocked to see this film on DVD, because I remember how cheap and bereft of thrills it was from late 1960's Chiller Theatre screenings on WPIX-TV in New York City. Richard Anderson told me that the sole reason he accepted this job was because his name would be at the top of the cast. He had spent so much time playing the second cop or Spencer Tracy's son-in-law at Metro that he hungered for any type of leading role. He also mentioned that Ed Cahn filmed so fast, no one had time to consider what they were doing other than hurrying to the next set-up. -- Cheers, Alan
3. Note from "B", 7/5/11:
Glenn: I've often speculated that there's an article somewhere in the prodigious, almost ridiculously varied output of Curse producer (and usually writer) Robert E. Kent -- assuming Kent actually penned all of the pictures attributed to him, of course, and didn't serve as a Philip Yordan-like front. The thing about the oeuvre of Kent and another prolific low-budget screenwriter of the period, Orville H. Hampton, is not that they wrote great, unheralded movies, but that they scripted such a wide variety of films, the narratives of which are sort of appealingly half-baked. One tends to remember many of their movies with some fondness simply for the makeshift construction and plots. All right, in a way they're sort of the Edward L. Cahn and Edward Bernds of screenwriters, but Cahn and Bernds had to shoot the stuff -- the likes of Kent and Hampton had to cobble it together and write it down first, which couldn't have been easy. Best, Always. -- B.
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