BluRay/DVD Reviews


By • Jan 30th, 2001 •

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(Criterion) 1958
74 mins / B&W / monaural / 1.66:1 aspect ratio

When Criterion announced their upcoming DVD release of Fiend Without a Face, my son was convinced that it was all due to thirty years of my ballyhooing the little “B” to anyone who would listen.

I’m honored at the thought that I could have generated a legend into existence, and I’ve seen such things perpetrated in my lifetime, but such was not the case here. Though budgetary constraints may have relegated Fiend to second bill status throughout cinema-eternity, its sound effects and its third act are endearing far beyond the ambitions of hundreds of other mega-budget opuses of the genre. Remember the ending of The Birds – Tippi Hedren trapped in a closed space with fowls of all feathers attacking? Or The Killer Shrews – protagonists trapped on an island in an Alamo-like structure as the mutated rodents (looking suspiciously like German shepherds wearing giant shrew outfits) chew through the water-logged walls. Or Night of the Living Dead, where the entire film depicts such circumstances, often in exactly the same way – nailing boards over windows, one combattant in a state of shock, etc. (though since the entirety of NOTLD is structured in this way, it bears as much in common with The Thing as Fiend.) Well, Fiend Without a Face was the first to pull off that kind of claustrophobic ending. And Exec Producer Richard Gordon knew exactly what he’d created; he did it again in the 60’s with Island of Terror.

Gordon’s output was enormous. There’s nothing quite comparable to the general quality of such a small company as his churning out thriller B’s. Many of his films are now available on DVD, mainly from Image Entertainment, including some of his best, the intelligent The Haunted Strangler (’57) and Corridors of Blood (’58) both with Boris Karloff, the melancholy First Man Into Space (’58) (with Fiend’s Marshall Thompson), and the creepy, noirish Curse of the Voodoo (1964) from Elite Entertainment.

Gordon talks with Tom Weaver on the Fiend commentary track, which for me is as valuable as the film. With the exception of the genesis of Gordon’s company, Weaver keeps the focus tightly on the production of Fiend, its cast and crew, its distribution and worldwide success and occasional tussles with censorship. Knowing as much about Gordon as I do, about his attempts to help the failing career of an ailing Bela Lugosi but only managing to cobble together a bizarre film appearance in Mother Riley Meets the Vampire (an oddity actually worth owning, from Image, under the title My Son the Vampire) after a stage production of Dracula fell apart, and about his many other productions, I wish the disc had had a second commentary track on which he was allowed to talk about the rest of his work, and share anecdotes about his years in the business. But I’m thrilled with what has been done; Gordon has a no-nonsense, carefully detailed, cultured delivery, and his side of the conversation is an historical tour which should be in every film school library on the planet.

Back to Fiend: long ago I owned a 16mm print which I was fond of showing to film production classes. But the timing on my print was wrong: many shots, particularly during the climactic assault on the professor’s home by the fiends, ended in abrupt, disruptive fadeouts. One explanation for this might have been if frames had been cut out of the US negative due to censorship, without adjusting the timing cards to the new shot lengths. Whatever the explanation, it was all there was, and the laserdisc release didn’t alleviate the problem. The DVD does. In fact, it goes further – there’s been a major dirt and damage removal undertaken. We’re seeing a mini-budget quickie given the kind of treatment normally assigned to Citizen Kane. It’s good to have such a beloved little treasure rejuvenated and offered thusly.

The story is about several things, but mainly about the untapped potential of the human mind. That’s a topic that never runs out of juice, and we see it resurface on a yearly basis – Dark City, The Cell, etc. Other themes are the wages of playing God, the strain of bordering countries’ relations (in this case US/Canada) over the presence of military bases, authority figures vs. the locals, and the collective unconscious dread of mucking about with nuclear power in the 1950s. No one is pretending that Fiend Without a Face is an ‘important’ film about these modern dilemmas; it’s just an entertainment that turned out to be sweeter and scarier than most of the others like it. But such themes are present on a script level, and the director uses them to generate underlying tension in support of the main thrust of the horror as the invisible marauders of the title slither about, sucking the brains and spinal cords out of their victims while supersonic jets fly ominously overhead.

Additional materials include an excellent essay on 50s sci-fi by Bruce Eder, and an advertising montage with Gordon and Weaver chatting in accompaniment. But the extra feature that took me by surprise was a vintage newspaper ad montage. I experienced a wave of palpable nostalgia as I step-framed into closeups of various ads on each 1958 newspaper page: nudist films, nudie films, other horror double-bills, Vertigo, The Key, The Bridge on the River Kwai in its 8th month with reserved seats, The Brothers Karamazov, King Creole coming soon to one of the theatres at which Fiend was playing. In cabarets, Della Reese and Redd Foxx were performing. And all of this in layouts endemic to the times, advertising concepts by now long gone.

Double Bill: Fiend Without a Face, followed by the 1968 version of Night of the Living Dead. You’ll end the evening a frazzled, paranoid mess. Or, run the original double-bill – The Haunted Strangler & Fiend Without a Face.

Look in the feature section of FIR’s website for Richard Gordon’s informative article on the making of Fiend Without a Face.

DVD Features:
New Widescreen transfer with digital picture restoration, enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Audio commentary with executive producer Richard Gordon and genre film historian Tom Weaver. Illustrated essay on British sci-f/horror filmmaking by film historian Bruce Eder. Trailers from Gordon Films: Fiend, The Haunted Strangler, Corridors of Blood, First Man into Space, and The Atomic Submarine. Stills and ephemera, with further commentary.

Directed by Arthur Crabtree.
Produced by John Croydon.
Screenplay by Herbert Leder,
Special Effects by Ruppell & Nordhoff and Peter Neilson.

Marshall Thompson, Kynaston Reeves, Kim Parker, Robert MacKenzie.

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