In Our Opinion

FIEND WITHOUT A FACE: A REMINISCENCE

By • Jan 1st, 2002 •

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My first exposure to “science-fiction”, although we did not call it that when I was growing up in England, was reading the works of such noted authors as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (when he was not writing about Sherlock Holmes), H. Rider Haggard (when he was not being historical), Edgar Rice Burroughs (inbetween his Tarzan stories) and Jules Verne (who probably started it all).

There were movies like Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” from Germany, and Fox’s “Just Imagine” from Hollywood, but I did not become addicted to it on the screen until I was exposed to the adventures of Flash Gordon (followed by Buck Rogers) through which Buster Crabbe became my boyhood hero and I began to seek out “the cinema of the fantastic”. I even started a Buster Crabbe Fan Club which I ran for some years until I joined the British Navy in World War II.

A decade later, when I began my career as a producer in 1957 with the Boris Karloff picture “Grip of the Strangler” (re-titled “The Haunted Strangler” by MGM for its American release), my urge to revert to science-fiction was fulfilled by the need to make a co-feature in order to provide a double bill.

My brother Alex had by then become a successful producer of youth-oriented exploitation films at American-International Pictures in Hollywood. They ranged from science-fiction and horror, such as “The Day the World Ended” and “The She-Creature”, to biker pictures like “Motorcycle Gang” and musicals like “Shake, Rattle and Rock”. He received a steady stream of material from writers and their agents, and when he came across something that was not accepted by Sam Arkoff and Jim Nicholson, which he thought could interest me in England, he would send it on with his suggestions on how it could be made suitable.

Thus, one day, there arrived a copy of a pulp-fiction magazine called “Weird Tales” which contained a truly fantastic short story entitled “The Thought Monster” that was the brain-child (sic!) of an amiable lady named Amelia Reynolds Long. It was represented by Forrest Ackerman who, in addition to being the inventor of “Famous Monsters of Filmland” magazine, also acted as an agent for writers that were published in the pulps. It was not hard to visualize it as a terrific science-fiction horror film if one could overcome the combined obstacles of a low budget and the need for mind-boggling special effects. When Alex had the brilliant inspiration to re-title it “Fiend Without a Face”, it became irresistible.

John Croydon, a veteran English film producer who had made everything from super spectacles to quoto quickies, became a partner in the production company called Producers Associates Limited that I formed. One of John’s best-known credits was the omnibus thriller “Dead of Night” which combined horror with science-fiction and remains a classic to this day. Herbert J. Leder, an American writer to whom I was introduced, developed a screen story which we liked and turned it into a first-rate screenplay. Leder later became a producer himself and among his films, also made in England, were “The Frozen Dead” and “It”.

My deal with Boris Karloff was to make two horror pictures, the first of which was agreed to be “Grip of the Strangler” from a story that Boris himself brought to my attention. With my brother’s help, I signed Marshall Thompson to star in two science-fiction pictures that would become the co-features. As British filmmakers were not yet specializing in science-fiction monsters in the late 1950’s, John Croydon suggested that we look beyond England for the right technicians to bring our thought monsters to life. He knew of two men in Munich who, as a team, had done some extraordinary special effects for major British productions. Florenz Von Nordhoff was a surrealist artist and experimental filmmaker. His partner, K.L. Ruppel, was a specialist in animation and in the technique of combining it with blue backing and rear screen projection. A quick visit to their studio in Munich convinced me that they could provide just what we wanted, especially when Nordhoff imagined the creatures on a sketch pad at a lunch meeting during which he was given the plot outline.

Thus were born the Fiends that threatened to take over the World, created in the original story through thought projection by a scientist experimenting with new forms of life. Leder successfully updated the material, setting it not only against the background of a military installation on the border between the United States and Canada (although the production was filmed entirely in England) but adding atomic power as the source of energy that enabled the creatures to gain enough strength to make themselves visible, and to multiply. Arthur Crabtree, who had made some notable films for J. Arthur Rank (such as “Man in Grey”, “Fanny By Gaslight”, “Madonna of the Seven Moons” and “Quartet”) was sufficiently intrigued by the project to sign on as director and most of the crew came directly from “Grip of the Strangler” as both films were shot back-to-back at Walton Studios and on locations in the vicinity of London.

Originally designed as the support to “Grip of the Strangler”, “Fiend Without a Face” finally cost more to make and took longer to complete but our UK distributors, Eros Films, were so pleased with them that each picture opened separately as a “stand alone” in London’s West End before the programme played the circuits on general release.

“Fiend Without a Face” created a public uproar after its premiere at the Ritz Theater in Leicester Square. The British Board of Film Censors had already demanded a number of cuts before granting it the “X” Certificate, but the newspaper critics were still aghast at its horrifying effects, and questions were actually asked in Parliament as to why the censors had allowed the film at all and what was the British film industry thinking in trying to beat Hollywood at its own game of overdosing on blood and gore.

MGM took on both films for world distribution outside the United Kingdom but in that era, their American sales force had no idea of how to handle such a programme. I was asked to go on the road to promote initial playdates and arrived in Detroit to find that MGM had an output deal with a high-class cinema called the Adams in a refined area of the city. When I suggested to the manager that we place a coffin in the lobby to promote the forthcoming programme, he was horrified and refused because “Gigi” was to be the next attraction.

Back in New York, I met with the head of distribution and complained that we should have opened in downtown Detroit at the Broadway Capitol Theater where American-International’s double bills regularly broke the house records. With a portrait of Louis B. Mayer facing me from the wall behind his desk, he said to me “Mr. Gordon, you must remember that you are now at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer”. I retreated like the villagers who saw the Frankenstein monster coming down the high street.

Nevertheless, when the double bill opened at the Rialto Theatre on Times Square, we arranged a front-of-house display with a living and breathing Fiend in a glass case that periodically moved its tail and made menacing sounds with the help of a concealed electrical apparatus. The crowd that gathered on the sidewalk to watch grew to such proportions that the police ordered it removed because we were creating a public disturbance.

MGM’s license to distribute the film expired after 12 years and the copyrights reverted to me. Since then – with its theatrical reissues, television exposure, home video release on cassettes and laserdiscs, “Fiend Without a Face” has become a cult classic that has been acclaimed and reviled, admired and condemned, sent up in books and magazines while at the same time being seriously analyzed for its sociological implications in such works as Patrick Lucanio’s “Them Or Us: Archetypal Interpretations of Fifties Alien Invasion Films” which was published in 1987 by the Indiana University Press. An obvious contender for a large-scale color remake, it remains a favorite of film fans worldwide, many of whom remember it as the first film that scared them out of their wits!

My second Boris Karloff film, after an abortive attempt sponsored by MGM to obtain the remake rights to Bram Stoker’s “Dracula’ and do it in CinemaScope and color, became “Corridors of Blood” which, thanks to my friend Jimmy Carreras at Hammer Films, who was then in Post-production on “Curse of Frankenstein”, teamed Christopher Lee with Boris Karloff for the first time. This time, the co-feature was to be “First Man Into Space”, again starring Marshall Thompson, based on an screenplay called “Satellite of Blood” written in Hollywood by Wyatt Ordung, which Alex also found for me. Robert Day, director of the two Karloff films, agreed to do it as his third and last film for Producers Associates Limited. He went on to direct such films as “She” for Hammer and “Tarzan the Magnificent” before going to America for a long career in Hollywood features and television series.

When space travel became a reality at just about the same time that we were finishing the two new films, MGM decided to release “First Man Into Space” as a single feature. The story took place in New Mexico, around the University of Albuquerque, although once again it was filmed entirely in England except for a few establishing shots that Alex made for me in the desert. Someone in MGM’s publicity department, not knowing the circumstances but having seen the synopsis, decided that it would be a great idea to have the world premiere in the city where the film was shot! Predictably, the audience attending this event in Albuquerque laughed uproariously at some of the scenes. Nevertheless, the American release was a great financial success.

A new management team had meanwhile been installed at MGM and decided not to continue releasing horror double bills, with the result that “Corridors of Blood” remained on their shelf for three years before finally being released in the USA through a newly-formed subsidiary company on a programme with a dubbed Italian exploitation picture that they called “Werewolf in a Girl’s Dormitory” to which they added a specially-composed song “The Ghoul in School” that didn’t help at the box office. During the lengthy post-production schedule of “Fiend Without a Face”, I made a third picture with Marshall Thompson which was a low-budget spy thriller shot entirely on locations in and around London that was directed by Ronald Kinnoch (who produced MGM’s “Village of the Damned”), and co-starred John Loder, called “The Secret Man”. It went directly to television in the United States.

In the Sixties and Seventies, I alternated science-fiction with horror in my productions. A double-bill of “Island of Terror” (directed by Terence Fisher and starring Peter Cushing) and “The Projected Man” was released by Universal. One critic thoughtfully described “Island of Terror” as being “Like ‘Fiend Without a Face’ on a bigger budget in color”. By 1980, I found that it was no longer feasible to produce films independently without the participation of a major company. Production costs went through the roof and marketing costs threatened to double the investment. Without the guarantee of a studio release, one could be left without theatrical distribution in the United States which became necessary to generate world-wide interest. My last science-fiction picture “Inseminoid”, which was largely financed by the Shaw Brothers Organization in Hong Kong, barely managed a proper American release through an independent distributor who re-titled it “Horror Planet”.

Today, science-fiction is big business for companies ready to spend fifty to a hundred million dollars or more, fuelled by extravagant special effects employing techniques which never existed before and demanding the ultimate in star power. Horror films have gone in the opposite direction, requiring such explicit blood and gore, with each film trying to outdo its predecessor, that the fun has gone out of them.

I detoured back into production only once in 1992 when I rediscovered and restored a short film based on an Irish ghost story that Orson Welles made in Ireland in the early 1950’s. Adding a prologue in which Peter Bogdanovich graciously consented to appear, I presented it at various Film Festivals under the title “A Tribute to Orson Welles” and then released it on television and home video as “Orson Welles’ Ghost Story”. It was paired on the Criterion Collection’s laserdisc with Welles’ own production of “Othello”, and will be out on a Criterion DVD, probably before the end of this year.

In the future, I hope that an authorized big-budget color remake of “Fiend Without A Face” may soon become a reality.

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One Response »

  1. As you probably know Mr. Gordon, Roy Frumkes (according to Wikipedia) confirmed on 22 March 2010 to Fangoria to produce, with yourself, the US remake for 2011. Something he mentioned to me several years ago. Hope that still applies and that it goes ahead!
    Very best, Max.

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