View Full Version : Fiend Without a Face - Half Review (long)

03-05-2003, 12:57 PM
There are a lot of reasons why we like certain films. Sometimes we have read a lot about them, and it peeks our interest. Sometimes we like a certain actor or Director, or a story line intrigues us. Yet other times, it is simply a feeling of nostalgia.

When we’re young, we’re more impressionable, our minds can more easily be tricked, we’re open to ideas however outlandish they may be. We lose this ability, as we get older. However, one of the tricks of our minds is that, no matter how cynical or matter-of-fact we might eventually become, those childhood feelings stay with us. Sure the new stuff might be recycled garbage we’ll rail against freely, but somehow we remember those first experiences in a special kind of way – only then was it original!

Of course, if we go back and visit old films that made a deep impression upon us, we are often disappointed. The scares are not scary, the monsters are laughable, and the acting is often pathetic. We make exceptions of course, and still hold some films in high-regard, but we know their true worth.

Not so with Fiend Without a Face. Fiend is a film that left me dumbstruck as a kid, and still today leaves a lasting impression. Sure it’s a bit hokey, the sets are cheap, and the budget was razor thin (actually, a little over 150,000 pounds at the time, which was quite a lot.)

However, Fiend survives and maintains impact into the modern day through honest to God special effects that mostly work (still), a script without a hint of humor (well, intentional anyway), and only the smallest vestige of a romantic interest. In short, Fiend knew who the real stars of the film were – and through due diligence and great restraint, they kept them to the final reel, without consuming frames with needless junk that just clutter the mind. You watch just panting to see what the monsters look like, and when you do, you’re in for a unique experience. Nothing had looked like them before, and nothing has looked like them since.

Fiend is a film make in 1957. The cold war was in high steam, but more importantly, anything to do with nuclear power were ingredients for the wild imaginations of filmmakers.

Fiend tells the story of a small town, affected by mysterious killings. We see the murders take place, but the killer is invisible. The victims are simply left clutching at their throats, as they fall into a heap without a sign of injury (the blank stares let us know they’re actually dead – or maybe they’re just bit actors doing their best to “act”.)

Shots of an army base with its own nuclear reactor soon tip us off that the power station has something to do with it, but you don’t know what.

Unlike other films of this type, it turns out that nuclear power is not the evil creator this time around. The monsters in Fiend are man-made, and come from the brain of a scientist who has been researching mind control. Sure, they feed off the power from the station, but this is not a film about the evils of nuclear energy, rather, it uses it as a vehicle. By the end of the film, this nuclear power station is blown up with no apparent ill effects. Hey, that’s Hollywood (well, okay I cheated there, this was not a Hollywood financed production.)

Fiend is a film that lives on because it truly deserves it. It is now considered a “cult classic”. But in times when this has become a catch-phrase, a marketing tool to make us pay again and again for sub-standard works, Fiend earned its right to be considered a classic the hard way – through commitment, and by surviving through the years on late night TV.

This brings me to 2003. Well, more accurately, to the year 2000. In the year 2000, Fiend Without a Face achieved what many consider a high honor indeed – it got the Criterion treatment!

Lets face it, Criterion have done a great job giving excellent treatments to films that truly deserve the honor, while at the same time, making some very odd choices indeed. To the uninitiated, Fiend falls into the latter category. What the heck is Criterion doing with this film? Why not War of the Worlds, it Came from Outer Space, Forbidden Planet, The Thing? Why not indeed! But ours is not to reason why, we should just sit back and take in what they give us, glad they are there to help.

The Criterion Fiend brings us a restored version of the film, and a few extras. You can’t expect a disc full to the brim, but the scattering of extras here are quite nice.

Fiend was theatrically released in a 1:66 ratio, which is how it is seen here. A couple of minutes of cuts made in both the UK and the US in the 50’s are restored, but apparently they were never substantial (just bits of extra gore, yes, this film has actual gore!) The transfer is mostly very nice indeed. There are some segments here and there that seem to have been skipped by the “MTI Digital Restoration System” showing some grain. At other times you’d swear this was pristine. I should mention, as was the custom in the 50’s and 60’s, some stock footage of jets is used. This still looks like – well – stock footage.

Audio is mono. Fiend runs for a mere 74 minutes, but it’s quite a ride.

The extras include an informative (and rather lengthy) illustrated essay by Bruce Eder (that means, you’re going to be reading it on the screen, hitting the next button to change pages). This talks about the history of the film, and some other films made around the same time, such as “First Man in Space”. Some of the stills are really interesting, such as store fronts from the era, selling horror film memorabilia. Perhaps most interesting are shots of an actual Fiend, that was kept in a case outside the theater in New York when the film was first released. It drew quite a crowd, and apparently had to be removed at the request of the police!

There is also a still gallery, with commentary. Along with this are newspaper ads from the time. These actually are quite fun to read and look through, with the associated lobby cards.

Perhaps the biggest extra is the audio commentary. I am in two minds about this. On the one hand, anything I can learn about the film is okay by me. Most of the principals, of course, are long dead. However, the executive producer is still around. The “commentary” is actually an interview between Richard Gordon (the aforementioned executive producer) and Tom Weaver.

I’ve got to say, this is all a bit disappointing. Basically, the film rolls behind the voices of these two guys chatting. Some of the information is very good, but it is not specific to this film, and is certainly never – not a single time – specific to a scene in the film. They are talking over it – like a couple of annoying patrons sitting behind you at the cinema. This is a pity. In the event, the “commentary” makes a very interesting audio track, but it’s not your typical commentary.

There is also a rather fun set of trailers including, of course, Fiend, The Haunted Strangler, Corridors of Blood, First Man in Space and The Atomic Submarine. I have never seen First Man in Space on DVD, but if someone put it out, I’d get it in a heartbeat – it’s great stuff!

The release also comes with a small 6-page booklet, but there’s not a lot there to make this a must.

I remember Fiend being the type of 50’s black and white sci-fi film that was well constructed, entertaining, and yes, strangely believable. You know what? That is exactly what it is. Criterion puts these films out with great transfers, and asks you to pay dearly. Some of the time that extra cost just is not worth it – but in this case (and yes, several others) it most certainly is. I don’t know, I just can’t imagine my collection without a copy of Fiend, a fond friend, that still manages to make me cock my head today – “Wow, they did that!”

If you’ve never seen it, and have an interest in black and white movies from the 50’s, or perhaps if you’re just upset that Jason is now space walking, give Fiend a go. You won’t be disappointed.

Thump Thump Thump Thump Thump Thump Thump.

03-05-2003, 02:16 PM
Thank you, dwatts. This is a film that I loved as a child and I resisted picking up the dvd, because I thought that like most things I re-watch now, my memories have failed me, and they don't live up to esteem I held them with as a child. I now want to buy this disc more than ever. I want to see it again, and judging from your opinion, I, too will probably still love this schlocky 50s classic.

03-06-2003, 05:09 PM
Amen! This disc is one of those buys I absolutely cherish.

03-15-2003, 05:04 AM
On sale right now at dvdplanet.com

04-08-2003, 08:42 AM
Well, you just convinced me to buy this disc. I pondered it when I was at DVD Planet last month but didnt know what to expect. Now that I do I want it.