Review Date: June 10, 2001
Released by: Criterion
Release date: February 1, 2001
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 1.66:1 | 16x9: Yes
We begin at an isolated U.S. Air Force base deep in the Canadian wilderness. A soldier nervously stands guard as jets take off and land. Suddenly, he hears strange, unnatural noises coming from the nearby woods, and then the sound of a man screaming. The sentry rushes towards the screams only to find a man lying on the ground dead, a look of complete horror on his face.
The base's second-in-command, Major Jeff Cummings (Marshall Thompson
), begins investigating the incident. The man who was killed was a local farmer, and his death is threatening to destroy the military's already cold relationship with the nearby community. It seems that the Air Force is using the base to test out a new form of radar powered by atomic energy, which would allow NATO to monitor any Russian plane or missile right from bases in North America. However, many of the townspeople are paranoid about the experiments, worrying that the base's reactor is poisoning them with nuclear contamination. To make matters worse, the dead man's sister refuses to allow an autopsy, making it impossible to prove that he wasn't killed by radiation.
Soon after, another incident occurs - at a small farm near the base, a local farmer and his wife are attending to their livestock. The woman goes into the barn to feed their chickens, and she hears a strange noise, like there's an animal is lurking nearby. Suddenly, she's attacked by some sort of invisible force. She clutches her neck for a moment and then drops dead. Her husband comes running to her aid, only to be killed in the same way. This time, however, the relatives of the dead couple allow the military doctors to perform an autopsy, and what they find is gruesome - someone or something drilled two small holes in the base of their skulls, from which their brains and their spinal cords were sucked out. Needless to say, no one can find an explanation for it.
After the town's mayor is killed in his home the same way, the local constable begins to suspect that the killings were the work of a deranged GI, and organizes a posse to search the woods. During the search, he's separated from the rest of the group and disappears. He shows up a few days later, but the poor guy has been driven completely insane, apparently by something horrific he encountered in the woods. With the town starting to turn against the men at the air base, Jeff begins to suspect that Professor Walgate (Kynaston Reeves
), a retired expert in psychic phenomenon living nearby, might have something to do with the deaths. But he is unprepared to find out the truth - somehow, Walgate's experiments have created a race of monstrous creatures that feed on the intellects of human beings. They're currently invisible, but not for long, and they must be stopped before they suck out everybody's brains!
If you're reading this plot summary without having seen the movie, Fiend Without a Face
probably sounds like any other 50's monster movie, and in some ways, that assumption is correct. The film features all the aspects of that genre - it has a cheap, low-budget look, there are mad experiments, radiation, plot holes, ludicrous character clichés, military intervention, reams of stock footage, hilariously inaccurate scientific mistakes, and the like. But many people who've viewed the movie have realized that it's quite a bit better than you'd think.
Alex tries to leave the country, but the authorities won’t let him. The situation is further complicated by the arrival of Richard Fairbrain (Geoffrey Copleston), Alex’s father-in-law, who is also convinced that Alex is the killer. Not only that, but Fairbrain seems to know Steffania from somewhere else. Alex continues to be terrorized by the mysterious "video killer", who takes several more victims and Commissioner Bonelli and the police scramble to solve the mystery...
What truly makes Fiend Without a Face
stand out are three elements - it's visual effects, it's sound effects, and, surprisingly, it's relatively high gore level. As you can see from some of these vidcaps, the "fiends" of the title are rather small creations. There are no men in rubber suits here, the monsters were brought to life with some model work and stop-motion animation, a technique that, except for a number of Ray Harryhausen movies, was not used very often in these types of films. Creating special effects this way took time, which equaled expense (and in this case, they caused the film to run over-budget), but when done by skilled people, it could often add a more human element to the effects work. Although "personality" is probably too strong a word to describe the monsters here, they are handled with a lot more imagination than other creations, even humorously at times.
The movie also has a surprisingly high gore content for something made in 1958. This is one of the earlier films to feature truly gratuitous gore, and although it seems tame compared to other early "gore" films that were to follow, i.e., anything by H.G. Lewis, the gore that is offered is rather daring for it's time, and it's surprising that there wasn't a very big censorship problem when it came out (it had minor cuts both in the U.S. and U.K., since restored for home video presentations). When one of the "fiends" is killed, it doesn't just bleed - it has a spasm and spurts out a grotesque amount of blood before finally dying. But even before the monsters start to become visible, the film has some truly horrific moments. Relying on sound effects, the killings early in the film are just as horrific.
If you haven't seen Fiend Without a Face
yet, I urge you to. Even if you're not a fan of 50's monster movies, I think you'll still be very pleased by the movie and enjoy it.
Fiend Without a Face
is presented letterboxed at 1.66:1, and is 16x9 enhanced. This DVD is a big step up from it's earlier releases. The picture is quite sharp, with very good contrast and a superior black level. There is some light grain and speckling, but it's not an issue. There is, however, a problem that has caused me to bump down my rating to a B-, and that is some rather distracting print damage in the first few reels, most noticeably in the opening sequence and during an early scene in the air base's radar room, but fortunately, this abates midway through the film.
The soundtrack is in Dolby 1.0 Mono, and is pretty good for it's age. There dialogue is easy to hear, and the gruesome sound effects of the fiends sound better than ever. Other than an occasional pop or hiss, there is no audible distortion. There are optional English subtitles included.
First off, Criterion has included a commentary track with Richard Gordon, the film's executive producer, and genre film writer Tom Weaver. Unfortunately, it's one of the weaker tracks that I've heard , and is rather dull. The track is usually not screen-specific, and it's actually less of a commentary and more of question and answer session between Gordon and Weaver. Although he has a good memory and provides a lot of information on making the film, Gordon tends to drone on and on, making it difficult to stay with the track.etter than ever. Other than an occasional pop or hiss, there is no audible distortion. There are optional English subtitles included.
Also included are trailers for not only this film, but for First Man Into Space
and Boris Karloff's Corridors of Blood
and The Haunted Strangler
, which were also produced by Richard Gordon, and The Atomic Submarine
, which was produced by his brother Alex (all of these films are available on DVD from Image, in case anybody's curious). Next there are some vintage lobby cards/newspaper ads/posters for the film, a brief presentation with photos from the film's original premiere with commentary from Gordon and Weaver, as well as an essay on Fiend Without a Face
and other horror movies by film historian Bruce Eder, and liner notes by film historian Bruce Kawin.
Frankly, I'm a little bit surprised that The Thought Monster
, the 1930 short story by Amelia Reynolds Long that the film was based on, wasn't included. Weaver gives an outline of the story during the commentary track, but I'd rather read it for myself.
Although the $40 price tag seems really too high, fans of Fiend Without a Face
shouldn't hesitate to get this DVD. It's been given a great cleanup job by Criterion, and it's got enough supplements to keep you interested after you've finished watching it. So check it out.
Movie - B+
Image Quality - B-
Sound - B
Supplements – B
- Running Time - 1 hour 14 minutes
- Not Rated
- 1 Disc
- 15 Chapter Stops
- Dolby Digital Mono 1.0
- Optional English Subtitles
- Commentary by producer Richard Gordon and genre writer Tom Weaver
- Trailers for Fiend Without a Face, The Haunted Strangler, Corridors of Blood, First Man Into Space and The Atomic Submarine
- Vintage lobby cards/posters/newspaper ads
- Photos and promotional material with commentary by Gordon and Weaver
- Essay on Fiend Without a Face and other horror/sci-fi movies by film historian Bruce Eder
- Liner notes by film historian Bruce Kawin