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The Criterion Collection presents

Fiend Without A Face (1958)

"I began to devise a being into which my thought, once released, could enter and preserve itself for all humanity. I envisaged something akin to the human brain, with life and mobility..."- Professor Walgate (Kynaston Reeves)

Stars: Marshall Thompson, Terry Kilburn, Michael Balfour
Other Stars: Gil Winfield, Shane Cordell, Kynaston Reeves
Director: Arthur Crabtree

Manufacturer: CMCA
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (some gore, violence)
Run Time: 01h:14m:09s
Release Date: 2001-01-30
Genre: horror

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B B-A-C- A-


DVD Review

Many horror films from the 1950's and 60's sold themselves on the promise of some terrible creature that would threaten your very soul! Typically the final reel would come around and the unspeakable terror we were supposed to be facing turned out to be some kind of goofy, rubber-suited puppet, or some other equally disappointing visage. Fiend Without A Face is something very, very different. Although it has some flaws and unintentional laughs, the movie delivers some of the most gutsy and unforgettable scenes of horror from that time period. It also has one of the most devastating final sequences ever put to celluloid.

The story, set at an Air Force base on the American/Canadian border, begins when a farmer is mysteriously killed, very close to the base. The military suspects it might have something to do with spies, but when more deaths occur, the mystery deepens. The community surrounding the military base already dislikes their situation what with the loud jet noise, security checks, and the fact that the base uses atomic power. The deaths only worsen the situation, the village insists that the deaths were caused by some kind of deadly radiation coming from the reactors. Major Cummings (Marshall Thompson) decides to investigate many of the factors behind the deaths and discovers that the victims all had their brains and spinal cords completely sucked away, through two small holes in the back of the neck. Cummings consults a local expert on psychic phenomena, and that's when he suspects the only logical reason for the killings: invisible attackers of possibly supernatural origin.

Of course, over the years, the real surprise of Fiend has been spoiled, for the most part, yet it's hard to think of any screen monster quite as revolting and chilling as these "fiends." While the audience doesn't really get to see the creatures until the last 15-25 minutes of the film, the build up to that point is, at the very least, certainly worth it. Making movies with invisible monsters can often be a way of reducing a film's budget; simply never show the creature because you can't. In this case, though, if anyone ever suspected the movie of being cheap, the ending would certainly change all that. Although the stop motion effects used to create the fiends aren't quite as technically pristine as work by, say, Ray Harryhausen, they're still potent nightmare fuel. The fiends also serve to fill the roles of evil by-products from modern technology, a large theme in late 1950's sci-fi/horror.

Adding to the wonderful creatures themselves, is some of the best foley work in history. As the invisible fiends crawl about, they make weird, slimy, gooey noises. When they attack, the perfect sounds of crunching and sucking accompany it, making the hair on the back of your neck stand up. When one is killed, all sorts of blood and guts ooze from it in a show a gore such as rarely seen in films of this age (featuring all the appropriate squishy noises).

Now, Fiend Without A Face isn't all about the scares and gore (although that's a good part of it). It actually has a good story filmed in a tighter manner than most films of the age. Despite some clichéd characters, Fiend moves along at a good pace, getting rid of most of the painfully long exposition most sci-fi/horror features have. The acting is somewhat looser than usual, allowing the actors to flow through the plot without using a lot of stale, stiff dialogue. Obviously, there are dated aspects, but they're far less obvious or painful than other Sci-Fi films of its age. Fiend was revolutionary by contemporary standards, with a story, though implausible, that is without holes in its logic or continuity issues&#mdasha rarity for its time.

I first saw this movie as a child, and the nightmares it inspired still creep me out to this day. Seeing the film again, in a more "enlightened" mood, I still can't help but be captivated with how well it holds up. Anyone can spot the flaws here, but if you just relax and allow yourself to get taken into the suspense, you may just end up as frightened as an 8-year-old child, morbidly staring into a fuzzy black-and-white TV.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.66:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: According to the liner notes, Fiend Without A Face was not only transferred from the best available source material, but also digitally restored (much like The Third Man), using computers to remove heavy damage, stains, holes, and other physical problems. The end result is a simply luminous new version of the film; easily one of the sharpest black-and-white transfers I've seen of something this old. There is grain in the image, and some rather hazy background shades, but the clarity of the image is very impressive. Running at an average of about 8mbps, there are no signs of compression problems. There's a slight bit of aliasing from the 16:9 enhancement, but is not very distracting. The digital alteration has definitely paid off with an amazingly clear picture. Dirt, and all the usual types of black-and-white visual albatross you might expect are non-existent.

Image Transfer Grade: A-

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Unfortunately, the mono audio is slightly below expectations. Obviously, I don't expect a full surround experience, but most of the movie is effected by a harsh distortion. This causes a very obvious warbling effect on high-end sound effects and most, loud dialogue. Passable, but annoying at certain intervals.

Audio Transfer Grade: C- 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 15 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
4 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Haunted Strangler, Corridors of Blood, First Man Into Space, The Atomic Submarine
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Executive producer Richard Gordon and genre writer Tom Weaver.
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Photo gallery with commentary by Richard Gordon and Tom Weaver.
  2. Illustrated essay on British sci-fi/horror by Bruce Eder.
  3. Lobby cards and vintage newspaper advertisements.
Extras Review: It must first be said that I like the way Criterion has started playing around with some of their menus. The menus on this disc are wonderfully tongue-in-cheek, including the usage of classic "exploitation" fonts and taglines, as well as animation and scenes from the film.
The feature-length commentary is not so much a commentary (I don't think Richard Gordon and Tom Weaver are watching the movie) as it is an extended interview. The discussion covers many interesting topics, though, including the basis of the film (a short story written by a teenage girl for an old pulp-magazine), some information on it's making and budget, and many more topics concerning various aspects of Gordon's career and the career of his producer brother, Alex.
A reel of posters, advertisements, and other promotional material are presented with more interview discussion from Gordon and Weaver.
Possibly the most satisfying aspect of the disc is the vintage newspaper ads. In this section, after a few lobby cards, movie sections from 1958 newspapers are explored in detail. The view not only shows you the classic ad for Fiend Without A Face (along with it's accompanying U.S. feature, Haunted Strangler) but also shows you close-ups of other ads. Some of the ads aren't even for movies, and it's an absolutely wonderful slice of history from 1958. It's like opening up the movies section from the time period. One of the ads that really struck me was an original ad for the theatrical showing of This is Cinerama, the original Cinerama demo reel (one of the most profitable films in history).
The visual essay makes for interesting and educational reading. It covers a pretty good range of topics as far as European sci-fi and horror go. Some of the photo stills are gorgeous, including mouth-wateringly pristine photos from Metropolis and the revolutionary 1936 film Things To Come, arguably one of the most ambitious and brilliant sci-fi films of all time (Image's upcoming DVD may deliver the goods on this one).
The section of trailers features previews for other Richard Gordon features, although if I recall correctly, Atomic Submarine was produced by Alex Gordon, his brother. All of these trailers are in very good condition and look pretty nice compared to the average old trailers on discs.

The white, black-bordered subtitles are nice, but can only be activated by remote.

Extras Grade: A-

Final Comments

While many horror flicks are content to merely spook the kiddies with some bats on strings or plastic skeletons, Fiend lives up to its own hype as one of the most potent chillers of its day. Criterion's disc gives the film the respect it deserves, making another great addition to their collection. Highly recommended.

Dan Lopez 2001-02-26