Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Fiend Without A Face: Criterion (1958)
Studio Line: Criterion/Home Vision

A scientist's thoughts materialize as an army of invisible brain-shaped monsters (complete with spinal-cord tails!) who terrorize an American military base in this nightmarish chiller, directed by Arthur Crabtree (Horrors Of The Black Museum). This outstanding sci-fi/horror hybrid is a special effects bonanza, and a high-water mark in British genre filmmaking.

Director: Arthur Crabtree
Cast: Marshall Thompson, Terry Kilburn, Michael Balfour, Gil Winfield, Shane Cordell, Stanley Maxted, James Dyrenforth
DVD: Widescreen 1.66:1/16x9; audio English Digital Mono; subtitles none; closed-captioned; single sided - single layered; 15 chapters; Not Rated; 74 min.; $39.95; street date 1/30/01.
Supplements: Audio Commentary: A Conversation with Executive Producer Richard Gordon and Genre Film Writer Tom Weaver; Illustrated Essay on British Sci-Fi/Horror Filmmaking by Film Historian Bruce Eder; A Collection of Trailers from Gordon Films: Fiend Without A Face, The Haunted Strangler, Corridors Of Blood, First Man Into Space and The Atomic Submarine; Rare Still Photographs and Ephemers, with Commentary; Vintage Advertisements and Lobby Cards
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: C/C+/B-

On the back of each of their releases, you’ll find the following statement about the Criterion Collection: “A continuing series of important classic and contemporary films”. That line continues to provoke argument among movie buffs as they debate whether or not each DVD (or laserdisc, back in the day) deserved to be part of the Criterion Collection.

Some feel that the series should stick solely with “great” films; these are the folks who’ve taken serious issue with Criterion releases like Armageddon and The Blob because they aren’t “classics”. Many seem to interpret the Criterion mission as one to bring only the best of the best to video.

I don’t agree with that notion. Perhaps it’s not my place to say, but I’ve always seen the Criterion Collection as a way to provide a solid cross-sample of different genres. This has tended toward some artier, more obscure fare for a number of reasons. First, those are the kinds of titles generally neglected on video simply because they won’t sell like gangbusters; studios aren’t exactly falling on top of each other to rush things like Kwaidan out the door.

In addition, Criterion have to focus on smaller titles because the studios usually won’t let them touch the big money makers. There are some exceptions to that rule - such as the deal they have with Buena Vista which grants them access to flicks like Armageddon - but many studios - even those that cooperated with Criterion in the laserdisc days - would prefer to handle their own material on DVD.

This means a paucity of blockbusters released by Criterion, but it doesn’t condemn them to a life of artsy dramas, though some seem to believe that’s all they should release. Instead, the Criterion Collection has come to embrace films from a variety of genres, and that includes really lame science fiction/horror movies from the Fifties.

That subject already received recent attention through the Criterion release of The Blob, so some wonder why they’ve gone to the well again so soon with this new edition of 1958’s Fiend Without a Face. That’s a good question, and one I can’t answer. I’m all for variety in the Criterion Collection, but Fiend seems to tread upon the same ground as Blob, so I’m not sure of its point.

Fiend takes place along the American/Canadian border, where a new atomic power plant on a military base has the locals up in arms. Things get worse when a series of mysterious murders ensue. What’s the cause for all these attacks? Could it be related to the nuclear energy, and what’s up with that strange old scientist and his fascination with mind powers?

Not much, really, other than some of the usual sci-fi mumbo-jumbo. Fiend follows a predictable path, especially via the artificial manner in which it involves romantic elements. (I’m not complaining about the shower scene, though; we don’t get to see any skin, but even in a towel Kim Parker’s sexy enough to boil my potatoes!) The story slowly ratchets up the action until good inevitably conquers evil.

Fiend fits in well with the standard Fifties “mysterious menace” motif. Gone were the days of sympathetic monsters like Frankenstein or The Mummy; in the Cold War era, all the baddies were anonymous critters with no motives other than Darwinian survival. It’s kill or be killed, and that was it.

The materials that come with Fiend attempt to set it up as some sort of genre classic, and it’s possible that some may regard it as such; we’re told of the influence the movie seemed to have on Night of the Living Dead and Small Soldiers. I don’t know for a fact that the similar scenes in those films were truly inspired by Fiend, but it appears possible.

Even if those connections exist, does that make Fiend a good movie? Nope, and despite some of the superlatives the DVD’s materials throw at it, nothing’s going to convince me that Fiend is anything more than a pretty goofy and average flick from the era. There are worse things than silly Fifties sci-fi, and you can certainly do a lot worse than Fiend Without a Face. However, it wasn’t much of a film, and it did nothing to interest me in the genre.

The DVD:

Fiend Without a Face appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.66:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. As a whole, the movie looked pretty decent, but a variety of flaws made the overall picture only rate an average grade.

Sharpness seemed consistently positive. The vast majority of the movie appeared detailed and well-defined. During a few shots of Kim Parker, it looked like the soft “glamour shots” focus common during the era was used, but even this technique seemed mild and it caused no real problems. I detected modest moiré effects and jagged edges at times, but these presented no significant concerns.

Black levels usually seemed nicely deep and dark, and during most of the film, shadow detail looked appropriately heavy but not excessively thick. That wasn’t the case for a few exterior shots, however, which featured use of “day for night” photography. During these scenes, the images were overly dense and it was difficult to make out the action.

Fiend’s biggest concerns stemmed from the quality of the print utilized. It included a wide variety of flaws. I saw a fair amount of grain during much of the movie, and it also displayed intermittent examples of scratches, grit, speckles, thin vertical lines, and other issues. Many of these defects were most noticeable during the shots of the military base or of aircraft, and that’s not unusual since those kinds of images usually are taken from stock footage. However, even the scenes staged specifically for Fiend showed lots of these flaws, though they were somewhat intermittent. Without the defects, Fiend would provide a solid picture; with them, the image only rates a “C”.

The film’s monaural soundtrack was also fairly average, though I thought it seemed relatively decent for a movie of this era. Dialogue often sounded acceptably distinct and accurate, though even at its best, it was thin and reedy. At worst, however, a lot of speech came across as edgy and rough; I never had problems related to intelligibility, but the tone of many lines seemed excessively crude. The film also suffered from some terrible dubbing at times, as a lot of dialogue matched lip movements poorly.

Effects showed somewhat higher quality. Though they lacked much depth, these elements came across as acceptably clear and realistic, and the thumping attached to the “fiends” actually seemed decently boomy. Music also presented little dynamic range but the score sounded relatively clean and bright. The soundtrack betrayed no signs of hiss or other source flaws. All in all, the mix for Fiend was dated but fairly decent for its age.

Fiend includes a few supplements, starting with an audio commentary from producer Richard Gordon and horror film buff Tom Weaver. Actually, this is more of an interview than a standard commentary; Weaver mainly asks questions, though he also adds some details. I found the track to be decent but a little dry. It seemed as though most of the emphasis was on discussions of the participants, and Gordon also talks about budget filmmaking in that era and a few other issues such as the story’s origins and concerns related to censors.

When I think about the content found in the commentary, it seems as though all of the relevant topics were covered. So why did I find the track to feel somewhat deficient? I’m not really sure, but the piece comes across as slow-moving and lackluster. Perhaps it was my disappointment that Weaver didn’t just rant on his own; he provided terrific tracks for The Wolf Man and The Creature From the Black Lagoon and I’d hoped for something similar. As it stands, this commentary will likely satisfy the film’s fans, but I thought it was a little drab.

In the “Mad Science Spawns Evil Fiends!” area of the DVD, we discover a few additional extras. “Exploitation!” shows a collection of the film’s print advertisements plus some photos from the movie’s theatrical run in Times Square. These images are accompanied by additional commentary from Gordon and Weaver and the entire piece lasts five minutes, 55 seconds. Although some of the ads become redundant - many look a lot alike - Gordon’s remarks are interesting, and the program works well as a whole.

“It Came From…” is a text piece written by critic Bruce Eder. It’s a nice overview of the origins of the Fifties sci-fi/horror genre, and it covers a lot of ground. While it features a special emphasis on Fiend, the latter isn’t the only topic of conversation, and the essay was quite interesting. I especially liked the fact it included a lot of solid vintage photos and ads from the movies in question.

We also get a slew of trailers for similar films. There’s the theatrical ad for Fiend itself plus promos for The Haunted Strangler, Corridors of Blood, First Man Into Space, and The Atomic Submarine. There are 10 “Lobby Cards” presented, and “Vintage Ads” provides 36 screens of newspaper promos. Some of these show the ads for Fiend but most fill us in on other entertainment from the era. Some of these are memorable - such as The Bridge On the River Kwai and Vertigo - while others - like The Crawling Thing From Planet # 13 - seem to have a slightly lesser hold on the public imagination. Lastly, the DVD offers a decent essay from film professor Bruce Kawin in its booklet.

After their recent release of The Blob, one might think Criterion would wait a while until their next examination of cheap Fifties sci-fi/horror, but instead they’ve come right back with Fiend Without a Face. Unfortunately, the movie has little to offer other than an average-for-the-era thrill show; the film is generally pretty bad and did little to involve or interest me. The DVD provides fairly mediocre picture and sound plus a modest but decent batch of extras. It’s nice to see that Criterion will focus on movies that aren’t ultra-serious “classics”, but why they chose Fiend Without a Face is a mystery; it’s an unremarkable entry in the field that will probably only be enjoyed by serious fans of the genre.

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