Fiend Without A Face Review
Not the biggest fan of 50s B-movies (I prefer my cult films to be forgotten classics rather than kitschy nonsense), Criterion’s highly enticing cover blurb – “outstanding sci-fi/horror hybrid…special effects bonanza…a high-water mark in British genre filmmaking” – somehow swayed me, and I decided to take the plunge and see what all the fuss was about.
The plot is adapted from a 1930s short story by Amelia Reynolds-Long. When corpses start turning up around an isolated US air-force base (nestled deep in the Canadian wilderness), sans brains and spinal cords, an invisible “mental vampire” is apparently to blame. Major Cummings (played with a perpetual frown by Marshall Thompson) sets out to investigate and discovers the humble beginnings from which these bloodthirsty creatures began their life-sucking rampage.
Everything about the film is simply passable and bland for the most part – performances, productions values, you name it. What really stands out is the imagination evident in the screenplay, ensuring that the viewer both gets involved with the storyline and their curiosity slowly builds as to the creatures’ appearances and origins. And call me a simpleton, but I found the inevitable explanation both satisfying and strangely plausible (within the confines of the film, that is).
Impressively, the show gets more interesting and enjoyable as it goes on, leading to the kind of show-stopping barricade finale that can proudly stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Night of the Living Dead and Straw Dogs – as the key characters are surrounded in an old house with makeshift barricades, the fiends take visible shape and infiltrate the barriers. When each is destroyed (by axe or gun), it spurts and sprays gurgling blood in a delightfully messy fashion (these shots were trimmed on original release – needless to say, this version is totally uncut). The effects employed are certainly highly impressive for their day with twitching tentacles, caterpillar-like movements and a suitably slimy texture. They fly, they slither, they bleed copiously...need I say more?
Taken from the best materials available (in this case, a 35mm fine grain master) and given a high-definition reshine, Fiend comes up short of expectations print-wise, but the care Criterion have taken with its transfer is outstanding in every respect. The film is presented anamorphically from a high-definition transfer in its correct aspect ratio of 1.66:1. To get the bad news out of the way first, there is some serious print damage – lines, vertical scratches, spots and splotches – and even after the digital image restoration Criterion applied, it still occasionally appears littered with debris. However, the contrast and detail on display is among their best work. Free from any digital nastiness (edge enhancement, MPEG ringing or noise reduction), a breathtakingly sharp and clear image is always on display. Bright whites, deep blacks, and every shade of grey in between can be seen, even in darker scenes. The use of stock footage (mainly for aeroplane shots) is jarringly grainy and tattered, but there isn’t a great deal that can be done. The tiniest bit of shimmer can occasionally be seen, but that’s it.
Sadly, the audio is a different matter. In straightforward 1-channel mono, the dialogue and sound effects come through clean as a whistle, although sounding rather thin, but the music is a different matter. Constantly warbling and pulsing, and rather distorted as a result, especially on the high-end, it’s often overly harsh on the eardrum. Happily, there’s little background hiss or crackle, but I guess we only have the original recordings to blame for this poor audio offering.
Where to begin? Well, the packaging looks fantastic, capturing a wonderfully retro-50s poster feel, with a modern, pop-art edge. The essay inside the booklet perhaps ladles on the praise a bit too much, but is still generally valid and a decent introduction to the film.
Firstly, there’s an excellent commentary by executive producer Richard Gordon and genre film writer Tom Weaver. There’s a definite spark between the two as interviewer and interviewee, and Gordon appears fully prepared in terms of memory as Weaver is about his facts and history. Discussions about the film’s stars, its origins (excerpts from the original short story are read), its controversial release and on-going cult popularity. The commentary spills over into a separate animated publicity gallery (entitled “Exploitation!”) running six minutes with various ephemera submitted for your approval.
Next, a very informative essay, furnished with copious stills, about how Fiend fits into the British sci-fi/horror genre of its day by Bruce Eder, who has provided many splendid commentaries for Criterion in the past.
If you thought that was the end of the 50s B-movie revival section of the disc, then think again! Separate lobby card and vintage newspaper advertisement galleries are present (though with the standard back-and-forth navigation), and the adverts in particular are a delight, despite many of them having nothing to do with the film.
Finally, a collection of five trailers from Gordon Films (all of which are available, we are told, on Image DVDs) – two anamorphic, one letterboxed and two fullscreen. If you love taglines that make promises the films can’t possibly keep, excessive title card wipes and effects and all the best bits of the film unwittingly ruined for you, then you’ll be in paradise! I do love these vintage trailers, and so their appearance on the disc is more than welcome, and an excellent warm-up for the film itself.
Finally, the wonderful animated menus deserve their own paragraph. Brains leap out and devour unlucky off-screen victims. With fluorescent colours, tacky fonts and dodgy rippling effects, they capture the campy enjoyment of the film splendidly.
Criterion dazzles yet again with the sort of transfer, supplements and overall sparkle that so many greater films deserve. By capturing the whole drive-in essence of the entire genre, they’ve given cult movie fans the world over a real treat from start to finish. Like the price (regrettably, but understandably), my recommendation is extremely high.