Fiend Without a Face
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When most people think of the British horror boom in the late '50s and early '60s, they think of Hammer Films. But Hammer wasn't the only British production company specializing in genre movies. Amalgamated Productions also contributed several interesting science-fiction and horror films, and the film that has earned a permanent niche in the minds of moviegoers is Fiend Without a Face. It's one of the most shocking science-fiction films to come from England.

Most parts of the movie's story are relatively ordinary stuff, but the central concern, the part that sticks in the minds of everyone who has seen this movie, comes courtesy of brain-sucking, invisible monsters. During the movie's conclusion, these monsters become visible and we see them in all their glory: they're disembodied brains with antennae and spinal cords attached. They use the spinal cords to strangle their victims while sucking out brains. Thanks to some effective model work, akin to the special effects modeling of Ray Harryhausen (Mighty Joe Young and Jason and the Argonauts) these brain creatures are effective and eerie.

If the movie had been filmed in color instead of black and white, the movie's final sequence would likely be too bloody and disturbing to endure. But without color, the throbbing brains, which make sloshing and slurping sounds as they move, are relatively easy to watch -- even as bullets strike them and streams of blood pool on the ground.

These fascinating creatures are the result of experiments by a scientist working on thought materialization. To provide his work with needed electrical power, he siphons off energy from a nearby Army base, which is conducting tests with a new atomic radar system that can see all the way to Moscow. This plot development is very reminiscent of a previous sci-fi film, Forbidden Planet, where by using a thought amplification device a scientist unleashes his own id on the space soldiers who visit his planet.

The original story upon which Fiend Without a Face is based was published long before Forbidden Planet -- in 1930 in Weird Tales magazine. The movie, though, is only loosely based on the story (written by a teenager named Amelia Reynolds Long). The scene in which the creatures are destroyed isn't even described in the Weird Tales version. Regardless of the fact that Forbidden Planet post-dates the story upon which Fiend Without a Face is based, Forbidden Planet remains a strong influence. But while Forbidden Planet aimed for the high road with its thinly-disguised version of Shakespeare's Tempest, screenwriter Herbert J. Leder had few such pretensions when he created Fiend Without a Face. He turned in a horrific central idea that remains shocking over 40 years later.

Other than the monsters, the rest of Fiend Without a Face is unspectacular fare, with Marshall Thompson (of television's Daktari) delivering a good performance as our hero in a role that doesn't give him much to do until the movie's conclusion. Judy Parker gives a charming performance as his love interest. To help broaden the movie's appeal, MGM (the movie's American distributor) placed her prominently -- clad only in a bath towel -- on movie posters. Appropriately, this image also appears on the cover of The Criterion Collection's new DVD release of Fiend Without a Face, but they've used a halftone effect that helps obscure Miss Parker and reduces charges of blatant sexploitation.

The Criterion Collection's Fiend Without a Face is a superb package, complete with production stills, posters, and other ephemera related to the movie's release, including an audio interview with producer Richard Gordon (with film critic Tom Weaver throwing the questions). In addition, you'll find trailers for several additional Amalgamated Productions releases (including The Haunted Strangler, Corridors of Blood, First Man into Space, and The Atomic Submarine).

While The Criterion Collection is typically devoted to the classics of world cinema, Fiend Without a Face reveals that they've broadened their focus. They also released The Blob on DVD last year. Few people would claim either of these movies are classics, but the monsters have an appeal that goes beyond camp or kitsch. They're some of the most outlandish and horrific concepts to ever materialize on a movie screen.

 


Fiend Without a Face is now available on DVD from the Criterion Collection in a new widescreen transfer with digital picture restoration. The disc includes several extras: audio commentary by executive producer Richard Gordon and genre film writer Tom Weaver, an 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), and rare still photographs (with audio commentary), advertisements, lobby cards, and other ephemera. Suggested retail price: $39.95. For more information, check out the Criterion Collection Web site.