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Fiend Without a Face   C+

The Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment

Year Released: 1958
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Arthur Crabtree
Writer: Herbert J. Leder (based on a story by Amelia Reynolds Long)
Cast: Marshall Thompson, Kynaston Reeves, Kim Parker, Stanley Maxted, Terence Kilburn, James Dyrenforth, Robert MacKenzie.

Review by Michael Scrutchin

Available on DVD from the Criterion Collection, Fiend Without a Face is a sci-fi horror flick that scared the pants off of teenagers in 1958 (well, so they say). Back then, it was one of those flicks you could take a girl to, confident that she'd be clutching your hand tightly by the end, perhaps snuggling up closer to you and covering her eyes on your shoulder. And if you were lucky, she'd still be holding onto you when you left the theater. How times have changed. Today Fiend Without a Face isn't even likely scare your six-year-old little brother. Well, um, don't quote me on that.

The film takes place on an American military base on the Canadian border (even though this is a British film shot mostly in England). After a few people wind up dead, with their brains and spinal cords sucked out, the townspeople begin to suspect that these deaths have something to do with the radiation testing that's going on at the military base. And, well, they're not too far off. Our hero here, Major Cummings (Marshall Thompson), is an upright, likable kinda guy (if extremely bland) and he decides that he's going to get to the bottom of all this. Oh, yeah, and he's also gonna try to put the moves on the token love interest, Barbara (Kim Parker), the sister of the first person killed by the, um, fiend.

Well, actually, there's a lot more than one fiend (at least by the end). They're invisible at first, but they finally materialize during the film's final 15 minutes, surrounding a cottage with a group of characters trapped inside (Night of the Living Dead fans, take note, this appears to have been an inspiration for George Romero's classic). The fiends are essentially brains with spinal cord tails and tentacles protruding all over, slithering about, ready to pounce and suck your brain and spinal cord right out. The stop-motion animation of the fiends looks pretty dated, but it's still oddly effective (and those sound effects are nasty). Even while I was giggling about how silly it all looked, I was squirming. In any case, the gruesome (for its day) climax is definitely worth sticking around for, even if the hour preceding it is rather slow and dull.

It would have helped if our hero wasn't so bland, but that's not the case. Major Cummings, as played by Marshall Thompson, is about as interesting as watching paint dry (gotta stop using those damn clichés). Sure, he's likable, but he's a bore. But even if our hero was more interesting, the movie would still be slow for at least the first 55 minutes (the entire film clocks in at 74 minutes), during which we get to see a few of the invisible fiends draining the life out of a few random victims and delve into the insipid "mystery" of what's responsible for all those deaths. But, hey, at least Kim Parker as the hero's love interest is cute and downright perky.

The Criterion DVD of Fiend Without a Face (which is presented in a crisp black and white widescreen transfer) is packed with lots of fun goodies. The audio commentary has genre film writer Tom Weaver interviewing executive producer Richard Gordon; it's filled with interesting tidbits about making independent films in the 1950s, the production of the film, and lots more. Also on the disc: an illustrated essay on British sci-fi and horror filmmaking by film historian Bruce Eder, trailers for several Gordon-produced films (The Haunted Strangler, Corridors of Blood, First Man Into Space, The Atomic Submarine, and of course Fiend), and many stills of vintage ads and lobby cards for the film.

While Fiend Without a Face isn't nearly as much fun as The Blob (also released in 1958), it's a decent time-waster for fans of B-movies of the era. The climactic battle with the fiends is classic. The Criterion disc is a gem, especially for fans of movie (I don't quite count myself among them, but I do love the climax). And since The Blob is also available on DVD from Criterion, the two of these films would make a groovy double-bill for a night of old-fashioned monster-movie fun.

Review published 07.16.2001.

Follow Michael Scrutchin on Twitter or Letterboxd.

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