Mysterious deaths are occurring in the small village outside a U.S. Air Force station in Canada. The base, a co-venture between the two allies, is experimenting with broadcasting nuclear power to radar planes. This promises to greatly increase the range of the radar field. A vastly improved early alert network could then be realized to monitor for Russian missile attacks.
However, the largely rural natives are beginning to blame the base for the deaths. Their suspicions range from a murderous rogue American soldier to radioactive fallout from the base reactor. Security Officer Maj. Cummings has another headache, besides. The radar tests keep failing due to a lack of power, as if it were being drained away as quickly as they could generate it.
We in the audience, meanwhile, know that the victims are falling prey to some sort of invisible beastie. This slithers around before leaping for the neck of its target, followed by some rather gruesome slurping sounds. Autopsies reveal that whatever is responsible is literally sucking out the brain and spinal column of its victims. Eventually Cummings attention is drawn to two people. The first is Prof. Walgate, an eminent scientist with a background in psychic phenomena. The second is Barbara, Walgates beautiful secretary.
The films science is consistently laughable, especially the notion that one can shut down a runaway reactor by dynamiting its control room. However, this is a spooky and fast moving little number that will keep fans entranced. Especially noteworthy is the films classic blowout ending, as the protagonists are besieged by the now materialized menace: Dozens and dozens of mobile, intelligent brains. Inching along or leaping via their spinal column appendages, the brains press their vampiric attacks. Luckily for the heroes (and delighted fourteen year-olds in the audience), the brains prove quite vulnerable to bullets, noisily spattering blood and gore around as they are shot down. Indeed, the level of carnage on display in this film is simply astounding for something released in 1958.
The film starts out a little scratchily, but otherwise is a more or less pristine presentation of the film. Certainly its difficult to imagine one much better, its often simply gorgeous. The clarity of the image is especially appreciated during the films numerous special effects sequences. The print is nicely letterboxed and has been afforded an enhanced anamorphic transfer. Meanwhile the sound, if anything, is too good. Sounds and dialog that were looped in later are now readily apparent as being so. All in all, though, its an almost flawless disc.
Genre fans were abuzz when the prestigious Criterion Collection announced it was adding two cult sci-fi titles to its catalog of classic and foreign films. Nor would they be disappointed. The first such release, The Blob, was everything one could reasonably hope for. So too with Fiend Without a Face.
First theres a fabulous menu animation, featuring footage of the leaping brains from the climax of the film. Tinted green, the images are even nastier. Meanwhile, the extras menu, accompanied by red-tinted footage of the brains being shot to pieces, is entitled MAD SCIENCE SPAWNS EVIL FIENDS!
Amongst the options presented is "Explotation!", which leads us to a series of photos detailing the marketing of the film back in 1958. We see posters, lobby cards, newspaper ads and actual theater displays pushing the film. These images are accompanied by some informative narration by the films Executive Producer Richard Gordon and veteran genre historian Tom Weaver. Its all quite interesting and lasts about six minutes.
"It Came From " features a short text essay on the film and 50s sci-fi movies in general, accompanied and interrupted by stills from the various pictures alluded to. I personally didnt find this especially successful, but its an interesting try, anyway.
"Trailers" features coming attraction shorts for five of producer Gordons films, including Fiend Without a Face, The Haunted Strangler, Corridors of Blood, First Man into Space and The Atomic Submarine. Great stuff.
"Lobby Cards" gives us a nice look at the various color advertising materials associated with the film. Also included is a look at the box art for a resin model kit of the movies brain monsters.
Finally, we have "Vintage Ads." This details, in close-up, not only various actual newspaper ads for the film, but for other motion picture ads in the same papers. Thus we see that Fiend Without a Face was out the same time as, say, Desire Under the Elms, Gods Little Acre and From Here to Eternity. Not to mention nudie flicks like 10 Days in a Nudist Camp and Naughty Paris Nights. By focusing on other films, too, they go beyond the call of duty. A delight for movie buffs.
Accessible back on the main menu is the discs big gun, a full-length audio commentary by Gordon and Weaver. The rapport between the two men is obvious. Weaver is generally content to let the producer do the bulk of the talking, acting mostly to direct the conversation and keep it moving smoothly. Gordon proves more than up to the task, displaying an impressive memory and an admirable sense of humor about his movies. Meanwhile, the English subtitles help you keep up with the films events as the commentary progresses.
Some might balk at the discs hefty $40 retail price (although you can easily find it for under thirty dollars), but you get what you pay for here. In any case, the disc is certainly worth a rental if nothing else.
Ken Begg, 2/11/2001