Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Criterion Blogathon :: Taking Form Before Your Horrified Eyes! Arthur Crabtree's Fiend Without a Face (1958)

We open near the Canadian border, the newly minted American Air Force Interceptor Command Base and experimental Atomic Radar Station at Winthrop, Manitoba, to be specific. And since livestock and constantly landing and launching jets and bombers don’t mix all that well – not to mention the fallout specter of the newly erected nuclear power plant to run it all, the surrounding farming community isn’t very keen on the constant disruptions this ever present vigil against the scourge of Communism creates on a daily basis. To make these tensions even worse, the body of the loudest local protestor has just been found near the base’s perimeter fence. Thus, the chief security officer, Major Jeff Cummings (Thompson), and his trusty sidekick, Captain Chester (Killburn), are charged with finding out whom or what killed the victim on the double and, while they’re at it, dispel a few myths on the evils of atom-splitting to set their radiation-rattled neighbors at ease.

But things get off to a rocky start when the dead man's sister, Barbara Griselle (Parker), won’t allow an autopsy that could've helped to clear things up. However, when the local sawbones (Madden) steps in and claims all external signs show a heart attack as the apparent cause of death, not radiation poisoning, an uneasy truce is established between the base and the nearby town. With the mystery seemingly solved – he typed ominously, the new-fangled atomic radar tests are allowed to continue. Here, the idea is to use atomic power to boost the effective scanning range, allowing Uncle Sam to keep an even closer eye on those pesky Russians. Alas, each attempt thus far has ended in total failure as a mysterious and massive power-drain has derailed any progress. But this time, Colonel Butler (Maxted) gives the OK to really amp up the juice. But just as the power levels first spike into the red and the radar signal comes online, once more, the power just as quickly drain away, much to the diagnostic consternation of all.

Meanwhile, at a nearby farm, an invisible, but very noisy, assailant attacks and kills an unsuspecting farmer and his wife. Back at the base, when word comes that two more bodies have been found, this time, over the protests of the suspicious locals, including the pish-poshing Mayor (Dyrenforth) and the openly belligerent town Constable (MacKenzie), an expert pathologist is brought in and an autopsy performed, where a rather grisly discovery is made. Seems the victims died when someone or, more probably, some thing sucked out their brains and spinal columns through a grisly puncture wound in the back of each victim's neck...

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"The first of the series of outrages was the case of Welton Grimm. Grimm was a retired farmer with a little place about three miles from town, who apparently had not an enemy in the world; yet one morning he was discovered dead in a patch of woods near his home with a look of horror on his face that made the flesh creep on those who found him. There were no marks of violence upon the body; except that expression of horrified revulsion at unspeakable things. Two doctors, a coroner, and a jury puzzled over it, and at last gave out the statement that he had been the victim of a heart attack – which nobody believed." 
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Thus begins the grisly tale of The Thought Monster by Amelia Reynolds Long, first published in the March, 1930, issue of Weird Tales magazine. Mostly known for her later detective fiction, Miss Long (1904-1978), a rare female voice in the field at the time, published over twenty science fiction and fantasy tales between 1928 and 1940, mostly serialized in the likes of Weird Tales, Astounding Stories and Spaceways, where she appeared alongside the likes of A.E. van Vogt and Isaac Asimov. Reading her efforts today, they come off rather, well, quaint and somewhat out-dated in theory but the prose comes off rather smart and snappy. In fact, with the locked room premise, accumulation of clues and evidence, and the resulting procedural vibe as the mystery of The Thought Monster is unraveled one can easily see why Long garnered so much success when she switched genres.

For, as her tale of the macabre continues and the body count of the unknown "Terror" reaches double-digits, after the denizens of this unnamed community fail to flush out the culprit they acquire some outside help with a detective from New York by the name of Gibson, who determines all the victims died of fright and lays the blame on some hideous escaped lunatic. But Gibson disappears during a night time sting operation to catch the killer, only to wander into town several days later, his mind gone, gibbering like an idiot. And after the invisible Terror causes havoc at a town hall meeting, resulting in several more deaths, salvation finally comes in the form of a psychic investigator, who devises a defense of ultra-violet light that stems the killings and tracks the culprit down to a reclusive psychologist named Walgate, whose experiments in telekinesis proved so successful he tried to mentally generate a being out of pure thought – an experiment that went horribly awry. 

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"And then the air was filled with something that had being, yet was not made of matter. Great, waving tentacles were groping for my mind, trying to suck it into themselves. With a scream, I rushed from the room. The experiment which I began last fall had succeeded without my knowing it, and I have let a thought-monster loose upon the community!" 
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At some point in the 1950s, Forrest J. Ackerman (of Famous Monsters of Filmland fame) became an agent for Long, who helped to keep some of her earlier sci-fi work in print. Along with several other clients, Ackerman also shopped these stories around to the studios to see if anyone would be interested in adapting them to the big screen to feed a post-war audiences' voracious appetite for such fantastic fare. It was Ackerman who brought The Thought Monster to producer Alex Gordon, who liked the story and pitched it to his bosses at American International. But AIP took a pass, and so, Gordon passed the story on to his younger brother, Richard, and his Amalgamated Productions. The elder sibling even handed over a snappy title he had cooked up for his own pitch: The Fiend Without a Face

Since they were old enough to attend the cinema in their native Britain, Alex and Richard Gordon were both bona fide film fanatics. While in high school, they formed film societies, fan clubs for their favorite stars (ranging from Bela Lugosi to Gene Autry), published fanzines, and submitted articles to others. In 1947, the Gordons migrated to America to enter the film business proper. And while Alex moved on to Hollywood, where Ed Wood, Jim Nicholson, Samuel Arkoff and a string of highly successful exploitation features he would help launch awaited [Day the World Ended (1955), Girls in Prison (1956), The She-Creature (1956)], Richard stayed in New York and started his own distribution company, eventually partnering with Charles Vetter in 1956 to form Amalgamated Productions.

Vetter was a maker of TV commercials who wanted to break into film production, and together, they arranged to help co-finance and co-produce seven independent films in England [The Counterfeit Plan (1957), Violent Stranger (1957)], providing American stars (Zachary Scott, Faith Domergue) and screenplays for more box-office punch and then distributed them Stateside as well. Then, in 1958, Gordon and Vetters decided to cut out the middleman and make the next batch of films themselves. The centerpiece would be two horror features starring Boris Karloff [The Haunted Strangler (1958), Corridors of Blood (1958)] which would be paired up with a couple of sci-fi thrillers, including Fiend Without a Face.

Herbert Leder, a successful commercial writer for Vetter, was hired to adapt and modernize Long’s story for the atomic age and did a commendable job. And the most critical thing he changed was bringing the brain-stealing monster out into the open, allowing the audience to see what Long had only implied. We never get to 'see' the monster in the story, and can only infer from two surviving victims that the creature destroyed the mind. In Leder's script he does it one better. And what this means and what we eventually get to see is truly gruesome, indeed, especially when considering the time-frame of the film's release, and we'll get to that big reveal in a second. However, despite all the updates it's kind of amazing how much of Long’s story is still present and accounted for. Here, air-force investigator Cummings subs in for the psychic investigator, who still traces the initially invisible killer back to Professor Walgate (Reeves) through Barbara, his personal secretary.

One of the secrets to Great Britain's genre film's financial success in the 1950s was importing American actors on the decline for some marquee power domestically which also provided enough of a box-office draw to garner American distribution. For Fiend Without a Face, Gordon cast Marshall Thompson [Battleground (1948), Mystery Street (1950)] as the lead. The affable Thompson had all the earmarks for superstardom but his timing stunk as he kinda got lost in the post-war shuffle as a lot of leading men returned from the service. And when a regime change at MGM found his contract null and void, he started showing up in all kinds of B-Pictures, including Cult of the Cobra (1955) and IT! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958). Marshall would eventually become a household name after Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion (1965) spawned the safari TV-series, Daktari (1966-1969). As for his nemesis, Kynaston Reeves does the best he can to throw suspicions elsewhere but it's pretty obvious from the get-go that this is all his fault. And this was the only real starring vehicle for Kim Parker after a string of secretarial and maid service roles -- though she was one of the fire maidens in Cy Roth's Fire Maidens from Outer Space (1956). I dug her feistiness, and her proactive action during the climax. And kudos to Leder for putting the inevitable romance between Thompson and Parker on the backburner.

For what we get here is just the inkling of a romantic spark that will face a rocky road to reach full conflagration. See, after dropping in on her unannounced (-- leading to some post-shower cheesecake that was exploited heavily in the film’s promotional campaign), Cummings notices several manuscripts Barbara’s transcribed for her boss on thought-projection. But before he can get into any specifics on these experiments, they are rudely interrupted by Constable Gibbons, who is so confrontational the two men soon come to blows until Barbara breaks it up and sends them both packing. It’s too much of a coincidence that someone is experimenting with mental telepathy while all these brainless bodies keep piling up; and so, as the focus of the investigation shifts to Walgate, a likable but fragile old duffer who seems to know a little too much about the atomic radar testing, Cummings thinks, the mysterious phantom attacks again (in a truly wonderful animated sequence as we follow the evidence of it's trail) and kills the mayor.

This time the locals don’t blame a radiation leak but are now convinced the base is harboring a psychotic serviceman. And so, Gibbons forms a posse and goes hunting for the killer, but he soon gets separated from the group and is attacked. When the others can’t find him, they head home -- and frankly, I don't blame them for abandoning that belligerent jack-ass. Meanwhile, back in town, with a mad killer on the loose, the city council convenes to formulate a plan of action. Cummings is there to offer assistance, but the meeting is suddenly interrupted by a loud and incoherent babbling; the door bursts open, and Gibbons stumbles in, gibbering like a madman. Apparently, the Constable, like the detective in the story, managed to fight off his attacker but it still managed to suck out part of his brain! *bleaugh*

As the case against him solidifies (-- after an interminable sidetrack into an air-tight cemetery vault that we will generously let slide as padding), and he is confronted with all kinds of damning evidence, old man Walgate is so stressed out over this he suffers a mild heart attack. But before he passes out, he vehemently warns Cummings to shut the atomic reactor down. But someone or, again, some thing has sabotaged the controls and it can't be properly shut down without repairs, including an indeterminate wait for replacement parts. Meantime, Walgate has recovered enough to make a full confession and gathers what's left of the local Winthrop authorities and the top brass from the base at his home, and then begins to spin his tale of woe:

It seems the good Professor’s experiments in telekinesis and thought materialization went horribly wrong after a promising start. Using electricity from the local power grid to boost his brain output, this proved insufficient; and so he devised a contraption to siphon energy from the nearby atomic reactor. Apparently, this did the trick as his attempts to "detach his thoughts" and make them a "separate entity" resulted in a monster. This invisible creature proceeded to destroy the lab, and then escaped, and has been on a killing rampage ever since. It has also taken this opportunity to return home as it attacks and kills Col. Butler's driver. And while the creature is invisible, its presence can be both heard and sensed as it stalks just outside the house. And as the occupants quickly barricade the doors and windows, the creature suddenly materializes and becomes visible to the naked eye -- and it is exactly what this tale's morbid logic would imply: a sentient brain pulled along by nerve ganglia or rapidly propelled by its spinal-column tail!

Walgate deduces this latest development could only be caused by a marked increase in power, which can only mean the reactor is still running -- and at such dangerous levels a meltdown is surely imminent. And it surely is as we cut to the base and spy the seemingly abandoned control room for the reactor awash in flashing lights and unheeded klaxons as the camera slowly reveals why: all the personnel have been killed by Walgate’s psychic vampire, which, somehow, turned all of its victims’ extracted and infected gray matter into more sentient killing machines! So it’s not just one brain-creature attacking the house, but dozens if not hundreds of them!

With their only hope of survival being to cut off the creature's power source, Cummings comes up with a plan to blow-up the reactor's control room. To ensure his success, Walgate sacrifices himself so Cummings can get away to implement his plan. And then … waitasecond. Did I just type his plan was to blow-up the controls of a runaway atomic reactor? I did? Yeahbut. Nobut. Gah! THIS IS YOUR PLAN?!? 

Anyhoo, since the brain monsters are now visible they can be stopped and killed more easily. And believe me, they all die rather messily as each one that gets plugged, stomped or axed expires with a grisly splat and an eruption of black goop – complete with a delightfully gruesome sound-effect.

And while the others put up a valiant and messy fight, Cummings makes it to the base (-- well somebody does as whoever that actor is running around it clearly isn’t Marshall Thompson). Moving from body to body, our hero gathers up some TNT before heading to the control room, where he fights off a few more stray creatures before priming the explosives. And once the fuse is lit, Cummings barely gets clear before the control room explodes, showering the surrounding area with bits of brain-matter and plutonium, rendering most of Canada a radioactive wasteland for nine lifetimes -- or not. Maybe. Anyways, with their power source gone, the monsters dissolve into even bigger globs of goo and evaporate. Thus, the world is saved. Except for Canada.

As the production for Fiend Without a Face came together, Leder had also hoped to direct his adapted screenplay but strict union rules tied in with the government financing for who did what while filming in England nixed this. And so, Arthur Crabtree got the nod. Crabtree was a former cinematographer who brought a no-nonsense practicality and a stark, noirish flare to the film. (Crabtree would later direct Herman Cohen's ghastly ode to death and dismemberment, The Horrors of the Black Museum in 1959.) According to star Thompson, Crabtree felt he was above directing such a cheap exploitation picture and walked off the set on several occasions, which promoted him into the director's chair for part of filming. But according to Gordon, the only problem Crabtree had was a lack of experience with F/X driven pictures and he could never get his head around what was needed to be matted in later. Whoever did the directing, the film does have some pacing issues as it takes a way too long to get up to speed -- though the multiple murder set-pieces do help to punch things up a bit. But honestly, all is forgiven when those glorious, disembodied vampire brains show up and start hopping around and attacking people and getting blasted to bloody pieces.

To bring these creatures to life, Gordon hired Karl-Ludwig Ruppel and Flo Nordhoff, a couple of eccentric German engineers based out of Munich, who had done a lot of split-screen, rear-projection and miniature F/X work for the Rank Organization. Shot back to back with The Haunted Strangler, the total budget for both features was $300,000 (with a good chunk of that going to Karloff) with a total shooting schedule of seven weeks. But thanks to the intricate nature of the F/X needed to pull off Fiend the film that was supposed to be cheaper and shot faster wound up going both over time and over-budget. But it was probably worth it as the combination of stop-motion animation and latex mock-ups filled with raspberry jam are quite impressive in action; and these end-results are what is truly responsible for Fiend Without a Face's fame and infamy. The animation itself leans more toward Rankin and Bass than it does Harryhausen or Danforth but it works well enough. And I just love the scene where the creatures tear apart the wooden barricade and start flying through the window. And then *wham* *bam* *splat* you, ma'am. 

Speaking of, credit should also be given to Peter Davies and Terry Poulton as their sound design, with all the oozing and gurgling and smushing, not to mention the menacing heart-beat that announces the arrival of the invisible creature, really adds to the menace. Add Buxton Orr's creepy soundtrack on top of all that and, wow, lets watch that climax again!

When filming was completed, Gordon and Vetter struck a deal with MGM for distribution in the U.S.; the grand old studio's first foray into the independent creature feature pool in an effort to keep up with rivals Universal and United Artists. (The double-bill had quite the premiere at the Rialto Theater in New York City.) The only hiccup was the brass at MGM couldn't believe Gordon had secured the rights to Long's story for only $400, and so, made him contact the author for written verification. Turns out Long was pleased as punch that such a prestigious studio like MGM was involved in a film based on one of her works and, according to Gordon, the author was completely delighted by the film itself. Things didn't go quite as smoothly in England, where the film was taken to task in the press for its gore and wonton gruesomeness, even garnering some action in Parliament over the funding of the feature which some called a disgrace to the industry. But all this really netted the film was some free publicity.

As always, the Criterion disc for Fiend Without a Face is awesome and them some. Aside from a few scratches the print looks superb and is presented in anamorphic widescreen in the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Extras include an illustrated essay on hybrid sci-fi / horror filmmaking in the 1950s by film historian Bruce Eder; a batch of trailers for Amalgamated's other Criterion discs (available in the Monsters and Madmen collection); a set of lobby cards, promotional materials and ad-mats; but the true highlight of the film is a delightful commentary track featuring Richard Gordon and moderated by Tom Weaver, who easily coaxes all kinds of information from the forthright Gordon on the making of the film and the producer's life in cinema. Can't recommend it enough.

I believe the first time I ever saw those creepy and kooky brain-fiends in action, ping-ponging around, latching onto folks, and getting righteously crushed, was in Malcolm Leo and Andrew Solt's It Came from Hollywood (1982), where a group of comedians spotlighted the best and the worst of fringe and B-cinema, which has been overly-maligned in some sectors for daring to deign the reputation of the featured films. I really have no patience for that kind of nonsense. As a child growing up in the 1970s there was a bit of a vacuum when it came to these kinds of films. The local Creature Features and their Fright and Shock Packages were rapidly phasing out, replaced by national programming like Saturday Night Live. And so, for a good chunk of my generation, we only experienced these films by word of mouth from someone old enough to have seen them in the theater or what we found in the horror and sci-fi anthologies from the library, and the gold mine that was the Crestwood House monster series (-- that turned into erroneous pyrite in retrospect, but still treasured), or magazine stands, where fanzines were also drying up except for Famous Monsters. From these we gained all our monster-mania knowledge, and from the pictures and stills we tried to imagine what they looked like in motion, making ginormous lists of films to someday, somehow, and by some means, see. At the time, it seemed impossible.

But then things started trickling in: you caught Bride of Frankenstein while staying at a hotel as your siblings all hit the pool; and then Island of Lost Souls showed up on Matinee at the Bijou; and don't forget the re-release screening of Jason and the Argonauts; and then there was that bizarre package of Italian horror films and spaghetti westerns that showed up on your local NBC affiliate that would air after the news on Sunday nights that introduced you to Mario Bava; and then It Came from Hollywood hit you right upside the head and you saw all those monsters you had only read about on the big screen, admittedly in brief clips, alive, and on the move, and it was ah-mazing. And oh, how you laughed, as this was no pillory but a celebration long due. And coming from that background, with the proliferation of home video in the 1980s, where the first five VHS tapes you ever bought were The Thing From Another World, King Kong, The Blob, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, and Fiend Without a Face, all chopped and murky but you didn't give a shit, which paved the way for the digital streaming services of today, where a person can watch Son of Godzilla, widescreen, and in the original Japanese with subtitles, or where a prestige line like Criterion isn't afraid to say that, yeah, these are movies, too, and they're great, and deserve to be preserved, and they're well worth your time. Noodle all of that for a bit, and then one can truly, truly appreciate what we now have and how far the practice of film fandom has advanced in my lifetime.

Somewhat sadly, Fiend Without a Face was one of the last great science-fiction films to be produced in England in the 1950s; a glorious spurt of awesome that began with Hammer's The Quatermass X-Periment a/k/a The Creeping Unknown (1955), X: The Unknown (1956), The Abominable Snowman of the Himaylas (1957) and Quatermass 2 a/k/a Enemy from Space (1957) along with other independent features, The Crawling Eye (1958) and The Cosmic Monster (1958), all in glorious black and white. But after the success of Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958), sci-fi was out and Technicolor and tensile-cleavage fueled Gothic horror was in, which is a bit of a shame in a 'why can't we have both things' sense. And with it's gruesome climax and glops of gore, Fiend Without a Face is also strangely ahead of its time by almost a decade. Or am I the only one drawing comparisons to another film involving a nighttime siege by a contagion spreading legion of the dead on a secluded farmhouse that can only be rectified by destroying the brain of the attacker? 

Other Points of Interest:

Sources: Interviews with B Science Fiction and Horror Movie Makers (2006) by Tom Weaver; Celluloid Spooks and Reel Monsters (2012) by N.W. Erickson; The Horror Hits of Richard Gordon (2011) by Tom Weaver; The Encyclopedia of Monsters (1990) by Jeff Rovin; The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: Science Fiction (1994) by Phil Hardy.

This post is part of a massive Criterion Blogathon, hosted by Criterion Blues, Speakeasy, and Silver Screenings, from November 16-21, 2015. Now click here to read all the other fantastic posts on the great films of the Criterion home video collections, please and thank you!

Fiend Without a Face (1958) Producers Associates :: Amalgamated Productions :: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) / EP: Richard Gordon, Charles F. Vetter / P: John Croydon, Ronald Kinnoch / D: Arthur Crabtree / W: Herbert J. Leder, Amelia Reynolds Long (story) / C: Lionel Banes / E: Richard Q. McNaughton / M: Buxton Orr / S: Marshall Thompson, Kim Parker, Terry Kilburn, Kynaston Reeves, Stanley Maxted, Terry Kilburn, James Dyrenforth, Robert MacKenzie, Peter Madden


Silver Screenings said...

Wow – incredible post! So much to say, so I'm going to list thoughts in random order:
1. Thanks for the introduction to Amelia Reynolds Long. I've not read her works (not even heard of her), and I will suss her out at the library.
2. Great premise for a film – and a novel.
3. The monster may be more suited to Rankin & Bass but still - Ewww!
4. Loved all the research and background info you provided. I feel like a real Sci-Fi smarty pants, now that I have all this info.

Great post. Thanks so much for joining the blogathon!

Dr. Freex said...

Nicely done, Chad!

Kristina said...

Loved this review, you made me laugh out loud and I loved all the extras, I'll be looking for those Monsters books. Thanks so much for participating in this blogathon!

W.B. Kelso said...

I thank you all. It means a LOT. And thank you for the award. Exciting doesn't even come close to describing it when recognized for merit by your peers, especially in the company and quality of the Criterion Blogathon thus far. Thanks for throwing out such a wide net for contributors.

Kelly Robinson said...

Wow, this is amazingly comprehensive. Great work.

Greg Wilcox said...

I really need to get this one. It's been a favorite since I was a wee bairn (heh), but it's been AGES since I saw it. It's one of those films where I've heard people ask WHY it's a Criterion disc because they don't appreciate "B" movie brilliance such as this and other flicks that have gotten the gold treatment. Well, this review will be one I point people to so they can see what the fuss is all about.

Anonymous said...

I'd seen this title many times before, but never knew this was a full-on monster movie, until now! It sounds like a lot of fun, and I'll definitely be on the lookout for it. Thanks Chad, for introducing me to what sounds like a really cool 'Saturday afternoon' horror movie!

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