FEBRUARY 16, 2013
Now THIS is how you make a standard movie with a surprise ending! After yesterday's Mark Of The Vampire, which was a standard "old dark house" movie for 50 minutes and then sprung a silly twist on us that rendered half of the movie illogical, Fiend Without A Face is likewise a pretty generic 50s atomic horror film for a while, only to deliver a final reel filled with incredible FX and even a heaping of gore, something I didn't even think existed yet. I was actually kind of blown away.
In fact I'm still trying to decide whether or not the fairly basic first hour was what made the end so impressive, or if it was just icing on the cake in hindsight. As I was watching, I wasn't DISLIKING it by any means, but it felt like a template movie where they forgot to plug in the specifics, as everything was going exactly as you'd expect it to: the handsome army guy hero meeting a girl involved with the old scientist that will eventually explain everything, the public fears about radiation and nuclear such that mirror pretty much every 50s horror/sci-fi movie... I felt like I had seen a lot of it before, and started worrying about what I could write that I hadn't SAID before.
I also began wondering why this was in the Criterion collection, as it didn't seem to be a particularly great example of this sort of movie, or a "game-changer" in any way (though I was impressed with the fact that it was a British production - never once caught on! Figured it was actually Manitoba, where the film is set). And then two things happened, the first being the pretty cool explanation for the invisible force that had been killing anonymous supporting characters that no one cared about anyway. Seems our well-meaning scientist was working on developing/controlling telekinesis, and even succeeded - but then the energy created by it melded with the radiation to become its own free-thinking force - awesome! On that note, it's a bit misleading to label this a "mad scientist" movie - he means no harm and remains a good guy throughout. More like "mad science" but it's too late to start changing the tags now.
Anyway, it gets even better. The victims were all missing their brains and spinal cords, and at one point (for reasons I either missed or simply weren't explained) they start turning visible, so you have all these brains with long tails (the spines, though they look nothing like them), and even a few feelers/tentacle things for good measure. AND, as I mentioned, they're stop-motion animated! All of a sudden it becomes a visual feast that even Ray Harryhausen might be impressed by, as the brains make their way around by pull/dragging like snails, smash through boards and windows, etc. Plus, our heroes are mostly army guys and thus have firearms, so they start blowing them away, with geysers of bloods and a truly gross gurgling sound accompanying every kill. The humans die pretty bloodlessly, but even still I was astonished to see the FX work and "splatter" in a movie from 1958.
They do botch one thing though - a major character practically dies off-screen, and no one seems to care much. "Poor guy..." (or something along those lines) is all anyone says about it, but his significance to the story deserved a more elaborate death scene - I'm not even sure the hero (who is elsewhere at the time) is ever even aware that the guy is dead. I also wish one of the brains would have followed the hero as he went to the base to blow up some radiation equipment in order to cut off their "power supply" - he has it a bit too easy, and since he's so far away from the others (who are holed up in a house in another part of town - another character had even pointed out that it was "out of the way" from the base) it doesn't have much urgency or suspense - there's nothing to keep him from succeeding.
Minor complaint though; the movie as a whole works pretty great as both a fine example of a "standard" in the 50s atomic monster movie race, and as a showcase for the glory days when FX work meant a bunch of guys ON SET figuring things out and actually interacting with the actors. And on that level I'm kind of bummed I opted to watch via Hulu (who have put up their streaming Criterion collection for free this weekend, presumably to attract folks into upgrading to Hulu Plus), as the physical disc apparently has a pretty great commentary with the producer, moderated by Tom Weaver, who provided a great (solo) track for Wolf Man, which means this one's probably even better with one of the filmmakers on hand. Add in the other extras and a superior image (and a viewing not interrupted by ads for Citibank and White House Down), and you have another example of why physical media will always be the superior and desired format in my eyes - if only I could afford to buy Criterion discs on a regular basis! This one retails for 39.99, which is absolutely insane for a single movie (on standard def no less!), but the next time they're doing one of their 50% off sales at Barnes & Noble, I might be tempted to pick it up - as should you.
What say you?