Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Criterion Recollection: 8/25/10

Note: We, the good people of Et tu, Mr. Destructo? are proud to present Criterion Recollection, an analysis of the popular Criterion Collection of historic and unique achievements in film. Your guide is Mark Brendle, a former media critic for and a short-fiction writer. Brendle lives in the Pacific Northwest in a small post-recycled yurt adjacent to America's largest family-owned retail video and book store, Art Trough. When not writing or staring purposefully at culture, Brendle works as a fair-trade coffee beanist. You can follow him on Twitter.

The Subconscious Thought Monster: Spine #92, Fiend Without a Face (1958)

The Criterion Collection is generally known for distributing high-quality transfers of high-art world cinema. Or as a guidebook for pretentious movie nerds everywhere on what to watch in order to be cool (Godard). Or as the masters of the fetishization of cinema, delivering the best physical packages for home media in the business: lavish digipaks, beautiful cover art and thick booklet inserts packed with production stills, essays and insider information on each movie. So, if that’s the case, and Criterion hosts such seminal movies as Seven Samurai, The 400 Blows, The Seventh Seal and Armageddon, why would I start this column with a critique of a 1950s B horror movie? The answer is that I intend to subvert Criterion’s standing as the leading distributor of important cinema. Actually, it’s because like most 1950s horror movies, it contains at least a fragment of social commentary (maybe even criticism?), some of it very subtle, some not so much.

If you listen to the ridiculously banal audio commentary on the DVD by producer Richard Gordon (topped only perhaps by fellow B-movie producer Jack Harris’ commentary on The Blob) you might come away with the knowledge that Fiend Without a Face was one in a long line of cheap monster movies that happened to grab the audience’s attention because of the (then) unique design of the monster. Looking at it now it might remind you of H.R. Giger’s design for the Facegrabber in Alien, sans overt sexual neuroses. But despite Gordon’s insistence that the most interesting thing about the movie is the monster’s design, something deeper stirs underneath the surface of this rather simplistic tale of an experiment gone awry.

First, a quick outline of the plot for those who haven’t seen it: In a small town next to a United States military base on the American-Canadian border, people suddenly start dying. At first the citizens of the town blame the radiation from the military base’s atomic power plant, then a psycho killer, but later all involved, including the supposed-to-be-dashing lead man, a Major from the base played by Marshall Thompson, realize it is the work of invisible monsters generated from the thoughts of a mad scientist. These monsters kill their victims by attaching themselves around the neck with their spinal-cord tail and sucking out the person’s brain through two Dracula fangs on tendrils. (Giger, I’m looking at you here.) When the monsters sabotage the atomic power plant, the plant goes haywire and begins producing more energy. This renders the monsters visible, at which point they are brought down by everyday household bullets. Finally, our hero goes to the power plant and destroys it, cutting off the monsters’ source of atomic energy and killing them.

If that seems like a glib summary, it’s because the surface of this movie, the plot, the characters, the acting, the effects, are trite and laughable. It truly is a B movie, and no amount of cultish sycophancy can make it anything more. But what’s interesting isn’t the movie’s surface. It’s the subtext of this fairly common horror plot (the threat of atomic energy) that provides commentary on Cold-War America.

First let’s look at the title. Fiend Without a Face is based on a short story that was originally titled “The Thought Monster.” Gordon provides a characteristically mundane explanation of why the title was changed, “My brother and I understood movie audiences, what sold and what didn’t,” but if we take a closer look at the two titles we’ll see the different meanings they invoke.

The Thought Monster, as a title, might more easily be pigeonholed into the whole “atomic fear reaction” genre of early horror movies. The basis of this title, and of the short story on which the film is based, is that something as “harmless” as a thought has become a dangerous, slimy reality. This idea is somewhat carried over into the movie, but it doesn’t take the foreground. The mad scientist’s staring off-camera, raving, expositional dialogue retains the most of this original idea, but the film itself centers not on the creature’s creation, but its involvement with a community that already has precarious stability.

The film’s ultimate title, Fiend Without a Face, speaks to the problem regarding the essence of “monsters,” both in the literal horror movie sense and in the vaguer, realistic sense. The word fiend denotes an evil nature; its etymology stems from the verb “to hate.” So already we have an idea of this creature’s nature. The face is the objective-correlative of humanity. The face, particularly the human face, is what we relate to, how we define others and judge them. So, to be without a face implies that one is without humanity, without an interface for reason or compassion. Aliens in movies can be immediately judged by their faces. Look at Red Letter Media’s skewering of James Cameron’s Avatar for a detailed and hilarious explanation on how the Na’vi’s faces were engineered to produce a sympathetic reaction. Creating a being without a face is to create a being that is wholly unrelatable.

Clearly then, the film’s title refers to the brain-and-spine baddies that awkwardly fly through windows and stop-motionly creep up and down trees, right? Well, in part. It also, perhaps not as subtly as one might think, refers to the situation of the town itself.

Essentially, the framework for Fiend is the classic Cold War setup: a simple village at odds with the military-industrial complex. A scientist, recording the military planes’ effects on cattle and milk production, is the first to be killed. The intrusion by the military and their technology into this otherwise pastoral community has disrupted their day-to-day lives.

Secondly, this military base is not some watch point, but rather a technological R&D center. They utilize atomic energy to power their radar program (?), a program made necessary by the imminent threat of Soviet missiles directed towards American soil. Quite a bit of screen time is dedicated to the technological landscape of the military base — twirling antennae, flat, nondescript buildings and the ubiquitous Room Full Of Knobs And Buttons With Flashing Lights that serves as the master controls of the nuclear power plant.

Throughout the movie the townspeople are forced to deal with the military’s bureaucracy. Our main military characters are a Captain, a Major and a General, and they each play their part in the military hierarchy, each doing his job as ordered, but combining to form The Military, a faceless bureaucracy intent on self-replication and technological progress. This is the other fiend without a face. Three years after this film’s release Dwight D. Eisenhower made his famous military-industrial complex speech, but it was already a hot issue in people’s minds. It’s also important to note that although this seems like an American film, its English origin may have allowed more leeway for social criticism of this kind. Regardless, it still paints the military in a favorable light, its agents as reasonable, kind people. But in 1958, even this sleight-of-hand criticism was something.

World War II was over a decade past, and America had settled into its routine of rampant consumerism, xenophobia, and ridiculous facades of moral sterility. Before the 1960s shattered the ideological veneer of blind patriotism and good old-fashioned family values, it was only through extremely subtle and subtextual ways that American mass media (still a developing superpower) could criticize the social norm, despite European films being extremely mature at this time (Wadja’s Ashes and Diamonds and Eisenstein’s sound masterpiece Ivan the Terrible Part 2 were released the same year, both making somewhat overt commentaries on their respective societies).

Considering the design of the fiend itself: it is a living, conscious brain, equipped with devices to suck the essence out of a person. This design is clearly a comment on technology run awry. In the late 1950s and 1960s, the idea of technology running rampant, especially military technology, was everywhere. Fear Of The Machine was common, and many if not all horror movies of this time exploited this fear in some way. Fiend is no exception. The monster here is the intellect, removed from the body, gone wild with the desire to destroy and assimilate as many people as possible. This is analogous to the idea of mechanization, of industrial and post-industrial technology robbing people of their work, their minds and their very souls. The Brain-As-Monster symbolizes psychological fear of the intellect. In this case, it is the separation of the brain from the body - which typically represents one's humanity, the earthy existence of man-as-animal - which creates such a monster. This abstraction, the progress of technology for its own sake, was a clichéd theme already at that time, but the sheer vivacity with which Fiend portrays it makes it an interesting example of that cliché.

So, is Fiend Without a Face a simple B-horror movie, or is it a clever commentary on Cold War-era society, where technological progress was valued above all else? If you are a believer in author’s intent (well, again, producer’s intent), then it’s more the former than the latter. In no way was any kind of allegorical meaning mentioned in the audio commentary. Still, it’s hard to deny that on some level, perhaps even subconsciously, the filmmakers wanted to make a statement about the world they lived in. Film, like photography, is as much about omission and perspective as it is about content. Each scene, each frame, represents the choices of those who made it, and even if some of these choices were arbitrary, like the choice to show the female lead in the shower when the Major comes over to visit, they subconsciously take preference for certain things over others — like the choice to show the female lead in the shower.

Art or media criticism is much like the interpretation of dreams. For some, it’s simply invention on behalf of the critic, reading into things too deeply, seeing connections or symbols that aren’t there, disregarding the will of the creator in an effort to intellectualize something that doesn’t need or perhaps deserve intellectualizing. For others, it provides some insight into a work, some relevance, and a way to find meaning in the mundane, familiarity in the esoteric and connection in the artistic. Fiend Without a Face may not be Breathless (or Armageddon) but it’s an expression by people, about people, and cannot help but speak to the nature of people and their relationship to society.

The film is definitely worth watching, but it lacks enough rewatchability to merit a purchase. For example, much of the appeal of the Criterion Collection, and much of the inspiration for repeated viewing, can be found in the commentary tracks. As said above, the producer's commentary is particularly inane and probably one of the inanest I've ever heard. That leaves the movie alone for inducement, so at that point it comes down to how much you like B-movie fare.