Everybody sing!: An Italian boy from Napoli, got petrified by the scenery. Now his face is white and his arms are long. And he’d rather choke you than sing a song! Hey Ed Cahn! Do another cheapie for us Hey Ed Cahn! No more Volcano nonsense! — A really stiff guy searches for the reincarnation of his Etruscan babe from 79 B.C.. This fave monster romp from ’58 is no classic, but it’s the spirit that counts.
Curse of the Faceless Man
KL Studio Classics
1958 / B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 67 min. / Street Date February 16, 2016 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring Richard Anderson, Elaine Edwards, Adele Mara, Luis Van Rooten, Gar Moore, Felix Locher, Jan Arvan, Bob Bryant.
Cinematography Kenneth Peach
Original Music Gerald Fried
Written by Jerome Bixby
Produced by Robert E. Kent
Directed by Edward L. Cahn
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Actually, 1958’s Curse of the Faceless Man is too endearingly simpleminded not to find a warm place in the hearts of monster movie lovers. Pretty much near the bottom of the spectrum of studio-funded Hollywood filmmaking, it is barely feature-length, uses almost no sets and for thrills relies almost completely on a reasonably good monster costume.
Producer-writer Robert E. Kent must have contracted to turn out cheap westerns, teen pix, monster movies and crime sagas for UA by the yard. Other fantastic titles in his low-budget filmography are the minimalist space zombie movie Invisible Invaders (soon to be on Blu-ray) and The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake, which at least scores points for grisly originality. Curse was originally released on a double-bill with United Artists’ It! The Terror from Beyond Space, which was also directed by Edward L. Cahn, a fearless veteran of countless “B” pictures. The credited screenwriter is the accomplished science fiction author Jerome Bixby, who also wrote It! as well as episodes of TV’s Star Trek. Bixby’s highly exploitable story idea imagines a romantic but murderous Golem from ancient Pompeii, but the cheap and artless production guarantees that almost all of the idea’s potential comes to naught. Its best audience is going to be smaller kids, and adults who remember being frightened by it as children.
Writer Bixby claimed that director Cahn rewrote his more elaborate original script to bring the price tag below $100,000 dollars. The finished film takes place on a few nondescript sets, a beach, and the exterior of the Griffith Observatory, which not very convincingly stands in for an Italian research museum. A ponderous narration informs us about Quintillus, an Etruscan gladiator killed in the Biblical-era eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. His petrified corpse is unearthed in an archeological dig. Brought to the museum, it proceeds to come to life and murder various individuals, beginning with an unlucky truck driver. It is determined that Quintillus has been reanimated by the radioactive dirt in which he was entombed. While researcher Dr. Paul Mallon (Richard Anderson) debates the mystery, Mallon’s artist girlfriend Tina Enright (Elaine Edwards) falls under the influence of the stone figure’s magic spell. As it turns out, Tina is the reincarnation of Quintillus’ great love from long ago. The stone monster eventually seizes Tina and carries her off. Dr. Mallon realizes that Quintillus thinks the eruption is still happening, and is trying to take Tina to the safety of the ocean.
Before dismissing this narrative as a crazy hodgepodge, we have to admit that it has all the necessary ingredients to motivate a potentially interesting monster movie. Quintillus is a pasty white, face-challenged artifact with a one-track mind, controlled by the magic of an ancient amulet and a surviving spark of romance. The reincarnated love angle is borrowed from various Mummy stories and the superb original Karloff version, but it does lend the monster a better-than-usual reason for carting the heroine around for publicity stills, the trailer, and UA’s crude 2-color poster, used for the disc cover. The film’s ending communicates a fairly original macabre irony; I remember fellow horror enthusiast Susan Turner once explaining to me that Curse was especially popular with female monster fans. Although it’s not a big secret, I won’t detail the ending for purposes of spoilers. It’s actually the one clever thing in the whole movie.
Farfetched fantasy – sci fi epics need careful handling to succeed: an eloquent script, appropriate actors, expressive lighting. Sightings of the stone monster should be carefully rationed, and his every appearance needs to be a new scare. None of this happens. The mostly flat-lit sets look cheap, the dialogue is padded with irrelevant chatter and the unfortunate actors mostly stand rooted in place to read their lines. A droning narrator is heard at frequent intervals, re-capping the story and telling us what we’re seeing, as if nobody’s expecting us to pay attention. Edward Cahn’s direction creates very little in the way of mystique around the stone monster. The flaky white statue is on view from the very first shot. As it has all the mystery of a mannequin covered with plaster, nobody seems to be particularly frightened by it. Deprived of a scare factor, our minds wander to thoughts of how the costume bends and wrinkles when Quintillus walks… he’s the first-ever rubberized plaster man.
Richard Anderson looks unengaged in the drama before him, and in more than one shot seems outright embarrassed. Elaine Edwards, the lady with the psychic connection to Quintillus, does the best that she can. When hanging limp in the statue’s arms, she appears to be holding her head up, perhaps to avoid receiving a concussion when the obviously vision-impaired actor in the Quintillus suit (Bob Bryant) walks through doorways. Attractive Adele Mara (The Sands of Iwo Jima) plays the secondary female lead, a former girlfriend of Paul. Her accent sounds pasted-on, and definitely not Italian. Almost everybody else just stands still and recites their lines in director Cahn’s cost-saving static master shooting style. Charles Gemora’s blank-faced monster costume has a face that looks like the dark side of the moon. More creative lighting could easily have made it much more scary. Inside the monster suit, Bob Bryant does his best to move in a rigid fashion, even when his plaster-like skin wrinkles and stretches.
Despite the weak execution, Curse of the Faceless Man’s basic idea is a good one. Many of the great science fiction movies of the 1950s have been remade, some of them twice. Curse belongs in that category of pictures that ought to be remade, because the potential for scares and bizarre imagery wasn’t exploited the first time around. The idea of a lovesick Etruscan walking among us in search of his dream girl seems right in step with today’s romantic teen vampires. Quintilllus may not be the most attractive boyfriend from beyond the grave, but one must admit that he’s a loyal cuss, and persistent, too. And don’t forget durable.
To cover all bases for the matinee crowd, Curse adds a sci-fi element (the radioactivity) to its supernatural content. As pointed out by Bill Warren, anybody who read The National Geographic’s reports from Pompeii knows that Quintillus makes no archeological sense. In 79 A.D., the victims of the eruption were caught and killed almost instantaneously by a rolling cloud of superheated gas and sticky, molten ash. They were covered by the clinging ash and eventually buried by it. 2,000 years later, the excavators found odd cavities in the earth covering the floors of buildings. When filled with plaster, the empty spaces became perfect molds, yielding amazingly life-like tableaus of fallen bodies. I remember the most dramatic was of a man propped up on one elbow, as if frozen in place and struggling to breathe.
Of course, since the scientists found no body of any kind, just the negative mold cavity, coming up with a resurrected citizen of Pompeii for a modern science fiction film is a tall order. I suppose a proper remake would want be more of a straight horror show, with another Pompeii-like ruin excavated. An ancient curse or other hoodoo voodoo would be needed to explain how the ‘statues’ of long-ago citizens come to be reanimated. Perhaps the eruption caught them engaged in compromising crimes or scandalous behavior — and like in a fairy tale, when given ‘bodies’ again, they pick up where they left off — a Danza macabra down Vesuvius way.
Well, the idea is just as rational as a zombie or a vampire…
The best use I recall for the macabre statues yielded by the Pompeii excavations is in Roberto Rossellini’s deeply affecting humanistic drama Journey to Italy. An unhappy married couple (Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders) is entreated to visit the ancient ruins because a mold is to be opened that day. The plaster figures underneath are revealed to be holding hands, signifying that they were true to each other even unto death. The wife immediately identifies with this direct rebuke to her lack of marital commitment. It sounds pretentious, but it plays as genuinely profound.
Curse of the Faceless Man may not be profound, but there’s at least an opportunity to read some romance into its personality-challenged bogeyman. The show gets little respect from today’s impatient monster fans, but I have to say that it was good enough to pass muster when it was made. In 1958, the sunset for micro-budget monster fare distributed by major labels was only a year or two away. Ed Cahn’s Pompeii quickie was just good enough to make the bottom half of a double bill.
Research: Bill Warren, Keep Watching the Skies!
21st Century Edition, McFarland 2010
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Curse of the Faceless Man is the fix for a bad flat-full-frame DVD-R released by The MGM Limited Edition Collection in 2011. This new HD transfer is in a correct widescreen ratio, lending some shape and substance to the film’s compositions. With its featureless sets and artless art direction Curse doesn’t come off well open-matte — the actors and all the relevant action are squeezed into a horizontal area across the center of the frame, and the rest of the image is “dead space.”
The image is clean, the audio is clear. As it is less compressed, it may look better than what’s shown on the MGMHD cable channel.
Kino has provided an audio commentary by Chris Alexander, the former editor of Fangoria magazine. Chris does a good job of reiterating basic facts about the movie that can be gleaned from Bill Warren, Tom Weaver and entries at the Classic Horror Film Board. He takes a slightly jokey, condescending attitude that doesn’t see much of value in the picture, and doesn’t communicate any reason why he’d want to record a commentary. It’s fun to point out the shortcomings of our favorite monster movies, but hopefully one can express some affection for them as well. This picture got a wide release and is remembered with fondness by many fans.
A trailer gallery contains the coming attractions for Invisible Invaders and The Monster that Challenged the World. But not the trailer for Curse, which is a shame. I was an impressionable six when I saw the film’s trailer, I think at a screening of Man of the West. I had no idea what a trailer was, nor that it represented another movie that would soon be shown at the theater. The image of the stone hand reaching through the back of the truck to choke its driver really stuck in my mind — my dream-enhanced childhood memory of the scene is much scarier than what happens in the film itself.
What 1950s United Artists creature features are not yet on Blu-ray? Well, there’s The Vampire (not bad), The Flame Barrier (barely a movie), GOG (great, due next month in 3-D), Invisible Invaders (announced; dire but loveable), The Manster (weird and worth it), Red Planet Mars (insane but marvelous), The Twonky (pretty dire), Riders to the Stars (great but film elements-challenged, anybody got a a good print?), The Magnetic Monster (a masterpiece, relatively speaking, and also coming soon), The Lost Missile (weak, but good acting), and The Black Sleep (a bit tepid but a cast to die for). And finishing up, add the aforementioned Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake, Pharaoh’s Curse (not that bad), Voodoo Island (yes that bad, even with Karloff), The Man from Planet X (a mini-classic), The Return of Dracula (good) and I Bury the Living (very interesting).
The cover art comes straight from that none-too impressive two-color UA poster. The double bill of this picture and It! The Terror from Beyond Space enabled a theater owner to re-fill his auditorium every 2.5 hours if he wanted to, an arrangement that surely increased the take at the refreshment counter.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Curse of the Faceless Man Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Fair ++ but rather amiable.
Supplements: Commentary by Chris Alexander, two trailers.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 22, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson