C.H.U.D. (DVD)

The titles of '50s science-fiction films often promised far more than they could deliver, as anyone who sat through The Beast With A Million Eyes can attest. For much of its running time, 1958's British-produced science-fiction/horror fusion Fiend Without A Face feels like a similar con. Not only do its fiends lack faces, but they also appear to lack corporeality, as their presence can be detected only by horrified actors reacting to thin air. By the finale, however, Fiend actually surpasses its title's promise, rolling out disembodied, antenna-equipped (but faceless) brains that inch across the ground via spinal cords, terrorizing the inhabitants of a creepy scientist's country laboratory in one of the most impressive low-budget special-effects orgies of the '50s or any other decade. What comes before is a bit standard-issue, with Marshall Thompson plumbing new depths of blandness as the leading man, but it's well-mounted and historically resonant (not to mention brief) enough to justify waiting around for the finale. This new DVD version, equipped with extras that include an audio commentary by the film's producer, makes an argument for Fiend as a link between science fiction and horror, as well as a bridge between its decade of origin and the nastier horror films that followed. Still, it would be hard to mistake Fiend as a product of any time but the '50s. With monsters stirred by the dark recesses of the psyche and powered by atomic energy in the service of the Cold War, it doesn't take Carl Jung to parse the metaphor at work. But while Fiend could only have been the product of the Eisenhower administration, C.H.U.D. (also new to DVD, in a surprisingly lavish version that reunites much of the cast for its commentary track) could only have come from the Reagan era. The threat is nuclear again, but it's subterranean, not extrasensory, and the monsters are a social phenomenon rather than a psychic one. John Heard and Daniel Stern star, respectively, as a socially conscious photographer and an ex-hippie soup-kitchen operator who notice that neighborhood homeless people have begun to disappear at an alarming rate. Investigating the matter separately, they encounter a cover-up involving nuclear waste mutating the underground homeless into horrific monsters—the perfect bugaboo for a time of funding cuts that put the mentally ill out on the streets. Perfect for bleary-eyed late-night viewing and pretty much unwatchable at any other hour, it does make for an oddly appropriate refresher course for life under a Republican president. As with Fiend, the package may be tacky, but the message is clear: Look out below.

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