Fiend Without a Face (1958)
I’m terrible to get gifts for. I usually buy things for myself whenever I want them, and when people ask what I want, it’s usually things I feel guilty about asking because I think they’ll be expensive or unnecessary. Socks are usually good. Socks and porn.
Or in the case of my darling lady, who with my birthday imminent was bright enough to get me a DVD of an old, er, classic: FIEND WITHOUT A FACE. Those horror fans of a certain age will know this like they know that crazy uncle who buys illegal fireworks and lets you finish off his beers. Even those who have never seen it will know what the movie’s monsters look like, though in fact they spend most of their time invisible.
But at least we don’t have to wait long for the horrors to start their mayhem, outside a US Air Force base in Canada, as a local yokel, taking some mysterious notes while planes fly overhead (thankfully we don’t live in an era when such behaviour would be seen as suspicious). Then we hear some heartbeats and slurping, chomping sounds, drawing nearer, nearer… YAAARRGGH!
After the body is found and the credits roll, we cut to Major Jeff Cummings (Marshall Thompson, IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE), the second in command of the base, as he swallows some speed – yes, folks, our hero is a speed freak, and his aide doesn’t care that his boss is mainlining Benzedrine like they’re aspirins. The base is there to conduct experiments using atomic power to boost radar reception, though the local dairy farmers are worried about radiation and milk production (thankfully we don’t live in an era when we have to worry about what’s in our food).
Cummings suspects something was afoot with the dead man, especially when they find the notebook on him. Until his sister Barbara (Kim Parker, FIRE MAIDENS FROM OUTER SPACE) points out the milk yield connection (and that entries like “Mabel, not very receptive tonight” did not refer to what everyone was thinking, heh heh). Cummings takes a shine to Barbara (though personally I think flirting with her a day or two after her brother died might be a tomcat move too far) but he’s still interested in working out what happened to her brother, and eventually gets her to agree to an autopsy – which reveals that the man’s skull had been emptied of brain matter. Not from watching too many Adam Sandler movies, but from two punctures at the base of his neck!
There are more deaths, of civilians as well as military personnel, but Cummings attention turns away from the idea of “mental vampires” and towards the man Barbara works for: Professor Walgate (Kynaston Reeves, CAPTAIN HORATIO HORNBLOWER), an eccentric but kindly old man who writes books with titles such as The Principles of Thought Control, The Energy of Thought and Creating Invisible Brain-Eating Monsters For Dummies.
Cummings uses his deductive powers to confirm that Walgate has been tapping the base’s atomic power to create invisible creatures, at first to do simple tasks (because conjuring creatures to open canned beans and collecting your mail would be so much easier than, say, getting one of them trained Capuchin monkeys, though I suppose you’re less likely to have invisible creatures fling crap at you). But his mind creatures have developed minds of their own, and appetites, and when they try to shut down the power at the base to make them dissipate, the creatures take over and turn the power *up*… and the invisible becomes visible…
FIEND WITHOUT A FACE, directed by Arthur Crabtree (HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM), was based on a short story, The Thought-Monster by Amelia Reynolds Long, which was originally published in Weird Tales in 1930. It was filmed entirely in England, but the US-Canadian setting was employed (along with expatriate American actors) to make sure you Yanks give a shit.
Kim Parker has a gratuitous shower scene, but sorry folks, this is 1958; hope the sight of bare shoulders does it for you. The direction is nothing to write home about (director Crabtree seems determined to display no artistic flair whatsoever; there’s a fight scene between Cummings and a local that’s so pathetically staged that you’d get more testosterone from an argument between Kerry Underwood and Lisa Kudrow). There is one moment of genuine unease, when one of the Fiends’ victims walks in on a town hall meeting, not dead but lobotomised, drooling and moaning incoherently like he’s sat through a marathon viewing session of Piers Morgan interviews. But otherwise it’s a tepid affair, and if the movie continues like this, it would end up being a forgettable piece of nonsense.
However… it doesn’t continue like this.
The monsters become visible, and we see them in all their hideous glory: brains with antenna and spinal cords that let them crawl like worms and leap like the spiders in ARACHNOPHOBIA… and presumably fangs that let them pierce your skull and suck out your brains! We still hear those repulsive sounds however (kudos to Peter Davies and Terence Poulton for their work on making these horrors sound… well, horrifying).
The final section of the movie makes up for all that had gone on (or had not gone on) before it, as the Fiends attack Cummings, Barbara, Walgate and some Redshirts in their boarded-up house (reminiscent of the later NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD?). And the Fiends, created with stop-motion animation, prove vulnerable to bullets and axes, providing some graphic violence and gore that was outstanding, not just for the movie but the era.
FIEND WITHOUT A FACE created a public scandal after its British premier in London’s West End, with newspapers condemning the extreme violence children were being exposed to (thankfully we don’t live in an era when the media condemns horror movies for the ills of the day).
When the film opened in New York City’s Times Square, the film’s producer had an outside, front-of-the-house display showcasing a “living and breathing” Fiend in a steel-barred glass display case. It periodically moved its tail, startling onlookers, and also made menacing sounds with the help of a concealed electrical device. The crowd that gathered on the sidewalk to watch the caged Fiend grew so large that the police finally ordered it removed because it was creating a public disturbance.
FIEND WITHOUT A FACE, like that aforementioned crazy uncle, may be flawed, but you remember the good bits. It has an influence extended into models, music and general pop culture awareness, and very reflective of the times. The movie is available all over the place, and probably scaring the crap out of some 8 year old version of me on a local channel somewhere right now. The trailer below is not official, but a brilliant fan job, making the movie look ten times better than it really is :-)
Director: Arthur Crabtree
Plot: 3 out of 5 stars
Gore: 3 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Derek “Deggsy” O’Brien. The D is silent. HAVE THE LAMBS GONE SILENT, CLARICE?