DIRECTED BY: Arthur Crabtree
FEATURING: Marshall Thompson, Kim Parker, Kynaston Reeves, Terry Kilburn, Stanley Maxted
PLOT: An officer at a an American air base in rural Manitoba teams up with a comely young researcher to investigate mysterious deaths, which locals blame on a top secret nuclear project.
COMMENTS: This time a year ago, I was absorbing the marvels of a wondrous motion picture entitled The Giant Claw. That film built its mystery by hiding its central antagonist for a significant portion of the running time, permitting the imaginations of audiences to run wild searching for an explanation. This was followed by an enormous shift in tone due to the eventual revelation of the monster, a silly, gangly mess that drastically undercut the gravity of the story.
In some respects, history repeats itself with Fiend Without a Face, a movie in which we actually witness the murder of several townspeople by a force we cannot see, thereby building a mystery around what precisely is going on. As for what happens when we do finally lay eyes upon the title character… well, let’s just come back to that in a bit, shall we?
During the very long time that Fiend Without a Face itself waits for that big revelation, it has to fill the time with distractions. There are repercussions over the activities at the air base, which NIMBY-leaning locals blame for the mysterious deaths as well as for a decrease in dairy production. There’s the slow-burning investigation by Major Cummings, which at one point takes a lengthy side trip to a cemetery crypt. Cummings also gets the film’s romance plot, making eyes at the sister of the first victim, helped in part by an especially egregious shower scene. While none of this is boring, exactly, it’s not particularly interesting, especially since the audience is primed for a monster. It’s up to a cast of impressively obscure nobodies to sell the escalating tension through horrified stares and dramatic physical lurches. (The only cast member whose name rang any bells for me was E. Kerrigan Prescott, better known in these parts for his mad-scientist turn from Godmonster of Indian Flats.) They succeed only modestly, adding to the pressure to deliver something extraordinary at the climax.
It is a heck of a thing we ultimately get, so let’s talk about these monsters who have been sucking out their victims’ brains and spinal cords. Turns out they themselves are brains. Literally brains, with spinal cords for tails, eyestalks, and two little kickstand proboscises that deprive humans of their, well, brains and spinal cords. In the story, they’ve been wished into existence by a retired professor who Major Cummings deduces has been performing poorly vetted experiments with mental powers. In filmic terms, they’re brought to life through a combination of stop-motion animation, ill-concealed wire work, and broad acting. Oh, and they’re are goofy as all get-out. Look, I understand that special effects from yesteryear can’t be judged by the technology of today. That’s fine. But they’re still just brains, either animated to move like snakes or flown about like marionettes. The logic of brain-eating creatures that are themselves brains is impossible to parse. So you’re left with something that’s quite ridiculous, but also not quite ridiculous enough.
The climactic showdown between a group of humans trapped inside a house while a horde of flying brains tries to bust in was notable in its day for its new levels of violence and gore. (The film was called out as offensive in the British Parliament.) The setting also seems to presage settings to come, such as those seen in Night of the Living Dead or Evil Dead II. But this film’s solution is the equivalent of sending the cavalry. After all, what saves the day? How does one defeat a foe that has been created by an unholy blend of nuclear power and the untapped recesses of the human mind? Why, with guns, of course. The trio of Air Force officers starts taking out the little airborne cerebella by peppering them with bullets (and the occasional blunt instrument), resulting in a gleefully gross stew of blood and effluvia. It’s a classically 1950s mindset, using brute force to overcome the odds. This carries over to the most absurd plot element, in which Cummings saves the day by blowing up the nuclear power plant with dynamite. (Certainly no potential downside to that plan.)
Fiend Without a Face is light fun, a solid representative of 1950s cinematic horror boasting three salient characteristics: an intriguing premise, very low-budget production, and a monster that doesn’t quite live up to the hype. File it next to similar efforts from the period like Beginning of the End, The Amazing Colossal Man, or The Crawling Eye. You know, the kind of film that works best if you just shut off your brain.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“There can be no purer surrealism in cinema than the sight of these twitching brain-things besieging a house full of people, leaping and plopping like possessed frogs. The entire climax has the bizarreness of some mad medieval allegory, like a triptych by Hieronymus Bosch” – Nigel Honeybone, Horror News
(This movie was nominated for review by Paula. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)