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Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Fiend Without A Face

In December 1958 Eros Films, Ltd. had another British B sci-fi movie touring American. Fiend Without A Face (FwoF) ran as the B feature to "Haunted Strangler." Both were British productions being marketed in America by MGM. This is another example of the blurry line between sci-fi and horror. FwoF itself exists in that blurry zone. Mysterious, invisible "mental vampires" killing their victims takes up the bulk of the film. The final showdown with the creatures is classic monster movie. Yet, the tie-in to the customary misguided scientist and atomic energy keep FwoF in the sci-fi orbit.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A Canadian farmer is killed just outside of an American Air Force base in remote Canada. The villagers were already up in arms over the mere presence of the base (jets frightened their cows) so are convinced there is a mad GI on the loose. Major Jeff Cummings befriends the slain farmer's sister, Barbara. The base tests their super radar system again, but like before, it falters just as it seems to be succeeding. Something is draining off the atomic energy. More murders stir up the towns folk to revolt. Jeff is certain that a reclusive genius, Professor Walgate, is the key. Yet more murders occur, each preceded by a rhythmic thumping and squishing sound. Eventually, Walgate confesses that he was working on Thought Materialization -- telekinesis. He needed more power, so fabricated an energy hijacking device to siphon off the air base's transmitted power. (that's why the tests always failed) The extra power worked, but created separate beings rather than intensifying Walgate's own thoughts. The invisible beings escaped his lab and began to 'feed' on townsfolk by sucking out their brains. They need the reactor's power to exist. Jeff rushes to blow up the control room. The reactor is going into overload, so the beings become visible. Dozens of the brain and spinal cord things surround the house. They break in, kill a few people, but can also be killed. Many are. Just as one of the beings has got Barbara, the reactor is shut down. It falls limp. The brain things dissolve into foam. Jeff kisses Barbara. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The monster murder mystery element is fairly well played so it keeps interest up. Once visible, the brain-things have some interest too. As a monster movie, it has some merit. Killer brain-creatures are quirky enough to stay interesting.

Cold War Angle
The Cold War provides a backdrop, but isn't the focus. The Air Force base's mission is early radar detection of Soviet aircraft coming over the pole. One could see the brain-things as manifestations of deadly atomic energy. (the invisible killer)They seem to fit better the usual science-gone-wrong theme.

Bad Doctor -- Dr. Walgate fills the archetypal role of the naive scientist. He meant well with all his research and work. But, like many naive scientists who had gone before him, his assumptions prove wrong. His work gets away from him and becomes a force of destruction, not one of good for mankind. It has been fairly customary for the naive scientist to die at the hands (or whatever) of his creation. Walgate makes the noble sacrifice at the end, letting the creatures attack him while Jeff gets away.

Bad Thoughts -- The brain-creatures are akin to the "Id Monster" in Forbidden Planet. Man's most basic thoughts, if given independence, prove primal and ruthless. As a nuclear cautionary tale, the brain-creatures, man's primal thoughts, prove deadly if given atomic power. The stop-motion animation of the brain-creatures is not too bad. It's not Harryhausen, but it works.

You Are What You Eat -- We're told that the brain-creatures suck out the brains and spinal cord of their human victims. So, it interesting that the brain-creatures are depicted as brain shaped. They have a segmented spinal column which they use inch-worm-style for locomotion. They ARE what they eat.

Nuclear Naivety -- The brain-creatures break the atomic reactor's control rods so people can't shut it down (the creatures need the radiation to exist). It is curious that screenwriters solve the problem with good old dynamite. Jeff blows up the control room to shut down the reactor. ?? The reactor core was already out of control. Why would less control help?

Bottom line? Most of FwoF is a fair horror flick with "mental vampires" and agonizing victims. Things get more interesting when the brain-creatures surround the house. Sure, the movie has its flaws, but is an entertaining 50s sci-fi.


Anonymous said...

This is among one of my favorite B movies of all time, right up there with "Invasion of the Saucer Men" and "20 Million Miles to Earth."

Those brainy creatures, humping along on the ground on their twitching spinal cords and draining the psychic energy of their victims, left a lasting impression on me as an eight-year-old boy.

If Hollywood ever does a remake, I hope they make the fiends even more scary and deadly, and not focus so much on soap opera side stories (see the remake of "The Day the Earth Stood Still" as an example of this).

Great review, as always. You keep batting 800.

Nightowl said...

Thanks Luis,
Yes, Fiend is one of those 'sleeper' B movies that doesn't get the attention it deserves. A remake would be cool if, as you say, they don't clutter it up with too much 'human interest' drama, or swing too far the other way and just dwell or massive gore. If anything, I thought that focusing on the brain-creatures' existence as human thought (the dark, animal side) made alive, would be fascinating.

Thanks for reading. :-)

Mike Scott said...

Outside of Harryhausen, the coolest animated monsters in any '50s sci-fi movie! (Inside of Harryhausen it's too dark to see.)

Bob Drake said...

Always loved this one. Plenty of scientific gadgets, atomic menace, a "mad scientist", and great monsters. As I've seen mentioned here and there on the web, one thing you can never forget is that bubbling sound when the brain-creatures are shot, but on the DVD version I bought recently, that sound effect was missing! Anyone else notice that, or know if there is a version available with the sounds intact?

Nightowl said...

I'll have to get out my copy and see. I don't recall the bubbling sound. You've got me curious now.

Bob Drake said...

Hi Nightowl,
I'm scouring the internet trying to find a clip with that sound effect, no luck so far. I guess some censor decided it was too disgusting (it really was :) But believe me, it was there when I saw this film back in the 60's and 70's.

Bob Drake said...

Found it!

On the DVD version I bought a couple years ago, that wet, "deflating" bubbling sound when the creatures ooze is missing.

Nightowl said...

Excellent fine. Great clip on YouTube too, btw. Certainly the action-packed segment of the film. Gotta love those brain-spinalcord monsters.

-- Nightowl

Bob Drake said...

Hello again Nightowl and fellow Fiend fans:
I asked about the missing sound effect on the Criterion blog, and was told the Criterion DVD is the complete, uncut and uncensored version and definitely includes the offending sound effect. So any other fans of this film, that's the version to buy!

Keith_Indy said...

I remember this film scaring the pants off of me when I watched it as a child. Pretty sure I had a fever and stayed up past bedtime. Still haunts my dreams now and then.

Took me forever to track down the title of this film, so thank you for that.