by Steve Habrat
As we look back on science fiction of the 1950s, most of the films that comprise the genre were filled with aliens attempting to make emotionless clones of human beings, extraterrestrials warning the United States to stop fiddling with the nuclear bomb, or giant mutated bugs attacking miniature cities and gobbling up terrified civilians. One thing you didn’t see much of was slithering and slimy invisible vampiric brains that suck out the brains and spinal cords of their victims. We can thank Britain for giving us the 1958 gem Fiend Without a Face, a moody, confining, eerie, and shockingly gory B-movie that certainly doesn’t shy away from reflecting the Cold War unease that was looming like storm clouds over much of the world. There is no doubt that Fiend Without a Face could have fallen back on its catchy title and awesomely creepy siege at the end, but the true terror lurks throughout the first half of the film, as a distrust of the U.S. government grips a small Canadian town. It is all nervous eyes and uneasy glances as satellites spin silently out in the woods and government planes roar suspiciously over the heads of simple small town folk looking to just be left alone. These images are far more chilling than invisible brains lurching through the foliage and curling around the necks of surprised victims. Well, those may be pretty creepy too.
Fiend Without a Face is set at an American airbase that has been recently set up in small town Manitoba, Canada. The airbase is far from popular with the local townsfolk, but fear really takes hold when one soldier is mysteriously attacked and killed by an unseen force in the woods that surround the base. An investigation is launched by Commander Major Jeff Cummings (played by Marshall Thompson) and base security officer Al Chester (played by Terry Kilburn), but neither man can find anything particularly suspicious about the soldier that was killed. Just as they are about to let local authorities handle the matter, the dead soldier’s sister, Barbara (played by Kim Parker), shows up and demands answers from Cummings and the local Mayor, Hawkins (played by James Dyrenforth). An autopsy is finally performed on the body and to the horror of the investigators; they discover that the man’s brains and spinal chord have been sucked clean out through two small holes on the back of his neck. As more and more townsfolk are attacked and turn up dead, the investigation leads to Professor Walgate (played by Kynaston Reeves), who is known for his interest in the paranormal. Cummings begins forcing answers out of Walgate, but much to the horror of the townsfolk, the unseen menace seems to be growing stronger and multiplying by the minute.
The highlight moment of Fiend Without a Face comes in the final fifteen minutes of the film, with a chilling siege that finds our group of desperate survivors boarding up the windows and doors of a secluded home. Outside, armies of gurgling brains are dangling from trees and leaping at the boards in attempts to rip the barriers away. It’s a special effects feast that is both tongue-in-cheek by today’s standards, oddly creepy, endearing, and abnormally brutal for a film released in 1958. The characters discover that a simple gunshot will stop the fiends dead in their path but once these creatures are struck, they ooze and spray a jelly-like blood that is pretty nasty. Yet director Arthur Crabtree doesn’t save all the good stuff until the very end. The first half of the film does a marvelous job at generating some seriously nerve-racking suspense. You’ll be at the edge of your seat while U.S. planes rip through the sky as suspicious citizens look up in unease and you can’t help but get a bit nervous as the soldiers experiment with a radar that is powered with atomic energy. The general aura of distrust that hums through the shadowy build-up is what really sticks with the viewer. This is all complimented with the hovering question of what is causing all the senseless murders.
Fiend Without a Face is also lucky enough to join the ranks of Cold War science fiction films that have some really awesome performances driving them. Thompson is levelheaded and likeable as the brave Major Cummings. You simultaneously root for him to get the girl and squash every withering brain that dares slither towards him. Parker is a strong and sharp heroine who, yes, needs to be saved quite often and shrieks in terror every time she sees one of the fiends, but her tie to the events taking place give her character some depth. Reeves is crack pot fun as the wild-haired scientist who may or may not be responsible for the carnage turning Manitoba upside down. Dyrenforth puts a bad taste in your mouth as the peeved Mayor Hawkins, who is quick to blame the air base for every single thing that goes wrong in and around the town. Robert MacKenzie also gets a chance to really freak audiences out as a local police officer, Howard Gibbons, who mysteriously disappears and then reappears in a very nightmarish way. He delivers a really great jump scene that will have you flicking on a nightlight or three.
As if the shadowy anxiety and gore-drenched action weren’t enough to catapult Fiend Without a Face near the top of the list of best Atomic Age science fiction films, wait until your ears are treated to the ungodly disgusting sound effects that will surely have you fidgeting. The victim’s screams could cut right through glass and the repulsive sucking sounds that the fiends make will have you battling to keep down your lunch. If you have a great home theater system, you are really in for a skin crawling treat when you hear some of the sound effects this film has to offer. Just make sure they are turned up loud for maxim effect. If there is anything to criticize within Fiend Without a Face, it would most certainly have to be the soundtrack, which sounds like stock music that was just stuck in to spice things up. Near the end, the music seems just a bit too cheery and upbeat for something that is supposed to have us leaking dread. Overall, it may not be as well-known as genre gems like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Tarantula, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Forbidden Planet, or Them!, but Fiend Without a Face is a B-movie that is more than deserving to sit proudly next to those films. It’s a creepy crawly treat with spirited special effects, above average performances, and an ending that could very well have been an inspiration for George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Watch with the volume turned all the way up.
Fiend Without a Face is available on DVD.