Thursday, July 23, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: FIEND WITHOUT A FACE (1958)

Atomic age hysteria fuels the British low-budget shocker, Fiend without a Face (1958), in which invisible vampire brain monsters rampage through a Canadian village near a U.S. Air Force base. The title of this picture seriously understates the glorious weirdness of its killer creatures, who lack limbs, heads, and bodies as well as faces, even after they stop being invisible. The best known human associated with the movie is American actor Marshall Thompson, who takes the lead as the heroic major fighting to stop the bizarre beings, but the chief attractions in Fiend without a Face are definitely its monsters and the mayhem they inflict. If you're a fan of 1950s creature features like The Blob (1958) or even Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959), then Fiend without a Face is just the sort of guilty pleasure you'll love to indulge.

Thompson plays Major Jeff Cummings, who works at the U.S. Air Force base just outside the bucolic Canadian town of Winthrop, where the locals are none too happy about the constant noise of planes and potential radiation generated by the military's atomic reactors. When villagers start dying under strange circumstances, the Canadians immediately blame the Americans, and Jeff tries to make peace with Barbara (Kim Parker), the attractive but understandably angry sister of the first victim. Jeff soon becomes convinced that Barbara's employer, Professor Walgate (Kynaston Reeves), is somehow connected to the deaths, but he's not prepared for the truth about the deadly creatures that Walgate's research has unleashed.

The acting in Fiend without a Face is better than that found in most pictures of its era and genre, although a lot of characters are only introduced in order to be killed off by the invisible monsters. The character types represented are familiar, including the practical soldier hero, the smart but feminine love interest, and the overreaching scientist, blinded to the consequences of his actions by his own ambition. Marshall Thompson and Kim Parker play their parts seriously but not woodenly, and they have a nice little romance brewing with moments of humor and humanity. Kynaston Reeves has some good scenes, too, as the aged professor slowly realizes his responsibility for the disaster and struggles to make things right. If the plot is frankly outrageous, and the monsters utterly impossible, the actors are at least good enough to keep the audience invested in the story and not overly conscious of the supremely nutty premise that drives the action forward.

Monster movies live and die, however, on the strength of their real protagonists, the creatures themselves, and Fiend without a Face offers some of the weirdest, most disturbing freaks of psychic science one could possibly imagine. For the first half of the movie they remain invisible, leaving us to deduce their natures from the clues they leave behind after each new attack. Special effects and some energetic acting from the victims offer hints about what the creatures are like and how they kill their prey; a farm couple is strangled, and an autopsy reveals that their brains and spinal cords have been sucked out through small holes in their heads. Later incidents provide new evidence, until the creatures get enough power to make themselves visible and horrify us with the full extent of their monstrosity. Thanks to Professor Walgate's imagination, they look like giant brains with spinal cords attached, and they move like sentient slugs, using tentacles to propel themselves and locate their targets. They ooze grotesquely when shot, and the finale turns into a brain slug bloodbath, with the surviving humans holed up in a house and surrounded by the persistent fiends. Their attack on the house prefigures the violent determination of the zombies in Night of the Living Dead (1968), but the vampire brains know how to cut the phone lines, which makes them even scarier. The brain slugs combine the grossest and most disturbing aspects of several different horror movie creatures, but it's hard to think of anything else quite like them in the genre's history. Where else are you going to get invisible atomic vampire brain slugs that leap on their victims to suck out their spinal cords?

Arthur Crabtree, who directed Fiend without a Face, started as a cinematographer; his other directorial efforts include Horrors of the Black Museum (1959) and a dozen episodes of the 1950s Ivanhoe TV series starring Roger Moore. Marshall Thompson starred on the TV series, Daktari, and also appeared in films like Battleground (1949), To Hell and Back (1955), and It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958). Look for character actor Kynaston Reeves in Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951) and School for Scoundrels (1960). For more atomic monsters, try The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), Them! (1954), and Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster (1955).