This is a review for the b-movie, Fiend Without a Face. A B&W monster flick from 1958. As this is my first review, it seems fitting that it should be the first movie I ever remember watching.
A little backstory on this movie and review. I am a huge fan of monster movies. I’ll watch any that I can find. My first experience with them was this movie at the tender age of 3. We had relatives over that night and everyone was visiting with everyone else and I sort of got lost in the shuffle. Someone had turned on the television to the Saturday night Creature Feature and then promptly left the room, leaving me alone on the couch. I was in turns enthralled, scared, fascinated, and terrified while devouring every moment on the screen. My love of horror, science fiction, and monsters was born on that night. This movie holds a very special place in my heart, being my first. It is by no means the best movie, but also is a far cry from being the worst, I’ve ever seen.
The movie opens with a shot of an American air force base in Canada, then it introduces us to the first victim of the invisible titular monsters: a local farmer named Jack Griselle. After the opening credits, we’re introduced to the hero of the movie, Major Jeff Cummings (Marshal Thompson), as he discusses the mysterious death with his right-hand man, Captain Al Chester (Terrance Kilburn). Cummings is not only concerned with how the man died but also why he was watching airbase. After the town doctor/coroner claimed the body before a autopsy could be performed, Cummings mentions that there is an atomic reactor at the base that is the subject of concern with the local folks.
The major goes to the office of his boss, Colonel Butler (Stanley Maxted), where we meet the love interest, Barbara Griselle (Kim Parker), the sister of the man killed, and the town mayor (James Dyrenforth). Here the background conflict of the movie between townsfolk and airbase is set up. Both sides are wary of each other, but are trying to make the arrangement work. Cummings gives Barbara a lift home, then goes back to the base to participate in a radar experiment that requires the use of the aforementioned atomic reactor. The test doesn’t go well as there is an unexplained drop in power to the radar system.
Intercutting the funeral of Barbara’s brother, a local man and his wife are then killed by the invisible fiends. At the funeral is the scientist that Barbara works for, Professor R.E. Walgate (Kynaston Reeves). The local constable, Howard Gibbons (Robert MacKenzie), who is the principal rival for Barbara’s affections, shows up at the funeral to tell the mayor of the new deaths. This puts a strain on the airbase/townsfolk relations as they are concerned about fallout from the atomic plant. An autopsy of the newest victims show that the couple died of having their brains and spinal cords sucked out through two holes in the base of the skull. Discarding talk of ‘mental vampires’, Col. Butler insists that there is a reasonable explanation and that they must find it.
Major Cummings goes to Barbara’s home to try and ease tension with the townsfolk, and we’re treated to a humorous encounter between the two as Barbara has just finished a shower and Cummings, having found her door unlocked and open, is already inside. While waiting for her to put something on, he finds a manuscript by Prof. Walgate regarding thought control. While discussing the ailing professor and her work for him, they are interrupted by Gibbons, who takes offense at the major visiting with Barbara instead of looking for the ‘mad GI’ responsible for the local murders. A short fight breaks out which Barbara breaks up and she angrily asks the major to leave.
Cummings returns to the base where he asks Captain Chester to get him everything he can about Prof Walgate, every thing he’s ever written. Cummings spends the next several hours reading up on the renown scientist. Meanwhile, we cut to the house of mayor just after Gibbons leaves. The mayor becomes the next victim of the faceless fiends.
The next morning, Gibbons confronts the angry townsfolk and insists that it’s not fallout from the atomic reactor that killed the mayor and the others, but a mad GI from the airbase who is hiding out in the woods. He forms the townsfolk into posse and heads out to the woods to capture him.
Cummings, after receiving a fax from the FBI detailing how reclusive and eccentric the professor is, decides to pay Walgate a visit. There, he meets Barbara again, who is a little surprised that he’s not there to see her, but instead to visit the professor. While discussing the deaths with the professor, Walgate asks Cummings about the look on the face of Jack Griselle when his body was found and that he has a reason for asking. Cummings says ‘it was a look of complete horror, fright, almost insane, I guess.’ When Cummings brings up the possibility of something supernatural about the deaths, and asks the professors opinion, Walgate becomes agitated and upset just as Barbara enters the office and once again, she accuses the major of causing trouble. Disappointed in her reaction, Cummings decides to leave.
The hunt for the mad GI has so far been fruitless and the men are getting tired. Gibbons insists that they push on to the airbase before quitting. While Gibbons and his unnamed partner are searching, they hear a strange noise and Gibbons insists that they split up to search parallel paths. The partner hears the strange noises again, but much louder, and decides against proceeding. He goes back and calls for Gibbons, who has vanished without a trace.
The following day, after a fruitless search for Gibbons, a town meeting is called by deputy mayor Melville (Launce Maraschal) to discuss the growing tensions between the airbase and town. Major Cummings has been invited to the meeting to speak for the airbase and repeats that neither the deaths nor the problems with the cows milk is caused by atomic radiation. When the townsfolk insist on the airbase closing, Barbara comes to the major’s defense, stating that it was solely the sound of the jets that caused the problems with the cows milk, and that the cows have gotten used to it and were producing milk normally again. During the meeting, much to the surprise and horror of all present, Gibbons shows up, staggering into the room and moaning simplistically.
Back at Barbara’s house, Cummings tells her that he believes that Walgate is involved with whatever is happening. Barbara expresses her disbelief, but Cummings contends that Walgate’s expertise and research has to factor in somehow. He borrows Barbara’s flashlight and tells her that he’s going to go checkout the cemetery, leaving her with troubled thoughts.
At the cemetery, Cummings finds a door that leads to a mausoleum recently exited by a mysterious figure. Inside, he finds the open casket of mayor Hawkins and an ornate pipe. The door is then shut on him and he is locked inside. Meanwhile Captain Chester, who is concerned over the lack of communication from the major, calls Barbara and learns about his visit to the cemetery. Worried, he tells her that he is coming to get her and they both go to cemetery. Once there, they search around and hear Cummings pounding on the jammed door to the mausoleum and barely rescue him before he runs out of air. Chester wants to take him back to the base, but Cummings insists on seeing Walgate.
Cummings confronts Walgate with the pipe and demands to know what he was doing at the cemetery. Walgate apologizes for almost killing him, explaining that he was frightened and only trying to buy time get away. During the confrontation, the same sounds heard by Gibbons and his partner are again heard, and this causes the professor to lapse into a feint just after he insists the major shutdown the atomic plant. Cummings steals a kiss from Barbara before he returns to base.
At the base, Col Butler reluctantly agrees to shutdown the plant, but they run into a problem when it’s discovered that all the control rods for the reactor are smashed. It’ll at least 4-6 hours to get new ones flown in, and until then there is no way to shut down the reactor.
When Walgate regains consciousness, Barbara calls Cummings at the base. The major, along with Col Butler and Capt Chester go to Walgate’s house. There, Walgate tells the story (seen in flashback) about how he has been experimenting in projecting his thoughts, and using power siphoned off from the atomic plant during the radar tests, he managed to create an invisible creature that housed his released thoughts. One night the creatures escaped from his lab after destroying his equipment and all his notes. These creatures are the ones doing all the killing. Col. Butler refuses to believe the story and when the deputy mayor and the doctor (Peter Madden) arrive at the house, he insists the professor is crazy. Right at that moment, the fiends attack the house, killing Sergeant Kasper (Michael Balfour), who arrived with the doctor.
The others quickly board up the windows and block the doors, except for the deputy mayor, who panics and doesn’t help anyone. Back at the atomic plant, the power quickly reaches danger levels and after one of the fiends kills the chief engineer, they become visible, revealing themselves to look like animated brains and spinal columns with eyestalks and tendrils to push themselves along with.
With the fiends now visible, they realize that the atomic plant must be supplying with increased power and has to be shut down. Cummings and Chester fire their weapons, proving that fiends are vulnerable. One of the fiends drops down the fireplace and attacks the panic-frozen Melville, killing him. Walgate insists that the plant must be shutdown, and Cummings says he’ll go do it. Barbara insists he be careful, then steals a kiss from him. Walgate tells the other to cover Cummings as he leaves, then slips out the door on his own, in an attempt to try and control the fiends. He is promptly killed by them, allowing Cummings to get away.
Major Cummings races all the way back to the airbase, where he breaks into a shed containing dynamite. He grabs some then makes his way to the atomic plant where he plants the explosives on the control console. At the house, despite expert marksmanship, Col Butler and Capt Chester are starting to run out of ammunition. The fiends rush house, breaking through the boarded up windows and coming through the fireplace, and attacking the defenders. At the plant Cummings lights the fuse to the dynamite, shoots one of the fiends, then flees the plant. The wounded fiends attempts to put out the fuse, but dies before it can reach it. At the house, the fiends have broken in and are being shot by the air force officers, but one manages to reach Barbara. Cummings dives behind a jeep just as the dynamite goes off, destroying the atomic plant. The fiends immediately die, saving Barbara from a gruesome death. Cummings, taking the jeep, returns to the house to an overjoyed Barbara. Col Butler tells Dr Bradley that he’ll send help to the town as soon as he returns to the base, then orders Cummings to stay behind and ‘take care of business there’. The camera fades out as the major and Barbara share a mutually passionate kiss.
All-in-all, I found this movie just as wonderfully entertaining as an adult as I did as a child. Yes, it did have it plot holes, inconsistencies and ridiculous science, but I found these things (mostly) easy to overlook in light of the (mostly) decent lighting, eerie atmosphere, well-paced action, decent acting, and (for its time) good special effects.
The problems I had with the movie mostly stem from the necessarily long leaps of logic and the ridiculous science, but also come from bad acting and directing. The most glaring:
The Science: I can understand a scientist trying to move objects with his mind, but to try to deliberately create a creature to house the thoughts he released? And why make it look like a brain and spinal column? Also, what the heck is sibonetics? Some of the glaring mistakes I can overlook as science and technology marching on – such as the fact that the atomic reactions simply stop after blowing up the control panel (and since when does that destroy the whole plant?). Just like destroying the control rods means only that you can shut it down, and not causing a major meltdown the likes of Chernobyl.
Logic Leaps: Murders that leave no outward physical marks, except two puncture wounds and a missing brain are caused by a mad GI? Walgate is obviously involved because of his studies of thought control? How did Cummings know that the cemetery was important?
Acting/Directing: Come on people! Just don’t stand there waiting for the slow moving brain creatures to inch closer to you and leap at you without at least trying to move away or just moving period!
Plot holes: Wow, Captain Chester is probably the most efficient secretary ever! He got all those books by Professor Walgate in a matter of minutes! Not only that, but he just the right ones too! Speaking of which, man is Major Cummings a fast reader! Why does the town not want an autopsy performed on the first victim, especially since the death is so mysterious? Is the reason simply because the want to believe it was caused by the atomic reactor? Boy that spacious mausoleum doesn’t very much oxygen and is apparently airtight as well.
Despite the obvious problems listed above, I really enjoy this movie. The things I like best about it are creepy atmosphere of the movie, something that lends itself rather well to the black and white filming, and is helped along by the problems with the films confusion over night and day. The buildup is handled nicely in my opinion and feels neither rushed nor dragging in pacing. The music is suitably creepy and the sound effects for the creatures works well for me as well (though slightly amusing at times). The special effects for the creatures were performed mostly through stop-animation and while rather obvious don’t detract from the films enjoyment for me. The romance angle was entirely unnecessary for the film, but I’m a sucker for them, and I liked how it progressed (even if it was rather quick – after all, they only had 74 minutes to work with!
As I said, I enjoyed the film as a child and enjoy it just as much as an adult. I still rewatch it frequently and will continue to do so for quite some time.