Pros: Exploding brains and twitchy spinal columns! Solid acting, efficient film technique.

Cons: S-L-O-W first hour or so; some lapses of logic

On the American-Canadian border, a small town that’s home to an experimental army base equipped with a nuclear power station is drawn into hysteria when a series of mysterious murders takes place. Most of the villagers believe that the military and their experiments with radiation are somehow responsible for the deaths, but an examination of the corpses yields unexpected results. It seems that the brain and entire spinal column of the victims has been sucked out of their bodies through two tiny holes in the back of the neck. Who or what could be responsible? And perhaps more importantly, what role does the only obvious suspect character, a brilliant but rather sickly scientist who’s been investigating telepathy and mind control, play in the situation?

Hindered to some extent by its meager budget, British-made 1958 sci-fi/horror hybrid Fiend Without a Face has nonetheless earned a reputation over the years as one of the more interesting efforts from the golden age of science fiction. Made at the same time when films of this genre were regularly using radioactivity as the explanation behind the appearance of giant reptiles, insects and even people, Fiend proposes the indisputably more intriguing idea that thoughts themselves can be more hazardous than any amount of nuclear fallout. Mind you that this film does, in the end, feature some pretty wicked monsters who wind up attacking a group of people barricaded inside a residence (thus predating such films as the enjoyably hokey The Killer Shrews and the hugely influential Night of the Living Dead), but much of the film operates in a manner different from the typical “monster film” as townspeople and military personnel alike try and understand what exactly is causing the unexplained deaths.

Based on a somewhat vague yet intriguing 1930 short story published in Weird Tales magazine, Herbert J. Leder’s script fleshes out the ideas of the story to feature length but also seems to operate at a fairly slow pace in the early going. Scenes following Air Force Major Jeff Cummings (played capably by American actor Marshall Thompson) as he investigates the murders, focusing his attention on a local researcher who may be more involved with the fatalities than he lets on, tend to drag on a bit. Although there are some (goofy) scenes where invisible marauders attack and kill several townspeople, nothing truly exciting happens until late in the going. Despite all of this, Leder’s script actually does a fairly good job of providing details in the unfolding detective story that keep a viewer interested, even if the picture isn’t the suspenseful thrill-ride one might have been expecting. It’s also to Leder’s credit that the obligatory romantic subplot (between Cummings and the sister of one of the dead villagers) is more or less kept on the back-burner for much of the film’s duration.

Fiend Without a Face was directed by Arthur Crabtree, an industry veteran by the time he started on this production. Crabtree clearly recognized how to get the most out of the script he was given, slowly building suspense until the film reaches a breaking point around the time of its climax. Filmed for the most part on sets in Britain, it’s a testament to the cast and crew that the semi-American setting of the story is at all believable, and Lionel Banes does a fine job of photographing the action in an efficient manner. I think the adjective “efficient” could accurately describe this film as a whole: there’s nothing especially flashy about the picture (at least until its final reel), but it was obviously made people who knew what they were doing.

In the acting department, aside from Thompson, we have the lovely dark-haired actress Kim Parker as the love interest. Parker has a mousy demeanor initially, but becomes somewhat feisty later in the film. As I mentioned, it was refreshing that the film didn’t spend a whole lot of time (over)developing the romance between the two leads. Michael Balfour and Terry Kilburn play fellow military men trying to piece together the mystery, and British actor Kynaston Reeves plays the stuffy and rather decrepit researcher whose possible connection to the killings makes him the target of the ongoing investigation. Reeves certainly exudes the “holier than thou” attitude that might be expected of a well-known scientist trying to escape public scrutiny of his work, and he also establishes the idea of his character’s poor health very well. To an extent, it’s Reeves’s assured performance which ensures that a viewer is at all able to swallow the eventual explanation of the creatures responsible for the murders. And when these creatures do in fact appear in the latter stages of the film, Fiend Without a Face really takes on a life of its own.

The “monsters” in this film (invisible up until the final reel) appear to be normal-sized brains which still have the spinal column attached to them. These creatures (visualized through the use of remarkable stop-motion animation by German effects technicians Florenz von Nordoff and Peter Lupel) slither across the ground, leap through the air, and kill by wrapping themselves around their victims’ throat. The finale of the film, involving a group of humans facing off against an onslaught of these crawling brains, is surprisingly gory for 1958 and goes out of its way to repulse a viewer. When shot with a pistol, the brains explode in a mass of oozing goop and blood, and probably the best thing about the creatures is the very “wet” and squishy sound effects that accompany their appearances onscreen. Many ‘50s sci-fi flicks dropped the ball when it came to delivering the goods with their special effects, but this film certainly offers a big payoff.

In my opinion, Fiend Without a Face has been overpraised to an extent: yes, it’s a worthwhile genre film, but it’s not perfect and it does have a few problems. For one, there’s use of stock footage here that’s barely more competent than what one would expect from the typical Ed Wood production. Additionally, there are a handful of unintentionally funny scenes and clunky transitions as well as glaring lapses of logic (so – you’re telling me you want to blow up this nuclear power plant’s control room??!??). These are relatively minor problems however in a film that’s generally quite enjoyable. If you can sit tight through some of the slower portions of its story (which frankly, is easy to do – this film only runs 74 minutes in length), you’ll be rewarded with an undeniably exciting and technically-impressive finale. This film comes recommended from me; check it out if you get a chance.

I’m not entirely sure what a low-budget flick like this is doing on the Criterion Collection, but their DVD release contains a wonderful-looking widescreen print of the film, a nice collection of advertising and promotional material, a well-written illustrated essay about this film and its connection to the world of science fiction, a trailer gallery, and full-length commentary featuring executive producer Richard Gordon discussing the film and his career in independent low-budget British filmmaking.

5/10 : Oozing blood and goop. Probably would be pretty extreme had this been filmed in color.

0/10 : Squeaky clean

1/10 : Gratuitous scene of Parker walking around in a towel after a shower

7/10 : Undeniably fun ’50s sci-fi replete with gross sound effects and a few gruesome scenes

“I now know that I have created a mental vampire…a fiend that needs to drain the intellect to survive and multiply…”

Original Trailer:

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