FIEND WITHOUT A FACE (’58)

This piece originally posted at Filmstruck

Captain Al Chester (Terence Kilburn) grabs a glass of water and asks Major Jeff Cummings (Marshall Thompson), “You ever think of trying sleep instead of Benzedrine?” Popping pills freely to keep alert, Major Cummings is investigating the mysterious death of a local man, Jack Griselle, found dead in the woods near his farm. The two military men work at an air force base in Winthrop, Manitoba, Canada. The base uses atomic energy to boost its radar so they can spy on the Russians. But the mysterious death bothers them and the local authorities refuse to allow the U.S. military to conduct an autopsy. The year is 1958 and if you haven’t already guessed that the base’s atomic energy is going to play a big part in all of this, you’re not very familiar with 1950s sci-fi. And if you’re not, welcome to FIEND WITHOUT A FACE (’58), not only one of the best B movies ever made, but a great primer for anyone looking to enter the world of low-budget 1950s sci-fi horror.

Back to the base, Colonel Butler (Stanley Maxted) is trying his best to persuade Mayor Hawkins (James Dyrenforth) and Griselle’s sister, Barbara (Kim Parker), to let them perform an autopsy so they can be sure the atomic energy didn’t kill him. No go. But at least it serves as an introduction of our leading man, Major Cummings (Jeff from here on out), and leading lady, Barbara, and if you haven’t already figured out they’re going to fall in love, then you’re not familiar with movies, period. That’s okay, it’s what I’m here for.

Jeff drives Barbara back home and then heads back to the base to conduct another radar test. Did I mention the radar tests amp up the atomic energy output to its highest levels? And that each time they do this, the power fades and someone gets mysteriously killed? Well, they do and eventually, Jeff connects the two. This leads to someone finally getting an autopsy and the scene itself is an amazing piece of unsourced lighting as mood, something horror cinema excels at. In the autopsy room, the coroner, along with the colonel, mayor and Jeff, are all lit, quite dramatically, from below. There’s no light whatsoever shining on the corpse they’re looking at, and even if there was they wouldn’t be able to see past the blinding light shining up on their faces. But who cares, it looks right and feels right and FIEND WITHOUT A FACE is the kind of movie that goes with “feels right” every time. That’s just one reason it’s so damn good.

Eventually Jeff figures out the source of the killings and why they can’t see the killer, or killers. Or things. It’s because they’re invisible and when they finally become visible (hint: it has to do with atomic energy) they are some of the best stop motion creations outside of a Ray Harryhausen movie you’ll ever see. Little brains with eye stems using spinal chords as ambulatory extensions, created by the stop-motion team of Florenz Von Nordoff, directing the sequences, and K. L. Ruppel, doing the stop-motion animation. This involved not just moving these little fiends around but showing their deaths, too. And when they die, usually by gunshot, they ooze blood and guts that, for a B movie of 1958, actually upset a few people at the time. In fact, you’ll see far more dark, thick, oozing blood and puss and bile than you will in most horror movies for the next decade.

All of this, as well as its remarkably efficient running time of just over an hour and fourteen minutes, results in a fantastic sci-fi horror film that takes many of the same themes from previous films (atomic misuse, monsters of the id, science gone wrong, invading killers) and coalesces them into a kind of end game for the great sci-fi horror movies of the period. The writing is snappy, the acting good, the pacing consistent, the atmosphere perfect and the effects great. When the climax comes it exceeds audience expectations, and fulfils them, too. The monsters get killed, the military is exonerated and the guy gets the girl. But you already knew that. We all did. Except for the fiend. But no loss of face resulted. He never had one in the first place.

*********

Interesting poster note: In almost every poster, Barbara is shown in a bath towel. This comes from one scene in a movie where she is always dressed, sharp, intelligent, and professional. But, naturally, the poster designer went with the shower towel scene. Welcome to 1958.

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