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Fiend Without A Face, 1958

From the DVD case: A scientist’s thoughts materialize as an army of invisible brain-shaped monsters (complete with spinal-cord tails!) who terrorize an American military base in this nightmarish chiller, directed by Arthur Crabtree (Horrors of the Black Museum). This outstanding sci-fi/horror hybrid is a special effects bonanza, and a high-water mark in British genre filmmaking. (1958, b&w)

Mark says: Fiend Without A Face is an Amalgamated Production, geared to an American audience, but filmed almost entirely in England. A Canadian setting is used to serve two purposes: First, the action is near enough the US border to keep the attention of American film-goers, and second, it helps explain the odd accents. Marshall Thompson (First Man Into Space, It! The Terror from Beyond Space) was given the lead role to further enhance the American ambiance.

Thompson plays Maj. Jeff Cummings, second in command at an American airbase located in Canada. The neighboring community, consisting primarily of dairy farmers, is suspicious of the military’s radiation experiments and blame them for the sudden decrease in milk production.

Kim Parker (Fire Maidens from Outer Space) plays Barbara Griselle, sister to the first victim. Maj. Cummings is immediately attracted to Barbara, though it takes her awhile to warm to him. Barbara is featured in a shower sequence, obviously added to embellish the sexiness of the picture, but the scene comes off as rather tame and a bit awkward. I suppose for 1958 it was very hubba-hubba, though.

Barbara works for Professor Walgate (Kynaston Reeves), an eccentric but kindly old man who writes books on such topics as “The Principles of Thought Control,” and “The Energy of Thought.” It doesn’t take much to figure out that Professor Walgate is somehow responsible for the creation of the fiends.

Other characters include Capt. Al Chester (Terence Kilburn), a good friend of Maj. Cummings; Constable Gibbons (Robert MacKenzie, Womaneater), a local rabble-rouser; Mayor Hawkins played by James Dyrenforth (Horror Hotel), and Dr. Bradley, portrayed by Peter Madden (The Kiss of the Vampire, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors). You may also recognize Michael Balfour (Quatermass 2) in the role of Sgt. Kasper, and Launce Maraschal (that’s him getting his brains sucked out above) plays Deputy Mayor Melville.

The story becomes more far-fetched as the movie progresses, and finally dissolves into nonsense, but it’s not the acting nor the story that you’ll remember about Fiend Without A Face. It’s the monsters.

The monsters were created by German team of stop-motion animators, K.L. Ruppel and Florenz Von Nordhoff. The creatures are so bizarre that they won’t soon escape your memory. Basically, they are brains that crawl along (inch-worm fashion) on spinal cords, but leap with amazing agility. They have antennae, but no faces, and survive by slurping out the brains and spinal columns of their victims.

At the outset of the film the fiends are invisible. We only hear what sounds like a heartbeat, and a bone-crunching noise. When the monsters attack, the victims grab for their necks and we hear the most repulsive slurpy-sucky sounds ever created for film. Much credit is due to sound technicians Peter Davies and Terence Poulton for making us cringe even before we see the beasts.

The story of the fiends’ creation is too complex and absurd to delve into here; suffice it to say that Professor Walgate, with the help of siphoned radiation, accidentally created the monsters through “thought materialization.” We don’t actually see the creatures until the final sequences of the film, when, through a boost of radiation, they become visible.

The stop-motion animation gives the creatures a weird and fascinating screen presence. The visuals, combined with the repulsive sound effects, make the monsters some of the most unique of the era. There is a particular scene, when a legion of the creatures come flying through a window, where their movements remind me of mutated sperm swimming under a microscope. But that might be just me.

More revolting than the creatures themselves is the manner in which they die. After being shot, the faceless fiends sputter blood in disgusting globs, making Fiend Without A Face one of the most graphic sci-fi films of the 1950s. The effect is quite shocking, considering the mediocrity of the rest of the film. When the radiation supply is cut off the creatures meet their demise by dissolving into a putrid slime. Quite nauseating, really, but it’s great fun.

If not for the unconventional creatures, Fiend Without A Face may have been just another 1950’s sci-fi throw-away. However, considering the originality of the critters, plus the excellent stop-motion work and gruesome sound effects, this movie scores a few notches higher.

Scene to watch for: Constable Gibbons (Robert MacKenzie) shows up at a town meeting freshly lobotomized.

Line to listen for: “What the heck? I’m human. We’re all human here! We’re not monsters from outer space!”

Trivia: Fiend Without A Face is based on a short story, “The Thought-Monster” by Amelia Reynolds Long, which was originally published in Weird Tales (1930).

Recommendation: If you have some extra dough, I recommend the Criterion Collection DVD production of this film. It’s a great transfer, and the commentary with executive producer Richard Gordon (interviewed by film historian, Tom Weaver) is both informative and amusing.

Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! ½ out of 5.

IMDB Link

2 Comments

  1. The first time I saw Marshall Thompson was in an obscure 1950s TV show titled “World of Giants” or “WOG” for short. He played a 6-inch high spy who lived in a dollhouse and traveled inside a briefcase.

    Once again I’m thankful I saw this movie as a kid first. What a great film. I remember seeing it back when local stations showed movies and cartoons in the afternoon during the hours between the network soaps and the 6 o’clock news. This was long before Judge Judy and Oprah came along to spoil it.

    When I was a kid, any movie that had stop motion animation was a plus in my book. Although this doesn’t match anything from master animator Ray Harryhausen, it still beats puppets or marionettes.

  2. Paul: There’s just something about Marshall Thompson that made him perfect for B sci-fi/horror pictures. I’ve never been able to take him completely seriously, but I would have loved to have seen “World of the Giants.”

    Like you, I was (am still am, to an extent) completely fascinated by stop-motion animation. As a kid I could not figure out how it was done, which made those movies even more magical. Now when a film comes out for public consumption, you often get a second DVD that explains in excruciating detail how everything is done. I’m not saying I have a problem with that, but I am glad that I experienced films like this, and the works of Ray Harryhausen, when I was still child-like enough to believe in their magic.


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