Fiend Without a Face (1958)

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Fiend Without a Face (1958) is also without arms, legs or anything that you can see, at least until the scary reveal toward the end of the film. At the US Air Force Base located in Winthrop, Manitoba, Canada, Americans and Canadians have a joint missile defense/radar operation. What they don’t have, at least as the movie begins, is a very friendly relationship. The locals blame the base’s huge noisy radar aircraft for stressing out the cows and spoiling their idyllic little town. When a local farmer dies mysteriously while snooping around the base and studying the flight schedules, concerns escalate to panic and paranoia, and the locals blame nonexistent radioactive fallout from the base’s atomic radar power.

Despite all assurances that this power source is perfectly safe, the pressure is on good guy Major Cummings (Marshall Thompson), who is just as baffled. The next deaths, of a farmer and his wife, add something horrific to the mix: their brains and spines have been yanked out of their bodies. Soon after, a constable (Robert MacKenzie) survives an attack but is reduced to moaning like a lunatic. Clues lead to professor Walgate (Kynaston Reeves), a retired genius who’s pretending to be recuperating from a stroke, but in his secret lab he’s experimenting in thought materialization. With jolts of electrical power he’s been able to achieve telekinesis, which he uses initially just to turn the page of a book or move a smallish item from here to there. However, every electrical boost of his brainpower affects him like mild stroke and it takes weeks to try again. Once he taps into and diverts the base’s atomic power, his power is limitless, but he inadvertently creates an invisible thought being that exists independently of him, thinks and acts for itself, and becomes hungry for human intellect, and these are the unseen things that have been terrorizing Winthrop. “What have I unleashed?” wonders the professor. Well, you freed the psyche, for one thing, which inevitably leads to the downfall of mankind.

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Monster reveals are tricky in low-budget movies but in this case when the thought beings, or what the characters call “mental vampires,” finally appear (thanks to gaining enough atomic power) they are delightfully horrible and gory. They’re antennaed brains and spinal columns pushing themselves along like speedy earthworms, using their spinal nerve offshoots as appendages to reach out and drag along. If that image doesn’t make you shudder, they also rear back on their tailbone sections and taking flying leaps toward faces so they can throttle and de-brain their victims.

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When shot or struck soundly, the creatures spurt out gooey dark fluid and die, but they multiply with dizzying speed, fall off trees like fruit, grab hammers and tear the planks off windows. There’s an amazing sequence where the professor, Major, some Officers and locals and love interest Barbara (Kim Parker) are barricaded in a house and the army of slimy brainspines manage to break in and nearly overwhelm them. It’s impressive how these brains take on a personality and display…well, brains, as they reason things out, track their victims and prepare to pounce, and the effects are good and disgusting enough to keep up the thrills the whole time they’re on screen. The only solution the group can find to end the mental vampire invasion is to starve them by shutting down the atomic power source, but there’s a glitch and momentary overload which feeds the little monsters to their hearts’ content.

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This was filmed in England but makes nice use of Canadian nature footage, with beautiful endless pine forests to run through at night and a lake across which echo the calls for the missing hothead constable who’s also the Major’s romantic rival for Barbara. That romantic subplot is cute and Barbara is your typical Northern girl, one of the gutsiest fighters in Winthrop, ordering one coward to keep it together and help her push a desk against the door. In the end when Barbara and the Major get together, it’s a new day for warm American-Canadian relations.

This post is part of the O Canada blogathon hosted by me and Ruth of Silver Screenings. Please click here to read all the other posts covering Canadian contributions and subjects in film.

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21 thoughts on “Fiend Without a Face (1958)”

  1. This one’s fun for the goofy looking brain monsters. I saw this as a kid and had no idea what film it was for years. Just knew it had flying brain creatures. Also wanted to mention it sounds a little bit like The Tingler with dear Vincent. Scream Scream for your lives!

    1. Yes exactly, very Tinglery, imagine if they did a Toho-style sequel with these vs. the Tingler. I would watch that! I’ll watch anything, let’s be honest.

  2. Oops: Clicked too soon.

    What a feat of artistry this movie was. Your analysis has admirably captured its exquisite narrative delicacy and its existential exposition of the 1950s zeitgeist. Too nouvelle for the Nouvelle Vague, too academic for the Academy Awards, too, er, globular for the Golden Globes . . . but thankfully not too Canadian for the O Canada Blogathon.

    In other words: Great writeup as always, Kristina!

    1. It is certainly a movie with brains! Thanks, I’m glad you have the same level of appreciation for this kind of highbrow film, not everyone gets it. Thanks so much!

  3. This one used to scare the hell out of me as a kid, but I’d always watch it because of those (still) great visual effects. I do wonder if those pesky but deadly headcrabs in the Half-Life games were inspired by these creatures as they have the same effect of being unsettling but somehow “cute” in a way…

    1. They are really good scary effects– as much as I snickered at how ridiculous they are, they manage to hit all our phobias and skin-crawling associations, unpredictable movements, dropping off trees and climbing everything, pouncing at faces…ick. Thanks!

  4. Good point – creature “reveals” are tricky, and a lot of times they are Disappointing. These creatures look suitably unsettling. (Really, I don’t think I would watch this alone at night with the lights off. I’m serious!)

    Nevertheless, I’d like to see this one for the creepy monsters, but also for the Canadian wilderness shots. Great choice!

    1. Kudos to the fx dept. these things were cheesy and creepy as heck, and unforgettable. Poor Manitoba, almost sucked dry of its intellect.

  5. I love this one! You left out the titillating comedy scene where the hero barges in while the love interest is in the shower. A very fifties-British expression of sex.

    1. Very much so, the creatures are worth the wait and I won’t soon forget them 🙂 Pretty gory too, the way they die with a splat when they’re shot. Really well done.

  6. Great choice,lovely write up.

    I thought I’d put in a word for director Arthur Crabtree.
    Like that other Forties A Lister Lawrence Huntington,
    he found there were slim picking to be had in the Fifties.
    A highlight for Crabtree was the gleefully ghoulish
    HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM also featured in a
    previous Speakeasy post.
    I,m very intrigued to see the two British B Flicks Crabtree made
    with fading Hollywood star Keefe Brasselle.
    WEST OF SUEZ (aka Fighting Wildcats) was made by the
    same outfit as “Fiend”
    The one I would really love to track down is DEATH OVER MY
    SHOULDER which also has the added attraction of co-starring
    the magnetic Bonar Colleano as a hit man.
    This must be the most obscure British B ever..no reviews on
    imdb,no graphics if you google it.
    The only thing I’ve been able to track down on this picture is
    a foreign press ad on e-bay!

    1. Yes, thank you for mentioning him, loved his HORRORS and would be curious to see those others you mention. Just saw Bonar in A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH. I didn’t know he died so young in a car crash!

    1. They truly are icky, and perfect after all that buildup. The part with their onslaught at the house goes on forever but it works because you can’t believe your eyes 🙂 So fun. Thanks for reading!

  7. I’m going through all of last years blogathons I participated in and make sure I read and comment on all the hosts posts, something I often forget to do.

    I’m not a sci-fi fan and this film doesn’t sound like anything I will ever watch. The Canadian scenery sounds nice though! 🙂

    1. That’s neat, it’s hard but fun to catch up with all the writing in these blogathons isn’t it?

      I can totally understand that, not every genre can be everyone’s cup of tea but thanks for reading and commenting anyway!

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