Fiend Without a Face (1958)
"New horrors! Mad science spawns evil fiends!...Taking form before your horrified eyes!"
A spate of unexplained deaths begin to occur near a nuclear-powered American air base in England. As the locals continue to blame the Air Force for the deaths, it turns out that the victims have been killed by some invisible creatures that are a by-product of a thought-control experiment conducted by a retired professor.
As American audiences were being bombarded with a never-ending stream of alien invasions and giant monsters during the 50s science fiction boom, the UK was keen to get in on the act with some of its own productions. The likes of The Quatermass Xperiment and X the Unknown were released to capitalise on the genre's new-found popularity, with the English productions desperate to secure an American actor from across the pond in a bid to easier sell the films to American audiences. Brian Donlevy, Forrest Tucker and Dean Jagger were all drafted in by Hammer to star in their various black and white science fictions films of the 50s. Fiend Without a Face was a British production and so wanted to do the same thing - secure a token American actor, make a reasonably cheap sci-fi flick and then double or even treble its money once the rights had been sold overseas. Little did the makers of this realise that they were developing one of the best cult films of this decade.
Fiend Without a Face might look a little cheesy on the outside nowadays but this classic dose of science fiction horror from the 50s is head and shoulders above most of its counterparts. I can honestly remember this freaking me out as a kid. As an adult, the film is obviously less intimidating but is more curious for other reasons. It has your typical 50s sci-fi plot: a small town suddenly has a spate of mysterious deaths, no one has a clue what is causing them, some scientist is drafted in to figure out what, there is a big reveal midway through and everyone finds out that it's some form of horrible monster that is killing people off. Also be prepared for a bit of a romantic sub plot as the dashing young American airman falls in love with the professor's assistant. It's the usual forced subplot but it's hardly given much screen time and won't detract from anything later in the film. The only real difference between this and say The Deadly Mantis or Them! is the monster and thankfully this is where Fiend Without a Face punches above it's weight. It would be a travesty to consider this in the same league as such 50s classics as Invasion of the Body Snatchers or The Thing From Another World. But in the runners up category, this must surely be leading the charge.
The first half of Fiend Without a Face is rather dull. The acting is stodgy, the dialogue is stilted and the budget is rather limited. Production values are ok but the film doesn't really give off any lofty ambitions or visions of grandeur, seemingly content to just plod along throwing in random kills every so often. At seventy four minutes long, Fiend Without a Face is in no hurry to build towards its climax. There is a wonderful sense of imagination running through the film though, most notably surrounding all of the experiments and scientific mumbo-jumbo. The nature of the monsters is plausible given everything that the film throws your way. Even their final appearance has been brilliantly conceived to make proper use of the scientific themes discussed earlier in the film. But for the first half of the film, you'll have to be satisfied with invisible monsters. This means when they do attack and kill people, you'll have to put up with ridiculously over-the-top scenes of the actors clutching at thin air and grabbing aimlessly at their throats before they drop down dead. It's a clever, but cheap, way of avoiding showing us the monsters. But it's worth the wait.
It's only when the monsters show up that Fiend Without a Face switches from generic 50s sci-fi flick to cult classic. The monsters are the stars of the show here and although they look a little bit dated, they still have the ability to creep you out. Heartbeat sound effects are used to signify their presence and there is a sickening 'slurping' sound when they attack and start sucking the brains out of their victims - the sound design really earning their pay here. Believe me these noises are scary and effective at building up tension. When they do show up at the finale, they're stop motion creatures for the most part and look unique. The idea that they are by-products of the thought control experiment is mirrored in their brain-like appearance with spinal cords attached and a pair of antennae-like appendages at the front. They move around with skilful mastery like caterpillars do thanks to the impeccable stop motion.
Scenes of the monsters ripping planks of wood from the windows to get into the house will leave you in disbelief at how impressive the effects are. The make-up effects when the monsters are shot with a bullet are quite gory for that time as they splatter and ooze blood. In fact it was so detestable at the time that critics said it wasn't fit for civilised eyes! Granted it looks very tame in today's gore-soaked market but you have to remember the time in which it was made and it's easy to see how it shocked so many people. The finale where the survivors board themselves up inside a house to prevent the creatures from coming in must surely have inspired some of the ideas in Night of the Living Dead and is a suitably exciting climax (although the preposterous notion of blowing up the nuclear power plant to stop the monsters seems to be something only the 50s would come up with!). The film doesn't quite finish there and offers the promise of a sequel right at the very end.
Marshall Thompson is the token American and he would also go on to star in the Alien precursor It! The Terror from Beyond Space in the same year as this, cementing his legacy as one of the leading men in this genre in the 50s.
Old-school British horror and sci-fi was always a lot slower paced than its American counterparts and some may find Fiend Without a Face a tad dull during the first half. But those who stick with it are in for a real treat featuring some of the most imaginative monsters of the decade in one of the most thrilling finales of any of this genre. One of the best British sci-fi horror flicks ever made and certainly one that deserves more praise that it has received.
Fiend Without a Face
Director(s): Arthur Crabtree
Writer(s): Herbert J. Leder (screenplay), Amelia Reynolds Long (original story "The Thought Monster")
Actor(s): Marshall Thompson, Terry Kilburn, Kynaston Reeves, Kim Parker, Stanley Maxted, James Drenforth
Duration: 75 mins