Fiend Without a Face review by The Grim Ringler

In the hey-day of the fifties it wasnt hard to find any number of science fiction cheapies about the horrors of nuclear energy, outsiders, space aliens, the beast within, or any number of boogiemen. Mankind was standing on the edge of outer space and we found outer space was looking back. Most of these movies, while fun and spirited, were generally bad and were made to make a quick buck and beat a hasty retreat. I would doubt that many of the people involved expected their films to be loved and cherished so many years past their expiration date. But amidst the cheap thrills were some genuinely well-made and thoughtful chillers, which have carved out a place in film lore for them. Among such classics as The Blob, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and The Thing, is Fiend Without a Face, an obscure British oddity that, thanks to the Criterion Company, now has a chance to prove its mettle and take its place amongst the big fellas of the genre.

Set on and around a small American Air Force base placed on the Canadian/American border, this sci-fi thriller begins with the sudden and mysterious death of a local farmer who was snooping around the air base. The townsfolk, already unhappy that their lives and the lives of their farm animals have been disrupted by the constant roar of air traffic, immediately blames the air base for the death and word begins to spread that the murder was committed by a man airman. The Air Force though, already stressed that their top-secret nuclear powered radar contraption isnt working as it should, fears something more sinister is afoot. As more bodies begin to pile up the local yokels are getting restless and so are the airmen. On further examination of one of the bodies its found that someone or something has been draining the brains and spinal columns from people (like a mental vampire as they say) and none of them knows who, or what this unseen fiend could be. It just so happens though that there is a scientist known for experimenting with nuclear power and telepathy living not far from the air base and slowly but surely all signs begin pointing to him. It seems Mr. Big Brain was secretly experimenting on ways to create energy through sheer will and mind-power and, utilizing power bled from the Air Forces nuclear testing, he has created invisible monsters which feed on the brains of humans to keep their energy for mischief up. Good heavens!

So off goes our hero, a brash young airman with his sights set on the mad docs assistant (go fig, a fifties sci-fi flick with the hero falling for some dame, you dont see that much), to get to the bottom of things and to find these faceless killers. It seems though that the docs experiment has multiplied and there are now dozens of these critters (ghoulish buggers that consist of a large brain with antenna and a spinal column that it uses to push itself about, not unlike a snail), which suddenly have the area under siege. Our hero makes a mad dash for the nuclear plant in the hopes of dynamiting it (an idea SO ridiculous that it could only appear in a fifties sci-fi opusor a modern direct to video quickie) and cutting off the fiends from their source of power the nuclear energy. But can he stop the fiends before they break through the meager defenses of the cottage his lady-friend and two others are hiding in?

As corny as the premise may sound, the execution is really top notch. Hiding the fiends until the last part of the film really adds a sense of menace to their killings and raises the stakes for everyone. The acting also is very well done and, while there is a pretty corny romance, never becomes self-parody. Everyone here takes the film and its premise seriously. Though it isnt delved into too deeply, the idea of the military and its push into riskier technologies versus the older America of farming and small town fears is an interesting idea. Its funny that 1. The farmers here are Canadians, who appear as rubes where the Americans are the levelheaded ones and 2. That this film sorta serves as a twisted propaganda for nuclear power, stressing at one point how, while the local cattle were upset initially by all the hub-bub from the base, that they adapted in time. Weird. The creature effects really steal the show though as, once they are revealed, these are some ugly critters and manage to add a shiver to what is otherwise a by the book sci-fi affair. The film is also fairly ghoulish for the time this was made, the fiends dying in very gruesome ways as they are shot by the humans and out of the bullet holes bubble thick black goo, which is heightened by the sickening sound effects.

The only real fault is that its hard to suspend disbelief long enough to buy into the idea of blowing up a nuclear power station being a good idea. Yes, it serves the plot, but its hard to fathom that they were that nave even back then as to what the effects would be they blew the plant. And if you have seen more than a couple of the fifties/sixties sci-fi movies it tends to get old when the hero and the sassy but sweet gal fall for one another yet again. I see the reasoning behind this the scares bring in the guys, the romance keeps the girls but it gets SO hokey and old after a while. Here it isnt over-played so it isnt as bothersome but as smart as the rest of the film is, its a shame that they didnt try to break from that old tradition as well.

Being a Criterion disc, this is a beautiful looking film and only shows particles during a couple sequences that used stock footage. The sound is in mono but the sound effects (used brilliantly in the film) are loud and clear and as effective as I would imagine they were when this film was first released. The extras include a commentary track from the producer, some vintage ads, some publicity material, and an essay on the film which talks about its history as well as the history of the fifties sci-fi boom.

A very well made pulp sci-fi film with some ghoulish effects, this is definitely a film that deserves to be re-discovered. Like too many other smaller, more obscure, sci-fi films of the fifties this film has all but disappeared and its high time for that to change, and thanks to another fine job by Criterion, we can.

c




8 out of 10 Jackasses
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