Arthur Crabtree, 1958
Starring: Marshall Thompson, Kynaston Reeves, Michael Balfour, Kim Parker
In Canada, near an American air base, locals begin to mysterious die off and they’re horrifyingly found with their brains and spinal cords missing. Major Jeff Cummings investigates and hones in on Professor Walgate, who has been undertaking some strange experiments with telekinesis. Walgate later admits that he has developed unusual abilities possibly aided by the energy produced by nuclear experiments at the army base. His thoughts have turned into unknown invisible life forms responsible for the nearby murders. Nuclear power is enhancing the power of these creatures, who soon visibly manifest and begin all out warfare on the local populace.
One of Amalgamated Productions’ final efforts is this beloved cult film based on Amelia Reynolds Long’s story “The Thought Monster,” originally published in Weird Tales. Though it has some flaws — it has some pretty dull dialogue and plods along in parts — this represents some of the highs of ‘50s atomic horror. Set in Canada, allegedly to appeal to both US and British audiences, this English-shot film has most of the hallmarks of the genre. First up is the standard insipid leading man, played by the wholesome-looking Marshall Thompson, who briefly made a career out of these roles with films like It! The Terror from Outer Space and First Man into Space. The Leave It to Beaver-like lack of complexity in characters like Major Cummings is admittedly frustrating, but provides plenty of unintentional humor.
And of course there’s a female love interest — who needs to be rescued — in the form of Kim Parker’s Barbara. I can’t stress how much I hate these type of characters that plague ‘50s cinema, which is probably why my favorite genre from the period is film noir with its abundant use of the femme fatale. These manipulative, seductive, and often violent dames are the antithesis of Barbara’s faintly hysterical, helpless character that would fortunately begin to fade away in recent decades. At least she’s overshadowed by the typical mad scientist who causes the hubbub — this time with experiments in telekinesis — his thoughts literally become invisible brain-feasting monsters.
The monsters are of course the real reason to watch Fiend Without a Face and they represent some of the goriest effects in ‘50s British cinema. Like the admittedly superior Quatermass and the Pit, this was given an X certificate by British censors. The creatures do murder a number of people — by sucking out their brains — and in the film’s amazing final 15 minutes, they attack the professor’s home, flying through the air, and slithering along thanks to propulsion from their tail-like spinal columns. Though this is obviously a low budget affair, the film really benefits from great sound effects and the use of stop-motion animation for the monsters. After running amok, they are relatively easily defeated and the ending is a delightful gross out fest with the brain monsters melting into squishy puddles of goo.
Fiend Without a Face is far from perfect — most of it is Mystery Science Theater material — but if you consider yourself a fan of vintage horror, you really need to see this at least once. Amazingly, it’s been released by Criterion in a restored edition with some nice special features. It’s strange to think that you can see the brain monsters in fully restored cinematic glory, but there’s really nothing like them in all of ‘50s cinema. Director Arthur Crabtree, whose work here is admittedly a bit pedestrian, didn’t make a lot of horror films, but his two contributions are enough to put him permanently in the books for British horror. Immediately after this sci-fi horror classic, he went on to make Horrors of the Black Museum (1959), which I’ll explore tomorrow.