Fiend Without A Face, 1958. 6.5/10

Right in the cockpit of ’50s sci-fi, Fiend involves a creature concocted somehow through a dose of nuclear energy. A device in play is that the creature’s “face” isn’t revealed until the latter part of the film (it starts out invisible). The fun begins when a rogue scientist (aren’t they always up to something?) taps into the nuclear power–intended for the nearby military base for its radar–to enhance his experiments on the subconscious. Sounds dangerous, but in a cool way.

On deck for this movie are Marshall Thompson, Kynaston Reeves, Kim Parker, Stanley Master, Terry Killburn, James Dyrenforth, Robert MacKenzie, and Peter Madden. Thompson is the base commander Major Cummings, Reeves is our scientist Prof. Salvage, Killburn is Captain Chester, and Parker is Barbara, Walgate’s assistant. Dyrenforth is the town’s mayor, and MacKenzie is Howard Gibbons.

We start with a sentry at a military base who see some suspicious stuff whiz across the sky. When he goes to investigate, there’s a bunch of oozy gooey whatever in a clearing, along with a dead guy. Thompson has to figure out how the man died. No autopsy possible; locals have whisked the body away.

Pesky locals–don’t they get that the nearby nuclear reactor isn’t a bomb? The Army has a point in that an autopsy would show if radiation was involved or not. The victim’s diary isn’t much help. Barbara is only slightly perturbed about her brother’s death; she has it in her to find the Captain amusing.

At the command tower, something funny is happening on the radar screen (Siberia giving us dirty looks?) There’s a power fade; that is, the reactor needs to be spooled up so their equipment will work better. Something’s draining the power off. Well, it was just a test anyway, all that fuss for nothing.

“Our beloved Jack” is lowered into his grave just as there’s a B-47 flyover, drowning out the funeral oratory. Meanwhile, on a nearby farm, what looks like an incredibly huge mole tunnel is rapidly closing in on a farmer’s wife–she’s strangled by invisible stuff (not murderous moles). The old guy tries to pitchfork it, but it gets him too. Sounds like a pig, actually.

Well, what is it? Not radioactivity! The brass is worried though “it will be tough if the town turns against us.” Well, at last we get an autopsy–the brain and spinal cord are missing, a “mental vampire” at work? Which burrows like a mole, sounds like a pig, but is invisible. Time for the Major to make a house call on Barbara. What’s this lying about? “The Principles of Thought Control, by R. E. Walgate,” her boss’s book that is.

Hmm. Stop right there. Suppose Walgate is using nuclear energy to jump-start his thought control experiments? All the evidence is there: dead folks piling up with their brains missing. That doesn’t explain the invisible whatever it is.

Anyway, the Major gets his comeuppance from Howard. No “tom-catting” around here (Howard’s the town constable, not exactly Barbara’s chaperone). Next step for the Army is to sleuth Walgate’s repertoire. Ominously, we here the invisible critter stalking the Mayor. Sure enough, he gets it too. Does he have a big brain or something. “It’s the atomic fallout!” cry some locals.

Time for vigilante action–they think a wigged-out GI is the murderer. Ok, but how do they know where to look for it? At the base, here’s the dope on Walgate: “a cross between Robinson Crusoe and Einstein.” Describes most scientists in sci-fi movies. The erstwhile unwelcome Major comes calling on the elusive Walgate.

“It’s just ignorance!” These townspeople…he means, four deaths? well. They talk about the look of the first victim’s (Barbara’s brother’s) face after he died. Outdoors, the posse is restless. We hear the wumf-wumf of the creature. (Now I can place it’s crawling sound as similar to that of the invisible creature in 1956’s Forbidden Planet.)

Gibbons has had the misfortune to wander into the gooey clearing in the forest. Bradley gets the deputy mayor, Melville, to summon a council meeting. The Colonel and Major are called in on it. Again, they testify that radiation is innocent of all wrongdoing. They also dismiss the “mad GI” theory. Gibbons crashes the meeting.

Groaning with real horror, he looks like rubber jello. The Major is going to do a cemetery inspection. Down in a crypt he finds the partly open coffin with one of the victims inside. Of course, the Major gets locked in the crypt. A secret passageway? The Captain is worried about the Major; Barbara tells him about the cemetery.

They hear him pounding from down in the crypt. Rescued. They go to see Walgate. “Man can create power from thought… [impossible you say?] …maybe with atomic power…” And why was Walgate down in the crypt–the dummy had left his pipe there? Time for Walgate to have a fit.

The brass agrees to shut the nuclear plant down. Uh–oh, the “rods” have been destroyed; can’t shut down the power. Ok, finally Walgate levels with the military guys about his thought experiments. Something about detaching thoughts to make them “entities.”

So we get via flashback Walgate doing stuff in his lab (absurdly, Barbara didn’t even know that he had a lab). An electrical storm gives him enough of an energy boost: viola! He can move objects. Conveniently, the nuclear plant proves to be a more reliable power source. He can now give “life, and mobility” to his thought projections.

He realizes that he’s created a “fiend.” That is, he finds he can’t control the wayward thoughts. Using the military’s terminology, he’s talking about having created a “mental vampire.” Ok, but there’s an environmental angle: the nuclear plant, and therefore it’s energy, is inherently “evil.” Thus the destructive bent of the thing(s).

The doctor thinks the evil is actually in Walgate’s mind. Sounds plausible. Well, scratch another guy, the ol’ Fiend is breaking in. Kind of a hum-drum barricading scene. Anticipation builds though, as the ‘entities’ might become visible, thanks to the escalating power level.

Great: we see–brains with spinal cords; scorpion-like things with heads and tails. They are pretty creepy. The solution is to blow up the control room at the plant. A too-long scene ensues, with the main characters holed up in Walgate’s house under siege by the creatures. Outside, the Major hi-tails it to the plant.

Needless to say, the brain creatures quickly up and die as soon as the control room blows up. The end. Why the power plant itself doesn’t go off is a mystery.

This could’ve been better. There’s lots of potential, but problems everywhere: the premise, the pacing, the logic (merely the suspension of disbelief), some of the scenes… What’s the point of keeping the creatures invisible for most of the movie?

In Forbidden Planet, which also doesn’t reveal its critter until late in the game, it hardly matters; that film is loaded with special effects. But Fiend Without A Face has nothing else tangibly monstrous going on, except Gibbons’ hideous fate.

Had all the victims ended up like him, it would’ve been both more horrific and truer to the thought-control concept. That is, the victims might’ve become so many pod people (ala 1956’s Invasion Of The Body Snatchers).

There’s a false sense of isolation when the creatures actually appear. Who cares about a handful of people stuck in a house? There’s a military base nearby with, presumably, more than a few soldiers on hand (we see both fighters and bombers as well). Certainly, a low budget movie can’t have cities destroyed or bases attacked, but a truly isolated setting can give a small group or community a palpable sense of danger.

The most notable example of an isolated community in danger–1951’s The Thing–uses little more than some prefabricated buildings for most of its very chilling scenes. Or the ‘giant bug’ movies (Them!, Tarantula, The Giant Scorpion), most of which used the desert (and its small towns) to generate their creatures.

What’s interesting here is that there’s a quasi-horror aspect alongside the sci-fi. Walgate is after all something of a latter-day Dr. Frankenstein trying to animate thoughts (“mental vampire” is an apt phrase). The graveyard scene wouldn’t be out of place in any vampire movie. Plus, we even have superstitious townspeople.

All of those trappings are more or less wasted, or there impact diluted, by the nuclear power plant/military base settings. That sets up some needless duplication; if lightning (again a Frankenstein-like horror touch) works initially for Walgate’s energy source, who needs nuclear energy? The entire rationale for the base, the radar, is not really figured into the plot.

I’d rather have some alien presence (detected by the radar) cause the Fiend to appear, or just junk all that stuff, give us Wingate conjuring his thoughts into their grotesque existence to run amok in the sticks somewhere. And so the townspeople band together to exterminate the little buggers. As it is, the plots needlessly complex. The pay-off just doesn’t offer much; the weak ending really hurts.

Fiend Without A Face isn’t bad, it’s just not very good. 6.5/10

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