Saturday, 22 October 2016

Fiend without a Face (1958)

I know that Fiend without a Face has the reputation of being something of a horror classic, but I’m afraid it’s a classic that left me sadly underwhelmed.

It is interesting in that it’s a 1958 British movie that seems like a 1958 American sci-fi/horror movie. While Hammer did make a couple of superb science fiction movies around this time (the Quatermass movies) this one has very much of an American monster movie feel to it. It’s set at an American air force base in a French-speaking part of Canada, which adds to the unsettling transatlantic feel that doesn’t seem quite right. The interactions between the air force people and the villagers suddenly makes one feel like one has wandered into a 1950s British Ealing comedy.

The American air force base is being used for experiments in atomic-powered radar. This was the 50s, so atomic power could be used for anything! The atomic power is beamed from ground stations to an aircraft in flight. Yes, I thought that bit was pretty silly too, but this movie is going to get a lot sillier than that. Strange events are occurring in the vicinity of the base. People are dying in inexplicable ways. The locals, being simple country people, think the atomic reactor at the air base is responsible even though the air base commander assures them that nuclear power is completely safe. Eventually permission is obtained to cary out autopsies on the dead, and it is discovered that their brains and spinal columns have been sucked out through two small puncture marks at the base of the skull! This merely confirms the suspicion of the villagers that atomic radiation is the culprit.

Major Cummings (Marshall Thompson) has the task of investigating the deaths and calming the local people. He’s inclined to think that the mysterious Professor Walgate may be connected. He is after all a mad scientist, working in the area of psychic phenomena and thought control. You know he’s a proper movie mad scientist because he has a beautiful female assistant (standard equipment for mad scientists in those days).

And of course Major Cummings and the beautiful female assistant start to fall in love, especially when he lets himself into her house to find her wearing nothing but a towel. This is the movie’s one sexy moment and they played it up for all it was worth on the posters!

Naturally if the villagers hadn’t been ignorant superstitious bumpkins they’d have realised at once that they were dealing with an invisible brain-eating monster. Oddly enough even the air force chappies take a while to figure that one out. As long as the monsters stay invisible the movie has a chance, but once a way is found to make them visible all is lost. If you have very silly looking monsters and very bad special effects, show your monsters as little as possible. Sadly the makers of this film ignored this golden rule. The stop-motion effects undoubtedly required considerable effort, but they look ridiculous. I generally have a very high tolerance for crude social effects, but this movie exceeded my tolerance by a considerable margin.

The movie has lots of other problems as well. For one thing, although there’s a germ of a good idea in there the plot is full of gaping holes. The acting is very unexciting, and the direction and the cinematography are lacklustre. So the elements that could compensate for the plot deficiencies and the general silliness of the premise are lacking. It’s not the plot or the monsters that sink this film, but simply the fact that it’s dull and lacks suspense. It’s an interesting historical oddity and if you really really love 50s sci-fi monster movies you might enjoy this movie. It’s definitely not my idea of an entertaining movie, although the 1950s jet fighters look rather spiffy and will appeal to aircraft geeks.

Fiend Without a Face has had numerous DVD releases including a typically expensive one from Criterion. I personally wouldn’t shell out big bucks for this one. Maybe worth a rental.

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