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Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film review – Fiend Without a Face (1958)

A piece on the 1958 killer brain picture Fiend Without a Face.

Few 1950s creature features deliver the way Fiend Without a Face does.  The first hour is all build-up as tension grows between a US Air Force research base and the small Canadian town of Winthrop.  Like First Man into Space (1959) and Never Take Sweets From a Stranger (1960), this British film attempts a North American setting in the New Forest and requires a stolid cast of familiar character actors (Peter Madden, Michael Balfour) to try variable accents in support of an imported lead (Marshall Thompson, who served similarly in First Man into Space).  A series of mystery deaths in a remote, wooded area are blamed by the locals on the military, either in the form of ‘a mad GI’ on the loose or fallout from the use of atomic power in vital radar experiments.  However, Major Jeff Cummings (Thompson), the hero, homes in on Professor Walgate (Kynaston Reeves), a scientist whose experiments with telekinesis have given rise to ‘a mental vampire’.  It’s not a spoiler to give away the ultimate revelation, since every item of publicity material blows the surprise – the initially invisible culprits turn out to be a swarm of disembodied brains with eyes on stalks and inchworm-like spinal cord tails.  These creatures latch onto victims and suck out grey matter, to the accompaniment of memorably unpleasant squelching sound effects.  The finale is a siege of a house by the fiends, which swarm en masse and are bloodily done away with by the heroes; the brains gruesomely explode when shot and dissolve to putrescent goo when (illogically) the control room of the base’s atomic power plant is blown up to deprive them of the source of their power.

Like The Man From Planet X (1951), X – the Unknown (1958) and a few other films of this period, Fiend mixes the semi-documentary style and contemporary concerns typical of 1950s science fiction with gothic touches more redolent of an earlier period in horror.  There’s much business with atomic power, Cold War preparedness, secret and secretive US military research and bland, professional men in uniforms, lab-coats or protective rad-suits and goggles applying themselves to maintaining a scientific-military frontier against an alien threat.  However, the investigation runs to several visits to a musty tomb, the cause of the trouble is the sort of lone crackpot researcher Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi played in a string of 1930s and ‘40s films, and the menace is explicitly identified as a new variety of vampire.  Though some 1950s monsters (The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, 1953, Them!, 1954) were unleashed by atomic testing, it would have been unthinkable in 1958 to have the citizens of Winthrop proved right in their suspicion that the deaths are down to the sort of right-thinking, dedicated, patriotic science embodied by Major Cummings and his compatriots at the Air Force base – though veiled disenchantment with this line of endeavour was already discernible between the lines in Hammer Films’ Quatermass adaptations and would blossom into outright cynicism and despair in Joseph Losey’s The Damned (1963).  One reason Fiend peels away the onion-layers of a straight-ahead 1950s science fiction film to disclose a gothic core is that Herbert J. Leder’s script is drawn from a 1930 short story by Amelia Reynolds Long published in the seminal pulp magazine Weird Tales.

According to Bill Warren (1), ‘Forrest J Ackerman was the agent for Long.  He suggested the story to [producer] Richard Gordon and sold him the property’.  Long (1904-1978) wrote a number of horror and science fiction magazine stories in the 1930s (a bibliography is online), before moving into the mystery field (The Shakespeare Murders, 1939, The Round Table Murders, 1952), sometimes disguising her sex with the bylines ‘Patrick Reynolds’, ‘A.R. Long’ or ‘Patrick Laing’.  ‘I stopped writing science fiction and the weird story’, she told Chet Williamson, ‘because science fiction had hit the comic strips and I felt that it was sort of degrading to compete with a comic strip.’ (2).  ‘The Thought-Monster’ (3), which is not named in the credits of Fiend Without a Face, was Long’s second published story (after ‘The Twin Soul’, Weird Tales, 1928).  It is a perfunctory blend of horror and science fiction: a series of inexplicable deaths in an unnamed small town draw the attention of ‘New York detective’ Gibson, who is turned into a mindless wreck by an encounter with something that comes out after dark, and then by ‘pyschic investigator’ Michael Cummings, who teams up with Dr Bradley, the local physician, to look into the case.  All is revealed, in a narrative steal from R.L. Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), when Cummings and Bradley find a fragmentary diary left by Walgate, a specialist in ‘psychology in its most abstract form’, which recounts the story of the killings from a different point of view.  In developing his latent powers of telekinesis, Walgate has created the monster responsible for the trouble.  The notion of a scientist unwittingly loosing an invisible creature from his mind is remarkably similar to the central ‘monsters from the id’ premise of Forbidden Planet (1956), which might be a reason why Leder changed Long’s ‘mental vampire’ (a phrase used in the story and the script) from a being which feeds off its victims’ minds, turning Gibson into ‘a mouthing, gibbering idiot’, into a creature which physically sucks out brains, spinal column and sundry nerve ends.

Leder retains most of Long’s character names (Walgate, Bradley) or only slightly alters them (Michael Cummings becomes Jeff Cummings, Gibson becomes town Constable Gibbons) and even many of her incidents: the opening discovery of a corpse in the woods ‘with a look of horror on his face that made the flesh creep on those that found him’, Walgate’s exploratory violation of the Mayor’s tomb, a flashback explanation of the researcher’s well-intentioned experiments and his horrified realisation of their dreadful side-effects, and even the transformation of Gibson/Gibbons (Robert Mackenzie) into an imbecile by an encounter with the monster (strictly, the film fiend has a different m.o. which the constable shouldn’t have survived at all).  Besides the business with the military/scientific base, which is a glorified red herring, Leder only adds conventional padding material.  A mild romantic triangle between Cummings, Gibbons and the sister of the first victim (Kim Parker) extends to a fistfight between the soldier and the policeman in the grieving girl’s home (Parker’s Barbara Griselle shrugs off her bereavement swiftly when Cummings begins tactlessly courting her).  The fact that the gaunt, eccentric-looking Reeves is of a different generation and a grander acting style than the rest of the cast underlines the way Walgate’s endeavours seem a throwback to the brand of research carried out by Karloff in The Devil Commands (1941) rather than a proper fit with the atomic/space age science generally found in 1958 science fiction films.

In keeping with this, the stop-motion animation executed in Germany by Baron Von Nordhoff and K.L. Ruppell feels more in the tradition of the surrealist physicality of Jan Svankmajer or the Quay Brothers than the smooth, professional monster-making of Willis H. O’Brien or Ray Harryhausen.  By farming out the effects work to an overseas house, the production may well have exceeded its own expectations: in its structure, the film resembles many 1950s science fiction films (The Beast With a Million Eyes, 1955, Phantom From 10,000 Leagues, 1955) which keep monsters offscreen as long as possible to cover for deficiencies in the special effects budget, trusting to a lurid title and striking poster artwork to make up for this lack.  Even the device — as in Phantom From Space (1953) and El sonido de la Muerte/The Prehistoric Sound (1964) – of having the monsters invisible until the finale suggests a price-conscious lack of confidence rather than an attempt to build suspense.  The Fiend fiends are among the strangest, and best-realised monsters of their era and their budget class, and had the filmmakers known this going in, they might have been treated more like such impressive creations as The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) and the Ymir of 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) and shown throughout.

Director Arthur Crabtree (1900-1975), a former cinematographer, had displayed a certain melodramatic glee in his directorial debut Madonna of the Seven Moons (1945) but slid from ‘respectable’ projects (Quartet, 1948, Hindle Wakes, 1952) into 1950s TV fodder (Colonel March of Scotland Yard with Boris Karloff, Ivanhoe with Roger Moore) before closing out his career with Fiend and an even more demented, ultra-violent exploitation movie, Horrors of the Black Museum (1959).  Though it’s likely that the films’ personalities derive more from their genre-savvy producers, Richard Gordon and Herman Cohen, Crabtree made significant steps towards a new, more visceral, grand guignol horror in his final pictures, highlighting brain-sucking fiends and spike-extruding binoculars.  Fiend’s climactic orgy of splattered brain-slugs stands proud among the cinema’s first attempts at genuine horror comic glee, setting a precedent for everything from The Evil Dead (1982) to Peter Jackson’s Braindead (1992).  The house besieged by monsters, which does not feature in Long’s story (her punchline is the revelation that Walgate’s monster has wiped his own mind), also became a staple of more ferocious horrors, recurring in The Killer Shrews (1959), The Birds (1963) and Night of the Living Dead (1968).

 

1:         Warren, Bill, Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the 1950s Volume II 1958-1962 (Jefferson and London: McFarland, 1986) p 67.

 

2:         Williamson, Chet, A Visit With Amelia Reynolds Long’ (Crumbling Relicks, ca. 1976).

 

3:         Long, Amelia Reynolds, ‘The Thought-Monster’, Weird Tales, March 1930; Etchings and Odysseys, No. 10, ed. Eric A. Carlson, John J. Koblas & Randy Alain Everts, The Strange Company, 1987; Science Fiction Classics: The Stories that Morphed into Movies, ed. Forest J. Ackerman, TV Books, 1999; Dr. Acula’s Thrilling Tales of the Uncanny, ed. Forrest J. Ackerman & Lynne Rock, Sense of Wonder Press, 2004.

 

Here’s a trailer.

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