Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Fiend without a Face (1958)

Even if you haven't seen the movie, if you were a Monster Kid in the 60s and 70s, you've seen the monster.  I didn't see this film until a few years ago, but I was very familiar with the titular creatures thanks to the same couple of still that would show up in countless monster magazines and books.

Yep, Kim Parker getting cuddled by a Fiend
seemed to be in most of the horror books I read as a kid

I finally saw Fiend without a Face after a visit to Movie Madness here in Portland, a video rental store full of movies you couldn't find at a big chain video rental store (as well as a ton of cool movie props).  I raced home, watched the movie and seventy-five minutes later, started watching it again.  I knew this one had to be in my collection, regardless of the price (which was a bit steep, as the DVD release was through Criterion). 

But the Fiends are not the only reason this is one of my favorite monster movies.  The film is one of the best examples of how to keep an audience's attention, despite a low budget, through quick pacing, sharp direction and a cast that brings their A-acting game to a B-movie.  It's not award-winning work (well, maybe the effects were, at least at the time), but it's damn fun.

The film revolves around Major Jeff Cummings (Marshall Thompson), a career Air Force man fueled by coffee, cigarettes and speed (really, he's taking lots of 50s No-Doze).  Sleep isn't an option for him, as he trying resolve a mysterious power loss on the military's experimental radar system.  Somehow, as the base transfers power from their nuclear reactor to a plane, boosting the distance of it's radar signal so the military can watch Russia from a base in Canada, an unacceptable drain occurs, knocking out the system.

Seriously, Major, energy drinks are much safer.

Okay, it's a wacky idea, but this is not the first example of 50s science that occurs in the film.  You'll just have to accept a few things that don't make sense, especially given what we know about nuclear power today.  Just let it go and enjoy the ride.

Jeff also has to contend with the dairy farmers in the small town near the base, who are worried about how a nuclear plant might affect their herds.  It doesn't help that one of the farmers is found dead outside the base's fence, with a look of terror on his face.

Jeff's superior, Col. Butler (Stanley Maxted) wants an autopsy performed to eliminate suspicions that the base was in some way at fault, but the man's sister won't allowing.  Trying to pressure Babara Griselle (Kim Parker), Col.  Butler uses the man's diary, containing notes about the flight activity on the base, to force the issue.  Barbara calmly counters by pointing out the notes about the base coincide with notes concerning the farm's herd, trying to correlate a link between the noise of the planes with milk production.  Too bad the town doesn't have a chicken farm as well, as Col. Butler is left with egg on his face.

You're the type of person that doesn't read 
read the instruction manual all the way through, are you?

But another pair of deaths give Col. Butler the opportunity to get an autopsy, which revels the victims had their brains removed from their skulls through two tiny punctures in the base of their skull.  While Col. Butler issues orders for his officers to find out what type of animal might attack in such a matter, Jeff finds time to stop at Barbara's house, where he surprises her as she comes out of the shower.  This scene not only adds a bit of titillation to the film (intended by the filmmakers, according to the DVD commentary), but also became a focal point of the film's posters.

When you said you were slipping into something more comfortable,
I wasn't expecting that!

Not only does Jeff find Barbara warming up to him (despite walking into her house and finding her wrapped in a towel), but he also finds the manuscript she is transcribing for her employer, Professor Walgate (Kynaston Reeves), concerning his experiments with thought projection.  But the town constable, Gibbons (Robert MacKenzie), interrupts the budding romance, resulting in a brief fight and souring Barbara's opinion of Jeff.

But Jeff has more important things to worry about after the mayor is killed by the creature.  In the prelude to the attack, the audience is given the first "look" at the fiend, which, though still invisible, is reveled to be inhuman through some very well done stop motion animation.

Though up to this point, the film hadn't offered many clues about the creatures, but the marketing department spoiled the look of the Fiend (not unlike film marketing today).  Not only is an image of the Fiend on the poster, but a mock Fiend in a steel cage was displayed outside the Rialto Theatre in New York City during the US premiere.  The prop moved and even emitted sounds, and supposedly caused enough of a crowd to gather that the police arrived and demanded the prop be removed.  Guess the excitement it generated was considered a win by the film's distributor.

I so wish film studios would add into their promotion budgets

Now, back to the film...

Gibbons decides a rogue soldier is to blame and rounds up a posse to search the woods for the killer.  Too bad for him, as he vanishes after venturing down a path alone, only to turn up later as a drooling lobotomy victim.

If I only had my brain....

Okay, I'm going to interrupt the plot summery again to comment on the film's most glaring error.  The search led by Gibbons obviously takes place at night (filmed using a day-for-night technique).  The problem is this sequence is intercut with scenes of Jeff visiting Prof. Walgate for the first time, which takes place during the day.

I suspect the filmmakers planned the two scenes to be independent sequences, but appeared to change their minds as the film was edited.  And cutting between the search and the introduction of Prof. Walgate works in the film's favor for two reasons.  First, it breaks up a rather talky scene between Jeff and Prof. Walgate, which, might have taxed the audience's attention.  And it eliminates a plot problem, as the town hall meeting that Gibbons shows up at after being attacked by the Fiend takes place at night.  Had the initial search played out as an individual scene, and been followed by Jeff's visit to Prof. Walgate's house, it would imply the townsfolk searching for Gibbons spend an entire day search the woods for him without success.  That seems implausible, as Gibbons would be staggering on his way back to town and, as he wasn't able to be inconspicuous after the attack, the searchers should easily have found him. 

It's too bad the scenes of the initial search were likely underexposed during filming and left the filmmakers no choice but to use the darkened sequence.  Perhaps you can just imagine the woods were dark and deep in that section of Canada, with trees thick enough to block out the sun.  Nope, as they focus on the sky once Gibbons goes missing, that won't work.  You'll  just have to accept the filmmakers couldn't afford to re-shoot the scene and used the footage they had to make the best movie possible, even if it doesn't look right.

Okay, no more interruptions, I promise.

Jeff begins to suspect Prof. Walgate, who eventually confesses to siphoning the radar test's power in order to conduct his telepathy experiments.  He claims to have created a being that feeds on nuclear power and is reproducing, thanks to the brains it is consuming.  He convinces Jeff to shut down the reactor, but it's a bit too late.  The Fiend destroyed the plant's containment rods and starts attacking the staff at the base.  Once they are out of the way, the Fiends turn up the power output to eleven, which causes them to become visible.  Realizing the only way to shut down the plant, thus starving the Fiends, is to blow up the plant's control station (again, 50s SCIENCE!), Jeff races back to the base while Col. Butler, Barbara and a few others fend off the creatures.

Okay, I'm gonna sneak up behind them and...
Oh damn, you can see me now!

And, as expected, mayhem ensues.

Though it might start out slow, Fiend without a Face manages to hold the audience's interest with some solid acting and a mystery that isn't reveled until the final few minutes.  Thompson is exceptional in his rather stereotypical role, always acting whenever he appears on the screen.  His facial expressions as Barbara wrecks Col. Butler's attempt to label her brother as a saboteur are wonderful, and he manages to make his character straight laced without becoming an unintentional caricature.  And his line when the first Fiend is shot is classic.

I told you not to read the Cliff Notes.

Maxted and Reeves are fine in their roles, though they aren't given a chance to play much more than a stereotypical commanding officer and misguided scientist.  But, as with Thompson, they don't become overblown caricatures, keeping the film from devolving into a campy romp.  Parker does the best she can playing the love interest and damsel in occasional distress, and the rest of the cast is solid as well.  Their strong work gives the film an air of credibility despite the wonky science and silly plot.

Director Arthur Crabtree also does a very good job within his limited budget.  He moves the camera within scenes quite often and seldom holds on shots too long, which keeps the film from dragging.  

It's unfortunate the film overuses stock footage early on, making the opening drag a bit.  And the sequence involving Jeff locked in a crypt could have been excised to tighten things up (though it would have reduced the film's running time too much).  And the town hall meeting after the mayor's death plays out a bit too long in order to re-establish the relationship between Jeff and Barbara.

Must stretch out the running time!

But these are minor quibbles, and once the Fiends are reveled, it's easy to forgive the film's faults.  The stop motion creature effects were created by Florenz Von Nordhoff and Karl-Ludwig Ruppel (credited as Ruppel and Nordhoff), two German filmmakers whose effects credits are surprisingly short, given their work on this movie.  Nordoff directed the sequences, with the stop motion done by Ruppel in Munich.  Rounding out the effects team was Peter Neilson (who only worked on one other film, Doctor Blood's Coffin),who headed the British practical effect team.

The stop motion Fiends are terrific.  The creatures do pale compared to Ray Harryhausen's work at the time, as the Fiends do not display the personality inherent in the his creations.  But they move quite convincingly and Ruppel adds in some extra touches to help sell the effects.  Though obviously painted, the floors used in the stop motion scenes try to replicate the look of hardwood flooring.   And in one moment, a pair of human legs are animated walking across the floor just as a Fiend drops into the shot, a nice bit to show the stop motion creatures and the actors sharing the same space.

But what really stands out is the gore.  When shot, the Fiends writhe about, spurting blood from their wounds in a manner similar to Bart Pierce and Tom Sullivan's effect work in the end of Evil Dead.  The battle against the Fiends was so gruesome and shocking for the time that the British Board of Film Censors demanded a number of cuts before granting the film an "X" certificate.  But the critics were still appalled and Parliament questioned why the film was allowed into theaters.  Censors in the US demanded cuts as well and I'm sure the critics at the time were equally shocked.

I'd love to have a time machine
so I could go to the premiere and watch the audience reaction to this!

It's been suggest online that the producers were planning to film the final reel in color, to spice up the exploitation element.  But in his commentary on the Criterion DVD, producer Richard Gordon quashes that idea by stating it was hard enough to get the film past the censors in black and white.  Had they filmed the movie in color, it probably wouldn't have been released.

The film is based on the short story "The Thought Monsters," written by Amelia Reynolds Long and published in the March 1930 issue of Weird Tales magazine.  Original Monster Kid Forrest J Ackerman acted as her literary agent and brokered the sale of the story to Amalgamated Production.  Though many of the names and the basic idea of the story are kept intact, screenwriter Herbert Leder added in the military aspect of the movie, as well as the revel of the invisible creatures (they were never described by Long and the story's resolution is quite different).

Along with the military aspect of the film comes a bit of what can only be describe as American military propaganda.  The town's concern about the base and the nuclear reactor is dismissed as childish by the military, and both Jeff and Col. Walgate consider the townsfolk to be "superstitious."  As for concerns of radioactivity affecting the town, Jeff complains that such worries are baseless, as the base isn't detonating nuclear bombs.  And, after all, the base is trying to keep North America safe by keeping track of the use of Russian airspace and the town should be grateful for that service.

Look at all the cool stuff we have.
How can we NOT know what we're doing?

Such an attitude shouldn't be a surprise to most fans of 50s monster movies, as the military always knows what's best, as common folks have no idea of the threats surroundings them.  As with the 50s science, it's an aspect that a modern audience can only accept as a glimpse into the era in which the movie was made (though it's not as disturbing as other behaviors and beliefs captured on film during the time).

One final note concerns the accents of the townspeople.  If they sound like they're actually living in the United Kingdom, that's because the film was shot in England.  Amalgamated Production was based in Britain, and hired local actors for the farmers and some of the American soldiers (those characters were dubbed, according to Wikipedia).  Gordon says in the DVD commentary that he hoped setting the film in Canada would make the accents acceptable to audiences of the day.

No matter how well made, it's possible Fiend without a Face wouldn't be as well remembered, or as entertaining, without the creatures and the gore.  But, despite the scenes added to pad out the running time, the solid acting and decent camera work makes waiting for those ghoulish delights quite enjoyable.  As I mentioned, it might not be fine art, but it certainly earns its reputation as a cult classic and a damn good monster movie.

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