During the early stages of the Cold War, Soviet spies had an incomparably easier time keeping tabs on their American enemies than the other way around. Part of it was due to experience: decades under the iron-fisted rule of a paranoid despot had bred an internal security force that freer nations dreaded and envied in turn. Moreover, the Stalinist purges selected for the most paranoid and xenophobic among the political elite, leaving the USSR with a political caste predisposed to suspicion and intrigue even after the dictator’s death. America was disadvantaged both by her openness and by her consideration for the convenience of her citizens. For instance: Detailed highway maps were available at every gas station in the USA, while such information for the USSR had to be painstakingly pieced together by operatives. As a consequence, America and her allies were busy dreaming up technological solutions to the espionage gap (which actually existed, unlike the bomber and missile gaps). In real life, a solution was found by using high altitude spy planes, the U-2 program. However, since this was unknown to everyone outside of the White House, the CIA, and the highest echelons of the US armed forces, the civilian population was left to postulate other ideas. One such idea comes in today’s remarkably goofy film: nuclear power radar that can “watch the Russians in their own backyard.”
The quickest way to get from Russia to the continental United States is to pass over the Arctic Circle and go through Canada. So, when the USA and USSR began to point nuclear weapons at one another American eyes were fixed on Arctic skies. Three lines of Radar pickets were constructed: The Pinetree Line, which hugs the USA-Canadian border, the Mid-Canada Line that lies just south of the Hudson Bay, and the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line that sits inside the Arctic Circle itself. The lines were constructed in sequence from south to north, with the more northerly outposts taking most of the funding and equipment from their southern precursors. Consequently the Pinetree Line was only really significant in the early 1950s, and the Mid-Canada Line was almost totally displaced by the DEW line by the middle of the 1960s. In 1958, when Fiend Without a Face was released, the Mid-Canada Line would be at the height of its prestige and importance, as construction on the DEW line had only just been finished. Naturally, the film is set in a radar installation that is serving as one of the Mid-Canada Lines’ pickets, located in the sleepy little country town of Winthrop Manitoba.
The townsfolk are not at all happy to have an air force base in their backyard. They’re sure that the nuclear radiation from the base’s reactor will spawn a race of mutant abominations, and what’s worse having all the planes pass overheard is scaring their cows! One local dairy farmer, a Jacques Griselle, whose lands border the air force base, is keeping a diary of when the planes take off and land and how the noise effecting his cattle’s milk production. It’s in the middle of one of his note taking sessions that he is attacked and killed by an unknown creature. The death is one giant headache for the base’s commander Colonel Butler and his head of base security Major Cummings (The 1950s were a more innocent time, when you could make a movie with a hero named after the act of male ejaculation and nobody would bat an eye). The townsfolk are already beginning to blame Griselle’s death on radiation from the base’s nuclear power plant. To make matters worse, Griselle’s sister Barbara has refused to let the base’s doctor perform an autopsy, which could prove that “no fancy atomic fallout caused” his death. Jacques Griselle had a heart condition, he suffered a heart attack and died, and that’s the end of the story as far as she’s concerned. Griselle isn’t the only one who turns up dead; a farmer and his wife are stalked and killed by some kind of invisible creature. Their relatives have no objection to an autopsy, but the doctor turns up the damndest thing he ever saw: Their necks have been punctured and their brains and spinal columns have been sucked out “like an egg.” Cummings has the right idea of it when he says “It’s as if some mental vampire were at work.”
In the meantime the invisible monsters continue to stalk and murder victims, claiming Winthrop’s mayor and then leaving the town constable as a brainless madman (the constable is the only one to survive an encounter with the brains, no reason is given for his survival, maybe as a cop he was accustomed to not using much of his brain). The special effects used in making the scenes where the townsfolk are stalked and murdered by the invisible monsters are not terrible impressive technically, but boy do I sure love them. Just like the older films The Invisible Man (1933) and Forbidden Planet (1956) it’s a joy to see the props and characters manipulated by unseen entities. Sure, some enterprising team of grade-school filmmakers could probably duplicate these effects, but I think that is part of their charms. Fiend Without a Face also deftly merges the invisible monster sequences with a bit of stop-motion animation, a nice little foreshadowing for the skill with which the film will animate it’s monsters once they become visible.
Brainless corpses are not the only problem that the Air Force is having; their experiments with nuclear boosted radar are going exactly nowhere. From a minimalist control room that looks like it wouldn’t be out of place on a film noir re-imagining of Kafka’s The Trial (it’s all ghastly shadows, men seated behind high desks and dark, almost cavernous, lighting) Butler and Cummings run their tests. Each time they get a brief boost of range on their radar systems, allowing them to see 2500 miles, far enough to peak into Soviet territory, only to have it fade away to almost nothing for no readily apparent reason. Cummings and Butler pour as much power as they can into the system, only to get absolutely nothing in the way of results.
It should be noted that the townsfolk in Winthrop have every reason to be worried about these experiments, even though they are wary for all the wrong reasons. Colonel Butler and his staff are inexcusably reckless with the way they push the reactor. Cummings warns the Colonel that they cannot safely crank the power up any further, but the Colonel orders him to do so anyway. The same conversation is repeated down every step of the chain of command, with the more knowledgeable subordinate pleading with his boss not to proceed with the experiment. When Cummings contacts Peterson, the engineer in charge of the reactor Peterson tells him in no uncertain terms that: “If I take anymore of those rods out, the reactor’s liable to get out of control.” To which Cummings replies: “Well, take some more out. We’ll have to risk it.” Peterson accepts this with a resigned shrug saying “It’s you’re funeral, probably mine too.” When Peterson calls the engineer at the reactor core, the audience hears a protest over the phone: “That’s crazy!” To which Peterson replies “Yeah but it’s an order.” It’s a weirdly subversive scene, depicting the US military as incompetent and reckless, that stands out all the more given the cultural context. Most films of this vintage and genre depict the governmental and military authorities as wise, just, capable and most importantly sane. Only a few veer into out-right propaganda (ahem, The Deadly Mantis (1957), ahem) but most share the same patriotic and optimistic viewpoint. Only a British picture like Fiend Without a Face would dare to pull something like what we see here.
As it turns out the reactor’s malfunctioning and the rash of mysterious deaths are connected: They are both the product of sinister experiments undertaken by the town’s local mad scientist, a professor Walgate. The reclusive, but brilliant professor is described as a “cross between Eisenstein and Robinson Crusoe” though he seems to live in a big house with all the modern luxuries, so I don’t get where the Crusoe part comes from. Walgate is also the leading authority on Sibonetics, an apparently made up field of science that I can find nothing on except for the astonishingly surreal website http://www.sibonetics.com. Walgate has evidentially seen Forbidden Planet (1956) but rather than taking Morbius’ experiments with alien technology as a warning has decided to emulate them. He’s built a device in his basement that amplifies his latent telekinetic powers and powered the device by siphoning off energy from the base’s reactor. His work culminates when he tries to create a physical manifestation of his thoughts, a sort of mental homunculus. The monsters are shaped roughly like brains, but being creatures of pure thought they are invisible. Naturally, for products of a reclusive mad scientist, the creatures get out of control and begin to go on a rampage. Before they break free the trash Walgate’s laboratory so thoroughly that he can never repair the damage. The first monsters have been drinking up nuclear power from the base’s reactor and using it to reproduce, by now there’s no telling how many of them are
Cummings begins to suspect that Walgate is involved in everything as soon as he hears about the crazy old scientist while flirting with Barbara. He never really gets any proof to back up his hunch, so in one of the most confusing sequences in the entire film, Cummings heads to the cemetery. Cummings sees a figure fleeing a tomb, but when he goes to investigate the crypt he manages to get himself locked inside. Ok, it’s an embarrassing situation for the soldier but then somehow the buffoon manages to deplete all the oxygen in the tomb (it’s huge walk-in crypt, and should have at least the same air capacity as a city bus) and nearly suffocates. He’s only saved by a last minute intervention on the part of Barbara and his aid Captain Chester. All that Cummings has to show for his efforts is Walgate’s pipe, which doesn’t prove anything except that Walgate visited the crypt. Fortunately the old man is so broken down and ridden with guilt that he confesses the moment that Cummings confronts him, and tells his whole sad story. He even suggests a way to stop the invisible brains: shut down the nuclear reactor and they will wither and die.
The only problem is the brains are not going to cooperate. They smash the reactor’s control rods to delay the shutdown and then massacre all the engineers. Free to meddle with the reactor, the brains crank the power up to dangerous levels (presumably the same levels that the military was using to test earlier). This sudden jolt of energy is enough to make the brain-monster visible and boy are they a sight to behold. They look like a cross between slugs and brains, looking around with little eye stocks that jut out of their frontal lobes. They can even leap through the air, though whenever they do so they seem to move at an unusually slow speed, almost like they’re passing through jell-o. The monsters attack by wrapping their spinal columns around their victims and strangle/eat their brains (it’s not really clear what’s happening). The stop motion is, for a film of this stratum, nothing short of incredible. Between the fluidity of the animation, the organic responses of the brain-monsters, and the way the props interact with their human co-stars we’re looking at some top-notch work. Best of all are the goofy noises the brains make, whether it’s the squelching sound they admit when dying or the bionic man-esque ringing when they jump into the air. All things considered, it’s hard to find a more grotesque and also entertaining movie monster than these brain creatures.
The brains corner most of the cast inside Walgate’s house, and lay siege to it in a manner that makes me suspect a young George Romero, future director of Night of the Living Dead (1968) was sitting in the audience. With the brains closing in Cummings realizes that the only chance they have is to blow up the reactor. Amazingly, not only does this hair-brained scheme work, it but also has no negative side effects either on the base or the town. Forgive me if that strains my suspension of disbelief just a tad.
Fiend without a face is one of the bloodiest 1950s movies I’ve ever seen. Off the top of my head only The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1959) is a credible rival. In most movies of this vintage the bad guys just kind of slump over when their shot, groaning and clutching at their abdomen. Violence happens, but you never see any of the gorier effects of it on screen, most of the time there isn’t even any blood in self-proclaimed horror movies. This is not so in Fiend without a Face, whenever one of the brains is shot it erupts in a blood and writhes about in a surprisingly convincing death rattle. The film’s violent content caused a minor uproar, producer Richard Gordon later recalled that newspapers were saying the film was “too revolting to be called entertainment” and that “somebody in parliament” was saying it was a “crime that [the] movie got released.” Modern viewers may wonder what all the fuss is about, but remember this was the 1950s and moreover the UK where filmmakers labored under a much more stringent code of censorship than their counterparts in the US.
Even without the gore, and some cuts of the film have most of it exorcised, there is plenty in Fiend without a Face to entertain. The nutty priorities of the townsfolk stand out as a golden example of the film’s unintentional humor. In the middle of a rash of unexplained deaths, all of which they attribute to nuclear radiation and sinister government experiments mind you, the local yokels call a town meeting. Sensible enough, they have to coordinate their response to the crisis, especially now that the mayor is dead and the constable has vanished. But rather than talk about the monster or the murders or the dangerous atomic research, the townsfolk choose this time to complain about how the planes taking off and landing at the base are scarring their cows and effecting milk production. The film’s British origin also provides more than a few laughs at its expense. Linguistically the film is all over the map, Barbara for instance is suppose to be French Canadian, yet every so often a faint English accent creeps into her dialogue. Far worse is the fact that the dress, mannerism and speech of all the other inhabitants of Winthrop would make more sense if the film were set in Wales than if it were in rural Canada. Such are the dangers of trusting British filmmakers to get details right about their North American kin.