Fiend Without A Face/Review

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Fiend Without A Face is a glorious black and white 50s creature feature that still packs an effective punch. It is one of my favorite creature features of the era and holds up surprisingly well. It was independently produced in Great Britain, and picked up by MGM in 1958. It follows a now overly familiar formula but is more consistently paced than most films of its genre and era, and delivers what was one considered an extremely gory (and still effective) ending­ which surely was part of the inspiration for scenes in George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead a full decade later.

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If you want Count Orlok's educated opinion the three films that most directly influenced George Romero's 1968 classic were: Roger Corman's The Day the World Ended from 1956 (a shot-in-9-day, low budget camp feature), 1958's Fiend Without a Face and 1962's Carnival of Souls (the moody low budget Lawrence, Kansas classic directed by Herk Harvey).

'Fiend' gave many children watching television's Chiller Theater (or similar) program in the 1960s and early 70s serious nightmares. Few realized this little low-budget 50's film was considered one of the best of the 50's British Sci-Fi's ranked right next to the best of the Quatermas films. The Quatermas films (which were re-makes of the British TV series) starred Brian Donleavy and gave the fledgling Hammer Films its first taste of success. Hammer would later abandon science fiction for gothic horror and even greater success remaking the Universal Monster series Frankenstein and Dracula creating new cult stars with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Other independent British producers meanwhile were producing science fiction and horror movies often copying the Americans. The American, Beast From 20,000 Fathoms was turned into the British film, The Giant Behemoth a few years later. Giant Ants thrilled Americans in the classic Them!, so why not use that idea in a low budget British film called The Cosmic Monsters (with F. Troops Forest Tucker). Just as a flood of low budget horror flicks produced by AIP, Corman, Bert I. Gordon (no relation) and others were being made, producer Richard Gordon was able to make a few films with Boris Karloff. First he made The Haunted Strangler and later he would make Corridors of Blood. He would then make a couple films with another American actor named Marshall Thompson. Thompson had appeared in It! The Terror From Beyond Space a low budget sci-fi creature feature which wound up being a major inspiration for Alien. Producer Gordon would make Fiend and later First Man Into Space with Thompson.

A deal was made with MGM for two of producer Gordon's films: Haunted Strangler (with Karloff) and Fiend. They were distributed in 1958 by MGM. This was pretty controversial for MGM studios to be distributing and in essence putting their stamp of approval on two low budget horror films-MGM was known for having more stars on their studio lot than there were in heaven and creating big musical extravaganzas. Orlok has seen many changes throughout our modern era and the impact television had on the American Studios was a big one. It led to the movie studios no longer being able to own movie theaters-which let small independent companies like AIP deal direct with theater chain owners without having to sell their films off to the studios as cheap b-movies. Anyway, movie critics in 1958 thought Fiend was a vulgar film and it's finale was gross and utterly inappropriate.

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Fiend did pretty well at the box office and Gordon wound up selling more projects for American distribution. It quietly gained a cult following and also fits into a whole sub genre of various brain and living head movies. Sometimes keeping the various films straight is impossible and could make your brain hurt-but since I sometimes find myself lying awake in my coffin but I cannot get up until the sun goes down, I think about this stuff way too much. Let me try and confuse you. Fiend should not be mixed-up with another 1958 cult brain movie favorite called The Brain Eaters not to be confused with the 60s The Flesh Eaters which was a somewhat plagiarized version of Robert A. Heinlein's novel The Puppet Masters originally published in 1951, that has a plot resembling the classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). The Puppet Masters was also made into a mediocre film in 1994 with Donald Sutherland. However, The Puppet Masters is not the basis for Fiend Without a Face at all. The script for Fiend is by Herbert J. Leder and is based on Amelia Reynolds Long's short story, The Thought Monster, published in the famed pulp horror magazine Weird Tales way back in 1930.

Fiend Without A Face was produced by the British Richard Gordon, filmed mostly in England, set in Canada (close to the American border), starred an American actor (Marshal Thompson), and wound up being distributed by MGM. Got that?

An armed guard standing outside what appears to be a U.S. Air force base in Canada hears a very strange series of sounds in the woods. He goes to investigate. A young farmer is in the woods investigating the odd sounds he is hearing. Suddenly something we can't see is strangling him.... we hear horrible slurping noises, the man screams and falls to ground. The military guard rushes to the man who is dead, his face exhibiting an expression of horror.

Cue the credits.

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We then meet Major Cummings (Marshall Thompson) and his assistant Colonel Butler (Stanley Mated) as they talk about how the strange murder might affect the military base's delicate relationship with the townspeople. They are already not very happy with the noise the jet planes make and are convinced they are being affected by atomic radiation from the nuclear power plant. Cummings has decided it's important that an autopsy is done on the body to be able to prove to the townspeople the victim did not die of anything related to radiation.

However, when they visit the base's coroner, they learn the body was taken by the locals and an autopsy is not going to be performed. Major Cummings is sure a public relations problem is imminent. Cummings is then summoned into Captain Chester's (Terence Kilburn) office. The Mayor (James Dyrenforth) and the victims beautiful sister Barbara Griselle (Kim Parker) are arguing about being able to perform an autopsy on the body of the murdered man. The cause of death has been ruled a heart attack however and both Barbara and the Mayor refuse to allow an autopsy to take place.

Well what can you do? Major Cummings develops a little rapport when he takes the eligible bachelorette Barbara home. It's then time for him to test the new top-secret radar system. A radar system, which will allow the American military to spy on what, the Russians are up to. The test seems to be going well but suddenly the image begins to fade and it appears something is draining the power being produced by the atomic power plant. Well it's time to take a calculated risk and boost the power some more. The power is boosted but still the radar image is weak. More testing and research is needed. What will they tell the Pentagon in Washington?

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Meanwhile as one of the jets returns to the base it flies noisily over the town. It interrupts the funeral being held for Barbara's brother. The noise of the jet also bothers an elderly farmer and his wife. "Well at least the cows are used to the noise," says the wife as she goes into the barn. Oh oh. We hear that awful noise. A low bass drum type heartbeat and a strange gurgling sound. Something is moving around in the hay, but it's invisible. What is it?

The farmer's wife is suddenly attacked by the unseen fiend. Something is choking her. She screams, struggles, falls to the ground. The farmer comes running into the barn. He sees his wife lying on the ground with a terrible expression of horror on her face. There's something moving, there's that eerie sound. The farmer stabs at the hay, but suddenly he is being attacked, choked and he falls to the ground as slurping, and crackling sounds can be heard. What horrible thing is killing these nice folks?

I won't spoil anymore of the film except to tell you the finale is a rather gory, gross-out which still packs a punch even after all these years. The romantic aspects of the film are downplayed and there is a wonderful subtext throughout the film for those who need a little more substance to savor.

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There is a very familiar scene in the film where windows are boarded up against an onslaught of the crawling, leaping, flying creatures. You'll know this is exactly where George Romero got the idea for several of his most effective shots in Night of the Living Dead.

The finale' remains an impressive blend of effective camera work and revolting sound effects. Obviously the stop motion animation effects are quite primitive next to what is possible with CGI (Computers) today, but I still enjoy the other-worldly feel these type of Willis O'Brien/Ray Harryhausen school of effects bring to the film. The special effects were the combined work of three people. Peter Neilson directed some second unit special effects set-ups in Canada, while Baron Von Nordhoff and K.L. Ruppell executed the stop motion animation work. For it's day it was state of the art and grossed out the audiences of its day every bit as much (perhaps even more) then something like the splatter fests and Hannibal grosses out modern audiences.

The film is much better than your average 50's creature feature for several reasons. First, none of the acting is wooden or overly phony. Second, the brief romantic sub-plot does not sidetrack the film at all. It's handled in a far less corny and clichéd manner than usual. The script is also better than you'd expect and has a minimum of cornball lines. Even the explanation of how these creatures came into existence is handled quite well. Oh there are dated elements to the film to be sure. The low budget of the film is also obvious in several ways. The military base security isn't very impressive for instance. The final solution is also amusingly naive but forgivable when you take into the account the film was made in 1958 a time when the space age had barely begun and the real dangers of atomic radiation was still being discovered.

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The film is a very economical 74 minutes long. It adheres to a well-known formula but it remains a very effective film bereft of most of the flaws that plague low budget creature features of the 1950's. The script, acting, direction and effects are effective enough to entertain modern audiences. The director was Arthur Crabtree who began his career as a cinematographer and made films such as The Madonna of the Seven Moons (1944) and Horrors of the Black Museum (1959). Fiend isn't a film you watch and enjoy because of its high camp value but because it's still a suspenseful well done film.

As mentioned earlier there is a whole sub genre of horror/science fiction films dealing with brains, telepathy and living heads. There is the whole monster of the id scenario lifted from Jung (and combined with Shakespeare's The Tempest) for the classic Forbidden Planet (which inspired Gene Roddenberry to eventually create Star Trek). There's telepathy used by the strange crab monsters in Roger Corman's Attack of The Crab Monsters (1957). And there's the mind visualization theory, which form the basis for how the creatures in Fiend are created. From there we leap a bit into brains, mind control, parasites, living vengeful heads and more. There's the floating good and evil brains from the high camp classic The Brain From Planet Arous; There's hairy little brain suckers in 1958's The Brain Eaters.

There's the Mexican made campy gore classic about brain sucking called The Brainiac (1961); One of the most entertaining and amazingly bad movies of all time deals with living heads and telepathy and is called The Brain That Wouldn't Die (1963); There's also the classic keep the head alive and the brain will exert it's evil telepathic influence over another which was originally explored in 1940's Black Friday (Lugosi and Karloff) and expanded in 1953's Donovan's Brain to be directly re-made in 1962's The Brain. This was twisted into the ultra cheap They Saved Hitler's Brain. Another related and more modern cousin of Fiend is Frank Henenlotter's 1988 gore classic: Brain Damage. I've not even mentioned things related to this sub-genre like Beast With A Million Eyes; or Corman's It Conquered The World from 1956 which was remade badly into 1966's Zontar, The Thing From Venus all of which involve various brain controlling alien forces. 1957's The She Creature involved a hypnotist controlling a young woman's brain to explore her past lives and give life to a missing link type creature from the sea.

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There are also several Night of the Living Dead inspired zombie movies where the living dead craves...BRAINS including the Lucio Fulci gorefest: Zombi 2, Peter Jackson's Dead Alive and the parody Return of The Living Dead A few years ago an affectionate updating of the genre was created by writer-director Ron Ford in the direct to video The Crawling Brain which created its title creature from the same mold used to create the creatures in Fiend. ESP and Telepathy weren't new in the 50's, but films combining science fiction and telepathy with horror were. This of course all leads us eventually somehow to Re-Animator. How you ask? Well it's a long story and I think this review has gone on long enough, don't you?

Reviewed by Count Graf Orlock

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