Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Fiend Without a Face

1958 ***1/2

BRAINS! Ever since I saw clips from this movie in the montage flick It Came From Hollywood, I was fascinated with these little brain monsters. And how couldn't I be? Not only are they eyestalked brains that crawl around using their spinal cords, they have the extra added unreality of (spooky voice) STOP-MOTION ANIMATION. Obviously a draw for me, as that is my bread and butter, but also a far more effective way of portraying these beasties than other methods of the time.

The setting is Manitoba, Canada, where apparently Canadians have Irish accents. A U.S. Air Force base is experimenting with boosting the power of radar with atomic energy, all the better to spy on those lousy Reds. It's important to note that, this being the 50s, the cinematic version of atomic power is akin to what virtual reality is in 1992's Lawnmower Man, and by that I mean it's magic. Just by virtue of being atomic energy, once you go through the trouble of generating it, you can effortlessly beam it to an airplane 10,000 feet up in the sky.

Also, Danny Kaye can be a certifited nuclear technician.

But this is part of the problem. The experiments keep punking out just when things get good, as if some unseen force were siphoning the power out of the air. The other part of the problem is that the locals are getting their brains sucked out by some unseen force. They hear this creepy dragging, slurping noise and then they pull one of these:

"This sucks, eh?"

Military tough guy Major Jeff Cummings is sent into town to solve the mystery and soothe the frightened locals. Also, he mercilessly hits on the sister of the first victim, which would be inhumanly inconsiderate were this not a 1950's sci-fi movie. The male and female lead are destined for a post-monster-defeat first kiss, after a series of tense survival situations, spirited conversations and humerous misunderstandings.

"I put my brother in the dirt yesterday and now I'm ready for some hijinks!"

Following the rest of the formula to the letter, the first hour of Fiend offers up the requisite still-boring death sequences (invisible monster -- an obvious copout), the aformentioned romance, and a vigorous helping of adorably sincere but inconsequential drama. The Air Force's feelings are hurt because the locals don't get what they're trying to do here, the locals hate how the jet planes and/or radiation might be affecting their cows. Mostly it's a series of Serious Conversations like the one pictured here:

"I know this is a morgue, dude, but could you turn on just one more damn light?"

Suddenly, a spontaneous Looking Concerned contest broke out!

But for all the standard padding, Fiend Without a Face has a better payoff than most of its contemporaries. The brain critters get greedier and greedier, finally cranking the nuke plant up to eleven and rendering themselves visible.

"Look, honey! It's finally spring!"

The final fifteen minutes are all-out brain war, with these ridiculous but genuinely weird nasties slurping around in the woods and jumping through windows. In his review Johnny Sweatpants notes the description "One of the first films to feature explicitly gory effects," and that promise just keeps on coming. Wave after wave of brainy attacker winds up spurting all over the rug and wallpaper.

"Dude! Right in the Cingulate Gyrus!"

"You see Mrs. Baxter, Exedrin goes to work HERE and HERE."

I'm spoiling nothing by saying Fiend Without a Face ends with our two romantics in a happy embrace, followed by each of the remaining cast members (all male) making some suggestive quip as they file out the door. "You seem to have things well in hand, Major!" says the Colonel Grumpy. "Good luck, Jeff!" says faithful Sergeant Assistant. Nobody says anything about the hideous experience they just had, or how they must be in shock, or the human corpse over there in the corner. Kiss, fade to black, then sex. Presumably.

Fiend Without a Face. Ask for it by brain.


Catfreeek said...

I also love these old flicks and I'm so glad to see your reviewing them. These were Creature Double Feature at it's best. What a fun review.

AC said...

awesome and hilarious review!

JPX said...

Excellent review, Octo! I somehow missed JSP’s review of this most likely due to the glut of Horrorthon reviews we often find during October. I am so jealous that you guys found this film first! Recently I’ve been worried that I’ve watched all the relevant 1940s/50s horror offerings but clearly I haven’t. I love that you note,

“It's important to note that, this being the 50s, the cinematic version of atomic power is akin to what virtual reality is in 1992's Lawnmower Man, and by that I mean it's magic.”

So true! In 1950s sci-fi you can basically get away with any implausible “science” as long as you justify it by saying that it is somehow connected to “atomic power”. I can only imagine 1950s audiences nodding in quiet understanding whenever science is explained in this manner.

"Suddenly, a spontaneous Looking Concerned contest broke out!"

Anyone else now have "Eyes Without a Face" stuck in your head?


Johnny Sweatpants said...

Octo you're on a freakin' roll with your amsuing captions! You made me want to participate in an impromptu 'looking concerned' contest.

It's ok JPX, I forgive you for not remembering my four year old review.

DCD said...

Love it! Maybe this is the theme I need to tackle, (next year) old horror flicks sound right up my biddy alley!

(Oo! That sounds fresh.)

50PageMcGee said...

nice work, dude. another gem.

re: the one-light morgue topic, i'm reminded of the #2 scientist in Reptilicus illuminating that mysterious disturbance in the dark corner of the lab by shining the flashlight *on his own face*.