Fiend Without a Face is cheese at its finest. The plot is meandering and ridiculous but boy is the final minutes of it hilarious! If anything I recommend watching the last ten minutes of this film and laugh heartily. The acting is sitcom bad and again the plot is boring but thankfully the short runtime makes that irrelevant. This is a recommend purely for the moments to laugh and embrace the B-movie ridiculousness.
A series of gruesome murders happen around an US army base. Major Cummings (Marshall Thompson) vows to solve the murders but discovers that a local scientist has developed telekinetic powers that have manifested as creatures who need brains and spines.
I’d heard about Fiend Without a Face through a list about the best horror films out there. I should have known what to expect when the list mentioned how the ending was the only reason to watch; they’re not wrong. The film itself is a typical 1950s sci-fi story focused on debating ideas of science vs. military, set around a military base, and emphasizing a fear of nuclear testing. Of course you have a psychologist Professor Walgate (Kynaston Reeves) who creates the creature unintentionally and is our “villain” vs. the American as apple pie (ironic considering this is a British production set in Canada) Major Cummings who finds it appalling that the townsfolk assume that nuclear fallout is responsible for the murders (gee I wonder where they’d get that idea). With all that being said it’s safe to assume the story is predictable and boring. Clocking in at about an hour and fourteen minutes the film takes a lot of time involving discussion about the formation of the creatures, the creatures in invisible mode killing people, and the search for said creatures. Nothing remotely scary, gory, and memorable happens until the final five minutes!
The acting is all on par with the 1950s sitcoms of the day. Thompson is a nice guy with a glazed look in his eyes and a serious face he uses for any and all situations. Well except for the goofy smile he uses around Barbara Griselle (Kim Parker). Of course a woman in a 1950s sci-fi film is never good and Barbara just looks pretty and screams during the finale. At one point she simply starts shaking her head, apparently thinking that by shaking her head for “no” that the creature won’t attack her. Of course it does so does she start flailing around or fighting…nope she covers her face with her hands! Parker is a competent actress but no one in the cast gives a performance that isn’t on par with something from the Dick Van Dyke Show…if it had aliens.
With all that this review is going to be making fun of the plot, my favorite type of review. The use of sound is the film’s strongest asset because it lets the viewer believe something terrible is happening. The film opens with the sound of these creatures sucking something which is later revealed to be their victims brains and spines. It would have been effective to not show the victims bodies and let the sound effects do all the work because showing the victims lying there with a spine very much intact and relatively unscathed, lessens the effect. Throughout the film the sound effects are way better than the death scenes themselves. All the death sequences are characters gripping their necks, gagging and making bug eyes. In many cases the characters aren’t even moving their mouths but the sounds are coming out anyway!
Our first victim is Barbara’s brother and she’s understandably upset until Major Cummings starts putting the moves on her. Apparently his “aw shucks” attitude is enough to make her forget her brother probably died from nuclear fallout (okay he didn’t but she doesn’t know that). I’ve mentioned before that no romance in a horror movie is believable to me and this film tries incredibly hard to make you believe in Barbara and Cummings’ love dammit! Sure people are getting their brains and spines sucked out through a hole in their neck the size of a walnut but isn’t it adorable to have sappy music play as these two kids fall in love? In one scene Cummings (I think his name is Jim but IMDB doesn’t have it so I’ll call him Cummings) goes to Barbara’s house, discovers the front door is unlocked and proceeds to walk in! Of course Barbara is in the shower and comes out in a towel where the two engage in chaste hijinks. If you thought they were supposed to solve the mystery of the missing spines you’d be mistaken! Nope, it’s all about laughing at the fact Cummings almost say Barbara naked! I do wonder why she never asked him “So my door was unlocked and you just decided to come in. Better yet why am I showering with my door unlocked?”
The film moves along to focus on a search team led by Constable Gibbons (Robert MacKenzie), because this is Canada, for the murderer. Oh yeah apparently he thinks a person was able to take out the victims spine and brains without performing any surgery. He’s a Rhodes scholar that one! You see the effects of the budget here because the search team is hunting at night and yet Cummings is driving to see Professor Walgate at the same time, during the day. Seems someone forgot to take that day for night filter off or something. Gibbons ends up encountering the creatures and comes back as Frankenstein’s monster or a zombie or something. He comes in babbling gibberish with his cheeks stuffed with cotton for some reason. Oh and his groans are heard but his mouth isn’t moving at all. Why is Gibbons the only character this happens to? Why does he act like he’s become mentally defective? Who knows, the film doesn’t address it again. For all we know Gibbons could be wandering the countryside right now as Bigfoot. During that same search sequence Cummings ends up in a crypt and almost dies. Cut to the deputy who must have Spidey-senses because he says “I know someone’s inside” and lets Cummings out. The man wasn’t making noise so how did the deputy know exactly?
The creature effects are laughable and the main reason to watch this film in the first place. I thought their creation was psychosomatic in a way as the power of Professor Walgate’s thoughts create them and the energy from the nuclear power plant (told you nuclear power would play some part) gives them additional energy. When the film is a monster movie it’s awesome. These creatures gain powers throughout the entire film with zero explanation. There’s a fun effect of watching the creatures slide through liquid only to have them then eat through a screen door. The creature design doesn’t have any teeth so where did they get the power to chew through screen doors? Maybe their antenna’s have lasers? I also believe said antennas have to be aerodynamic or else how do you explain their ability to sail through the air at people? The final showdown between the creatures and the humans is awesome because it’s all about goo! The group of humans discover they can simply shoot or stomp on the brains (the design is a brain head and a spinal cord body with antennas…it’s as crazy as it sounds)! So of course you get a lot of black chunky stuff coming out of these brains which makes for a gross good time. I would actually love to know how the effects were created for these creatures and the finale. I’m not sure if it’s stop motion for their movements or what but it’s fun and creative and the boiling effect of their demise is executed well too. Any info out there? Of course I did start to wonder why the humans were so concerned about running out of bullets, didn’t they have blunt objects they could smash the brains with? They didn’t seem that hard to kill.
Fiend Without a Face is a classic B-movie with a weak plot but fun effects. The creatures and gore of the finale make up for the lackluster acting and the meandering plot. I’d place this firmly in the MST3K category of films that’s fun to watch with friends. Some people need a good monster movie and this is representative of the 1950s sci-fi monster films that are lovingly lampooned today. You can watch it via Hulu Plus courtesy of their Criterion Collection.
Type of Horror: Monster, Sci-Fi
Fright Meter: 1
Interested in purchasing today’s film? If you use the handy link below a small portion will be donated to this site! Thanks!
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.