Fiend Without a Face (1958)
Directed by Arthur Crabtree

Artistic Value: * * *
Entertainment Value: * * * ½

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The U.S. military is conducting radar experiments requiring nuclear power at an air force base in rural Manitoba, but the suspicious locals believe that these might be causing their cows to produce less milk. Then, when a farmer is found dead in the woods near the base's runway, his uneducated neighbors begin to get overtly hostile towards the resident foreigners. Fortunately, Barbara Griselle (Kim Parker), the dead man's sister, is reasonable, and Maj. Jeff Cummings (Marshall Thompson), who quickly develops a romantic interest in her, begins cultivating a relationship with the young woman. He soon learns of her employer, Prof. R. E. Walgate (Kynaston Reeves), a retired scientist investigating the power of the human mind, and becomes curious about the man's studies. After further deaths ensue, and it is discovered that the brain and spinal cord of each victim have been sucked out through holes made in his neck, the major finds evidence that the professor might know more about their cause than he is revealing.

Arthur Crabtree's Fiend Without a Face is a reasonably well made horror thriller, but what makes the film worth seeing are the bizarre monsters that show up in its last ten minutes. These are so fun to watch that, whatever the viewer might think of everything that came before their appearance, he is sure to remember this movie with some little affection.

Although the film was clearly made on a low budget (and there are a few especially shoddy details that could make the viewer cringe), most of Fiend Without a Face is skilfully realized. The acting, for the most part, is decent. The script brings out the tensions between the locals and the military men on the base, and it generally does so without reducing the members of either group to caricatures. In fact, both the performances and the narrative engage the viewer in the mystery of what is killing the people of the small town where the film is set. I will hardly claim that such elements make this a great movie, but they do make it interesting enough to keep the viewer's attention from wandering. They also help the film to avoid some, if by no means all, of the clichés that burden so many similar works. For example, Walgate, though, in some ways, a standard mad scientist, is depicted as having remorse for the unforeseen consequences of his actions. He is not simply a cackling fiend. Instead, he is an inquisitive and decent man who makes a very bad mistake.

As is probably obvious from the last paragraph, it is Prof. Walgate who is responsible for the horror released on the small Canadian town where he lives. Towards the film's end, it is revealed that he has been siphoning off power from the military base's reactor to help him conduct his experiments on psychic powers. As a result of his doing so, the professor inadvertently created a malevolent being of pure thought that is now rampaging through the countryside eating human brains and spines.

For most of the movie's duration, this fiend is invisible, as are its numerous progeny, and their actions can be a little disappointing. When one of the monsters attacks a person, this individual is shown grasping at the air and falling over dead. Happily, the director has better things planned. The moviegoer is not, therefore, wasting his time with Fiend Without a Face. Towards the film's conclusion, the unseen devils trap the film's protagonists in the professor's house and force them to barricade themselves in it. Having done so, the fiends sabotage the nuclear reactor at the base to increase its output and provide them with more energy. Once they have done so, they are made visible in all their wonderful weirdness. The creatures are disembodied but mobile human brains. From the front of each creature extends a pair of antennae, like a snail's eye stalks, and from the back of each extends a spinal cord flanked by a pair of long branching nerve fibers. Each of the beasts creeps about either by contacting and extending its spine, in the way a caterpillar does its body, or by hopping with the pair of nerve fibers, making it look like a very ugly frog. Not only is the appearance of the fiends enthralling, but, since they are skilfully brought to life by means of stop-motion animation, their actions are captivating as well. Whether they are clustered in trees, skipping about the ground, crawling through windows, or leaping upon their prey, the things are just fun to watch. They really are some of the most imaginatively conceived movie monsters I have seen. The film's final battle in and around the professor's house is endlessly amusing, and it is also, I might add, pretty exciting.

As I already said, Fiend Without a Face is, on the whole, a decent though not an exceptional or even particularly memorable movie. Its monsters are, however, so entertaining that they make watching the film worthwhile. I genuinely liked the little beasts.

Review by Keith Allen

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