The next movie I watched for my Halloween Binge came fairly highly recommended. It’s one of those films that generates cultural references, but few people have actually seen. Despite the relative obscurity (especially when compared to some of its contemporaries), it’s a film I’ve seen referenced two or three times in various places. It’s an iconic film. The places I had heard it referenced or mentioned generally praised it, even if it was just in passing. The fact that there’s a Criterion copy (which is what I watched) is recommendation enough really. I am, of course, talking about the 1950s horror/SF film Fiend Without a Face.
A lot of films from the fifties get that horror/SF label, like they’re some conjoined twin birthed from the two genres. It’s a label that gets passed around every now and again if someone makes a horror movie set in the future, or space. To my mind it’s not really a necessary label. Horror can pretty much be added to any other genre on top of having its own distinct tropes. We don’t call movies with ghosts fantasy/horror. It’s not that I have a problem with the two labels being combined; it’s just a weird inconsistent method of labelling. And it probably gets tossed around most for films from the fifties. Movies like Them! and It Came From Outer Space. That’s really because these movies exist in their own little genre. Not quite horror, not quite SF. Cautionary tales of technological development with more in common with, say, disaster movies than horror. They don’t really follow many horror patterns so much as they feature scared people and the occasional monster. They’re a pretty distinct little sub-genre filled with a number of influential gems.
Fiend Without a Face stands apart from its contemporaries a bit, in part because it’s a little more frightening. It’s a fairly grim movie, unexpectedly disturbing and graphic for the time. The British Censor Board demanded a number of changes upon the film’s release before eventually giving it an “X” rating. Even with this warning the critical response to the film was one of shock. The images and effects were upsetting and left audiences at the time shaken. There were even some people distressed that the British Censor Board let the gory and grim film be released. It’s a film that certainly feels more deserving of its horror label than most.
The film’s production was a bit tricky, and certainly interesting. The film was set in Manitoba, because British filmmakers thought setting the film in a Commonwealth country near the States would appeal equally to American and British audiences. Of course the movie wasn’t actually shot in Canada, instead it was shot in England, with a variety of British, American, and Canadian actors. The director initially stormed off set for a few days, saying he did not shoot these sorts of films. The producer directed until his return. The movie still suffers from the low budget a bit. For one thing the runtime is miserably short (only 70 minutes), despite the film being heavily padded with stock footage and long credits.
This doesn’t do much to soften the film’s impact though. The movie revolves around a soldier at a joint American-Canadian air force base in Manitoba. They’re using their new nuclear reactors to power a series of radar experiments. They’re testing the range by flying planes with experimental radar scanners on them. This testing alarms the nearby village. They’re worried about the radiation from the reactors and the planes affecting them and their cows (Canadians being generally portrayed as simple farming people in the film). The scientists at the base assure the villagers that all their tests show there is positively no radiation, and they’re completely safe. That being said the base is having trouble with their tests, in large part because the power keeps wavering during the middle portion of their runs. They’ve tried everything, including running the reactors dangerously high, but they can’t get the tests to operate properly. However this concern falls by the wayside when someone gets murdered in the woods outside the base.
The victims’s sister meets with the personnel at the base, expressing the village’s concern that the army is in some way responsible for this misfortune. Most frustratingly though, the village refuses to let the army investigate, or examine the victim’s body. Our main character, Jeff Cummings, drives the grieving woman home. Along the drive the two quickly start to become friends. You can pretty much guess where that goes. When another two victims turn up, both the army and villagers become very concerned. The villagers are convinced that the murders coincide with the planes flying over, or that there’s a mad GI on the loose. The army knows that those takes are wrong, but can’t figure out what is happening.
Finally autopsying a corpse doesn’t help much either, as the method of death proves mysteriously fantastic. The victims have had their brains and spinal cords sucked out of the back of their necks. Everyone goes on high alert and starts trying to track down the perpetrator of the crimes. Jeff and his lady friend meet with a scientist, an eccentric shut in who has attracted Jeff’s attention and who has a focus on, among other things, psychic power. The villagers form a posse and start combing the woods. They split up, and one member of their party goes missing, only to return the next day, brain damaged.
The film’s climax is filled with stop motion mutant brains and gunfire. It basically turns into survival horror as the brains split and spray thick blood when they get shot. This all culminates in an explosive finish, involving dynamite and the nuclear reactor. It’s not just the movie’s gore and creepy effects that help it stand out. The characters are surprisingly well written. It’s not showy, but the characters feel unusually distinct and real, which really helps sell the proceedings. It’s a particularly fun example of fifties drive-in, double-bill horror.