By Jonathan Wojcik
ENTRY 27: FIEND WITHOUT A FACE
Written by Herbert J. Leder and directed by Arthur Crabtree, this 1958 film came just a year before The Tingler and occupies a very similar place in my consciousness, even if its plot is admittedly a little thinner, though that's only because any movie with both Vincent Price and a murder mystery is naturally a tough act to follow.
Our story surprisingly takes place in Manitoba, Canada, where a U.S. Air Force has begun testing an advanced new radar station run by its own dedicated nuclear power plant. Though they insist the radar signals and atomic plant pose no danger to the general public, the neighboring community is understandably less than enthused by atomic military experiments in the middle of rural farmland, especially when something seems to be distressing their livestock enough to affect the quality of milk...and even moreso when a sudden, mysterious death befalls one of their own, and then another, and another.
Marshall Thompson plays Air Force Major Jeff Cummings (lol), tasked with investigating the cause of these strange occurences, because we all know how much the American military respects the valid criticisms of foreign rural civilians. The victims appear to be random, but they're all somehow missing their entire brains and spinal cords, neatly and bloodlessly, "sucked out like an egg" through two small punctures at the base of the skull. Locals are convinced this has to be the result of a radiation leak, but there aren't yet any signs of radioactive contamination and there's obviously no known precedent for radiation disintegrating internal organs without a trace. The signature puncture wounds already bring everyone to mind of some sort of "vampire," one that somehow feeds only on the tissues of the central nervous system, and there's some speculation that some undocumented animal species is to blame.
Questioning locals about any strange or suspicious activity, Cummings learns of the mysterious Professor R.E. Walgate, a British scientist who once specialized in the study of the human brain. Likely a bit of a laughingstock in certain academic circles, he would spend many years attempting unsuccessfully to prove the existence of telekinetic energy before finally retiring to the Canadian countryside, incidentally not far from the nuclear station, where he's said to have continued his research in private.
Cummings knows as well as we do that this guy has to be connected, and even if he isn't, there still can't be anyone more important to question about a hypothetical brain vampire than literally the only local brain scientist.
We're also introduced to the professor's assistant, Barbara Griselle (Kim Parker), one of the few memorable human characters because she's the only woman with a significant speaking role, which also makes her Cummings's love interest. In 1959, it was considered pretty sleazy that she wears one of those rad pointy bras and that we also see her wearing just a bath towel. Scandalous. They even put her in the towel right on the poster up there, like it's a main draw of the whole movie!
By now, the audience has seen multiple attacks by our culprit, and they continue to increase in frequency. The attacker is at this point in the film completely invisible, but we can tell from its interactions with objects that it's fairly small, that it crawls or slithers, that it can scale walls and that it can leap up onto human prey, who clutch at their heads and necks as though something is strangling them.
All the while, the presence of the creature is accompanied by a signature pulsing, slurping, wheezing sort of sound that I've never forgotten since the first time I saw this on Sci-Fi Channel at some point in the early 90's. It's haunting and grotesque, but it's also kind of satisfying and nice, isn't it? I feel like I could listen to that beat for hours.
One of the film's grimmest moments might be when a local man named Gibbons goes missing. It's a hilarious name for other characters to keep shouting for as they desperately search the woods, yes, but he finally shows up on his own with his brain just half-slurped, effectively leaving him a lobotomized zombie. It's a spiteful moment by today's standards, as this character was previously portrayed as an almost comical antagonist for his suspicion and contempt towards the air force in his town. BULLYING an innocent sweet little deadliest military power on Earth!? What goes around sure comes around, GIBBONS!
Every surviving character is eventually brought back to the professor's house, where they become trapped by an onslaught of what they should have long realized were fiends, plural. It's an interesting moment, because they have to board up the windows and barricade the doors to keep out this swarm of hungry creatures that multiply as they devour people, and that's a familiar setup now, but this was almost a full decade before Night of the Living Dead would really popularize this scenario as a core trope of the zombie genre.
Realizing he owes everyone an explanation, the professor at long last spills the brains on the insane origin of the first "fiend" in a lengthy narrated flashback. It seems his fascination with telekinesis began when he found evidence that thought may already exert a natural degree of physical force on the surrounding environment, but that this force is typically too weak to have any noticeable effect. He hoped he could build a machine that amplifies this energy enough to move solid matter, beginning with a goal to turn a single page in a book, albeit at the cost of horribly electrocuting himself every day for months. Scientists will science!
He wouldn't have any success until a lightning storm provided an additional power surge, which finally enabled him to turn that single page even as it damn near fried his guts. Realizing he would need relatively enormous amounts of power to accomplish even the simplest telekinetic feats, he expanded his machine and escalated his experiments, somehow "building up a tolerance" to the constant electrocution as one does.
Soon the professor could complete entire tasks without moving from his chair, so long as he kept connected to his doohickey. As his powers continued to develop, he also discovered that telekinesis had a capacity for autonomous operation; that he could essentially organize his thoughts into a kind of remote agent or mobile projection, capable of functioning for extended periods without his conscious input. He could now just sit back and relax while the little poltergeist did all the work!
...But when did the professor's imaginary friend decide to drop that last "r?"
We've established that this telekinetic force sort of naturally "evolves" on its own, even if the movie doesn't use that terminology, and that it maintains itself for as long as it's receiving energy. The professor's machine, however, is not the only thing hurling energy currents through the air, and he eventually sought to tap in the steady stream of radiation the military keeps beaming between its radar antennae and its experimental aircraft. It seems like a real no-brainer that an external power supply beyond his control might not be the best thing to feed an invisible monster he barely understands, but science marches on, and so the psionic phantasm was adapted to sustain itself completely untethered to its creator, no longer "powering down" when he shuts off his equipment.
From the outside looking in, it's patently obvious that he was incrementally creating an independently conscious entity, but it's easy to imagine the thrill of discovery clouding his judgment. By the time it could cast off the shackles of his mind or his equipment, his creation had already become a brand new form of intelligent life, now free to follow the compulsion of a living thing to survive and multiply.
The professor has taught a concept of self to a thought, and it has gone feral.
So what's with the brain-sucking, exactly? Though sustained by energy, the Fiends apparently consume human nervous systems in order to reproduce, each victim more or less converted into another Fiend themselves, so they really do run on some vampire rules. Subsequent scenes of the town square littered with fresh human bodies are almost jarringly morbid by the standards of 1950's Hollywood, and it really does feel like a (much more interesting) precursor to the Zombie Apocalypse subgenre.
But the Fiends are still growing more powerful, especially as they learn to draw radiation directly from the plant's power core, and while this is admittedly kind of a step backwards for them, their increasing strength at last makes them "real" enough to be visible, and that's where the FUN begins.
In case you hadn't figured this out from the poster, the context, or the forty million times I ever talked about these sweet angel babies before, Fiends take the form of brains and spinal cords themselves, with bundles of writhing nerves for "arms" and a pair of utterly delightful snail-like eyestalks right on top of the cerebrum! The climactic final act of the film is a battle between our few survivors and a relentless horde of squirming, squelching, scurrying brains performed with what was once (is?) a dazzling mix of puppetry and stop motion animation! But don't just take my word for it, have a solid minute of Fiendery:
It's plain to see the love that went into these animations, as the Fiends learn how to break in and run amok with visible intelligence and personality rarely seen in other "Bug Eyed Monsters." And as they crawl through furniture we can still see in other shots, it's apparent these were life sized stop motion models animated directly on-set, which is awesome.
You may also notice that the floor is covered over by a crappy tarp, crudely painted to kind of look like floorboards. That's probably because they weren't allowed to stain the real one with all those raspberry preserves gushing out of the injured monsters, which was incidentally considered graphic enough at the time to generate public outrage! It faced exceptional difficulty in Britain, where these scenes would be cut down significantly and still earn it an "X" rating. What little remained was derided nonetheless as a tastelessly gratuitous spectacle by London newspapers, and it was even discussed in parliament meetings as evidence of a moral decline. It's worth noting that we never actually see any human gore in the entire film, but the sight of all those realistic brains was widely considered nauseating in itself, let alone the sight of those brains bursting, squirting and sputtering with thick, clotted "blood!"
That's not the only controversy this movie would spark, either; knowing what a lovable star they had created, its premiere included a promotional "real" Fiend - a puppet in a display cage - just outside its debut theater, which drew enough attention that police felt a need to disperse the crowds and have the Fiend removed as a public nuisance!
Sadly, after all that fuss, the poor little nuisances suffer an abrupt, anticlimactic, and absurd defeat when Major Cummings fights his way back to the radar station and disables its atomic power core by, uh, blowing it up. This creates only a small, easily repaired explosion within the control room and no other repercussions other than the abrupt disintegration of every last Fiend, the only time this movie ever actually feels as "hokey" as its reputation. No radioactive fallout to worry about, nor any final plot twist, no surprise secret weapon against the monsters, no big boss "original" fiend, not even a final stinger suggesting that the fiends will return! The big military hero simply saves the day, kisses Barbara and the movie ends.
MONSTER ANALYSIS: THE FIENDS
Fiend Without a Face is another of those many horror films borne from the uncertainty of the nuclear age. The effects of radiation are still terrifying when you completely understand them, but at one time, an entire generation of adults could remember never, ever hearing that radioactive energy even existed when they were children, only to learn over the decades that this invisible force can cause birth defects, sterility, brain damage and terminal cancer, that it can leave soil and water catastrophically poisonous for centuries, that it can turn the population of a city to ash in the wrong hands and oh, yeah, this is also going to power the entire future of our civilization now. It's no surprise that the atom came to occupy the same niche in popular culture as wicked magic; the only meaningful difference is that this invisible force of plague and destruction is verifiably real.
But while countless nuclear-powered monsters, aliens and superheroes seem laughable through a more scientific lens, this instance still holds up amazingly well, perhaps because the radiation actually doesn't do anything unexplainable and truly only functions as an energy source in the correct sense of the term. It's the professor's electrical tulpa machine that's actually fantastical, but it's lent a funny sort of timelessness by the simple fact that psychic force isn't real enough to understand and demystify. We STILL make science fiction media about telekinetic powers, and popular culture still takes them as seriously as it did half a century ago. In fact, as we touched upon while reviewing The Empty Man, the idea of generating a living being from pure thought has only now really taken off as a more popular scenario in speculative fiction. These little brains were way ahead of both the zombie genre and the trending "tulpa" genre!
They are also, as I think we've firmly established, as plain awesome as they are adorably precious. The entire premise of autonomous telekinesis evolving into a mental vampire kicks ass. That this takes the shape of a disembodied brain is just divine. The hideous throbbing sounds as they creep ever closer are scary as hell, and by the time they lose the benefit of invisibility, there's already enough of them that it doesn't even matter anymore. I can't help but be incredulous of how often the Fiends have been framed as a campy, even childish concept by decades of "B-movie" review culture when the plague of crawling skull-meat is easily more disturbing to imagine than any zombie outbreak ever conceived. It loses the Spooky Uncanny Valley People angle of the walking dead, maybe, but haven't we all had our fill of that, yet?
And as with many of our monsters, several tantalizing questions remain. I've always wondered what exactly the Fiends do to leave "fang marks" in bone, since we never see anything like a beak or proboscis. Could it be by telekinesis alone, concentrated into two tiny, drilling vortexes of psychic force? They don't otherwise demonstrate psychic power of their own, but maybe they can at least exert telekinetic force on material they're physically touching, a telekinetic "suction" that augments their physical strength? And this may be a limitation of the special effects, but their hauntingly slow-motion leap is easy to interpret as another psychokinetic mechanism, a quick burst of propulsion from their "tails."
It's also ambiguous as to whether the brains of victims are actually becoming the additional Fiends themselves. A brain must evidently be consumed to create a new Fiend, yes, but then why does the new Fiend start out as invisible energy? Funny enough, it's implied that the creatures are only shaped like brains because that's how the professor personally visualized his original little buddy, but perhaps he only really did so because he was picking up on the entity's true shape? It seems as though the consumed brains are in fact destroyed altogether, but that the resulting Fiend remains a psychic after-image of the original biomatter; a "ghost" nervous system.
This also leaves us with the question of their actual sapience. In one sequence, we see that an invisible Fiend tries an actual doorknob first thing before resorting to forced entry, so there's at least some information that carries over from the original brain, and the professor speaks frightfully of their intelligence level. Could it even be that human minds are still in there? They don't act like it, but perhaps any hypothetical memory or personality they retain is simply overwhelmed by some irresistible fixation on making more Fiends. Perhaps they're even part of one collective mind with that original progenitor Fiend, losing their individuality and emotion as they blur into the same monstrously logical entity.
However inventive these adorable terrors already are and however they could be expanded upon, we must give credit where credit is really due, because they aren't wholly the invention of this film at all, or anybody directly involved in its production! In fact, despite how good a lot of it would ultimately turn out, director Arthur Crabtree was more or less contractually forced into the job and didn't even like monster movies, notoriously refusing to show up for the first few days of filming before he finally caved. If his name had to be on it, he'd be damned if he was going to let just anybody do his job; A director through and through, you have to admit.
Fiend Without a Face was really adapted from a 1930 short story, The Thought Monster, by author Amelia Reynolds Long, and as was tragically common for adaptations of literature at the time, this fact was never mentioned at all in any of the film's promotional material. You can find a full transcript of it here, and all the crucial details are already present, minus the military and the radiation and the hero fantasy. The original focus is much more on the professor's creation and documentation of a single "thought monster," which provided Fiend's most compelling storytelling anyway, and the eerie case of a partially "lobotomized" victim is actually its climax. Amelia never explicitly describes her monster, either, but a ghostly brain is a reasonable enough interpretation of something she does provide "slimy tendrils" as it probes its victim's thoughts, threatening to "draw their minds into its own!" That the movie expands on little else and even drops some details from the original narrative goes a long way to explain its inconsistent pacing, but it's more surprising just how much of this Hollywood adaptation DOES remain faithful to a short story written almost thirty years earlier.
We have Amelia to thank for a truly creative sci-fi horror antagonist, and everyone involved in "Fiend Without a Face" for translating that to a cinematic villain so enduring, we tend to misremember tentacled brains as a hallmark of the entire 50's monster boom, despite this being virtually the only true example, and one of the only "brain monster" 50's films at all alongside The Brain From Planet Arous, which hadn't a tentacle or eyestalk in sight! Once you know the Fiends, it's easy to see the mark they left on popular culture, with a number of obscure but lovable cameos and references over the decades. Among my favorites:
A "B-movie" watched by Hogarth in The Iron Giant, with obvious caricatures of Cummings and Barbara, and even the psychic energy explanation!
The Angry Beavers episode "Fakin' It," in which Norbert pretends to be sick and makes increasingly unreasonable (but in this case, highly understandable) demands. The brain-eating-brain is even still hanging around their house in subsequent scenes!
"Ren's Brain," one of those wholesome Ren and Stimpy episodes after John Kantpronounci was fired in case you were wondering, wherein Stimpy practices brain surgery on his boyfriend in an attempt to cure his stress and does a 10/10 bang-up job as we can see.
In the absolutely charming manga and OVA Space Family Carlvinson, one of the main characters is a dweeby alien whose design is little more than a Fiend with a few more more appendages added! I've also reviewed it before for another, even weirder cameo.
In Looney Tunes: Back in Action, an actual Fiend appears among many other classic monsters and aliens. A cameo so affectionate it recreates the Fiend's locomotion, sound effects and even attack method as it comes closer to murdering Brendan Frasier than many cinematic villains have ever dreamed of.
We also mustn't forget the Ustilagor from Dungeons and Dragons, either, later declared a larval stage of the Intellect Devourer that reproduces similarly to the original fiends!
...And just like The Tingler, I'm the lucky owner of a life sized replica produced in a limited run more than twenty long years before writing this review, though as a natural latex prop, I'm sorry to say my Fiend will one day inevitably begin to decompose and already shows a few small signs of dry rot. It's held up remarkably well so far, but it'd be lovely if one day someone made one out of any other kind of rubber, or plastic, or silicone, or anything that'll outlast me!
Since this special boy may have only so many years left in this world, I decided I should end this review treating him to his species' favorite activity: lurking and possibly sneaking in a cold northwestern forest.