Sunday, October 11, 2015

HubrisWeen 2015, Day 6: Fiend Without A Face (1958)


C-C-C-COMBO BREAKER!

You may have noticed that my first five films this HubrisWeen were about killer aquatic reptiles. Well, it's kind of hard to keep that trend going forever, so now it's time to depart in a big damn way. Instead of killer reptiles, now we're looking at killer hopping brains!

Really, I shouldn't have to say more than that to get your attention, right? I mean, brains that can survive outside the body are a horror movie staple. Usually, however, the only killing they do is psychic. Not so with these brains! These are predatory, highly ambulatory brains!

They're also oddly adorable.

So where exactly do adorable, hopping brain monsters come from? I'm glad you asked. Canada, of course.

Specifically, Winthrop, Manitoba. In Winthrop, the US Air Force has stationed a brand new interceptor base designed to have an unprecedented radar range thanks to a nuclear reactor powering it. And when we join the movie, a base guard is having a smoke just outside the fence on his late night duty. He then hears an odd noise, like something slurping and hopping around in the woods. He goes to investigate it, and we see another man standing in the forest and also listening to the odd sound. The solider hears a scream and then comes upon the dead body of the man we saw before.

Well, that dead body right outside the base is just the last thing that Major Jeff Cummings* (Marshall Thompson) wants. Tensions between the Air Force and the locals in the area have been tense enough as it is without a dead man in the mix. Captain Al Chester (Terry Kilburn) tries to tell him to forget about it, since for all they know it was natural causes. Cummings is a bit shocked to hear that attitude from a base security chief, since they're supposed to be suspicious of everything. He'll rest easier when the base doctor's autopsy comes in, though.

[* I first saw this film at B-Fest, and discovering the lead character's name was "Cummings" resulted in exactly the kind of constant jokes you're thinking of already. My favorite was definitely, "Major Cummings is all over it."]

However, when they go to see the base's doctor, Captain Warren (Gil Winfield)--passing by the desk of one officer who "comically" hides the sandwich he's eating in his desk drawer until they're out of sight again--they discover he hasn't done the autopsy. Why? Because he doesn't have the body to examine. The town's mayor and the man's sister claimed the body and are refusing an autopsy, and the colonel already signed off on it. Cummings is not too happy to hear that, but he might get a chance to plead his case because they're still on the base meeting with the colonel.

When Cummings arrives, Colonel G. Butler (Stanley Maxted) is pleading with Mayor Hawkins (James Dyrenforth) and Barbara Griselle (Kim Parker), the dead man's sister, to let them do the autopsy. They still refuse, so Butler shows them, and Cummings, the notebook that Barbara's brother was suspiciously writing in at 3AM outside an Air Force base. The pad is a list of flight times for the base's aircraft--how do you explain that, commie? Well, if Butler had read the next page he'd have discovered that it was a list of various women's names and descriptions of their product. Said women are actually the Griselles' cows, who have had very low milk yields of late and Barbara's brother was convinced that it was the constant sound of planes that so disturbed them. Unable to pin espionage on the dead man, Butler relents to them claiming the body.

Cummings, for his part, drives Barbara home. He tries to offer condolences, but she wants no part of it until he objects that Americans aren't so different from Canadians. it's not like they're aliens, right? That gets her laughing, at least. However, she's got a funeral to prepare while Cummings has a radar test to supervise. The test, for some reason, involves stock footage of a plane that Cummings is communicating with and lots of footage of spinning radar dishes, including one where the director decided to jazz things up by mounting the camera on one of the spinning dishes at whatever base he was allowed to film that footage at! After boosting the nuclear power way past safety limits, apparently forgetting that the locals already dislike having a nuclear reactor in their backyards without it melting down on them, the big radar screen in the base allows them such a thorough range that they can see Russia from their house,

Though I'm not sure how a radar station located in Manitoba is able to display a radar signal that appears to be centered directly at the North Pole.

Unfortunately, the celebration is short-lived because the signal fails. Apparently, this keeps happening whenever they test the radar array. Cummings and crew still can't figure out why, since it doesn't seem to be a power drain--it seems to be some kind of interference. Speaking of interference, the plane from the test returning to base (or, at least, I assume it's that plane since the stock footage here is an entirely different plane) passes over the funeral of Barbara's brother and, hilariously, completely drowns out the preacher speaking over the grave.

It also annoys two old, oddly Irish farmers. The old woman says she's at least glad the cows are getting used to it and goes into the barn to feed the chickens. Unfortunately, the strange sound from the beginning of the film finds her now. Something clearly invisible makes its way through the straw on the barn floor and then leaps up and attacks her. Her screams draw her husband, but he's too late. Hearing the creature moving and seeing the straw rustling, he tries to attack it with a pitchfork, but it's no use. Whatever it is kills him by apparently wrapping around his neck and making loud slurping sounds.

Barbara is leaving the funeral with Professor R.E. Walgate (Kynaston Reeves), when a young man rushes up to inform the mayor about the old couple being found dead in the same manner as Barbara's brother, on their farm at the edge of the air base. Walgate gets a significant look on his face, but Hawkins goes for the blaming the Americans. Butler gets the call and makes a futile effort to explain that there is no evidence of any radioactive contamination that would cause these deaths. After the phone is hung up, Cummings suggests maybe they ought to try and tell the townspeople a bit more about what they're actually doing there, show them why it's important. Butler is just reminding Marshall why that's not true when Chester arrives. His men had gone to investigate the farm, but the local constable chased them off the scene.

So it falls to Cummings to track down relatives of the old couple and get them to consent to an autopsy. He apparently succeeds because we next see Warren explaining his autopsy results to the local doctor Bradley (Peter Madden), Butler, Cummings, and Chester. He's discovered that the victims both had two tiny puncture wounds at the base of their skulls and when he cut open their skulls to investigate, he found that the brain and spinal cord were gone--sucked out through those two tiny holes. Marshall describes it as a "mental vampire" and Warren can only offer that as his explanation because he's never seen anything like it. Chester makes an odd comment about, "Maybe that Gibbons guy was right. Maybe it is supernatural," but if he's referencing an earlier scene it must have been cut because I don't recall that ever coming up.

Butler gets the Bradley to agree to keep this a secret from even the mayor, while Warren contacts a variety of specialists to find out what could have caused this. Cummings is tasked with keeping an eye on the townsfolk and reporting anything unusual. So naturally, Cummings heads right over to Barbara's house--where he manages to walk in on Barbara, who has just gotten out of the shower and is wearing nothing but a towel. (This is pretty damn racy for 1958, I hasten to add--Ms. Parker almost comes out of the top of the towel when wrapping it around herself, for instance) Of course, being Canadian she politely tells him to make himself at home while she gets dressed instead of violently throwing him out.
"Dear Penthouse: I am a Major in the USAF stationed in Canada, and I never thought this would happen to me..."
Cummings pokes around and finds a manuscript titled "The Principles of Thought Control by R.E. Walgate" on a desk with a with a tape recorder. He starts leafing through it when Barbara returns, now wearing a robe with the towel wrapped around her hair. She wasn't even getting her hair wet when we saw her in the shower earlier, so I don't know why she needs the towel, but okay. She explains that Walgate dictates into the tape recorder and she edits the tapes and prepares the manuscripts. Cummings observes it's odd to find a man like Walgate in Winthrop, which Barbara jokingly means he is implying they're too back woods for that.

Walgate had a stroke a few years ago, so Winthrop was the perfect quiet location for him to settle while continuing his work. Cummings asks if Walgate is still doing research into psychic phenomena, but abandons that thought thread to try and move in for a kiss--and then Constable Howard Gibbons (Robert Mackenzie) walks in. Gibbons is outwardly hostile to Cummings, implying he's letting the "G.I. killer" run loose so he can focus on putting the moves on local women. And here I note that Gibbons is also vaguely Irish, so either Winthrop is a town of Irish expats or the filmmakers wanted to try and make the locals sound extra Canadian but had no idea what Canadians sound like.

(Given that this film was made in England, I'm guessing the latter)

Gibbons eventually provokes Cummings into a fist fight, and Barbara understandably asks Cummings to leave. Following up a hunch, Cummings then gets Chester's help in tracking down every book and article Walgate has ever written and binge reads it. Meanwhile, Gibbons leaves the mayor's residence, just in time to miss the arrival of the invisible menace. Much like Forbidden Planet, the camera tracks the invisible monster's movements as it knocks over things it passes by on the porch and tears a hole in the screen door. Hawkins goes to investigate the sound of the thing--and thus gets his brain good and sucked out.

Gibbons faces an angry mob the next day, but he assures them that it was no radioactive fallout that killed the mayor. He believes there's a psycho soldier on the loose, and he so immediately convinces the crowd that they immediately all grab their rifles and head into the woods to hunt for the killer. Cummings, meanwhile, goes to visit Walgate. Barbara is not happy to see him, but she shows him to Walgate nonetheless. Walgate surprises Cummings by having already figured out what they're doing at the base with atomic power and radar, because he read an article about Cummings' work a few years ago. He assures Cummings that he doesn't spread his assumptions around, though neither one acknowledges that Barbara is within earshot when they're discussing this.

Barbara goes to transcribe the latest notes, so Walagate asks what her brother's face looked like after death. He claims to have a reason for that. When Cummings brings the topic around to a possible supernatural explanation, Walgate scoffs, but when Cummings brings up the professor's psychic research, the man gets irrationally upset. Barbara all but kicks Cummings out for nearly killing the old man, but Walgate assures them both that he's fine. Cummings takes his leave, anyway.

Meanwhile, the posse in the woods is getting tired now that it's either mid-afternoon or pitch dark depending on the shot. They split up into pairs to hurry the seaarch, and Gibbons is walking with another man when they hear a strange sound--and then Gibbons vanishes. A council meeting, led by deputy mayor Melville (Launce Maraschal), is called. Cummings is invited along to offer any defense and assistance from the USAF perspective. Barbara ultimately comes to his defense, pointing out that it was clear that no radiation was responsible for the strange behavior of the cows.

And then Gibbons wanders into the meeting, moaning with a far away look in his eye. Apparently he has been mentally disabled by whatever attacked him--having his brain only partially devoured. Later, Cummings tells Barbara that he believes Walgate is somehow involved in what's going on--and acting on a hunch, he goes to the local cemetery. He sees someone slip out of a mausoleum, and entering the door he finds Hawkins' coffin has been opened and Walgate's pipe was left beside it. And then Cummings is locked in when the door shuts.

Luckily, Chester realizes Cummings is missing and he and Barbara go to the cemetery. They discover Cummings just in time, before he can suffocate. He rushes to confront Walgate, who has just started to notice the absence of his pipe--and he swears he didn't mean to nearly kill Cummings. But Cummings has moved beyond that, as he explains to Walgate that he read about Walgate's ideas about materialization of thought. Walgate objects that he declared it impossible, but Cummings counters that with atomic power it could be possible. Upon hearing the sound of the invisible monster nearby, Walgate admits that Cummings is right and it is a terrible story and pleads with Cummings to shut down the nuclear plant--just before he has another minor stroke.

Butler is reluctant to shut down based on such a cockamamie theory when Cummings explains it, but he does relent. Unfortunately, when Cummings gets to the power station the technicians discover the control rods are all smashed. Without them there's no way to control or shut down the reaction, and it will take four to six hours to get replacements. After Walgate recovers from his attack, he has Barbara summon Cummings, Chester, Butler, Bradley, and Melville to hear his explanation. He had been experimenting with the materialization of thought in his lab--which Barbara didn't even know he had--and somehow discovered that electric shocks to his brain could boost his telekinetic ability. The effects made him ill, so Bradley introduced him to Barbara for use as a secretary.

With Barbara helping him complete his actual work, he could focus on shocking his brain to flip a book's pages. But he was utterly unsuccessfully until lighting struck his house. He realized then that he needed much more power, and gradually he got the hang of moving small objects but it was not enough. So, somehow, he tapped into the power from the radar tests and used it to create a being from his thoughts that could be used to channel these psychic energies further. But, being created from thought, it was invisible--and smart enough to figure out that Walgate intended to control it. So it smashed his equipment, destroyed his notes, and escaped the lab. Walgate couldn't tell anyone because who would believe him?

Well, he now knows he created a "mental vampire" (and Cummings hilariously gives Butler an "I told you so" look here) that draws power from the nuclear reactor and needs to feed on human nervous systems, but even worse than that--he's pretty sure he created more than one. Butler dismisses this as lunacy just as Chester arrives with Bradley, Melville, and the Sandwich Guy from earlier. Sandwich Guy notices something moving in the bushes outside the glass doors to the veranda, and when Butler goes to use the phone he discovers the line has been cut. And then the glass shatters and Sandwich Guy is dragged to his death by the invisible attacker. Realizing they're under siege, the others work together to try and board up the windows--except for Melville, who becomes the simpering, panicked ninny who won't even help Barbara move a desk in front of the door.

Cummings asks if there's any way to make the creatures visible, and Walgate suggests that the only way might be to give them more radiation to absorb. Sure enough, after eating the head technician at the lab so he can't stop the radiation dial from going into the "Danger" zone (which oddly is after the "Overload" section), the fiend at the base becomes visible. And what a beautiful sight it is: a stop-motion brain with nerve tentacle legs, spinal column tail, and little eye stalks on top of its cerebellum.

"This is your brain on a nuclear engineering degree."
Back at the house, Melville goes all Irish and panicky--and then the others realize they can see the fiends gathering outside now. Walgate explains that the power must have increased at the nuclear plant and the only option is to shut the plant down: without its energy, these creatures will perish. Luckily, they'll also perish from gunshots, as Chester discovers by putting a bullet in one. And boy, do they go out in an amazing gory fashion for 1958.

Unfortunately for Melville, nobody thought to close the chimney  The others are too late in pulling it off and killing it with an axe. Cummings suggests their best plan of action is to to get to a dynamite shed between the house and the plant and to blow up the control room. Wait, what?! So Cummings decides to make a run for it, after getting a good luck kiss, of course. Walgate suggests maybe he control the fiends long enough to buy Cummings some time, so he rushes outside as well.

Well, he does buy some time for Cummings--by being immediately set upon and devoured by three of the fiends.

"You ever notice that brains just taste better when they belong to the guy who created you?"
"Oh, totally."
"I concur."
Cummings makes it to the dynamite shed, easily killing the one fiend waiting outside for him. He makes it back to the base, where a really obvious stand-in for Marshall Thompson runs by a bunch of drained bodies. Here's a tip for filmmakers: don't shoot your stand-in face on in medium shot and assume your day for night tinting will disguise it in post.

Back at the house, some idiot left the hammer right by the window they boarded up. It turns out, though, that the fiends just needed their tentacles and tails to break through. Butler and Chester use up their dwindling ammunition, but it's clear it will soon be no use. Luckily, Cummings has his dynamite all set in the control room--even though I'm still not sure how blowing it up will do anything but accelerate the reactor into overload, which would be very bad--and easily lights the fuse, kills a fiend, and runs for cover. It's just in time, too, for a fiend has latched onto Barbara's head just as the dynamite explodes.

The fiends all fall to the ground, dead, and then melt into goo--in a scene I'm positive Sam Raimi used as inspiration for the end of The Evil Dead. Cummings returns and Butler puts him and charge before everyone else vacates the premises to let Cummings and Barbara get their celebratory make-out session on. This is all framed in happy terms, seemingly ignoring the fact that the only base personnel still alive at this point are three people and they just destroyed the reactor that powers their operation. Oh well, hero's gotta bang the hot Canadian lady. The End.
"What do you think of my new fiend stole? Too garish?"
Fiend Without A Face runs a relatively brief 74 minutes, but it's hard to call it lean. As you may have guessed by my synopsis, a large amount of the running time is eaten up with characters that have little to do with the main plot and are then abruptly discarded when the mental vampires finally come into the main focus. Hell, Cummings being locked in the mausoleum adds nothing to the plot but a few more minutes of screen time. Tightly plotted, this film is not.

However, while a lot of films with similar story issues would end up being dull, this film really can't be accused of that. Even the normally deadly dull scenes of radar arrays are handled deftly--they're kept to a minimum and feature quirky touches like the camera on the radar dish.

And then there's the fiends. Oh, they are a delight. There's almost no way that crawling, hopping brain monsters could be anything but fun. Still, while the stop-motion effects that bring them to life are a bit dodgy, there's no denting how impressive they are. Not only that, but there's the simple fact that the climax of them swarming the house can't help but feel incredibly familiar. Rather like Matango, this film is not mentioned as one of the influences on George A. Romero's Night of The Living Dead, but you can't help but think it did contribute to that film's existence.

Not only do you have characters boarding up windows to protect themselves from a relentless horde of foes, but those foes can only be put down by shots to the brain and there's an awful lot of black and white gore spraying around when that happens.

Speaking of which, I didn't have to look it up to know that this was a bit of a transgressive film in its day. I'd imagine the towel bit alone was rather controversial, though I cannot confirm that, but I can confirm that this film did raise quite a stir in its native Britain for the gore effects. Fairly understandable, honestly. After all, the film seems fairly restrained and bloodless for most of its running time, before suddenly turning into a bloodbath.

It can be very easy to write off Fiend Without A Face as just another B-movie. Like a lot of 1950s science fiction, the mad science that creates the monsters doesn't actually make any sense and the plan to stop them makes even less. The characters are also pretty thinly sketched archetypes, and the story certainly is not deep or meaningful in any way.

However, I have to agree with the Criterion collection that this is a movie people should see. It's a fun movie, pure and simple, And sometimes, that's more than enough.


Today's review brought to you by the letter F! Hit the banner above to see what the other Celluloid Zeroes chose for F!



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