Fiend Without a Face (1958). Directed by: Arthur Crabtree. Starring: Marshall Thompson, Kynaston Reeves, Kim Parker.
Welcome back to the Vault of Secrets, where we’ll be unearthing another classic (or not-so-classic) vintage horror film for your delectation. This month’s episode is another classic brought to us thanks to the untiring efforts of the good folks over at Criterion: Fiend Without a Face. There’s a lot going on in Fiend Without a Face that’s worth talking about, even while the film itself travels along pretty rote lines until the end.
One of a pile of familiar British horror and sci-fi films produced by Richard Gordon (including fellow Vault of Secrets alum and altogether similar movie Island of Terror). His brother Alex Gordon also produced fare along the same lines, including The Atomic Submarine, which also made an appearance here at the Vault. Criterion has released several films produced by the two brothers over the years, including a four-movie set featuring The Atomic Submarine and the Boris Karloff chiller The Haunted Strangler, which was shot congruently and played on a double bill with Fiend Without a Face.
Though shot in Britain, Fiend Without a Face was released in America by MGM and takes place on the U.S./Canada border. It was directed by Arthur Crabtree, who would go on to do Horrors of the Black Museum a year later, and written by Herbert J. Leder, from a short story called “The Thought Monster” by Amelia Reynolds Long that initially appeared in Weird Tales in 1930. Leder would go on to be a director himself and would helm a personal overlooked favorite of ours here at the Vault, the great Roddy McDowall-starring golem movie It! in 1967.
The real stars of Fiend Without a Face are the titular Fiends themselves, though. While they spend most of the movie invisible, when they do finally show up, they are as iconic as movie monsters come. Whenever anybody remembers the film, it’s usually the Fiends that they remember. Crawling brains, complete with spinal columns that allow them to inchworm along the ground, animated by stop motion, the Fiends are among the best movie monsters around. Not only that, but there’s more than one of them. The movie’s climactic moments feature hordes of crawling Fiends filling the woods and laying siege to an isolated house, in scenes that prefigured Romero’s Night of the Living Dead not only a decade beforehand, but also six years before it would be prefigured by the Vincent Price vehicle, The Last Man on Earth.
The closing scenes have also been called the most gruesome of the 50s. When the Fiends get shot – which they do, a lot – they ooze what looks like jelly, and sort of deflate. And when they’re finally defeated by cutting off their supply of atomic power (of course), they melt into a kind of protoplasmic ooze. Joe Dante was a fan of Fiend Without a Face and it’s not hard to see the foreshadowing of the gooey deaths of the eponymous creatures from Gremlins in the demise of the Fiends.
The filmmakers obviously knew the power of their creatures. When the movie premiered at the Rialto theater, the producers included a gimmick that would have made William Castle proud: a lifesize Fiend, in a glass case on the street outside the theater, complete with a motor that made it wriggle and twitch. Apparently, it attracted such a crowd that the police made them take the display down after only a couple of days. (Joe Dante would later nod to it in his 2003 film Looney Tunes: Back in Action, when he included a Fiend alongside several other science fiction creatures in giant Mason Jars in the background of one scene.)
It’s not just the design of the Fiends that makes them so effective, though. A lot of their power comes from the sounds they make, which come in long before you ever see them. In fact, before the opening titles, the movie eschews the usual spooky music to instead open with a crackling silence and stillness that’s gradually broken by the unmistakable slurping, thumping sounds of the unseen Fiends themselves. It’s a sound as recognizable for fans of the film as any music cue in horror and it goes a long way toward selling monsters that spend most of the movie being invisible.
That’s it for tonight, but be sure to join us next time when we visit with a gentleman who has an unusual number of skulls ….