Format: Internet video on the new internet machine.
The Criterion Collection is odd sometimes. There are plenty of movies that are a part of the collection because they are weird, obscure art films that tend to be fawned over by the beret and clove cigarette crowd. And then you get Fiend Without a Face, a strange little science fiction movie that could have easily been an MST3K film in different directorial hands. This film is loaded with dumb science and magic technology words about radiation, and also features free-range brains with attached spinal cords and eyestalks, so there’s that, too. I mean, I get why this is generally looked at positively, but it’s still weird as all hell.
We’re spending our time in this film in Manitoba around an American air force base put in place more or less to protect Canada and the U.S. from Russian attacks from over the pole. Quite suddenly, there is a rash of deaths in the surrounding countryside. The people in the area naturally blame the radiation coming from the nuclear power plant at the military base. Autopsies on the victims, though, indicate something very different is afoot. The victims all have a pair of holes at the base of their necks. More disturbing, their brains are missing, as are their spinal cords.
Air Force Major Jeff Cummings (Marshall Thompson) starts to investigate as best he can, and also decides to start making time with Barbara Griselle (Kim Parker), the sister of one of the first victims. Along with his immediate subordinate Captain Al Chester (Terry Kilburn), Cummings starts to try to figure out what is going on. All roads eventually lead back to Professor Walgate (Kynaston Reeves), a local retired scientist who has been doing work throughout his career on telekinesis. And, of course Cummings is going to be right.
It turns out that Walgate’s work, combined with the atomic power of the base has brought to fruition something he has been working on for ages—essentially physically realized thoughts. Sadly, the thoughts that have manifested are angry, malevolent brains that attack people and suck out their brains and spinal columns, but nonetheless, he’s achieved something rather spectacular. The brains are invisible, though, and seem to rely on the atomic power of the nearby reactor. And with even more power, the creatures become visible and start attacking en masse.
Let’s talk about those creatures that are as I have described them—bodiless brains with spinal cords that act like tails. These creatures are presented to us in stop-motion animation that is obvious, but pretty decent for the time. Naturally, people will get threatened, no one really important in terms of characters we care about will get killed, and, since we can’t exist without a romance of some sort, Major Jeff and Barbara are going to end up a couple, because of course they are.
Fiend Without a Face is a short, cheap little science fiction/horror movie, but it’s also rather good. For the first two acts, the creatures are completely invisible, but we know they are near when we hear a loud heartbeat. Victims of the creatures scream and clutch their throats before collapsing—we learn eventually that the brain monsters use their spinal cords to wrap around their victims’ throats while they are sucking out their brains. It works surprisingly well.
The film is also rather gruesome for its time. Since the victims have their brains removed, it is postulated that the creatures are essentially reproducing this way. There’s also a moment where we discover what happens if a creature doesn’t finish the job. A local who had been missing wanders into a meeting, unable to speak and gibbering incoherently. It’s never mentioned exactly what happened to him, but it’s more or less implied that only a part of his brain got chomped, leaving behind just enough to allow him to walk and make noises.
Further, the creatures are really just brains, and so are susceptible to being shot. When hit, they explode goo (presumably blood) in little gushing torrents. There’s a reason that the people of the time objected to this as being too gruesome. By today’s standards it’s pretty tame, but that doesn’t change the fact that this almost certainly grossed people out in the late ‘50s.
I had seen this, or at least a part of this, before. I didn’t remember a lot of the plot, but those jumping brains with whipping spinal cords are hard to forget.
Why to watch Fiend Without a Face: It was so extreme by the standards of the time it almost got an X rating.
Why not to watch: I’ve got nothing for you.