Friday, March 1, 2013

Fiend Without a Face (1958)

Director: Arthur Crabtree                                Writer: Herbert J. Leder
Film Score: Buxton Orr                                  Cinematography: Lionel Banes
Starring: Marshall Thompson, Kynaston Reeves, Kim Parker and Stanley Maxted

Ever since the Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby Thing From Another World, I’ve taken a strange comfort in sci-fi films from the fifties featuring the U.S military. The only thing I’ve been able to come up with is that it’s the opposite of most horror films in which the heroes spend most of their time trying to convince others that the threat is real. With the Army on the scene in early sci-fi, I have the sense that everything that can be done is being done. Not that the Army has any success against the monsters, but at least I have a sense that it’s as fair a fight as possible. Fiend Without a Face certainly fits into this category.

The story begins in a U.S. radar instillation in northern Canada. Outside of the Air Force base one night a local man is killed by something unknown, apparently frightened to death. The locals, unhappy with all of the flights overhead, use the opportunity to blame the military, especially when there are two more deaths. After studying the bodies, the unexplained disappearance of the victim’s brain and spinal columns has the military baffled. While the military does research, the locals get together a posse to hunt down the killer. The only problem: the monster is invisible. It’s the same conceit that was used decades later in the first Predator film, though much cruder here.

Before going any further, it’s important to point out that this is not a good film. But, it’s not a terrible film, either. In certain ways it is something of a template for films like Jaws or Alien, where the monster stays hidden for over half the film, though those film were much later and had reasons for doing so that had nothing to do with Fiend. But unlike those films, when the monster does become visible the film sinks to something corny on the order of The Tingler. Similarities with films like Tarantula and Donovan’s Brain are more to the point, and certainly not coincidental, as Fiend came out much later and was certainly influenced by them.

Marshall Thompson, who was strictly a B movie actor for the bulk of his career, heads the cast. Kim Parker is great, in lots of ways, as the heroine. She is a strong female character in a time where the woman’s role in sci-fi films was making coffee and sandwiches. After that, however, the quality of the cast drops off. Still, there’s a higher level of quality--given the obvious overall limitations of the film--than something absolutely horrible like The Deadly Mantis. Buxton Orr’s film score is quite good. And there’s even something to be said for the stop motion monsters, once you get over laughing hysterically the first time you see them, that can be appreciated. As long as you’re prepared for exactly the kind of film this is, Fiend Without a Face is definitely worth watching.

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