SATURDAY AFTERNOON B-MOVIE CRAPFEST: “Fiend Without A Face” (1958)

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It’s been a long time since we’ve done one of these, but I thought it might be fun to revisit the feature, even if it’s only infrequently. For those of you new to the site, yes, I know it’s Monday, not Saturday, but that’s not the point. The “Saturday Afternoon B-Movie Crapfest” isn’t about a day of the week, but the kinds of movies that used to be shown on UHF channels to kill dead airtime in the post-cartoon, pre-syndicated shows block on Saturdays. This feature is all about the Boring Saturday Afternoon of the soul. I wax rhapsodic…

PLAY BY PLAY

We start off with a guard outside an American airbase getting killed by something invisible. Later on, a local farmer lurking in the woods is also killed. This would be upsetting at the best of times, but this base is involved in very hush-hush top secret radar projects, able to see past the north pole into Russia itself. Also, the base is outside the US itself, so they have to play nicey-nicey with the locals.

We’re told the base is in Canada, despite the fact that no one in the film is named “Gord,” and statistically at least five of them should be. (I’m half Canadian on my dad’s side. Non-practicing, of course). They’re way up in northern Manitoba, and the locals fear the nuclear reactor on the base. In a surprisingly accurate bit, they’re unable to distinguish between atomic bombs and nuclear reactors, which was a common problem back in the day, science education not being much of a priority in the English-speaking world at the time. (Or now, sadly.) The USAF types try to explain this, but no one believes them ‘cuz they’re USAF types, and not even named “Gord.” They insist the “Fallout” from the nuclear reactor killed those two people.

The sister of the dead farmer refuses to allow an autopsy of her brother. She’s played by Kim Parker, http://dcairns.files.wordpress.com/2009/04/kimparker.jpg?w=366&h=480 who’s quite pretty, even if there’s something weird going on with her hairline in this film. She was also in a couple other genre films, “Fire Maidens of Outer Space,” and “The Man Without A Body.” I’ve never seen either, but I really need to see “Fire Maidens.” It seems like every hot chick from every grade zed 50s flick was in that film somewhere. Anyway, as she’s the only woman in the film, you know full well she’ll be the love interest.

Just the same, the radar dingus doesn’t work quite right: At peak power, it keeps losing power, but they can’t figure out why or how. Meanwhile: another farmer turns up dead, along with his wife. The locals are furious and demand closing the base, which, of course, is a bad thing as it’s vital for the US defense. As neither of these latest corpses are attractive, no one has any problems with an autopsy, and the base surgeon discovers that the brains and spinal columns of both people are missing, having been sucked out through little holes on the neck. “Like some kind of mental vampire!” says Major Mike the protagonist.

The base commander (Who’s actually a high baritone) sends Mike out to talk the first dead farmer’s sister into agreeing to an autopsy, and he walks in on her while she’s taking a shower.
http://dcairns.files.wordpress.com/2009/04/vlcsnap-360796.png?w=450&h=345 At 21:27 into the film, this is kind of unexpectedly breastacular for a moment. Surprising in a 50s film. No actual nudity, but still…

Anyway, they end up flirting with each other, which seems unlikely since she’s a farm girl wearing only a towel, and he’s basically broken into her home. He makes his move, and she seems into it when the sheriff comes in, and the two men get into a fight. This seems entirely appropriate, though I’m not entirely sure why. I sense a vague implication that the sheriff is normally the one who comes to visit Kim during shower time, but this is never made clear. In any event, she throws Mike out.

We get more milling about while people try to figure out what’s going on, and ultimately the Sheriff convinces the townspeople that it’s probably not radiation, but some GI who’s gone psycho. They head out in the woods for an old-fashioned lynching, and the sheriff goes missing. Meanwhile, it turns out that Kim works for a local professor who’s specialty is…kind of vague, but involves Psychic research. Mike goes to question the old dude, and Kim is not at all happy to see him. Then the Mayor dies.

Later on, the town holds a special meeting to figure out what to do about the missing sheriff, and they decide to take the socialist approach: Blame the US, and force us to shut down our base and go home. Just then, the sheriff stumbles in, completely insane. This is a genuinely creepy scene, he’s all wild-eyed and simplified, and his moans are legitimately unsettling. Another scene involving his frantic elderly mom worrying about what became of him is also surprisingly effective. He may be a jerk who punches guys who are making time with naked farm girls, but he’s still somebody’s son. Nice touch of human in the middle of a cheap monster movie. All too rare.

Anywhoo, despite being cold and furious in the previous scene, Kim is making eyes at Mike in the meeting. Afterwards, he goes out to the cemetery to check out the mayor’s coprse, which, despite being a beau hick town in northern Manitoba, is in a huge Victorian crypt. Mike notes someone around, but stupidly goes into the crypt, and gets locked in. He tries resourcefully to escape, but this comes to nothing. Ultimately he’s rescued by Kim and Terrence Kilburn, who played King Cyrus in “Slaves of Babylon.” “Say, isn’t that King Cyrus from Slaves of Babylon,” Mike asks, but he’s delusional from lack of oxygen.

As the movie is running a bit slow, they decide to go to the professor’s house and just ask him what the heck is going on, rather than try to figure it out for themselves. They confront him with the pipe Mike found in the crypt. The prof eventually comes clean, and apologizes for trying to murder Mike. Mike, being an easy going kinda’ mid-century Joe, shrugs this off as though it were no big deal. In an info dump/montage, the professor reveals that he’d seen “Forbidden Planet” two years prior (One of the few people who had, since it was a box office bomb) and had become rather obsessed with the idea of using mechanically amplified thought to do useful work. He missed the cautionary promethean aspects of the flick, obviously. Easy to do, given how distractingly yummy Anne Francis is in that film. Grrrrrowl.

Anyway, back in this movie, the professor reveals that he was stealing power from the nuclear plant for his experiments, hence the problems they had earlier. He eventually created a living though - like all thoughts, invisible - which trashed his lab and (Eventually) escaped. (It’s not a very bright thought, evidently). It needs a brain to live in, however, so it’s been killing people for those.

These Fiends now surround the prof’s house, while most of the cast board themselves up inside. Mike runs to the power plant to blow it up in the hopes that without power the beasties’ll die, while the prof himself goes outside to reason with his creations (Read: Suicide to distract them from killing Mike). We get a genuinely stressful sequence of stop-motion creatures attacking people in the house, while Mike makes a mad dash to the base. Back in the 50s, this probably played out as super-stressful. The scene when the creatures start reaching in through the boards on the windows, and grab a hammer to un-board the things was really effective.

Anyway, Mike saves the day, the creatures disintegrate, and he and Kim get to make out a little bit. As the Colonel and the town doctor and King Cyrus from Slaves of Babylon leave, they all make leering comments implying that Mike and Kim are gonna’ have oodles of crazy adrenaline-fueled post-adventure sex.

The End.

OBSERVATIONS

Unlike most of the movies I’ve covered in this feature, this one is actually pretty good. Not brilliant by any stretch, but it’s coherent, adequately acted, decently paced, and well directed. It’s also - secretly - not American. It was made and financed in the UK. By setting it in Canada, and having it revolve around the USAF, the British thought it would do better in overseas markets than if it was, say, set at an RAF base in Scotland.

There’s an interesting notion that the creatures actually need bodies, that they exist independent of physical form, but need to move into a body for whatever reason. Hence their stealing brains and spinal columns. This doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it is suitably creepy. But why are they still invisible after they steal the brains?

The monsters are reproducing, though how is never made clear. It seems obvious to me that they’re reproducing at the same rate they kill people: one corpse = one new monster. Either there were multiple thoughts created by the Prof, or else the initial one is able to duplicate itself into new bodies.

“At least they’re mortal!”

When they’re shot, do they actually die? Given that they’re noncorporeal thoughts to begin with, or are they simply disembodied again, and hence unable to really do anything?

The stop motion monsters in the end are fairly limited, but effectively done, if a bit sloppy in some scenes. It’s nice to have a movie like this with an actual visual payoff.

Marshal Thompson plays “Mike.” He’s best known as Dr. Marsh from Daktari in the mid-’60s, but he’s instantly recognizable to anyone who had a TV and a UHF antenna in the ‘70s. Zillions of character roles, and a lot of genre ones: He’s in “IT! The Terror From Beyond Space” (one of my favorites), “First Man Into Space,” the unrelated TV series, “Men Into Space,” “Ark II” and maybe one or two others, I can’t recall.

Of course the local yokels couldn’t just throw out the base, and this aspect of the plot plays out pretty hokey, but in general their paranoia and mistrust of the outsiders is credible. It’s clearly shown to be based on ignorance, but at the same time, the locals are portrayed as mostly sympathetic, just, you know, yokels. And paranoia is a two-way street: The Colonel initially thinks the first dead farmer was a spy, and tries to force Kim into allowing an autopsy based on that. The culture shock aspects of the movie are, on the whole, pretty good, I think. There’s a nice sense of the Air Force types really not wanting to hack off their hosts too much.

This is going to be a hard one to explain to the Pentagon: The monsters evaporated when killed, most of the witnesses are dead, the survivors are unreliable, the only one who could give a scientific explanation is dead and his notes lost, a nuclear reactor has been destroyed, an expensive experimental monitoring project has been basically terminated, and it appears everyone on the base - or at least in the power plant - is dead. Whole lotta’ bodies here. I’m doubting anyone in this film will be up for promotion every again. I’m thinking Mike should settle down with Kim and have some kids with interestingly nonstandard hairlines.

And that’s really about it. It’s a pretty good movie, so I’ve got little to complain about. This is the kind of film all us kids would be really excited about come Monday morning at school. Which is kind of what we're doing here right now, isn't it?

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS MOVIE?

Yeah, I think so. Cold War Glory Days, USAF saves the day, hot chesty chicks in towels, but no actual nudity. What’s there not to like?

You can watch the whole entire movie online here:

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