Fiend Without a Face (1958)

Strange things start happening around an atomic research center on a US Air Force base in Canada.  Before you know it, there are grisly and mysterious deaths they can’t seem to stop — and which seem to be the work of invisible creatures…

This one has the strange distinction of being a British film, pretending to be an American film set in Canada.  The same production company would make another similar faux-American SF horror film a year later (First Man into Space) which also starred Marshall Thompson.  However that one, at least, is supposed to be set in New Mexico.

Mind you, a New Mexico with forests.  But we’re not supposed to notice that.

This is one of the many British SF films of the era strongly influenced by the Quatermass serials and movies.  It has that same combination of a threat that seems almost supernatural, with a rational, scientific, step-by-step approach to dealing with it.

It even looks and feels like a Hammer Quatermass film.

However, it also has the sort of Howard Hawks heroics that showed up in The Thing, .with the investigation led not by a scientist, but by a heroic Air Force Major.  This seems a bit of a contradiction when you remember that Nigel Kneale despised the soldier heroics in so many American science fiction films and created Quatermass as his riposte to The Thing.

But what elevates this one above the average is not its carefully set up situation, the suspense and horror it generates, or even its quite clever (if mildly familiar) ideas:  instead, it is that incredible moment when those creatures finally become visible.

The creatures are one of the most memorable of all Fifties monsters, and were brought to horrible life using a quite impressive display of stop motion animation.  They move with a weird hopping gait, are matched to an eerie, unearthly sound, die in remarkably messy ways for a Fifties film, and there are an awful lot of them in some shots.  It is a tour de force of an ending, one of the most outrageous of any SF film of the era.

And there aren’t many later films that measure up to it, either.

Is this one really a great classic, worthy of the Criterion Collection treatment it got?  I’m not entirely certain.  It is much better than the overrated Fifties version of The Blob which also has been released by Criterion, and it sticks in the mind a lot longer and harder than most of the SF films of the era.  Ironically, it reminds me just a touch of Ray Harryhausen’s Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, not because they particularly resemble each other, but that the two films represent some of the most extravagant — and effective — effects work seen during the era.  Yet neither film has quite the same cachet as many of the other more famous Fifties SF films, even some that are nowhere near as effective.

What is definitely true is that this was one of the best of the best of that Golden Age, and yet most fans haven’t seen it.  Which is a shame, of course.

But it does mean that if you haven’t seen it then you have a major treat in store!  So by all means, if you love Fifties SF films and missed this one, go out and watch it.

And I do mean right now.

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2 thoughts on “Fiend Without a Face (1958)

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