Fiend Without a Face (1957) -****
Two years before he made Horrors of the Black Museum, Arthur Crabtree directed this, one of my favorite brain movies of all time. ďBrain movies?Ē you ask? Come on-- you know what Iím talking about. Donovanís Brain, The Brain from Planet Arous, The Brain that Wouldnít Die, Brain of Blood, They Saved Hitlerís Brain, The Brain-- brain movies. Three major features set Fiend Without a Face apart from the rest of the brain movie pack, though, and Iím pretty sure that itís these points that make me like it so much. First of all is the issue of numbers. Most brain movies involve only one evil brain. Even The Brain from Planet Arous, which at least has two brains floating around, only has one evil brain. Fiend Without a Face has hundreds of the things. But more important than numbers is the issue of motility. Most of your evil brains have a fairly sedentary lifestyle (with the two brains from Planet Arous again proving the noteworthy exceptions), confined to a glass jar or a tank or a dissecting tray. In Fiend Without a Face, the brains have tails, antennae, and stalky little legs, enabling them not merely to crawl, but to leap cheesily through the air as well. And best of all, these brains live both by absorbing nuclear energy and by eating the central nervous systems of human beings. Hundreds of crawling, leaping, cerebrophagous, evil, atomic brains, brought to life via poorly-executed stop-motion animation-- who could ask for anything more?
So, once youíve come up with such a staggering concept as that, the question becomes how on Earth to set it up. This movieís answer is to postulate the existence of a secret program to develop a super-long-range radar system, powered by a nuclear reactor, with the aim of providing fully centralized command and control for the American interceptor squadrons charged with defending North America from attack by Soviet nuclear bombers. By international agreement, the air base at which this research is being conducted is located near the small town of Winthrop, in Manitoba, Canada. As we will soon see, the locals are less than thrilled with the presence of a nuclear reactor just outside their town, so it is all the more unfortunate that the film begins with one of those locals being killed by something in the woods around the base.
Distrust of the American military runs so high, in fact, that the mayor of Winthrop refuses to allow the baseís doctors to perform an autopsy on the body, insisting instead that his own coroner handle the task. Efforts by Colonel Butler (Stanley Maxted) and Major Cummings (Marshall Thompson, from Cult of the Cobra and Around the World Under the Sea), the ranking officers at the base, to convince the manís family to turn over the body fail miserably when the colonel makes a ham-fisted attempt to intimidate the dead manís sister, Barbara Griselle (Kim Parker, of Fire Maidens from Outer Space), by insinuating that he was suspected of espionage. (As Miss Griselle explains, her brother had been monitoring the flying schedule of the air force planes in order to determine if it was the sound of the planesí engines that was behind the outbreak of productivity-lessening stress in his herds of dairy cows.)
Tensions between the townspeople and the soldiers increase further when a farmer and his wife are killed in their barn a few nights later. (I think itís supposed to be night, anyway. The miserable and inconsistent quality of the filtered day-for-night photography in this movie makes it difficult to tell.) This time, we actually get to see the couple killed, and it turns out, surprisingly enough, that whatever is killing the people of Winthrop is invisible! Shortly thereafter, the mayor himself is killed under similar circumstances in his own house. (This delightful scene steals shamelessly from the previous yearís Forbidden Planet. As you watch the progress of the invisible killer into and through the mayorís house, think about the scene from the earlier film in which the equally invisible id-monster sneaks aboard the spaceship to administer the Grendel treatment to the crew.) This is pretty much the last straw (imagine what it would do to public opinion if the air force doctor [who finally got that autopsy he wanted] revealed that the victims had had their brains and spinal cords sucked out through a pair of tiny puncture wounds in the backs of their necks!), and one particularly vocal citizen puts together a posse to go out into the woods to hunt for the deranged GI that he believes is responsible for the killings. This proves to be a really bad idea; not only do the hunters turn up no sign of any mad soldier (perhaps they were expecting to run into Giovanni Lombardo Radice?), but one member of the party fails to return from the search. When he finally wanders back home, something has turned him into a drooling, preverbal imbecile.
Meanwhile, a wildly implausible romance has begun between Major Cummings and Barbara Griselle. The main purpose of this development seems to be to introduce Cummings to Barbaraís boss, an ancient scientist named Professor Walgate (although it also serves as an excuse to show us Barbara in a towel). Walgate (Kynaston Reeves) is one of those scientific renaissance men that show up with such frequency in 50ís sci-fi movies (over the course of the film, he will be credited with vast learning in fields ranging from nuclear physics to parapsychology), and we need him in the story because he, naturally, knows whatís going on. In fact, itís all his fault. One of his projects involved the fanciful notion of the materialization of thought. As Walgate tells Cummings and Barbara (and us, for that matter) in an expository interlude of truly heroic proportions, he had actually achieved considerable success in this seemingly impossible endeavor-- all he had to do was give himself massive electrical shocks to the brain. Eventually, though, the old man got sick of doing it this way, and began looking for a steadier power source for his telekinetic experiments, one which would prove less of a... well, shock to his system. This is where Cummings and his reactor come in. Walgate, you see, is a very intelligent man, and he was able to piece together from cryptic hints dropped here and there in footnotes to articles in the various journals of the nuclear physics profession exactly what was going on at Cummingsís air base. Somehow (and if you can figure out a plausible method, youíre a lot smarter than me), Walgate managed to tap into the reactorís power-- without ever once setting foot on the base, I might add-- and immediately began to enjoy spectacular triumphs in his work. A bit later (and this is an ďit seemed like a good idea at the timeĒ moment if ever there was one), Walgate got it into his head that what he really needed to do was will into existence a little psychokinetic homunculus. That way, he wouldnít have to do the hard work of subsequent experiments himself. Just you guess what happened next.
Just as Walgate finishes his story, his creations swarm into the reactor at the base and destroy most of the regulator rods, kicking the chain reaction into high gear and generating sufficient power to give the little monsters enough substance to be visible. The ensuing climax is among the best of its era. Picture the climactic zombie siege from Night of the Living Dead (or Zombie, or Night of the Zombies, or just about any movie that has a climactic zombie siege) with swarms of little leaping brains taking the place of the zombies, intercut with shots of Cummings trying to shut down the reactor and cut off the monstersí power source. (Kids, donít try the solution he ultimately adopts at home!)
Along the way, keep your eyes open for some first-rate ďum... wait a minuteĒ moments. Iíve already mentioned the day-for-night photography, which would not be surpassed in its erratic ineptitude until Larry Buchanan made Attack of the the Eye Creatures in 1965, and Iíve alluded to the arrestingly ill-advised method by which Cummings turns off the reactor. Thereís also a scene in which director Crabtree tries desperately to find ways to hold our interest in repeated shots of rotating radar rigs (those of you who are subject to motion sickness may wish to look away at this point), an airplane with an identity crisis (it canít decide whether it wants to be a B-52 or a B-47 [the former bomber is more than half again as big as the latter, and believe me, it shows!]), and a truly priceless scene depicting the air base staff at work. To begin with, note how poorly this scene is lit. This is surely a deliberate ploy to prevent you from noticing the fact that the control room is almost completely destitute of equipment! Furthermore, watch the radar screen during the test. Remember, the base is somewhere in Manitoba. Why, then, do you suppose the radar beam is clearly being emitted from the middle of the Arctic Ocean?! Keep your ears closely attuned, and youíll also be treated to a score that is completely over the top, even by 50ís standards. Iím especially fond of the music that accompanies all of Cummingsís scenes alone with Barbara-- despite the manifest impossibility of the situation, that music leaves no doubt that these two are, in fact, the designated love interest of the movie, and to Hell with logic and sanity. Too fucking much, man. Too fucking much.