Once upon a time, I would have been impressed by seeing the Janus Films and Criterion Collection logos before the start of a film. But that has been dashed by the reaction I had to The Blob. Could Fiend Without a Face be another classic film with an inflated reputation? In short, yes. But, this film doesn’t have near the same disparity between reputation and actual quality as does The Blob. It’s just a b-movie, through and through.
Taking place in rural Manitoba, Fiend Without a Face begins with a vicious attack in the woods by an unseen assailant. More deaths follow, always coinciding with secret, atomic-powered radar experiments at a nearby US Air Force base. The townsfolk are convinced that radiation from the base is causing these deaths, despite assurances from the Air Force that there have been no radiation leaks. That’s true, but the Air Force also didn’t bother to tell the townsfolk that power levels have been showing a mysterious dip during the experiments, as if someone were drawing the power away from the base.
As the deaths continue, the relationship between the Air Force, represented by the film’s star, Marshall Thompson as Major Cummings, and the townsfolk continues to deteriorate. It’s even having an effect on Cummings’s love life, as the target for his affections, Barbara Griselle (Kim Parker), lost her brother to the mysterious killer. In true b-movie fashion, Cummings started hitting on Griselle the day after her brother died, before the body was even cold. They just had to shove in that romance subplot, grieving process be damned.
Other cast members include Kynaston Reeves, as a retired scientist who might have a clue to what’s happening, Peter Madden as local physician Dr. Bradley, and Stanley Maxted as Colonel Butler, the base commander.
So, what is killing the townsfolk, if it isn’t the radiation? I don’t want to spoil things for potential viewers (which is why this review is published with neither trailer nor poster), because the killer is just too precious. It’s a monster, and it spends the vast majority of the movie invisible, but the final reveal is shitty gold. I hesitated before including this flick as an SMS review, because it straddles the line between shittiness and competence without falling too far over on either side, but the creature effects sealed the deal. They are done with gusto, and with much more splatter than one would expect from a film released in 1958. Again, without giving too much away, the monsters become visible, bullets begin to fly, and the result is stop motion gooiness. Florenz Von Nordoff and K. L. Ruppel handled the stop motion, and their work is the main reason to watch this flick.
That disparages director Arthur Crabtree, but it’s hard to get past the fact there isn’t a lot of good in this film. There are flashes, though. The opening sequence of the film is almost avant-garde in the way Crabtree uses establishing shots with no soundtrack to set the mood. These shots only last a few seconds, but I was hoping they augured a much better film than viewers got, like with the Janus and Criterion logos. Crabtree showed a deft touch with establishing shots, hiding the fact that they were most useful to pad the already Spartan 77-minute running time. Bert I. Gordon was never as subtle when he needed to plug some extra minutes into his films.
Crabtree also showed a decent sense of pace early on, but the movie begins to lose direction in the second act, as if the screenplay, from Herbert J. Leder, was running out of plot. It doesn’t speak well to the overall quality of a film when the filmmakers struggle to fill 77 minutes. And this was just becoming a slog to get through when the fun stuff finally began.
Wooden acting, throwaway plot, measly middle, and, in fact, the special effects aren’t that good. But, they do up the spectacle, far beyond much else that has been featured in this month’s Horrorshow. For bringing a wonderful smile to my face during the big reveal, this shitty movie lands in the top half of the Index at #74, in between DeepStar Six and Olympus Has Fallen.