Directed by Arthur Crabtree
Marshall Thompson - Major Jeff Cummings
Kim Parker - Barbara Griselle
Kynaston Reeves - Professor Walgate
Stanley Maxted - Colonel Butler
Robert MacKenzie - Constable Gibbons
Despite being made in England, and being produced and directed by Englishmen, (Richard Gordon and Arthur Crabtree respectively); 1958s Fiend Without A Face offers up a pretty fair slice of American Cold War pie. The movie is infused with two prime atomic age ingredients: A bowel-numbing fear that the Russians might gain the upper hand by unforeseen (always unforeseen) Communist treachery, and 2) a nearly primal sense that atomic energy, though rife with wondrous potential, is somehow fundamentally wrong. And not just wrong like two-plus-two-make-five wrong. More like we-are-piddling-about-in-God's-sandbox wrong. Throw in a dash of USA swagger for just the right flavor, and Bob's your uncle! An English take on an American classic!Two of the main ingredients are established before the opening credits roll wherein we find a bored sentry patrolling the fenced parameter of an American Air Force base, "Interceptor Command Experimental Station No. 6," in the remote wilds of Canada (Winthrop Manitoba). As the sentry rests his rifle against the fence and lights a cigarette, he gazes skyward. We hear the roar of a supersonic jet (We have seen moments earlier a row of Lockheed F-80 Shooting Stars on the base tarmac, just to shore up the picture's Cold War credentials) and see a vapor trail making a white arc in the blue sky. We next see radar dishes making a powerful, whining hum as they sweep back and forth. Finally, we see a massive, squat power plant, its single smokestack belching white smoke.
We have our suspicions which the film will quickly verify: America has established a radar facility in the far northern boondocks, positioned within range of Russia so that we may keep tabs on the reds and, if necessary or convenient, attack the shit out of them. Through the use of an atomic reactor (The belching smokestack), the military hopes to enhance the strength of the base's radar, thereby making it super radar - capable of seeing every incoming missile and possible Commie target with greater strength and clarity. As one officer puts it "so we can see right in their own backyard!"The sentry, hearing a strange, thumping, crunchy sound coming from the nearby woods; flicks his cig, grabs his rifle, and rushes to investigate. We see him burst into a small clearing and freeze. His face goes slack from fear, and off camera we hear a hideous crunching, slurping sound. The soldier stiffens and his eyes go white as we hear a man's horrific scream (and this picture, as with most Richard Gordon productions, has stupendously effecting screaming). Our dumb struck soldier finally gathers his wits and runs to the side of a civilian slumped backward and dead over a tree root. The Sentry is turning his head around, searching frantically. It is obvious that whatever has killed the man, it is completely invisible. As the soldier searches the civilian for vitals, the opening title credits roll over timpani-booming theme music from Frederick Lewis; and we have a basic cold war special popped into the oven save one crucial ingredient:The dash of USA swagger comes courtesy of one Major Cummings (Marshall Thompson) who oversees day-to-day operations of the base. We first see the major under some jaw-clenching stress as the Winthrop locals - backward, ignorant peasants that they are - suspect that having a nuclear power plant in their backyard may be having an adverse effect on their livestock. This kind of superstitious claptrap really gets the major's goat. This namby-pamby PR problem wouldn't be so bad except that the nuclear-enhanced radar experimentation is going poorly, too; and just to round things off to a large order of shit sandwich, now some dumb-ass cow farmer has gone and gotten himself killed in the grounds right next to the base. All this has put the major in such a state that he's living on uppers and . . . well, more uppers."You ever think of trying sleep instead of Benzedrine?" asks fellow officer Capt. Chester (Terry Kilburn) helpfully, fetching the major a glass of water to wash down some Benzedrine. "You might like it." The captain brings the major some files and papers on the dead farmer.After washing down his uppers, the major settles himself (after a bit of grousing over his circumstances) and looks over an FBI file on the dead peasant. Turns out he was a respectable French-Canadian nobody named Jacques Griselle - went to college in Toronto, good war record, came back home to the hinterland to establish himself as a farmer; has one sister, Barbara - Blah, blah, yawn."Let the local authorities figure it out, Jeff," urges Chester.But a couple of things concern the major. First, what the hell was a local dairy farmer doing prowling around an American Air Force Base, ending up dead under mysterious circumstances not a stone's throw from the parameter? And secondly, the dead man had a final look on his face - one the major can't forget - that suggests something other than death by natural causes. Well, suggests the major, maybe we can put this all to bed with the results of the autopsy. The two tuck their hats under their arms and hustle off.But nothing is to go that easily for our pill-popping major. His luck stays bad as he learns from the base medical officer, Dr. Warren (Gil Winfield), that there will be no autopsy as there is no longer any body. Local authorities - the mayor and coroner - have already claimed Griselle's body and declared cause of death a heart attack. The major, sitting in a chair in front of the Doctor's desk, broods and crosses his arms petulantly. "They'll probably blame the death on our atomic reactors." He stares darkly into space, imagining a series of horrible press conferences."Hmmm," says the doctor gently. "It's this fear of radioactive fallout." He begins to say more, but he is cut short as the major stiffens in his seat.The doctor has clearly pushed a button: "Were not exploding atomic bombs!" bristles the major, huffing up his shoulders and tightening his cross arms. "We're just using atomic power for our radar experiments." Cummings is like a square block in his seat, eyebrows meeting in a scowl."Sure, just go on out and tell them that," says Dr. Warren, "You know we're a thousand miles from any decent-sized city.""What a bunch of backward people," says Captain Chester with weary contempt. Chester has been lounging against a file cabinet, smoking (not having been offered a seat). He crosses behind the doctor and snuffs out his cigarette in an ash tray on the doctor's desk. "They've blamed us for too little rain, too much rain, a blight, a beetle, and even Ms. O'Leary's ailing cow.""That's why we have to have an autopsy," insists the glowering major. "So we can prove the death wasn't caused by radiation."The captain, leaning again against the file cabinet, shrugs. He points out that the local coroner has declared it a heart attack, so why rock the boat? Because, says the major, an autopsy will prove the rube's death wasn't from radiation! Just as the major is working himself into a rant, a nurse comes in and informs Cummings that he was been requested to join Col. Butler (Stanley Maxted) in his office immediately.Before the major enters the next scene, we find Col. Butler standing behind his desk, obviously irritated with two locals, Winthrop's mayor Hawkings (James Dyrenforth) and the sister of the dead man, Barbara Griselle (the taut Kim Parker).Surprisingly, neither Winthrop's mayor or Ms. Griselle, despite being citizens of rural Winthrop; are wearing overalls or have noticeably missing teeth. Ms. Griselle, in fact, with her smart, black dress and sophisticated hair style, appears never to have sucked on a bit of straw in her life. We find the three in mid-discussion wherein it has been established that there will be no autopsy per the sister's wishes. The colonel blusters, but the mayor and sister sit quite calmly, unmoved. The major enters the office, snaps a salute, and eyes the two locals with obvious suspicion. The colonel returns the salute and makes the introductions.With Cummings standing with hat in hand by the door, the colonel makes one more attempt to convince the locals to relinquish the body for an official, military autopsy, trying a patriotic approach (cooperation between our great nations sort of stuff), but it's no soap. With that, the colonel gets down to brass tacks and the reason he has summoned major Cummings to the office. After a few words of amelioration, the colonel pulls a small notebook from a desk drawer, identifying it as belonging to Barbara's dead brother, found near his body. He wags it at her. "He's made some very interesting notations. Major?" The major steps over and looks at the notations, which he, with his military expertise, identifies as a time table corresponding to take-offs and landings of the base's aircraft. The implication is clear and dangerous: Jacques Griselle was a red spy, working undercover. "I'm afraid this gives me all I need, Ms. Griselle," says the colonel darkly. Both military men stand over the dead man's sister with expressions suggesting a firing squad might be in order despite the brother's already dead status."May I see that notebook?" asks Barbara, extending a long, elegant hand. "Give it to her, major," snaps Col. Butler as if relinquishing damning state secrets. The woman sits calmly, looking over the notebook. She flips a few pages, reads some more. "These entries are a schedule of take offs and landings," she says; and goes on to explain that the cows on their farm have been milking at low cream content, which her brother felt was the result of the base's jets flying overhead. Jacques Griselle, being university trained, had taken a scientific approach to establishing a connections between sonic booms and cow's poor grade milk."If you'll notice in the following pages," says Barbara with a sly expression, "here's what it says. 'Helen, quite nervous today, quality low. Diane, apathetic, quality poor. Mabel, quite pert, generally improved,' and so on with other members of the herd." The grieving sister snaps the notebook closed. "This is a daily reaction of each cow." Throughout the reading, both military men have shuffled on their feet while the mayor, smelling blood, smiles at them with all his teeth. The mayor holds his grin up at them as he sticks the ice pick in a bit deeper, just for fun: "Perhaps the colonel can tell us what he thought the items referred to?"Standing side by side, the two military men look as though they have just shit their pants and are in desperate need of a uniform change. Instead of a communist spy caught red-handed, they have a local farmer with the smarts to keep careful records. The colonel, perhaps due to greater rank and experience, is able first to summon upon his reserves of dignity:"I guess that's all we have to discuss," he says somberly, drawing himself up as straight as possible. "thank you for coming."The major drives the sister home to her cottage after her triumph and, wishing to salvage something from the afternoon, puts some heavy-handed moves on the girl, despite the fact that she is still wearing black in mourning for her dead brother. After some initial frostiness which the major, being an American, blunders through like a rhinoceros crashing through brush, she does warm to him a bit (Barbara has openly laughed at him over some moment of bluster during their drive, and the major has had the good grace and confidence to grin at himself). They part with a friendly wave.But soon there are more killings. The mayor is slain horribly in his home, and a local couple is killed. Here, we see a farmer's wife, doing chores in a barn, become alert to the same crackling, throbbing sound we heard with the first killing. As she looks around, the sound becomes louder. She sees the hay on the barn floor ruffle. Suddenly she screams hysterically and clutches at the back of her neck, thrashing miserably against something unseen. Her husband comes running into the barn, only to meet the same fate. This time, a military investigation and autopsy cannot be stopped and, in a morgue of deep noir shadows; Dr. Warren explains to the principals that the dead couple both had missing brains "sucked out like an egg" through two holes at the base of the neck. The corpses also both had their spinal columns sucked out right along with the brains. "It's as though some mental vampire were at work," offers the major.Colonel Butler understands instantly that the backward, country folk will naturally panic and blame the base's atomic experiments for this kind of bizarre death. Quick, Jeff, he orders, acting a bit panicky himself, dash on into town and put your ear to the ground for unusual behavior. "The townsfolk know you," says the colonel.The townsfolk. Right. Major Cummings hot-tails it with all-due haste to one, specific towns person he would like to know much better: Barbara Griselle, whom he surprises post-shower dressed only in towels (he comes into her home unannounced through a door that - only in the movies - swings open when knocked upon). Seeing her wet and clothed only in a snug towel distracts the major entirely from sucked brains and missing spinal columns, and he continues his overtures of the previous meeting with even less tact (after Barbara has slipped on a bathrobe). Just as the major is about to round first base, the raw-boned brute of a local constable, Howard Gibbons (Robert MacKenzie), is seen standing in the bedrooms' doorway (and judging by Ms. Griselle's pleasant reception - "Hello, Howard, come on in" - it's not unusual for the tall lawman to come into the house, and bedroom, without knocking). After a moment of alpha unpleasantries, the constable suggests gruffly (but not unreasonably) that perhaps the major's time might be better spent searching for the killer instead of "tomcatting around." The major goes on the attack and, despite being a full head shorter, holds his own against the rugged looking constable (well, he is cranked on bennies, remember). Barbara, still with a towel around her head, breaks the boys up and orders the major out. Yet, the visit hasn't been an entirely disgraceful waste of time for the major. In between trying to get under the bathrobe off a grieving sister and attacking a local law officer, Cummings noticed a stack of papers and a manuscript entitled: "The Principles of Thought Control by R. E. Walgate" on a writing desk in Barbara's bedroom (just so we know this discover is important, doom-dark music plays as the major gazes at the title page). It just so happens that Barbara is the private secretary of the author, Professor Walgate, who has retired to the wilds of Winthrop for health reasons. It also just so happens that Prof. Walgate is a world-renowned authority on "psychic phenomenon." Hmmm. Thought control. "Mental vampire." Yes, this is one too many "just so happens," and the movie has offered up the script's single option for culprit.While the major sets himself on the trail of Prof. Walgate, Constable Gibbons has taken a more traditional approach in finding the killer. He has worked his fellow townsmen into a froth, armed them all with shotguns and hunting rifles, and marched the whole ill-trained troop into the woods in search of some fiend (whom, it is assumed, is probably a GI from the base gone berserk). Watching the men happily grab firearms from the backseat of a car and rush into the forest, one can't help but imagine this may have been the response to any crime, even, say, a stolen bicycle. Yet once the woods become full of ill-trained shopkeepers and chicken farmers whirling their weapons at any bird chirp, even the heartiest of the posse seem fearful of being caught in a dreadful hail of crossfire. "It's me! It's Beck!" yips one panic-stricken townie stepping into a clearing, waving his hands frantically at the battery of firearms that have suddenly clattered and chambered themselves at him.Eventually, the men become exhausted and most go home, finished with the romp and satisfied with having escaped the harrowing, useless afternoon with their lives. The constable and one terrified, reluctant townie (the same hapless "Beck" who has already pissed himself once in the afternoon) remain for one last look near the air base. Near a hollow, the two hear the by-now familiar thumping, grinding sound and, much to the consternation of Beck, the two split up to investigate ("you said not to let each other out of sight!" squeals Beck, his anus shrinking so suddenly it makes his entire body smaller). After a bit of very cautious walking through the woods alone, Beck hears the sound grow louder, then louder still, then stop. He runs through the woods, shouting Gibbons' name (In a nice bit of movie making we see the camera pan the sky, pull back further to take in whole stretches of dense forest, as Beck's voice becomes lost in distance).With the loss of their constable, the townspeople call an emergency city council meeting where, horrifically, Constable Gibbons will reappear - barging into the meeting - a gibbering, mindless idiot, making a terrible bawling like a tortured calf (his brain, presumably, partially sucked out).Meanwhile, Major Cummings applies himself to Professor Walgate who, despite being a avuncular, pipe-smoking Englishman in the grand, dusty tradition, is the "fiend." Or rather, through thought transference (or mental projection or some such) Walgate has created the invisible fiends through a device which enhances his powers of mental projection (with the aid of atomic energy bleed off from the nearby plant).Which leads us straight into the good stuff:The Good Stuff Part I: The Scorpion BrainsWhile conducting his search into psychic phenomenon, the professor has created a machine by which he can siphon off some of the atomic power of the nearby air-force base to materialize his thought. So enhanced, the professor's thoughts have become a living force, separate from his consciousness. Naturally, being so brainy, the professor imagined a sort of brain when strapped into the machine and, like thought, they are initially invisible. Yet as time passed, and the thought creatures became stronger, they existed beyond the professor's control or even knowledge. Being brains, they needed both blood and a spinal column to survive (and unfortunately for many townsfolk, they developed a way to get both). Eventually toward the end of the picture they become detached completely from the professor and begin to multiply. Once the major has things figured, he realizes that he must make the brains visible to fight them effectively, and he boosts the atomic output of the base. Once the atomic reactors are given a jolt, the fiends become part of the physical world (and visible). And it is the visible brains which give the picture's its great wallop.At picture's end, we find many principals trapped in the professor's house, engaged in a claustrophobic shoot out with the now-visible brains, which sputter flatulently when shot, spraying and bleeding huge gouts of black, lumpy blood (it looks for all the world like blackberry jam). The pulpy brains, with their trailing spinal columns and elastic lobster eye-tendrils, are moved through stop-motion animation; so they resemble bulbous scorpion snakes, crawling along by the worm-like motion of their bare, skeletal spines. When attacking, they wrap their naked back-bones like a python around the neck of the victim, while their brain bodies stab into the neck with a mosquito beak to suck out the brain matter. The overall effect is simply stunning. Even in this age when Saw CCCXXIX is slated for summer of 2232, the sight of these plugged brains, spluttering forth their filth like oil-filled bladders - often spraying their black gore everywhere when shot - still qualify as a legit guilty pleasure. In fact, the special effects in this final sequence are so fine, it has kept the film beloved and selling well to the current day.The Good Stuff Part II: Arthur CrabtreeAlthough not well remembered, Director Arthur Crabtree keeps things lean and mean throughout and proves real talent for building tension in close spaces (as well as being a director capable of fine moments of subtle feeling as when Air Force jets boom over the graveyard service for Jacques Griselle, obliterating the country priest's prayer). In the final scene, when the survivors are trapped in the professor's house, the odds become so overwhelming that the only course of action is to blow up the atomic reactor (yes, blow up the atomic reactor). The major makes a desperate break for the plant's control room with dynamite in hand (yes, to dynamite the nuclear reactor); while the professor, in a guilty bid for redemption, decides to leave the house and battle his creations with his mind. He is attacked almost instantly and dies buried under a pile of pulsing, feeding brains.Crabtree keeps things wound extremely tightly, as we watch the main party nailing shut windows, blocking doorways, and blasting away at the brains (overall a fine entry in the oft-used "trapped-in-a-rural-farmhouse" theme), while the major scrambles to make his way via Jeep to the plant with some dynamite he's picked up from a convenient shed. As the major nears the plant on foot, we see him run passed the dead, brain-sucked bodies of base personnel, many draped like dirty laundry over stair railings or laying in heaps over the grounds. The major, with his .45 blasting some very messy holes in some very angry brains, manages to blow the plant (we see a magnificent sequence here of a dying, gore-spattered brain struggling in lurches to reach the burning wick of the dynamite, ultimately failing as it slumps over). Once the atomic power hums to a halt, we watch the brains go limp - falling off necks and dropping from trees and window ledges like rotten fruit; where, once on the ground, they bubble, splutter, and sizzle like sacks of acid spilled on the ground (another giggly effect).Hurrah! Major Cummings hurries back to the farmhouse, where he has become "Jeff!" in Barbara's eyes. The two embrace in a kiss as prelude to a blissful marriage and family; and the end credits roll.The Good Stuff Part III: Our Fiend The AtomIn 1957, the profoundly optimistic Walt Disney produced a short film that was seen by American school children called Our Friend The Atom. In this film, noted atomic scientist, Dr. Heinz Haber, discussed the many possible positives of a tremendous new recourse, atomic power. The purpose of the film was to forestall the growing trepidations about fission while pointing the way to a brightly lit future, powered by this clean, inexhaustible source of endless power. While it is easy to snort at the film now, it was an honest attempt to explore the massive potential that rested slumbering in the splitting of the atom (it should be remembered that Dr. Haber also compares atomic power to a genie from Arabian Nights; stressing the wither the genie is used for good or ill resides in the moral fiber of the one doing the wishing).Yet, judging by Fiend Without A Face and hundreds of B-movies like it made in the atomic age, few completely believed in the goodness of the Atom. Not even the school children, sitting glassy eyed at Disney's magic in countless auditoriums, were probably much convinced; considering a few years earlier these same children had been shown brutal black and white civil defense films like Duck and Cover - just in case the atom wasn't so fucking friendly.Fiend is terribly conflicted, and ultimately scared shitless, about atomic power. The film, via the major and other military personal, seems sincere in ridiculing the Winthrop population for their ignorant fears of atomic radiation. In fact, it is proven that all the townies' fears are misplaced regarding loss of cream content in dairy cows, loss of rainfall, illnesses, etc. Also, the film makes a strong case for the military potential for atomic power for gaining a massive edge against the destructive might of communism. We see a brief scene in a darkly light radar control room where, for one glittering moment, our radar is so enhanced by atomic power that we see the entire land mass of the USSR, stretched out before us clear as a Texaco road map. All in the room become rigid with excitement, looking up at the big screen with awed expressions. Yet, the image is weak and fleeting. The plant has been running on peak overload even to produce this fleeting image and, as the reactor crackles and hums dangerously; the promising image of military superiority flickers, dims, and becomes a watery pool of vague light. "There it goes again," says the major, his voice guttural with anger. "Same Trouble!" The major can't know, but the atomic power is being drained off, misused (and that is important) by the semi-mad professor. And what of local, peasant fears of radiation? Well, they may have been wrong bout the bad milk; but weren't the good folks of Winthrop far more than right to fear the atomic monster? Did it not bring the ruin of their pastoral paradise? No bad milk, sure; but instead mind-sucking, atomic powered brains.Ultimately, the military and the citizenry of Winthrop come to understand that it was just as Dr. Haber and Walt Disney had explained in beautiful Technicolor: That atomic power is indeed a bristling, crackling genie; at our pleasure for any wish. The only mistake Walt Disney made was assuming our wishes never held nightmares.Want it printable? Download .pdf hardcopy of this post!