Monday, March 23, 2009

Fiend Without a Face

There is a long standing debate within the horror genre between the effect of what is shown and what is simply implied. The old RKO producer Val Lewton was the master of suggestion, while the more modern maestro George Romero is an expert of forcing viewers to confront the unbearable.

But the 1958 production of Fiend Without a Face achieves the odd distinction of doing both. If the greatest terror is conceived in one's own head, then why not have brain-sucking critters who are just that, brains (well, brains with the spinal cord still attached).

The movie gets tremendous effect out of a few simple sound-effects, basic stop-motion animation, and a story line just whacked out enough to be a weirdly chilling pipeline into urban folk lore. But the most inspired idea in Fiend Without a Face is the basic realization that you can really freak people out by attacking them with the most critical core component to human anatomy.

Set near a secret U.S. Air base in Canada (though everything was actually filmed in England), Fiend Without a Face starts with a pretty routine military investigation into a series of odd murders among the rural population. The air force major in charge of the investigation (Marshall Thompson) divides his time between re-assuring the locals (a task that he sucks at), noticing strange details at the crime scene (a job that he is half-baked at) and trying to score with the one available woman in the whole town (a job he is successful at for no obvious reasons).

Meanwhile, the farmers are worried that all of the jets flying in and out are having a bad effect on the cows. Also, the possibility of radiation from the base's hush-hush experiment is becoming noticeable. Then there is the slight problem of people turning up dead with their brains sucked out. Fortunately for the U.S. Military, most of the farmers are more concerned about the cows.

What really works in Fiend Without a Face is pure primal fear. That and a hefty dose of Cold War paranoia which under lies most of the movie. The brain-suckers of the story presents a near perfect pulp summation of 1950s' anxieties. Once they become visible, the nasty creepy-crawlies also tap deep into a well-served sense of the gross. These are just some of the reasons why Fiend Without a Face remains a cockamamie classic.