The first hour of Fiend Without a Face (1958) just sucks. It’s the usual Cold War atomic paranoia stuff—an American military base on Canadian soil, experiments with nuclear-powered radar, a series of unexplained murders—told in the most pedestrian manner possible. Marshall Thompson plays the movie’s typical Army Guy, and he’s just terrible; he delivers every line with the exact same I’m-the-Army-Guy tone of voice. He falls for a pretty Canadian woman, and wouldn’t you know, she work for a Vaguely Mad Scientist! Could the Scientist be somehow linked to the murders? Will the Army Guy discover this link and investigate? Well, duh. Yeah, it’s on track to become the most generic, forgettable ’50s B-movie of them all…
But then, a miracle: the climax strikes, and the entire movie changes. An influx of radioactive energy (or something to that effect) reveals the invisible monsters to be a flock of slimy, creepy-crawly killer brains. Holy fuck, right? All of a sudden, Fiend Without a Face stops being a formulaic Cold War sci-fi movie and turns into a grotesque orgy of bloodshed and stop-motion. The brains slither, lunge into the air, and latch onto characters’ necks, only to be dispatched with a bullet or an ax. It’s fuckin’ awesome!
I think the creative team behind Fiend Without a Face knew that the flying killer brains were their movie’s only hook, too. I think they banked on it, and that’s why they allowed the rest of the film to be almost self-parodically tedious. In those last 15 minutes, they do nothing but exploit their truly impressive special effects. Seriously: the plot grinds to a halt so that characters, under siege in a cabin, can stare out the window at a forest swarming with gooey, disembodied brains. It practically becomes an avant-garde nature film—“Behold,” you can imagine David Attenborough saying, “the fiends without a face, clinging majestically to the Canadian pines!”
And yeah, Army Guy blows up the nuclear reactor, makes the brains all melt into viscous puddles, and then kisses the pretty Canadian woman as the words “THE END” roll onscreen. But somewhere in their fictional minds, these characters must realize that we (the audience) do not give a shit about them. That we only came here for the killer brain action. That they’re only human placeholders driving along a story that’s fundamentally about killer brains. I feel kinda bad for them: Fiend Without a Face is cruelly lopsided, stringing its audience along with the promise that, yes, the climax will feature flying killer brains. Army Guy, the putative star, doesn’t factor into the movie’s appeal at all.
But the killer brains. They’re alluring, certainly more so than lead actress Kim Parker. They also anticipate trends in horror cinema 20-30 years in the future: the way their blood spurts reminds me of Eraserhead’s man-made chickens; their moist texture calls to mind Naked Lunch’s Mugwumps; and when they melt, it heralds the splatter-happy zombie movies of Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson. They’re terrifying, radioactive little crystal balls.
I really cannot overemphasize how effective the stop-motion is here. Looking back from 2011, the brains still give me the creeps. Maybe the rest of the movie was made exceptionally boring as part of a Sirkian trick to make the brains seem even more impressive when they finally arrived? I can’t say. But I do know that thanks to that miraculously sui generis climax, Fiend Without a Face is a film I’ve treasured since childhood, and it’s one I’ll never forget.