Fiend Without a Face (1958)

This review contains SPOILERS!
"Fiend Without a Face" seems, at first, like a movie that so disgustingly and perfectly embodies the woes of a post WWII world. Atomic energy, the military's intrusion into civilian lives, and the yearning for a 'simpler' time—they all seem to line up fittingly for a world that was just wrecked by a powerful war in which an atomic bomb seemed to be the genesis for mass hysteria and paranoia. Yes, at first all these themes and more make sense in a historical context...if the movie had come ten years prior.
But due to the gap between the end of the war and the movie's debut, one might have to reconsider these ideas—although, certainly, they should not be dismissed entirely...after all the second world war was no small issue. Instead, think of an international paranoia gripping the world because of intelligence. It shouldn't surprise you that central to the film's titular monsters is a radar powered by atomic energy that can peer thousands of miles away into the homes of everyday Russians.
While this fact is lost in the larger, gory, more entertaining suspense of a story about Canadians being attacked and strangled by brain sucking monsters from space, it should not be dismissed.
"Fiend Without a Face" concerns the American and Canadian border where a military base is testing out an atomic powered radar which they will use to gather intelligence on the Russians. Cold War panic was just about to hit its zenith in America, so the film seems fittingly targeted on Soviet territory. But, rather than be focused on the impact the radar might have should the enemy gain control of it, "Fiend Without a Face" presents a problem that allows us to examine it introspectively.
No, don't get me wrong, the film isn't that smart and purposely so, but it isn't a stupid movie. Here, rational arguments and complex ideas are pushed aside for "mental vampires" as protagonist Major Cummings (Marshall Thompson) describes the phenomenon.
Civilian lives are dropped like flies due to an unseen, unknown serial killer and the tensions between the Canadian agrarian community and the American military stationed on the border. These farmers want the base gone; but the military chain of command is digging in its heels and shaking its head. Here is a classic stand-off.
Add a few deaths in there and voila, you have a perfect recipe for less than hospitable foreign relationships. In the case of "Fiend Without a Face" we can take a break from all the drama now and again for a scene now and again where important and periphery characters are taken down one by one by this mysterious killer.
Naturally Cummings' love interest is introduced at one of these initial deaths and from there the sparks fly, because nothing says "I love you" more than looking into the hollowed out skull of a man who just had his brain sucked out of his back like a hardboiled egg...oh, but don't worry, the man is also this love interest's brother. Barbara (Kim Parker) pops back into the plot again and again like an unwanted alarm clock that keeps getting snoozed. It's clumsy the way the script entangles her in the detective work of Cummings.
As they come closer to discovering who or what is causing these deaths, the stakes are revved up because the end of the world could be coming, as is only natural. By the end of it, having gone from political to the absurd and back, we are left wondering if "Fiend Without a Face" is discouraging any sort of rational thought. It might be suggesting that we stifle ourselves and not attempt to stretch our minds; but then again, maybe I'm reading too much into it.
Considering all it has against it, from the Irish accents that are supposed to be Canadian, to the more vibrant gore scenes in the end of the movie, "Fiend Without a Face" works...and it works surprisingly well. While it's philosophies may have gotten tangled, I'm still impressed that a B-horror movie could thrive on such a level of critical thinking and such a lack of monsters.

Score: ★★★

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