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I must admit I went into Fiend Without a Face a bit reluctantly. I’m not a huge fan of 50s monster movies even under the best conditions, which would for me be such a movie presented as part of an MST3K episode. But I wanted to join the 50s Monster Mash Blogathon over at Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear because I had so much fun meeting all the classic film bloggers who participated in the Queer Film Blogathon in June. So, I chose the only 50s monster movie I could find which 1. hadn’t been chosen already and 2. was released as a part of the Criterion Collection. As it happens I chose wisely, and I’m ready to give some other monster classics a chance.

Fiend Without a Face begins with a military man at a U.S. Air Force base in Canada leaning on a fence smoking a cigarette. We hear a loud heartbeat and the sound of a terrifying scream. The man runs towards the sounds to find a dead man whose face is frozen in a  horrible look of fear and madness. The credits begin and end, and then we see some jets flying before we finally get some dialogue. Major Jeff Cummings (Marshall Thompson) is waiting to find out what killed the man in the pre-credits sequence, but the deceased man’s sister, Barbara (Kim Parker), won’t allow the military to do an autopsy. Before long there are three more deaths. Is the horror being caused by the nuclear power plant on the base, which is used to power the radar they’re using to spy on the Russians? Or is something going on in town with the resident retired scientist (Kynaston Reeves)?

The titular fiend is invisible for two-thirds of the movie, but we see its effects. We watch three victims die screaming and see a fourth man disturbingly driven mad. Even when we finally see the monster, or monsters, the stop-motion that fuels them is so good for the 50s that it takes only a little suspension of disbelief to enjoy the final third of the film.

On the surface it seems that the monsters represent a fear of atomic power, for that is where they are technically drawing their strength, but is there a deeper meaning? The story from which the screenplay was adapted was written in 1930 (by a woman! named Amelia Reynolds Long), before all the propaganda about nuclear war. Because the fiends are originally manifestations of thoughts, I wonder if the writer wasn’t cautioning against too much non-linear thinking? Or maybe it’s a simple tale of telekinesis gone awry. It’s also possible that the monsters could be based on the frights that exist in man’s subconscious mind. I like that theory the best.

Fiend Without a Face shows us a very different Air Force than the one I’m used to reading about on paranoia websites and seeing on The X-Files. The mayor of the town and the relatives of the deceased get to decide what happens to the bodies, rather than the government stepping in and declaring everything classified. Perhaps things would have been as I’d expected if the villains had been aliens!

Aside from being a bit better than the other monster movies I’ve seen, I believe this movie might have had an influence on Gene Roddenberry; we hear one character complain about an order to increase the radar’s power by saying, “we’re giving it everything we’ve got,” and another says, during the first autopsy the military is allowed to do, “I’m a doctor, not a detective!”

The visuals are good for an older movie. Instead of rear projection we get live action shots of people riding in open top jeeps. The aforementioned stop-motion is pretty good, especially while the monster is still invisible and we merely see something moving under the straw in a barn, or the screen on a door being cut. I enjoyed the fact that the jets are real and I didn’t have to see ridiculous model planes. The monsters, when we see them, work well enough to create tension once they attack en masse, and their explosions upon being wounded or killed are surprisingly gory. Best of all, the movie overall has a “show not tell” style. Even when we get a verbal explanation for the monsters we get it in voiceover while watching a flashback. Neither the director (Arthur Crabtree) nor the screenwriter (Herbert J. Leder) seems to have been lazy.

If I was going to recommend additional viewing, I’d say that if you like horror wrought by the human mind you should check out The Sender, and of course a good source for a fix of “manifested monster” horror is The Brood. I recommend for myself a thorough reading of the other articles in the blogathon (and for you too, of course). Maybe I’ll find some other 50s monster movies to enjoy. I feel cheesy saying this, but the best part about doing blogathons seems to be learning something.