Filmhydra
A slithering brain with eye stalks and a spinal cord tail
Above: The stop-motion effects are brilliant, the exposition … eh, not so much

Fiend Without a Face (1958)

🧠🧠 Bodies are showing up with their brains and spinal columns removed; is the local military base at fault?

Reading time: 3 minutes.

Fiend Without a Face is a British film about the events near an American airbase in Canada. The movie was shot in England with a mostly American and Canadian cast with German special effects. Those special effects are pretty much why anyone cares today. Although the movie would be considered very tame by the 1970s, most 50s creature features did not have blood spatters, slithering disembodied brains, and dead bodies strewn across the landscape.

A brain attacking by wrapping its tail around someone’s neck.

Those little devils can really sneak up on you.

Understandably, the film was released in the UK with an “X Certificate,” which prohibited showing the movie to children under the age of sixteen. They debated in Parliament whether it should even have been released at all.

The movie basically has two halves; the first half is setup and exposition, and holy crap, there is a lot of exposition. There is also a lot of stock footage. Fans of creature features might despair here, knowing that this generally means the monsters are on-screen for only the briefest moment. Stick with it, though, because those monsters get a lot of screen time in the second half. Or, you know, you could just skip a bit.

The cast discusses the plot in a conference room.

It’s a classic case of tell, don’t show in this conference room scene.

Assuming that’s your choice — God invented instant scene access for a reason — here’s what you’re missing in the exposition. The American airbase in Canada is running tests for long-range radar. These tests require such enormous quantities of power the base has its own nuclear power plant. Even so, the Americans keep pushing the safety limits of the plant. Between the nonstop flights and the dangerous power plant, the airbase is developing a bad reputation among the locals. When locals and airmen start turning up with puncture wounds at the base of the neck and no spinal column or brain, the locals naturally blame atomic radiation from the local power plant.

In what seems to be equal parts concern and repetitional damage control, Major Cummings (Marshall Thompson) starts an investigation into what’s going on. The physical symptoms may scream “radiation poisoning” to Winthrop’s citizens, but Cummings isn’t convinced. This leads him to the home of Professor Walgate. Walgate’s experiments in telekinesis, combined with the excess power from the airbase, have given his thoughts physical, but invisible, form. And they are stealing brains and spines to reproduce.

Another picture of a brain with eyestalks and spinal column tail

Honestly, it’s really either look at brains or look at conference rooms with this film.

“Mmm hmm,” said the film’s producers. “Seems likely.”

Thus ends the first half of the movie after a frankly astonishing amount of exposition, an incident involving an airtight crypt, and a pointlessly romantic subplot with an invisible-brain victim’s sister. The remainder of the movie is a desperate home invasion staged by the brain things, now entirely visible when power at the nuclear plant is cranked up well past tolerances. This is where the movie becomes extraordinarily gruesome. The brain things slither around on spines, which they can also coil up and use to jump at and strangle people. They have eyes on two elongated stalks. Of fangs, I could see no sign, but something has to make those neck punctures. There’s a lot of shooting, which causes the brains to deflate and ooze blood. Sometimes the blood even spatters on the walls.

This is all very tame by modern standards but was scandalous in the UK of the late fifties. On the other hand, Parliament’s concerns such movies might be another step on the slippery slope to even more tasteless and disgusting films seem to have been well-founded. It’s an open question, though, whether anyone would ever have been able to stop it.

The title card for the film, with text made from lightning bolts

This is the kind of title card that screams “Buy the Criterion Edition of me!” No, really.

 

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