Fiend Without A Face, and its surprising controversy

Released in 1958, Fiend Without A Face horrified critics with its bloody violence, and even sparked a discussion in British parliament...

It’s the summer of 1958, and crowds are gathering around a ghoulish display. Outside the Rialto Theatre on Times Square, New York, a glass case contains a creature that looks like a cross between a gastropod and a series of internal organs awkwardly stitched together; its head is essentially a grey, wobbling human brain topped by eyes on stalks, just like a snail’s. Its body resembles a spinal column, flanked either side by a pair of spindly, insectoid legs.

Inside the case, the creature’s back arches and moves back and forth, as though it’s crawling along the ground; each wobble and writhe is accompanied by an ominous sound: “schlupp, schlupp, schlupp…”

Creeped out but also strangely compelled, the crowd outside the cinema grows, necks craning to get a better look at the abomination in the glass box. The creature’s here to promote Fiend Without A Face, a movie second on the bill to The Haunted Strangler – a period horror starring Boris Karloff. Yet even Karloff’s spooky charisma can’t match the allure of the fiend in its glass cage, and before long, the throng on the street outside the Rialto has become a problem. 

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The police have arrive, and complain that the crowd has grown so voluminous that it’s disturbing the flow of traffic. They demand that the case and its prisoner are removed from view. So away it goes.

If the cops thought the fiend in the case was bad, it was relatively tame compared to the film itself…

An unexpected horror

By the late 60s, the demolition of the Hayes Code meant that American filmmakers were suddenly free to indulge in the kind of sex, violence, swearing and other mayhem that was all but outlawed under the old order. The introduction of the new MPAA ratings system meant that, within a few short years, cinemas were soon home to such controversial yet groundbreaking films as Bonnie And Clyde (1967), Night Of The Living Dead (1968) and Easy Rider (1969).

A torrent of gore flowed through the decade and into the 1970s, as the likes of The Exorcist (1973), Carrie (1976) and Alien (1979) brought horror into the mainstream. Audiences may have jumped and gasped at those films, but within a few short years, the sight of blood or explicit violence on the big screen had become relatively commonplace.

Fiend Without A Face predated all of this, which is why this low-budget B-movie managed to cause such a stir when it appeared in 1958. Gunshots oozed. Gore spattered up and down walls. Monstrous bodies collapsed in great puddles of goo. Arriving a decade before the explicit splatter and flesh-eating of Night Of The Living Dead, Fiend Without A Face looked quite unlike any other sci-fi film of its era.

It’s little wonder that some critics were so shocked.

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In terms of plot, Fiend Without A Face is a typical example of atomic era sci-fi. At a US Air Force base in Canada, an experimental form of radar seems to be linked to a series of mysterious disappearances at a nearby village. At the same time, scientist Professor Walgate (Kynaston Reeves), is conducting experiments into telekinesis. Major Jeff Cummings (Marshall Thompson), investigating the disappearances, learns that Walgate’s meddling with science has resulted in the creation of invisible, Forbidden Planet-like thought monsters from the subconscious. These fiends without faces want to feed on the base’s nuclear power, and begin offing its personnel one by one – brilliantly, by sucking their brains out of the back of their heads.

To quote Major Cummings: “It’s as if some mental vampire were at work!”

Weird origins

This seemingly all-American B-movie actually began life in Britain, when producer Richard Gordon was handed a copy of Weird Tales by his brother, Alex. Gordon, who’d already produced numerous low-budget films including The Devil’s General (1955) and Violent Stranger (1957) was on the hunt for new genre material, and a story in that 30s issue of Weird Tales The Thought Monster by Amelia Reynolds Long – seemed to fit the bill.

Gordon hired screenwriter Herbert Leder to adapt the story, and brought in Arthur Crabtree – maker of perfectly respectable British films like Everybody Dance (1936) and Madonna Of The Seven Moons (1945) starring Stewart Granger – to direct. Because Fiend Without A Face was intended as a supporting act to the Boris Karloff vehicle The Haunted Strangler, its budget was originally set at a decidedly lean £50,000. But Fiend Without A Face‘s ambitious special effects soon bumped up its production cost to that of The Haunted Strangler – approximately £80,000.

Those special effects were handled by Germany’s Karl Ludwig Ruppel and Baron Florenz von Nordhoff – better known as Ruppel and Nordhoff. Their stop-motion sequences of crawling fiends would soon become the most celebrated in the movie.

“When Ruppel and Nordhoff came into it,” Gordon later recalled in Tom Weaver’s book, Interviews With B Science Fiction And Horror Movie Makers, “we had a finished screenplay and they pretty much had to stick to it. They were working on their effects continuously while we were shooting, and then most of the special effects scenes were finished after the principal shoot was over. It did take rather longer than we expected, and the picture went way over schedule in the post-production because of the special effects.”

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What isn’t clear, though, is exactly whose idea it was to make the movie so gory and violent. Fiend Without A Face’s final reel brings with it an explosion of blood and ooze, as Major Cummings and his friends, armed with pistols, try to defend Professor Walgate’s house from the invading fiends. Ruppel and Nordhoff’s effects revel in every gunshot wound and exploding brain. The bloodletting was such that Gordon had a hard time getting the movie past the censors of the day.

“[The gore effects] did cause some problems with the censors, yes,” Gordon later admitted. “In fact, we had to make a cut version for England because the British censor didn’t want to pass it the way it was. The censors in the United States also trimmed it slightly, for the MGM distribution, before we could get the Code seal.”

“What have I unleashed?”

Cuts notwithstanding, Fiend Without A Face was unusually full-on for a late 50s movie. Following the movie’s British premiere at the Ritz Theatre in London, the response was furious. Even with its X rating, film critics wondered aloud how this extraordinarily bloody film managed to get past the censors; it’s even said that Fiend Without A Face was discussed in Parliament, where ministers also asked exactly who gave the film its certification.

“When newspapers are saying that your movies are too revolting to be called entertainment and when somebody in Parliament is saying it’s a crime that your movie got released, what goes through a movie producer’s mind?,” Gordon’s asked in Fiend Without A Face’s Criterion audio commentary.

“What went through my mind,” Gordon coolly replies, “was that I never could have afforded to buy that publicity.”

The controversy didn’t harm Fiend Without A Face‘s box-office appeal, then, and the movie was a hit. Its success, along with The Haunted Strangler, was such that MGM commissioned further genre films from Richard Gordon – First Man Into Space and Corridors Of Blood.

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If anything, Fiend Without A Face has aged better than the Karloff movie it supported. A screening on BBC’s Moviedrome series in the early 90s helped introduce it to another generation of unsuspecting viewers (including your humble writer), and even from a 21st century perspective, it’s an effective sci-fi shocker.

Okay, so the dialogue’s cheesy, the stock footage is glaring and the characters are stock, but Crabtree gives it real suspense. For much of the film, the fiends are kept firmly off the screen; like a Val Lewton film or Spielberg’s Jaws, the monsters are suggested with eerie sounds – in this case, the grim slurping noise they make as they creep towards their victims.

But unlike a Val Lewton movie, Fiend Without A Face proudly unveils its monsters at the end, and it’s safe to say that Ruppel and Nordhoff’s fiends are among the most memorable creatures in 50s cinema. They’ve certainly made their impact on other filmmakers; special effects genius Rick Baker praised them in a Trailers From Hell video. The melting, exploding, oozing creatures in Gremlins appear to be influenced by the histrionic deaths in Fiend. A tribute to Fiend Without A Face even appears on a television screen in Brad Bird’s animated classic, The Iron Giant.

The movie even received the compliment of a Criterion release, placing it in the esteemed company of such 50s films as Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing and Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.

Like its title creatures, Fiend Without A Face has managed to crawl out of the roiling pool of 50s B-flicks, and with that icky sound – “schlupp, schlupp, schlupp” – wriggle its way into the pantheon of great sci-fi monster movies.

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