Battle of the Brains

For anyone with a body, it’s no surprise that there is a genre of film dealing entirely with our seemingly never-ending battle with our own mortal coils. The human body is often private enemy number one for those who inhabit it, and there are times when it seems our own body conspires endlessly against us to ensure that life is as uncomfortable and embarrassing as possible. Dealing with the human body is a constant struggle. You can’t turn your back on it for a minute, or it starts to break down. As a result of our constant physical struggle with ourselves, we’ve developed a whole little industry revolving around our revolting bodies revolting, rising up, and attacking us. At its most extreme, you have zombie movies in which hollow, soulless shells shamble about and eat people. Less extreme but still no less a sign of our unending fight with our ourselves are the sundry movies in which an individual body part gets disconnected from the rest of the body and starts causing all sorts of grief. More times than not, it seems the hand is responsible for the mischief. I can only think of a couple films where a wayward disembodied leg made any attempt to attack the living. After all, a disconnected leg can’t really put much power behind its kicks, nor is it especially fast. Hands work better than just about any appendage. They can throttle you. They can run around like spiders. They can hide. they can slap you. Most importantly, they can shoot you the bird at opportune moments to enhance comedic effect.

But there is another part of the human body that causes just as much trouble for us once it’s disconnected from the rest of the body, and that’s the brain. Where we may hate most of our body parts, we outright fear our own brains. Strange, but obviously not all that difficult to explain. We know a lot regarding just about every body part except the brain, which still remains something of a mystery to us. Despite the mental threat, the brain is hardly as mobile as a possessed hand. It would seem an unlikely predator, but I figure the brain wanted to make itself look tough, so it thought up all these ways to have a killer brain monster that was actually threatening. This usually resulted in a flying brain, or one that could scuttle around like a big brainy bug. Often, they got to retain the spinal cord so they’d have something to whip about and strangle us with.

Killer brain movies have been few and far between in recent years, but back in the golden age of science fiction, it seemed like every other movie featured some sort of giant killer brain monster. Curiously, most of the brains were pretty dumb, little more than spongy little animals that wanted to choke us with their spinal cords. It’s no big shocker that we have so many evil brain movies during the 1950s at the dawn of the Cold War when “intellectualism” went hand in hand, at least in the public eye, with Communism. Weird, really, that the Communists in Russia and China were busy imprisoning and executing intellectuals and burning books, while over here we figured all intellectuals and bookworms to be Communists. We were happier then, and the children… the children seemed to laugh more. Technology was our friend, our scary city-destroying friend, sort of like an uncle who tells great stories but gets agitated really easy once he’s had one too many. All we had to fear back then were dirty rotten Godless Commie Bastards, killer brains, alien invaders, and giant insects and reptiles. And each other. And kids in suped-up hot rods. And dinosaurs, which we still have to fear today.

1958’s Fiend Without a Face was not the first or the best killer brain movie, but it is the one I used to constantly get mixed up with The Beast With Five Fingers starring Peter Lorre. I could never remember which one had Peter Lorre in it. Curiously enough, Beast is about a disembodied killer hand. Go figure. I think it was the fact that Lorre also made a movie called Face Behind the Mask that really got me confused. Peter Lorre plays a watchmaker who becomes disfigured and enters a life of crime after donning an emotionless mask over his scarred face. Similarly, Marshall Thompson stars in Fiend Without a Face as an Air Force major who is so stiff you’d think he was wearing a mask. Thompson specialized in playing the military stiff in 1950s sci-fi, and I have to say you’d be hard-pressed to find a stiffer stiff.

Our story begins outside an Air Force base located in some remote corner of Manitoba. A guard who might as well be wearing a “Brain Food” t-shirt over his fatigues goes to investigate some garbled screaming he hears in the woods. He hasn’t walked more than a few feet before he screams and clutches at his throat, signifying to all of us that this is going to be one of those economical “invisible monster” movies. I don’t mind not seeing the monster. Hell, I kinda enjoy it, but the “invisible invader” scenario always seemed sort of cheap to me, though not as cheap as when you make a science fiction movie that is either set in a theme park made to look like “Small Town USA, circa 1989” or in which aliens “assume a human form.” Or anything where they have to time travel back to the present in order to not have to build futuristic sets. Anyway, point is that a clever filmmaker can hide the monster without resorting to an hour’s worth of people shouting “Noooo!!!” and clutching at the invisible thing around their necks.

After this little intro we get to meet Jeff (Marshall Thompson, also in It! The Terror from Beyond Space that same year), or Major Cummings as they call him — a name that would never be used today outside of a porno with a clever title like Chief of Staff. Major Cummings is in charge of some new Air Force experiment to use atomic energy to boost radar capabilities so that we can keep an eye on those Commies while never leaving Canadian air space. The only problem with the whole experiment is that every time things start to get good and we can use the radar to watch Kruschev undress, the power fades out. Complicating matters are the fact that the locals are none too pleased about this military base full of super-loud jets and atomic radiation being located smack dab in the middle of their quaint Canadian town. Concerns over the fact that radiation may be affecting livestock and that the constant thunder of jets is definitely affecting livestock are dismissed by the military as a bunch of backwoods superstitious nonsense. Most of the military types seem to regard the townsfolk as a gaggle of torch-wielding troglodytes who can barely grasp the concept of fire not being a magical entity sent down from Thag the Sky God. At no point in the film do the townsfolk really do anything to advance this notion. They seem decent enough and have mastered the concepts of fire, medicine, and even the operation of gas-powered automobiles. Being upset that the American military has plunked a highly controversial air base full of bombers and atomic reactors in your cow pasture hardly seems naive to me, but then what do I know?

When the townsfolk discover the body of the dead GI alongside the body of a local man out in the woods, tempers flare. The townsfolk figure the deaths are the result of radiation or some crazy GI who’s gone feral. Jeff pshaws both notions while wasting no time hitting on Barbara Griselle, the sister of the local man who was found dead out in the woods. Because what better time to put the moves on a lady than immediately after she discovers her brother was murdered? Barbara is played by Kim Parker, and her film before Fiend Without a Face was Man Without a Body. As Jeff attempts to figure out the puzzle, more and more bodies start to turn up. An autopsy reveals that all of the victims had their brains and spinal cords sucked out the back of their head. The townsfolk decide to organize a manhunt for what they assume is a madman, while Jeff has traced the events back to the old scientist Barbara happens to work for. Seems he was a big authority on thought control and strange mental powers. he eventually breaks down and indulges in a very long “mad scientist confession,” in which he narrates over the series of events that lead up to the unleashing of this invisible killer.

Turns out he was working on a way to “materialize thought,” but he needed more power than electricity could give him. So he found a way to sap some of the atomic power every time the Air Force did one of its little radar experiments. So at least that mystery is solved. The atomic power allowed the professor to complete his experiments and begin doing useful things. For example, with hours of concentration, he could turn the page of a book with just his mind, which is far better than using your hand. As he got better and better with his new mental machine, he discovered that all the thoughts he was materializing were, well, materializing, and they weren’t going back into his head when he was done goofing off. Instead, they were slinking off into the woods to kill farmers. The thoughts would then suck out the brain and spinal column for use as a physical vessel.

No sooner does he finish his long-winded confession than the invisible brains attack the atomic power plant on the base. Hungry for more atomic energy, they kill everyone off and start feasting. The increased atomic power results in them finally being visible. They are, indeed, stop motion human brains with dangling spinal cords like little tails. Most of the central cast has been conveniently located in one location for the brains to attack, and what we get is a rather cool precursor to Night of the Living Dead as everyone struggles to board up the windows and keep the brains out. But the brains are, well, brainy, and they’ve learned tricks like coming down the chimney and how to use their spinal cords to wield a hammer. Jeff realizes that the only way to stop the creatures is to shut off the atomic reactor. Well that or shoot them. While everyone else hangs out and squashes brains, he rushes out to put into effect his plan to shut down the reactor by blowing it up with dynamite. When it comes to atomic power, I’m no Homer Simpson, but I have the feeling that blowing up a reactor with a bunch of crates of dynamite is maybe not the best plan one could execute. But this being the 1950s, it works like a charm and as the brains melt away, Jeff and Barbara can embrace while we get our official 1950s sci-fi final line, which is always some guy looking at a dead monster or off into the distance pronouncing some sort of bone-headed lesson or question.

There is a lot wrong with Fiend Without a Face, but there’s also a lot right with it, and what’s right is a lot more enjoyable than what’s wrong is unenjoyable. It’s an effective blend of horror and science fiction, and despite what was obviously a limited budget, it manages to make up for lack of dollars with a fast pace. When the monsters are made visible, the film revels in a level of gore that was unheard of at the time. Flying brains explode in a mess of goo and spongy material, then melt into fizzing, gurgling puddles of ooze. It was, at the time, quite shocking and created something of a sensation. Critics came down hard on the film for the gore, which was going to corrupt the youth or make all young children want to just haul off and shoot any disembodied floating brain monster they came across just so they could see all the bloody gore. The science behind these brains is, predictably enough, as muddled as the political message, but I’ve always shed a tear for those who went into sci-fi films expecting accurate science. The political message is confusing at best. I think we learn that the way the military discounted the locals was bad, just as the way the locals were suspicious of the military was bad. I think we were warned not to siphon off atomic energy in order to create vampiric floating brain creatures, but I’m not sure how applicable that is to the lives of anyone other than mad scientists. What we have is a mish-mash of Cold War paranoia and a more humanist outlook on the world. This sort of duality is one of the film’s more befuddling yet interesting characteristics.

Acting-wise, we’re treading firm territory. Everyone is given a one-dimensional character to fill, and they do it nicely. Marshall Thompson is a tad wooden, but he plays a stiff military type who is able to muster some goofy charm when called for. Kim Parks is quite good in her role, and everyone else does a good job at being stunned, scared, or puzzled. The worst actor of the bunch is Stanley Maxted as base commander Colonel Butler. He delivers his lines flatly as if he was, well, a boring stuffy old military guy. So it all works out for him. After all, he wouldn’t be a very believable 1950s colonel if he came prancing into every scene belting out his dialogue in his best Paul Lynde voice, would he? Barbara is an alternately typical 1950s woman and atypically effective rebel. While she ultimately becomes the fainting damsel in distress, during the final siege, it is the male deputy mayor who has the nervous breakdown and becomes a useless sobbing simp. When Barbara attempts to get him to help her barricade the door, she discovers his uselessness and pushes him aside, yelling, “Out of my way! I’ll do it myself.” Even a fleeting moment of strength such as that was rare in the sci-fi of the 1950s, so it was quite noticeable when it happened. It’s not sustained throughout the movie, nor do I think it was a particularly important theme to the makers of the film, but it was there nevertheless.

Then there’s the townsfolk, who are often referred to as a bunch of yokels but seem to actually be decent enough folk. given that the military isn’t telling them anything, speculation about “what’s going on out there,” is natural, especially once people start turning up with their brains and spinal cords sucked out. At the same time, most of the important people in the town — the doctor, the mayor, the professor, Barbara — are at least understanding of the military types if not outright allies in trying to make the rest of the town understand. On the one hand, we see the locals dismissed as a bunch of hillbillies, but on the other hand we see the military completely dismissing very rational and real concerns being calmly expressed by people whose lives are being adversely affected by the military base even before the whole brain-sucking thing starts up. What the movie is attempting to tell us here is muddled at best, and maybe that’s the point. In a Cold War paranoia twist, everyone is suspicious of everyone else, and everything could be cleared up pretty easily if the two sides would just quit having secret meetings. The military is not all stupid, nor are the townsfolk just a bunch of superstitious hayseeds. Once they all put aside their petty differences and work together to solve the mystery, things finally get done.

Messages aside, Fiend Without a Face succeeds simply as a decent old B-movie. The plot is simple and straight-forward but manages to throw enough red herrings and false leads out so that you can’t guess exactly what is happening. Conversely, it doesn’t spring the whole “crazy old professor and his wild killer brains” twist on you out of nowhere like a crappy mystery novel that makes the culprit some character that wasn’t even introduced until the final chapter of the book. Seeds and hints are planted throughout the film, and at the moment of revelation, it all makes sense. The brain monsters themselves are realized through a combination of stop-motion animation and fake brains being pulled around on strings. All in all, brains aren’t really scary – at least up until that moment when you see one pick up a hammer with its spinal cord and come flying at you. while it’s true these fiends do indeed have no face, they also have no arms, legs, or anything else, so you really could have called this film anything short of Fiend Without a Brain and a Spinal Cord. It’s not a smart film, at least it’s not completely dumb either.

But the question remains: who will win in the battle between humanity and the human brain? Sure, we beat them for now, by doing the stupidest thing humanly possible (dynamiting the atomic reactor), but how long can we hold out against the brain? As I stand and survey this carnage while two lovers embrace, I can’t help but wonder: “Who was the true fiend? The brain…or the brain that made them?”

4 replies »

  1. “…but I’ve always shed a tear for those who went into sci-fi films expecting accurate science.”

    So how many tears have you shed for Lyz over the years? 🙂

    I admittedly haven’t seen a lot of killer brain movies, but this is my favorite of the ones I’ve seen by a good margin. It probably helped that I first saw it young enough to be terrified of the idea of an invisible brain-sucking monster, as well as grossed out by the gore. Of course, then the Fiends became visible, at which point I stopped being scared and fell in love with them completely. They’re still one of my favorite non-giant monsters.

    Curious what you consider the best of the brain movies. I suspect you’ll say Donovan’s Brain since I see that one praised fairly often (haven’t seen it myself).


  2. I don’t care what anyone else says, this is one good creepy old-school flick. The killer brains scared the hell out of me when I saw this as a kid, especially when were breaking through the screen door to get at their human prey. What I found impressive was how accurately they were made in terms of how real brains actually look—clearly some time was spent on getting the designs for the little brain monsters to look as realistic as possible. I also like how the suspense is gradually built up until you finally see what’s causing al the horror to begin with. Definitely the ultimate killer brain flick, without being campy or over the top or anything—just a good serious, thoughtful well-made sci-fi classic of its time.


  3. Forget to say. the brains would actually have been kind of cute if they weren’t leaping into the air trying to strangle everybody on sight, but I digress. And Donovan’s Brain is mainly good (and also a good film) because of star Lew Ayres’ performance, which holds it all together, since you see more of him than you do the actual brain. It works because you see gradually how the brain changes him as a person day by day, and definitely not for the better. The late former First Lady Nancy Reagan (then Nanci Davis) also co-stars as his wife, when she was starting out as an actress.


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