Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Bill Breedlove's Horror Column #1: Fiend Without a Face



1958 was a pretty good year for horror films, all things considered. That was the year of THE BLOB, which is more fondly remembered in retrospect than actually being good; I BURY THE LIVING had a great premise that went directly into the toilet at the end, and the original version of THE FLY had that eternally-creepy “Heeellllllpppp Meeeee! Nooooo! Gooooo Away! Helllllllpppp MEEEEE!’ ending. Even Tom Tyron was busy showing how good German Shepard dogs could help thwart an alien invasion in I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE. Over in England, Hammer dropped their first reboot of the DRACULA franchise with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing (HORROR OF DRACULA over here). There were many other monsters, giant bugs and assorted creatures, but—by far—the most important film of that year would come from, of all places, Canada (meaning a British production, with American actors, by way of Canada): FIEND WITHOUT A FACE.

Now, let’s be clear on one thing right away—I said “most important” not “best.” There is a difference, and it’s easy to make fun of all the bad, amateurish or just plain goofy things in FIEND, but we won’t do that here.
Oh, heck, why not? At least some of them. I am guessing that if you’re reading this column at this site, you already know this picture, and you are familiar with the plot. But, if not, you can check here. Or, if you want to watch the entire film (all 75 fast-paced minutes), it’s available here.
But, back to making fun of the bad and the goofy. For a 75 minute film, it is pretty slow moving until the last 10 minutes, but we’ll get to that later. Some of the sets are really bad, including the “control room” of the “atomic" (not the correct ‘nuclear’) power plant, which has more crazy angles and shadows than most of CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI. As a screenwriter as well as a lover of horror films, I have to just bend a knee in worship for the more than five minute chunk of exposition that occurs 50 minutes into the picture, where the dotty old scientist explains "Every Single Thing That’s Been Happening Up To This Point", while on screen we see him acting out what he is explaining. They don’t have that kind of balls in, say, INCEPTION. (There is also a hilarious bit in the exposition, where the invisible creatures wreck his “lab”—and they really trash and break everything—and then in the next scene, he is back in the perfectly restored lab). The acting is, well, to be kind, “understated,” with the comical exception of the Guy Who Is In The Room Just To Get Killed at the end, who starts to shamelessly overact with that old chestnut “I’ve got to get out of here…NOW!!!” and then he rushes the boarded up windows and the other actors look at him and quietly tell him to settle down and he says, “OK.” And that’s that. (Not to be outdone, in a later part of the same scene, the actor playing the Big Shot Colonel, who not two minutes previously had called the Scientist a “lunatic” after his long recitation, sees GWIITRJTGK, as described above, murdered by the title creatures, which leads to this priceless discussion:

Hero Guy: My God! We’ve got to stop them!
Scientist: There’s only one way—you’ve got to shut down your Atomic plant.
Hero Guy: There’s a dynamite shed(!) halfway between here and the plant, I can blow up the control room!
Colonel: mmm…Well, if that’s the way it’s got to be…
Hero Guy: I’m afraid it is!

Don’t you wish everything in life was that simple? Giving the ok to use dynamite to blow up the control room of an “Atomic plant” on a military base with a noncommittal shrug? All kinds of awesome.
I could go on, and mention the heavy use of stock footage of planes taking off, the other use of filler in a 75 minute movie, or even the world’s most incredible and pointiest pointy bra sported by Kim Parker during the film’s conclusion, but there’s no need to pile on. In fact, one would think with all these negatives, the movie flat out sucks, but that is so far from the case, and, in truth, in spite of all those not inconsiderable shortcomings, FIEND is still amazing, and completely prescient of horror movies to come.
We’ll get to that, but first, let’s take a small detour...
After Universal bottomed out their stable of monsters in the ‘40s by first throwing Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolfman together in craptastic flicks like HOUSE OF DRACULA and HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, and then driven a stake through their hearts with the Abbot & Costello pictures, horror movies were adrift for awhile. With no monster “stars” and literary characters to feature, horror films moved from Specific-Monster based to a basic template-based. What that means is instead of building around well-known stories featuring well-known monsters (Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolfman, etc.) what became more important was the “template” into which any kind of creature could be placed.
If, as a kid, you watched any old monster movies on Saturday afternoon TV shows, you know the template well:
Movie starts (often cold) with a character whom we’ll call “Fodder.” Fodder is either a old farmer out walking his acres in the dark, an explorer who has pushed farther than anyone else, or, in the case of FIEND, a guy creeping around a military sentry manning his lonely late-night post. The purpose of Fodder is, of course, to be killed, usually while turning to look directly at the camera where the off-screen monster is, and screaming as the titles come up. Then, the template really kicks in. These mysterious deaths attract attention, but no one believes the obvious explanation as more and more gnawed corpses turn up. There’s a hero, a scientist, some military guys, and a girl, who is usually the daughter of the scientist, and will need to a) be rescued by; and b) fall in love with the hero guy. Eventually, at the end of the film, the monster—be it an fanged alien, a giant bug or lizard or even a glob of red space gooberness—is revealed and goes on a rampage. Just in the nick of time, the hero (usually with the help of the military) uses the monster’s one weakness to destroy it. Question mark tacked on to the THE END title card optional.
As a regular viewer of movies like this, you know when someone has just been munched/squashed/melted, you have a good 10 or 15 minutes before anything else interesting is going to happen. As well, you know that the importance to the film of the character who gets killed increases exponentially as we move from beginning to end. So, at the start, it’s some random Fodder, but at the climax, it’s somebody much more important (see, for example, THEM!).
This template is so useful in its simplicity that it has been in constant use (with subtle variations) from the 50s up through JAWS, ALIEN, etc. etc.. Does FIEND WITHOUT A FACE depart from this time-honored format? Nope. But, it adds a new wrinkle that begins to explain the film’s enduring popularity, and why it merits discussion.
Way back in the day, before there was such a thing as CGI (and if you need to know what that abbreviation stands for, you’ve probably been misdirected to this site), special effects artists working on creature films had basically three options for their monsters: a guy in make-up or a rubber suit, using trick photography to make small objects look large (see TARANTULA), or animating models.
When animating models, the most popular method of bringing the effects to life was (and is) stop-motion animation, which involves taking one still frame exposure of a character or scene, moving the model a tiny bit, taking another exposure, and so on until a scene is completed. This is how Willis O’Brien animated King Kong and Ray Harryhausen created all of his amazing special effects creature work. Even in films like STAR WARS utilized stop motion animation.
The chief problem with stop motion animation was it was tremendously time-consuming and—concomitantly—tremendously expensive. To create a scene lasting only a few minutes of screen time could take months and months of painstaking work. And, of course, somebody has to be paid for those months and months of painstaking work.
If one tries to use models and/or stop motion animation on the cheap, you get either laughable puppetry (see THE GIANT CLAW or REPTILICUS) or some of the craptastic effects work in EQUINOX (where they use the EXACT SAME shot of the devil puppet gliding down about 10,364 times in a two minute span). So, what is a frugal production to do to achieve success on a shoestring budget?
Well, remember our template? The template allows the filmmaker to limit the views of the monster until the latter stages of the production. Even better, find some source material that supports such a strategy. In the case of FIEND, it was a short story culled from a 1930 issue of Weird Tales called “The Thought-Monster” by sci-fi writer Ameila Reynolds Long. Her story involves a scientist experimenting with telekinesis who creates an invisible monster who feeds on the brains of other creatures, thereby increasing its own intelligence exponentially. Right on!
The fact that the monster is invisible is only a bonus from a movie-budgeting standpoint. Alas, that would not make for a very cinematic experience if the monster were to stay invisible for the entire production. So, what if they add in a slightly ridiculous “Atomic power” subplot (it was the 1950’s, after all) that could explain how the monsters would eventually turn visible? Let’s step back a minute and look at the pragmatic genius of this. For the first 60 plus minutes of a 75 minute film, the only sense of the creatures the audience gets are actors pantomiming something strangling them and a truly awesome sound effects kit which includes creepy stealthy crawling noises, wonderfully disgusting slurping eating noises, and somewhat inexplicable—but effective—“pounding heartbeat” noises, which appear to be created by someone hammering on a large kettle drum. (since the eponymous FIENDs don’t have any organs other than their brain, and the noise persists after the hapless victims are dispatched, it’s a bit unclear where the pounding is coming from, exactly, but never mind, it works).
So, by using (and reusing, and then reusing again) stock airplane footage and having the monsters be invisible for the first 7/8s of the film, the clever makers of FIEND have saved virtually their entire SFX budget for the last few minutes. And, here is where they really—inadvertently or not—bit the ball out of the park.
Almost everyone who has been exposed to any pre 1970s horror films knows the iconic image of the crawling brain monsters from FIEND.

( Our first glimpse of the eponymous creatures, this one is sitting at the control panel of the local "Atomic plant.")

Specifically, they are brains with two antennae, along with attached “tails” that are sorta-but-not-quite spinal columns. These “tails” provide both locomotion (via an inchworm-like crawling), as well as conveniently wrapping about their victims’ necks. There are also “limbs” which I guess are nerve-endings which protrude and dangle. They also use those “limbs” later to steal a hammer, and then use their “tails” to pull apart the boards covering a window. The first glimpse of one of the FIENDS (which comes at about the 61 minute mark) also shows the brain pulsing as if in respiration. Which, while completely nonsensical, is still completely gross and wonderful. What purpose the twitching antennae serve is beyond me, but they also look cool, and, considering the FIENDs are supposed to be eating people’s brains but have no visible mouth, I am not going to quibble.
I can only imagine that whomever came up with the monster prototype showed it to the director and producer, and they spent the rest of the day drinking high-quality whiskey and laughing insanely. While the little crawling brains might look hilarious as an afterthought, or through the CGI-tainted prism of history, their odd stop-motion movements, along with the brilliant soundtrack of assorted noises (and we haven’t even gotten what is quite possibly the most disgusting soundtrack clip EVER) as well as the fact that they are completely off stage until the final 10 minutes of the film results in an incredibly effective group of monsters, which is why the aforementioned iconic status has been conferred on them. Essentially, they decided to spend their entire special effects budget on the last 10 minutes of the movie, and man, did they get their money’s worth.
But wait, there’s more.
Now that the monsters are visible, and your 1958 eyes think that these may well be the most horrible creatures to ever crawl across your movie screen, they start getting killed by the heroes. The first one is shot with a .45 sidearm at the 63 minute mark, and it undoubtedly qualifies as the single most graphic and disgusting moment captured on mainstream film up to that point. The FIEND does not display a bullet wound so much as deflates while spewing—repeatedly—dark goop, accompanied by an indescribable never-before (and never-again) heard clip on the soundtrack, which sounds for all the world like someone with an explosive case of dysentery evacuating their bowels. The filmmakers love this image and its accompanying sound so much, they overload the climax of the film with a nonstop onslaught of goopy, spewing brains and the most squirm-inducing noise to be put on a film soundtrack until Robert Shaw drags his nails down the chalkboard in JAWS.
When the FIENDs use their spinal column tails to rip open the boarded up windows and come flying (yes, “flying”) into the room where 95% of the cast is holed up, and the army guys fire shot after shot into them, it’s like horror-brain-spewing porn.
And, herein lies why FIEND is so important. Imagine you had gone to the show to see this movie back in 1958. Maybe with your best girl or best guy, you got some sodas and some popcorn and settled in for a nice time at the movies. For the first 60 minutes, a comfortably familiar (if somewhat below-average) “atom age” picture drones quietly across the screen. (If memory serves, I think that, before the climatic scene, a grand total of four folks—sentry, farmer’s wife, unhappy farmer and the “mayor” make up the list of murdered victims, along with one “half-brain eaten” guy who is turned into a kinda precursor of Charlie at the end of “Flowers for Algernon.”). But, then, all of a sudden, here is something you’ve never seen (or heard) before. And then, they don’t just show it, they don’t just hammer you with it, they go bug-fucking-nuts with it.
Pretty soon, you’re forgetting that Marshall Thompson running through the woods in what is supposed to be the middle of the night is in fact a daytime forest so bright everything casts a shadow, or that the door to the “dynamite shed” is actually a piece of plywood that Marshall Thompson pries open with that appears to be a car radio antenna, or that the mad professor’s matter-of-fact claim to have learned about the military base’s “top secret” program of using atomic radiation to boost radar capabilities is from “an article I read in Atomic Journal.” No, you are sitting staring slack jawed at the screen while crawling brains barf sickly goop over everything, at least until the Atomic plant is dynamited(!) and they all dissolve into variously-colored piles of noisily-decomposing goop.

( And, when things start to get messy.)

By the end of the film, your expectations of what you were thinking you were going to see and what actually happened on the screen were walloped into a whole new realm. And that’s what makes FIEND such a landmark film—it totally ambushes the viewer and pushes the envelope that crucial one step forward from what had been done previously. Despite all the banality that has come before, the last ten minutes wipe the nonsense away like a squeegee cleaning a dirty windshield.
Part of what makes NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD such a turning-point horror film is that it consistently makes the audience acutely uncomfortable. Not only do they not know what’s going to happen next (except that it is likely to be extremely unpleasant beyond anything they have experienced before), but they don’t even know who—if any—of the characters will survive. Even though that film is ten years on after FIEND, you can directly see the earlier picture’s influence on George Romero, especially in the scenes of the people huddled together, staring at the boarded-up window while the dreaded creatures mass outside.
And while FIEND only has that last ten minutes of shock and uncertainty, it marks the first steps that horror films would take in departing from that “safe” template, or at least throwing in variations that cause the viewers to become very uneasy. In a way, one could argue that NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is simply an extension of FIEND—the last ten minutes of FIEND expanded into feature length and riffed on with even more gore and violence to create a whole new level of horror for the audience.
THE BLOB is memorable primarily for showcasing young Steve McQueen, and THE FLY, while also memorable, is thusly so primarily for the excruciatingly horrifying (or excruciatingly funny) “HELP ME” scene:

But, in the end, it is the underrated FIEND WITHOUT A FACE that really broke new ground in the horror field.

--Bill Breedlove