Post-war paranoia formed by the atomic bomb and the ethical relations around it is cause for much concern. Fiend Without a Face features a beast that feeds off of the radiation and those unlucky enough to cross its path. Well, it is hard to cross the path of an invisible beast that feasts on brains on purpose, but director Arthur Crabtree certainly wishes to entice some degree of fear from the forests of a nearby military base. His efforts are miscalculated, though. You need more than seventy minutes to tell a tale of terrible dangers in a Canadian airbase. Yet even with such a lacking presence, Crabtree still fails to present a story worth engaging with. So much so that it becomes the stuffy military slog that seemed rather inevitable of this decade of filmmaking.
When America was still so enamoured with its military and its accomplishments, filmmakers could find solace in red, white and blue heroes testing well with audiences. Part of the legacy Fiend Without a Face finds itself defined by is its leading men. Marshall Thompson, in particular, is a dependable actor, outshined by Kynaston Reeves and Kim Parker. He is not outshined because they are better performers than him, but because their roles are far more interesting. Lanky leading lads with slicked-back hair and smart uniforms were and still are ten-a-penny, and Thompson does little, if anything, to redefine that role as something only he can take on. He does not take us anywhere new or surprising, yet neither does Crabtree, with his fascinatingly depthless direction.
Flat and principled, that was the old American way. Scenes of talking military boys uncovering the mysterious, supernatural horrors around them are about as far as Crabtree can take this tired tale. We are never given many issues to care for. The biggest failure of Fiend Without a Face is its inability to instil fear on any level. There is no terror here, nor is there a real threat from the antagonist of the tale. Crabtree’s effectiveness as a storyteller is limited at the best of times, but there are the occasional, hopeful glimmers. Moments where the pacing picks up, the acting feels focused and the direction is at least competent. Those rare bolts of excitement die down soon enough. They are false alarms for a script that is set more on depicting military operation than supernatural adaptation.
While Fiend Without a Face uses its budget admirably, with voiceovers of what we can only assume is stock footage at times, Crabtree fails to utilise the real core of his feature. He cannot concede to the idea that his characters need to be as strong or as interesting as his disappearing population. Grasping at some semblance of a workable premise, Fiend Without a Face bites off an admirable portion of adaptable, engaging ideas, but chokes it down without much thought for how it should appear to an audience. It is the triumph of taking on so much and doing it that Crabtree is proud of, rather than attempting to do it well and with an interesting angle.