EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1960)

Editor’s Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on October 31, 2003, and we’re proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.


It has inspired everyone from Jess Franco (The Horrible Dr. Hichcock and Faceless) to Charles Band (Mansion of the Doomed) to Billy Idol, but Georges Franju’s 1959 French chiller Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux Sans Visage) doesn’t have the same rep as a genre trendsetter that its contemporaries, Psycho and Blood Feast, have achieved. While it may seem odd to mention those two in the same context, Franju’s moody black-and-white lensing, focus on personal horror (with a story that could have emphasized its mad-science trappings) and unexpected burst of graphic violence recall Hitchcock’s classic, while the explicitness of the gore is as shocking as anything in H.G. Lewis’ film, even without color. The terrible beauty of Eyes remains Franju’s own, however, and audiences can now experience both as Rialto Pictures’ restored print of the movie begins a nationwide art-house release.

The plot is B-movie stuff: Surgeon Dr. Genessier (Pierre Brasseur) and his devoted assistant Louise (Suspiria’s Alida Valli) kidnap young women so that he can remove their faces and graft them onto that of his daughter Christiane (Edith Scob), whose features were disfigured in an accident. But Franju and screenwriters Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac put their focus on the characters, and the obsession and loss that motivate them is given more emphasis than the clinical procedures. (It’s not surprising to find Boileau and Narcejac’s names here; one of their novels inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which was also about a man’s attempt to “transform” a young woman, and another was the source for the limb-transplant chiller Body Parts.) Dr. Genessier is not a raving madman, but a father overcome by a tragedy that leads him to commit horrible acts in what he sees as the right cause.

The most memorable character, though, is Christiane, who goes through much of the film wearing a blank white mask to hide her ravaged flesh. Far from impeding her ability to express emotion, the mask only draws attention to Scob’s wide, expressive eyes, which alternately fill with terror and sadness at both her own predicament and what her father is attempting to do to resolve it. At the same time, there’s a spookiness to the plain, neutral visage that Franju uses in evocative ways. (The late director clearly enjoyed the possibilities of inert, plastic features; in his hard-to-find, serials-inspired 1975 film Shadowman, the best scene involves an army of living mannequins.) Franju gives the film a deliberate pace that emphasizes atmospheric chills and poetic melancholy over action, with remarkable photography by Eugen Schüfftan and a score by Maurice Jarre (three years before his breakthrough with Lawrence of Arabia) that is sometimes incongruously jaunty, sometimes spot-on creepy and always right.

Franju’s generally subtle approach works well for his emphasis on personal horror—and then we get to the surgery scene. The director clearly knew full well what he was doing, and his restrained visualization of a dreadful situation in the first half in no way prepares the audience for how he presents the particulars of Genessier’s process. An abducted, anesthetized young woman is laid on a table in the doctor’s basement laboratory, and in graphic close-up, we see him slice into her skin as blood flows freely. Franju shoots and edits the sequence to play on our expectations for maximum effect, and the gore is unsettling even (maybe especially) in black and white.

The movie’s final act bogs down a bit in police procedural that doesn’t seem well-thought-out by either the filmmakers or the characters. (A shoplifter is pressed into service as a decoy, and does indeed wind up in Genessier’s clutches, but the cops don’t seem to have a plan in place to rescue her.) Eyes Without a Face is more concerned with expressing the emotions of its events and people via mood than through narrative, and in that it remains potent more than 40 years after its original release. The film originally played in the U.S. under the more blatant title The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus (how odd that in aiming for the lower common denominator, the distributor still used a literary reference!); Rialto’s print (struck from the original negative) restores the original title and the movie’s overall visual luster. The only quibble is with the newly translated subtitles, which are white instead of yellow (as they have been on numerous recent foreign-film releases) and thus disappear into the bright backgrounds at times. This is one case where a bit of color added to a vintage black-and-white movie would have helped.

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