When a movie from as early as 1960 has the ability to give me the willies, I will hold it in the highest regard. A fine example of this would be Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face. Franju never actually considered this a horror movie, but described it solely as a “tale of anguish.” While I definitely agree with that, one simply can’t ignore the horror aspects that are present all throughout the film, from the gothic settings and architecture to the mad scientist archetype. While Eye Without a Face is unsettling and, at times, gruesome, it still maintains a poetic flow which can only be seen to fully be understood.
From an outsider’s perspective, Dr. Génnesier (Pierre Brasseur) appears to be a respectable surgeon who serves the community well. If you take a closer look, however, you will notice that he isn’t such an average doctor. Génnesier is actually on a very personal mission of redemption, and by his side is his assistant, Louise (Alida Valli), who goes into the city and lures women of a very specific age group and appearance back to Génnesier’s mansion. The whole reason behind these string of kidnappings is that the mad surgeon is trying to graft another woman’s face to that of his daughter’s, Christiane (Edith Scob), who lost her face in an accident cause by her father. As Génnesier keeps attempting and failing at these grafts, suspicion begins to arise in the town and his best kept secret may be brought to light.
If I were given the task to describe Eyes Without a Face using only one word, I’d call it “mystifying.” The way people move from scene to scene along with the continuity of the mise en scène can easily put a trance on the viewer. It’s tranquil in the most gothic sense of the word, with dark roads lined with naked, twisted trees and the beautiful mansion is just as easily destroyed with unapologetic scenes of gut wrenching imagery. Without giving too much of the plot away, there is a scene where the audience gets to be present when Génnesier is performing one of his surgeries, and we see the scalpel going under the skin and other icky things in full graphic detail. Definitely made me cringe.
I will admit that the first time I watched this movie, I wasn’t too impressed. I recognized that it was beautiful, but I was really expecting a straight forward horror movie and was disappointed when that wasn’t what I got. I wasn’t the first either. When this movie was first released in the U.S. in 1962, it was titled The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus and was paired with a Japanese schlock horror film, The Manster. Could you imagine going into that double feature expecting goofy, mindless trash and getting this? Upon this second full viewing, I have really come to appreciate and enjoy how phenomenal this movie is.
The graphic scares of this movie are actually very sparse. The real horror comes from the entire eerie atmosphere. First of all, the white human-ish mask that Christiane has to wear over her disfigured face is straight up creepy. I always found things that are almost human, but not quite can be more unsettling than the most out there movie monster in the history books. While the gross scenes involving disfigurement and surgery are memorable, I’m surprised that Christiane’s mask and entire outfit isn’t more iconic. While Pierre Brasseur gives an excellent performance as the doctor, I feel like Edith Scob’s ghostly movements and acting with her eyes when behind the mask are just haunting.
If you’re in the mood for mindless horror that only can supply you with jump scares and gore, than Eyes Without a Face is the antithesis of what you are after. There is enough gore for it to be impressive for the time, and it really was a ballsy movie, but that’s not what makes the movie great. The beautiful gothic atmosphere, constant feeling of dread, and performances is what really makes Eyes Without a Face a classic that, despite being restored and released on the Criterion Collection, isn’t as well recognized and known as it really should be.