1960 was a particularly fertile year for creepy horror movies. Hitchcock, of course, made Psycho, Michael Powell made Peeping Tom, which was so salacious it pretty much ruined his career (sadly, because he was one of the all-time greats), Mario Bava made Black Sunday, and even Roger Corman hit it big with two classics, Little Shop of Horrors and House of Usher, and that’s just to name a few. Over in France, another such chiller was made and it’s perhaps one of the more disturbing of the bunch, and with the least amount of shocks. It makes up for it, though with a mixture of ethereal and haunting scenes set to music and quiet clinical representations of surgery. And it has an indelible image in modern horror in its central figure. It’s Georges Franju’s masterpiece of the medical macabre, Eyes Without a Face (a/k/a Les yeux sans visage).
Trailer made for an L.A. screening; better than the theatrical one.
Horror movies are always supposed to be scary, but few movies are as sinister as Eyes Without a Face (not to be confused with the Billy Idol song much later). It’s a tragic tale of obsession, love, and growing madness, but it’s all done so staid and reserved as to make the emotions bubble from beneath, never exploding. It’s sort of a slasher movie in that it features young girls who are stalked and brutalized, but it’s much more insidious than that; not a man with a knife stabbing wildly, this movie features a surgical genius carefully incising with a scalpel, leaving the women not dead but certainly without a life, to the point where they’re willing to end it all themselves. It’s horror done by very smart, determined people for some apparent greater purpose.
The story begins with a woman named Louise (Alida Valli) driving at night with a passenger in the back of her car. Only it isn’t a passenger at all; it’s a dead body, and she is taking it to get dumped in the river. Later, a brilliant surgeon, Dr. Genessier (Pierre Brasseur) identifies the body as that of his daughter, Christiane, who’d been missing for several months following a road accident that resulted in her total facial disfigurement. Dr. Genessier blames himself, since he was the one driving. At the funeral, we see Dr. Genessier stood next to his assistant, Louise, the same woman who dumped the body. They return home and we see the real Christiane (Edith Scob) is still alive, wearing a blank and contoured face mask to cover her scars. The girl was actually a victim of Genessier’s continued attempts to graft a new face onto his daughter. Louise, it’s clear, is like a mother to Christiane and that she’s in love with the doctor, though he can think only of his work and repairing the damage his carelessness caused.
We spend a great deal of time with Christiane while her father and caregiver are away, with her walking around the massive grounds of her family estate with only birds and the dozen or so caged-up German Shepherds to keep her company. She’s clearly lost her mind due to being deformed and alone and calls her former fiance, who is also a surgeon, many times but never getting the courage to speak. The fiance begins to suspect Christiane is not really dead, but has no way to prove it.
Meanwhile, Louise goes into Paris to find yet another familyless young lady to take back to the estate to become the latest “donor” for Genessier’s work. This is perhaps the most tragic part of the story. These girls have done nothing wrong and are only guilty of looking like Christiane enough to make it worth attempting. There’s a strange wrinkle which is that Genessier demands all the girls Louise finds have the same eye color as Christiane also, even though his daughter has plenty of eyes; it’s the face that she’s without.
There is a very lengthy and graphic scene in the middle of the movie in which we see the surgery to remove the face of the latest victim. Though Franju attempted to adhere to the European censors, and the movie did pass, it’s nevertheless a gruesomely direct sequence. We see him drawing on the sedated woman’s face and around her eyes, pinning gauze around to catch the blood, then he begins slicing around the lines and eventually removes the actual face, leaving the woman with nothing but muscle and sinew. The movie’s only 90 minutes long and at least 10 if not 15 minutes of the movie is spent on these scenes.
What’s even more disturbing is the way the aftermath is treated. The woman’s face is wrapped up and she eventually wakes up to see her lack of face and jumps out the window to her death. The surgery on Christiane is initially a success and Scob actually gets to have her real face exposed, but soon we see photographs of necrosis beginning to take hold and through subsequent photos, with detached medical-seminar narration from Genessier, we see that all of this work, and the death of a second young woman, have been for naught. Louise has to go and get another new victim, this time set up by the police and Christiane’s fiance acting on a hunch.
The strange and haunting images in the film are punctuated by intensely creepy music by Maurice Jarre, who would go on to win three Academy Awards, for Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and A Passage to India. His Eyes Without a Face score is like a nightmare carnival for much of the proceedings, a taunting kind of chant that sounds at once demonic and childlike and completely juxtaposes the very dead-seriousness of the film’s events. There is also a different, very dreamlike but still unsettling, musical motif when Christiane walks through the house. Franju dresses Christiane in a raincoat with a high neck and gives the actress a bob to accentuate her actual neck. She looks like a bird in the way she moves and the music makes her movements seem like she’s actually floating, a trapped animal and yet a ghost walking among the land of the living.
The film ends violently and the resolution just adds more trouble, not clarity or satisfaction, but it solidifies Eyes Without a Face as a masterpiece in slow-building and utter creepiness. The American distributor didn’t know what to make of the movie, so they hacked six minutes out of it (most of the surgery as well as scenes showing Dr. Genessier being kind and tender to patients and children) and released it as the absurdly-titled The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus in 1962, as part of a double bill with The Manster (“Part man, part monster…the MANster”). It wasn’t until 1986 that people were finally able to see the uncut film and could reappraise it for the upsetting gem it is.