When you look back on it, 1960 was a hell of a year for horror. Three movies in particular that were released that year made a massive impact on the genre going forward, and I’d argue that their influence is still felt everywhere today. Two of these films were, of course, Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal Psycho, and the lesser-known but likewise important Peeping Tom, directed by Michael Powell. But the third of that holy trinity went farther than either of those, at least in terms of grue, and was, for my money, the most disturbing of the three, simply because of its poetic beauty, and its overt grotesquerie contrasted with an almost clinical, matter-of-fact tone. The movie I’m talking about is, obviously, Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (aka Les Yeux Sans Visage).
Despite the storied French tradition of Grand Guignol in terms of live theater, French filmmakers were slower to jump on the horror celluloid bandwagon, for whatever reason. Perhaps it was due to a particular strain of artistic elitism; although the Grand Guignol was attended by royalty and celebrities galore in the early years of the 20th century, it still had something of a sensationalistic, lowbrow allure, even featuring private boxes for patrons who tended to get a bit too sexually aroused witnessing all the realistic violence and gore unfolding before them. But filmmaking in France was viewed as more of an art form, and as such, many critics felt that horror films were beneath contempt.
Enter producer Jules Borkon, who decided to buck the trend and see if he could make a splash with a film in the maligned genre. He bought the rights to a Jean Redon novel about an obsessed plastic surgeon attempting a face transplant on his disfigured daughter, then hired the writing team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who had also written the novels on which the classic films Les Diaboliques (directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot in 1955) and Vertigo (directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1958) were based. And then, he brought on director Georges Franju, who had directed nothing but documentaries until 1958, when he made his first foray into “fictional” filmmaking with La Tête Contre les Murs (Head Against the Walls).
From the beginning, the team behind Eyes Without a Face had to tread very carefully. The source novel focused heavily on a mad scientist (a topic which would raise the eyebrows of German censors), featured animal cruelty and experimentation (which was a no-no with British film censors), and was excessively bloody, which French censors would never approve of. By tweaking the story somewhat to center more around the sympathetic daughter character rather than the scientist, the filmmakers hoped they’d avoid too many problems, though as it turned out, all their efforts were for naught. When Eyes Without a Face was released, critics largely dismissed or savaged it, some calling it sick, some writing it off as a plodding retread of German expressionism. Several writers pondered why a respected filmmaker like Franju would debase himself by making a horror film, and most audiences seemed unequipped to handle the film’s most grisly sequence, fainting dead away in their cinema seats.
Two years after its European release, the film was trimmed of its more excessive elements, dubbed into English, and released in the United States under the completely nonsensical title The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus, which played around the country on a double bill with another mad scientist epic, the American-shot-in-Japan film The Manster.
Eventually, though, Georges Franju’s singular film would win the appreciation it deserved, and it’s today considered a highly significant piece of art in the horror genre, favorably compared to the work of Jean Cocteau and making frequent appearances on film critics’ top horror films lists. While pretty tame by today’s standards, Eyes Without a Face was nonetheless an enormous leap forward in terms of what a mainstream horror picture could show, and though it was unfairly scorned at the time of its release, it has come to be seen as an important milestone in the still-ongoing battle to have horror films taken as seriously as any other, more “acceptable” genre.
Eyes Without a Face begins with a great setup that pulls you right into the story. An anxious-looking woman is driving a car along a road. She peers into her rearview mirror to check on the—unconscious? dead?—woman in the back seat. She then proceeds to a secluded spot along a riverbank, where she dumps the woman’s body in the river.
We then jump to our scientist character, Dr. Génessier (played by Pierre Brasseur), who is giving a lecture about a new technique he’s been working on to graft living tissue and organs. After the talk, he gets a phone call; turns out the police have fished the woman’s body we saw earlier out of the river, and because the woman’s description fits that of Dr. Génessier’s daughter Christiane, whose face was mutilated in a car accident and who disappeared ten days ago, the cops want him to come down and have a look.
So Dr. Génessier duly goes to the morgue, and confirms that yes, the faceless dead girl in the river is indeed his daughter, case closed. But not so fast. It so happens that another woman who was about the same age and of a similar description to Christiane also went missing not long before; this girl had a face when she was last seen, but otherwise resembled Christiane enough that the authorities also called that girl’s father to come down and possibly identify the body. Dr. Génessier got there first, though, and he runs into the other dad in the parking lot, telling him that the dead girl was definitely his daughter, and then being a real dick to the guy when he tries to commiserate.
Later on, back at Dr. Génessier’s fancy pad, we immediately know something untoward is up, because not only do we see the woman who was dumping the body earlier lives here too—this is Louise, the doctor’s assistant, played by Alida Valli—but we also see a young woman lying face-down in a bedroom who is clearly Dr. Génessier’s daughter, and is just as clearly neither missing nor dead.
It comes to light that the automobile accident Christiane was in essentially obliterated her face, aside from her eyes, and her desperate and slightly maniacal father has become engrossed in the task of finding a new face to graft onto hers. He’s been experimenting on some of the poor dogs he keeps caged up in the garage, but now he’s resorted to kidnapping girls and stealing their faces. Problem is, the operations he’s attempted so far have been unsuccessful; Christiane’s body rejected the skin grafts, and she’s becoming increasingly convinced that her father is not going to succeed in his endeavors. Around the house, she’s encouraged to wear an unsettling-looking mask to cover her injuries; the mask is all white and expressionless, and only the eyes show through.
Anyway, it should be obvious that the body Dr. Génessier identified earlier was not his daughter, but the body of that other missing girl whose father arrived too late at the morgue, which makes that scene even more fucked up in retrospect, because Dr. Génessier had to be one cold-ass motherfucker to stand there with a stern face and tell that guy his own daughter was dead when he knew damn well that the body belonged to this other guy’s daughter. Anyway, Dr. Génessier figures that having everyone think Christiane is dead will suit his purposes better, and he even has a funeral for her and everything, at which of course the other missing girl is buried.
Afterward, Dr. Génessier tasks his assistant Louise—whose face he also restored to beauty, though admittedly hers wasn’t as messed up as Christiane’s—with finding another girl whose face he can steal, so Louise sets about scouring Paris for a suitable candidate. She soon finds one in the form of Edna, a young student seeking a room for rent. No sooner has Louise lured the wary young woman to the doctor’s isolated manor than the doc chloroforms her and sets about peeling off her visage to slap onto the mug of his despondent daughter.
The surgery scene, while again fairly tame to modern eyes, must have been absolutely stomach-churning for audiences of 1960. The camera doesn’t flinch as Dr. Génessier slices around the perimeter of Edna’s face with a scalpel, then slowly inserts the scalpel underneath the facial skin as though separating it from the muscle, then eases the whole thing off in one intact piece. Even in black and white, it’s pretty gruesome, and I think the creepiest thing about it is just how detached it all feels, which is one of the reasons I said earlier that I thought this movie was more disturbing than Psycho or Peeping Tom; it’s just so chillingly dispassionate, both in the way the violence is framed and in the portrayal of Dr. Génessier himself.
By contrast, though, Christiane is obviously the focus of our empathy; she moves around the manor like a ghost, clad in her flowing housedresses and wearing that spooky, blank mask. The acting performance by Édith Scob, I have to say, is extraordinary, as she conveys so much guilt, anguish, and despair just through her eyes and the deliberate movements of her fragile, birdlike limbs.
She is understandably very conflicted about the horrors her father is perpetrating in order to restore her to “normal,” but at first, it seems, she feels powerless to do anything about it. And for a time, it would appear that all of the killing might bear some fruit after all; Edna’s face is successfully grafted onto hers, and she’s beautiful again, though still in a dilemma as to whether all of this is worth it.
As the days pass, however, her body begins to reject this new face as well, as the brief period of time where she was lovely again makes her return to “deformity” hit even harder, to the point where she just wants to die. Her father is still adamant that he can fix her, though, and kidnaps another woman for that very purpose, but in the end, a combination of Christiane’s refusal to go along with the evil any longer, and the suspicions of her grieving boyfriend ultimately bring the authorities calling, a rough justice is served: Christiane frees the latest captive, kills Louise, and releases all the dogs that the doctor had been experimenting on. In a satisfying bit of poetic justice, the dogs maul the mad doctor to death and chew off his face as Christiane wanders off into the forest.
Eyes Without a Face is a fantastic film: elegantly shot, full of superb acting performances, and at times genuinely unnerving. It’s been defined as perhaps closer to a noir or a thriller than a straight horror film, but I’m not sure I agree; it’s essentially a mad scientist story, and it has influenced so many subsequent horror and horror-adjacent films—like some of Jess Franco’s movies, for example, or Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In—that I don’t know how you could call it anything else. It has a dreamlike, almost fairy tale quality to it that juxtaposes effectively with the clinical atrocities perpetrated by the doctor, which is one of the things that really gives it that horror edge, I feel. At any rate, it’s rightly considered a classic at this point, and for good reason; it’s a film that anyone with a serious interest in horror needs to see sooner rather than later.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.