Eyes Without A Face (1960): Movie Review 😱😱😱👤👤
Eyes Without a Face (original French title, Les yeux sans visage) is a 1960 French-language horror film. While I don’t speak French, and I hate reading subtitles, I saw a review for this film a few months back and it looked intriguing enough for me to give it a try. Apparently it has become a kind of cult classic among film buffs.
In the film, we have a mad doctor and his female assistant killing young women in order to steal their faces so the doctor can surgically attach them to his own daughter’s face – who was horribly disfigured from a car accident. Great premise for a horror film, right? Yeah, I thought so too. However…
When first released, the film wasn’t much of a success; and honestly, I can see why. While the movie starts off with the first dastardly deed immediately after the credits (making the slower sections to follow a bit easier to forgive), it just moves too slowly. It’s beautifully shot, and the use of shadow and black and white film is very effective, but it just takes too long in-between the “horror” stuff you came to see.
I believe most of this you can blame on the European film censors at the time who wouldn’t give their sought-after stamp of approval to the film unless it was toned down and the gore was minimized. Yet, the film still went out without a rating, so why acquiesce to the censors at all? The rest of the blame, however, lies squarely in the lap of director Georges Franju, who for some strange, inexplicable reason OK’d the theme music used – which sounds more appropriate for a circus movie or sitcom than for creating an eerie atmosphere for spine-chilling tension. I swear, the writer of the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” theme was inspired by this “horror” film score. Take a listen to the music in the trailer (below) and you’ll see what I mean.
Despite this, I still really enjoyed the movie. Aside from the returning musical theme which immediately took me out of the moment, the story is effective (if a bit simple), and Christiane’s mask which she wears to hide her scars is creepy by all by itself. The white, expressionless face is easily compared to the mask of Michael Meyers from the Halloween movies in that it is nondescript, blank, emotionless… and disturbing because of it. Oddly beautiful at the same time though, like a porcelain doll.
Speaking of Halloween, our “mad doctor” in Eyes Without a Face is played by Pierre Brasseur, who very much reminded me of Donald Pleasant in some of his facial expressions and mannerisms. Unlike Pleasant’s Dr. Loomis though, Brasseur’s Dr. (Le docteur) Génessier is almost as cold as his daughter’s mask. Whether he is at work, or attending a funeral, or kidnapping a woman, or burying a body, it is all done in cold-blooded fashion without an ounce of emotion. It’s a methodical performance that I believe is quite deliberate on his part – and compelling, allowing us to see the doctor as almost purely logic-driven without concern for consequences and repercussions. He has a goal and will do anything to accomplish it – in a very cold and calculated manner.
On the flip side, his assistant and nurse, Louise (Alida Valli), sometimes has to fight back her humanity in order to be of service in her role to the doctor. The woman, while believing in the man’s potentially miraculous goal, does seem to still have a conscience – one that has been shriveling over the years due to the monstrous actions she has taken part in, but somehow you can see a tiny bit of her soul is still there. Valli was a strikingly beautiful woman, and while she was only about thirty-nine years old during the filming of this picture, the bulky clothing, pinned-up hair, and facial make-up cause her to appear older and a bit frumpy, which is likely intentional in order to help set her up as a character we should not empathize with.
Edith Scob, who plays the disfigured daughter, Christiane Génessier, isn’t given much to say in the script – perhaps because it’s all the more unsettling just watching her move around with that mask in complete silence. But her body movements say more than words, and you can tell when she is despondent, or hopeful, or angry, or curious. The way she walks is almost ghost-like – made all the more effective with the black and white cinematography. I was not all that impressed with the special effects make-up once we finally were granted a face-reveal… but fortunately it is only for a moment and is not enough to take you out of the film.
I’m rating Eyes Without a Face three out five screams. 😱😱😱👤👤
After watching the film I discovered there is a 1962 English-language dub of the film titled, The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus. Hopefully they dubbed not only the dialogue, but the film score as well. I don’t really know, as I can’t find it anywhere online to watch. Every link takes me to The Manster instead – which was the other half of a double-feature with The Horror of Dr. Faustus when the English-dub was released. Ironically, the first film is about a girl with no face – while the second film is about a monster with two heads. So I guess it all evens out if you watch the double-feature.
I believe Eyes Without a Face could be a great remake today – and made truly frightening. But it would likely never achieve what has become genuinely admired by filmmakers and class film buffs.
But if I were to remake it… (WARNING, SPOILERS AHEAD)
First – a more appropriate score. Obviously. I know I’m harping on this one point but honestly, it is the single thing throughout the entire film that kept me from truly enjoying it. It kept taking me out of the moment.
Push off the face reveal until later in the film – riiiiiiiight before she goes in for surgery, when the “donor” wakes and sees her on the table next to her. It came too early, and a large part of the tension that was built was due to wondering what she looked like under the mask. Like the shark in Jaws, not seeing something can sometimes be more terrifying, letting your audience’s imagination fill in the blanks. Look how effective it was with Lon Chaney and The Phantom of the Opera, people fainted in the theater at the reveal when it finally happened.
The degrading of Christiane’s face after one of the surgeries deserved a whole heckuva lot more than what it received. Rather than four or five still photos lasting less than 60 seconds into the film to show the skin graft failing, we should spend time watching this occur, bit by bit. Much like Jeff Goldblum in The Fly (1986), where he was impressed with how he looked and felt at first after his experiment… but then slowly over several days/weeks began to (literally) fall apart. I’d allow Christiane to be happy with the results of the surgery in the beginning, planning for the future. Then she might be slightly concerned when an irritation develops at the scar line, then more and more aggressively have her face rot away day-to-day until just short of gangrene takes over. Have her so disgusted that she rips away the rotting skin graft, forcing the doctor and his assistant to begin again with another young woman’s skin. The special effects make-up for just this section could be incredible.
I’d change the character of Christiane to make her less culpable for the crimes committed. She was fully aware of what her father was doing, and didn’t seem to feel guilty about it. She even walked into the laboratory to look upon the next victim – then leaves the room after terrifying the woman with her real face. I think we could feel more for Christiane if she was forced into the surgeries. Allow her to be a voice of conscience, begging her father and his assistant/nurse to stop what they are doing, because it’s wrong to murder even if it’s to “benefit” her, and she would not be able to live with the guilt of knowing that, if the surgery were successful, each time she looked in a mirror thereafter she’d be looking into the face of a woman murdered in her name. Find a way to restrain Christiane in a non-violent way to keep her from interfering with her father’s plan, lock her in her room, bind her to a table during the healing process, etc.
The end… I’ll begin with the doctor’s demise. Being attacked by dogs and left a bloody, faceless corpse was certainly appropriate – and I would probably keep that aspect of the film, although I would force the doctor to survive and live in prison with the disfigurement that he forced his daughter to live with all those years. As for the nurse – I did not like Christiane being the one to deliver the death blow to her. While she certainly had it coming, it just didn’t work for me because up to that point Christiane wasn’t really against what her father and Louise had been doing; she was, rather, just tired of all of the failures and preferred to die. If, however, we use the premise in the above paragraph in the molding of Christiane’s character, I’d keep her innocent through to the end. She would somehow free herself from the gurney and straps just before yet another surgery attempt, release the kidnapped girl, and the kidnapped girl would kill the nurse while making her escape.
This leaves poor Christiane alone in the world, though. Everyone still thinks she’s dead, and now the two people who knew she was alive are also dead. Knowing she will be horribly disfigured for the rest of her life, she… ???
In the original movie we never find out what happens to Christiane. She just walks off into the forest. Does she call the authorities – knowing she’ll terrify anyone who looks at her? Does she finally make her wish to die a reality? How do we end it?