Fifty-two years ago, a French horror movie had critics turning away in shock, and viewers fainting at premiers.
Producer Jules Borkon did his best to get Eyes Without a Face past the European censors. Not too much blood, no animals being tortured – and tone down the ‘mad’ in that mad scientist character. And it worked.
Despite a brutal wave of negative critical reaction (one English critic from The Spectator was almost fired for a positive review), ‘Eyes became a cult hit as it was re-released and made available on VHS and DVD. Its influence can be felt in subsequent European films of the fantastique, John Carpenter’s Halloween movies, and was the loose inspiration for a hit Billy Idol song.
Eyes Without a Face (1960)
Christiane Génessier is a woman without a face.
Horribly disfigured in a car accident and saved from death, she lives as a recluse in a house with no mirrors. Her identity – like her face – gone.
Lucky for Christiane, her father happens to be a bit of a brilliant mad scientist. Together with his henchwoman/assistant/non-sexual lover, he kidnaps innocent and beautiful Parisian girls, cuts their faces off, and grafts them onto Christiane’s.
As a horror flick based solely on the idea of an ‘involuntary’ face transplant, Eyes Without a Face is about as good as it gets. It’s no wonder audiences and critics balked at this thing in 1960. You get to see the good Dr. Génessier cut some poor girl’s face with a scalpal and peel it off like an onion skin, with just enough of a blurry glimpse of the mess underneath to make you cringe.
Pretty cool. And that’s not the worst of it. The most unsettling thing in this movie aren’t the gruesome operations or the screams of young french girls as they wake up strapped to a metal table in a manor house basement, but the eerily expressive white mask Christiane wears in place of her (or anyone else’s) face.
It’s the proto-Michael Myers – blank and inhuman, appealing to that prehistoric fear we all have of imitations of the human face.
The problem is, that’s about all there is to this thing. And a few grotesque face shots and weird masks alone do not a great horror film make. It’s hard not to wonder why director Georges Franju didn’t do a little more to explore the damaged psyche of Christiane, or the warped psychological effects of literally wearing someone else’s face.
The auteur director was a man most concerned with images, and said himself that he didn’t have the gift of story writing. But are the beautiful and disturbing visuals by themselves enough to carry us through the full 90 minutes? Not quite.
We have characters (the policemen, the fiancé) who go nowhere, and probably could have disappeared half way through the movie without us even noticing.
The soundtrack is made up of a single creepy xylophone tune, kind of a children’s lullaby from hell. You’d call it a horror cliche if ‘Eyes wasn’t made before that particular cliche actually existed.
Had Eyes Without a Face been made today, it would probably have been another Human Centipede. A low budget, gimmicky shock flick appealing to the college crowd for comic value.
And while it’s hardly the masterpiece it’s often praised as, ‘Eyes is a genuinely creepy and fascinatingly strange movie.