Short Takes: Eyes Without a Face (1960) Georges Franju

A brilliant, creepy, unsettling film about a crazed doctor who kidnaps a series of beautiful women, surgically and methodically removing their faces in hopes of transplanting successfully one on to the deformed face of his daughter. Just as you squeamishly hope director Georges Franju will move his camera away from the procedure, he stays securely in place forcing the audience to watch the complete removal of the face as if it were a delicate mask being lifted off, soon to be grafted on to the head of his deformed daughter, Christaine. It’s an unsettling scene, and an amazingly graphic one, considering the film was made in 1960, a year that historically has turned out three master works of horror, Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom” being the others.

In some ways the film is reminiscent of many other horror films, the mad doctor, obsessed with playing God, think Dr. Moreau, Dr. Jekyll, and Dr. Frankenstein to name a few. In this case, it is Doctor Genessier (Pierre Brasseur) whose beautiful daughter was severely injured in a car accident for which he was responsible. Being a good father, he wants to help his daughter to look beautiful again. Thus begins a series of kidnappings of pretty young things as the doctor attempts to remove the facial skin of his victims and in an extreme case of plastic surgery graft the removed victims face on to his daughter’s. Each attempt has been a failure, as one expects the bodies of missing young women are beginning to pile up.

The doctor is assisted by his loyal and attractive assistant Louise (Alida Valli) whose has had some work done herself. The film opens with Louise driving in the dark of the night to a secluded spot to dump the body of the doctor’s latest victim. Sadly, each experiment fails, leaving the Doctor’s daughter Christiane (Edith Scob) deeper and deeper in despair.

The film is based on a novel by Jean Redon, adapted for the screen by Redon, Claude Sautet, who also was Assistant Director, and the team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. Boileau and Narcejac are best known for their novels “D’Entre Les Morts” and “Celle qui n’était plus” which themselves are better known by their film titles, “Vertigo” and “Diabolique.”

Director Georges Franju avoids the standard modus operandi of many horror films, the quick cuts, the tense music that builds up with a calculating beat that something dreadful is about to happen. Instead we get some magnificent eerie, moody photography creating a foreboding atmosphere of dread and fear, also an early music score by Maurice Jarre that is at times almost circus like, adding a strange macabre mood to it all.  Do not misunderstand, Franju does not shy away or forget he is making a horror movie. As mentioned, the film contains some of the most disturbing and unflinchingly graphic scenes to ever appear in a horror film from this period, in fact, if you about to undergo cosmetic surgery in the near future you may want to avoid this film.  Even today these scenes remain very disturbing.

The film was originally released in the United States in 1962. Back then horror films did not receive any respect from the art house/intellectual film audience and when released in a dubbed version as part of a double bill with “The Manster,” another film about a crazed doctor and his strange experiments, the film sank quickly. Even changing its title to “The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus” did not help. But over the years, “Eyes Without a Face” has risen from the “B” film grave and has gained the respect it has been denied. In 1995, the film was released in a new 35MM print and played at the Cinema Village in New York and a few other cities.  In 2003, during the Halloween season, the film appeared again, in another new print, for two week engagement at the Film Forum in New York.

“Eyes Without a Face” is a masterpiece of horror, an imaginative, nightmarish, poetic dream that you will soon not forget.

11 comments on “Short Takes: Eyes Without a Face (1960) Georges Franju

  1. R. D. Finch says:

    John, your description of “Eyes Without a Face” as “an imaginative, nightmarish, poetic dream” is perfect. In visual terms it’s the most poetic horror film I’ve ever seen, and without sacrificing any of the horror in the situation, which your description of the film makes clear IS quite horrific. Another thing that lifts this film above other horror films is that like “Peeping Tom” it offers the viewer a lot to ponder, using horror as a vehicle to explore deeper themes. The way Franju finds beauty in the horrific (and horror in the pursuit of beauty) is in its way quite disturbing, blurring the distinction between two things that seem so obviously different. Another thing your post makes clear is that this a much better film than a bare description of its plot might lead someone who has never seen it to imagine. Another excellent film with a quite similar subject (although the director takes it in a different thematic direction) is “The Face of Another” directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara, who did “Woman in the Dunes.”

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    • John Greco says:

      R.D.,

      You are so right in saying Franju finds beauty in the horrific. It’s a disturbing beauty but nonetheless a very poetic film. The plot is rather simple but it is handled with such elegance that is rare especially is the horror genre. I am not familiar with “The Face of Another” but I will have to look into it.

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  2. Jon says:

    Yes John it is a masterpiece and unforgettable. I remember about 8 years ago seeing it in that new print on a big screen in Chicago and it was my first viewing. I was completely blown away by it. Such a fascinating work and you’re right the camerawork and soundtrack are great. I might have to watch this one on Halloween this year for a refresher.

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    • John Greco says:

      Jon,

      I envy you seeing this on the big screen. These days seeing any classic film on a big screen in the theater is a treat. 1960 turned out to be a excellent year for the horror genre with Psycho, Peeping Tom and this film…and all from different countries!

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  3. The recent “The Skin I Live In” reminded be a lot of Eyes Without a Face”.

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  4. Diandra says:

    This film taught me so much about the use of sound in horror because it has no soundtrack playing to “warn” or “jump scare” you during the most disturbing scenes – you are dropped in, with no audio cue. This is a sophisticated contrast to the smooth elegance of the film’s overall tone, and the Jarre soundtrack heard in other scenes.

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  5. DorianTB says:

    John, I’ve heard of EYES WITHOUT A FACE, and part of me is curious to see it to see what all the fuss is about, while another part of me is leery because my daughter will be 16 in October, so it would be hit me kinda close to home! On the other hand, this whole discussion has me thinking mulling over plots involving mad doctors who get their butts kicked by tough but loving moms – and dads, too, why not? Keep it all in the family! 🙂 My ramblings and digressions aside, your review of EYES WITHOUT A FACE is fascinating and superbly written, as always!

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    • John Greco says:

      thanks Dorian, – For me you always have to be in the right frame of mind ot watch this kind of film. When you’re ready, tackle it.

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  6. vinnieh says:

    Excellent post, really looks like a chilling and deeply unsettling film. I need to watch it after reading your descriptive and interesting review of it.

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