Movies that try to be scary, thought French New Wave director Georges Franju, usually aren’t. What is truly scary, he says in an interview on the Criterion DVD of his classic Eyes Without a Face, is when perfectly normal people do abnormal things, as if they were doing something perfectly normal.
Franju, I think, had it right. The reason movies like Silence of the Lambs, Wolf Creek, Saw and Audition freak audiences out as much as they do is because they set up perfectly safe-seeming real-world situations and then let the horror elements intrude as if the people committing the atrocities we see are just going about a day at the office. Flesh-eating zombies are fun, but nowhere near as bloodcurdling as thinking that the guy who lives in the apartment above you, whom you say hi to every morning on your way to work, might have a few severed heads in his fridge next to the salad dressing. There’s a very good psychological reason the apartments where Jeffrey Dahmer lived were torn down.
Franju goes on to say the scariest movie he ever saw was not a horror movie, but a film for medical students showing a fellow with a brain tumor getting his skull opened up. The surgeon performing the operation is calmly describing what he’s doing for his vomiting student audience. But that’s not the creepy part. The creepy part is that the patient is awake, just thoroughly doped up, so he sits through the entire procedure with his eyes wide open and a stoned smile on his face. That just seems deeply wrong, and it influenced Franju’s approach to making Eyes Without a Face.
This 1959 psychological shocker will, naturally, look tame to modern audiences who have survived Hostel. But keep in mind the times. In 1959, you simply did not see graphic content onscreen, especially in the clinical way it appears here. This movie had audiences passing out, puking, and sprinting out of theaters, a reaction not unlike that reported for Hostel. Franju thought people were probably overreacting. When seven people fainted at the Edinburgh Film Festival, he snarked, “Now I know why Scotsmen wear skirts!” But there’s no denying the impact of this disturbing movie nearly 50 years later.
Doctor Génessier is a highly respected and wealthy Parisian surgeon who is perfecting a technique called “heterografting,” transplanting living tissue. His dark secret is that his daughter Christiane, presumed killed in an accident, is in fact living in hiding upstairs in his mansion, her ruined face hidden behind a disturbingly mannequin-like mask while her father and his lover Louise (wonderfully played by Alida Valli, who would go on to roles in Argento’s Suspiria and Inferno, among other gialli) kidnap young girls so that he can transplant their fresh faces onto Christiane.
When we first meet Christiane, she’s naturally sympathetic, weeping over her misfortune and sneaking phone calls to her fiancée (who thinks she’s dead) just to hear his voice. But Franju then does a risky thing. He makes her less sympathetic. She is not, at first, aware of exactly what her father is getting up to in his basement operating theater. When she sees him and Louise carting the unconscious body of hapless Swiss student Edna downstairs, Christiane follows. We expect her to be horrified. But she isn’t. When she stands over Edna’s unconscious form strapped to the table, we expect her to release the straps. But she doesn’t. Finally realizing what her father is doing to restore her face, she’s fine with it.
Of course, later we realize Franju has done this so Christiane can have a character arc and emerge heroic. But for the meantime, we are treated to Franju’s detached and clinical manner of shooting the crimes committed by Dr. Génessier and Louise. Franju rarely resorts to horror movie style. One suspenseful tracking shot down a hospital corridor is all we get in that vein. Mostly, he approaches the story as if it were a documentary, particularly the surgery scene where he removes Edna’s face. Which we see as much of as the censors of the time would allow.
The make-up effects are, admittedly, not up to Rick Baker standards, but so what? (When things might be too gory for the censors, Franju lets the shot go slightly out of focus, which has the beneficial side-effect of hiding flaws in the FX makeup and making the whole scene more convincing.) The psychological effect the scene can still have on viewers is rooted in Franju’s technique. It’s as if he’s remaking that brain surgery film he saw in college. Dr. Génessier might just as well be doing a root canal or appendectomy. But he’s slicing off a girl’s face. To audiences in 1959, this must have been the most transgressive thing they’d ever seen.
A similar effect occurs when Christiane, who at first appears healthy and beautiful after the transplant, suddenly begins to reject the skin grafts. Franju cuts to a series of still photos of her face growing increasingly necrotic, while her father recites his medical observations over the soundtrack. Soon she’s back in her mask and the hunt is on for another “donor”. The more coldly clinical the movie gets, the more disturbing.
A happy ending manages not to come off as pandering as it could have been, because Christiane gets to initiate it, and we see how her ordeal has led to moral growth. She may not have her face (and maybe not even all her sanity), but she has her freedom. In all, Eyes Without a Face is a fine early example of how disturbing psychological horror can be, even in the hands of a gifted filmmaker shackled by incredible artistic restrictions. (Literally every major European country had a huge list of “don’t”s before they’d distribute the pic.) Its influence is still widely felt today.
Technical note: The Criterion DVD has an impressive 1.78:1 transfer that gives the black-and-white photography strong black levels and good contrast with minimal grain. Among the many extras is Franju’s short 1949 documentary Blood of the Beasts, about a Parisian slaughterhouse dealing in horsemeat. If the sight of animals actually being killed upsets you, don’t watch it.