AMAD-Horror Edition: Eyes Without A Face

5 Oct

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Oct 4th,2009–

cinemagrade A-I’m a little surprised that I never saw Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face before this. With its French art-house sensibilities and Universal horror movie tropes all jammed together into a crusty old shell of pulp contrivance, the movie is a monster mash gone wild. Rejected by the snobby French critics of the time and dumped over here in the U.S. to double-bill with The Manster, this psychological thriller was far ahead of its time. My wife and I were legitimately shocked by how graphic the surgery sequences are and how stately and poetic the rest of the film is. The movie hides its madness underneath  a high-class painterly veneer but make no mistake–it delivers a wicked jolt.

The opening scene of Eyes is a strange moonlight car ride that ends with the driver–an older woman with a pearl necklace–dumping the body of a younger woman into the river. Made all the more disorienting by a feverish theme reminsicent of off-kilter carnival music, this sequence opens the film on a particularly dream-like note. The movie never leaves that state, and everything that occurs afterwards is akin to an Expressionist nightmare. The darkened French countryside looms up out of the shadows and we are introduced to an imposing chateau not far from Paris where the renowned plastic surgeon Prof Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) resides with his resurrected lover (Allida Valli–the same woman who dumped the body), kennel of snarling dogs and his presumed dead daughter. When the body surfaces and the police investigate, they find it missing all of its face except for the eyes.  Génessier identifies the body as that of his daughter Christiane, but we learn the truth is far more sinister.

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Génessier has a hidden laboratory underneath his sprawling estate–as all good movie mad scientists do–and he’s been taking the kidnapped girls here and, here it comes, removing their faces. He isn’t just your average deviant nutbag, disfiguring women in the name of science or for his own immoral thrill, but instead he’s a concerned father who caused an accident that claimed the visage of his own daughter, Christaine and he will do anything to restore her beauty. Wearing one of the creepiest flippin’ masks I have ever seen in a film, Christaine floats ethereally through the mansion, crying at her own warped appearance and communing with the birds and beasts of the estate.

The good doc has tried to give her a new face several times, but his process of grafting living tissue onto dead has a very short shelf life. Within a few days Christaine’s new ‘look’ has begun to rot and Génessier must remove it. Each time he does, the process begins again, with a new girl in danger of becoming the next victim. As the film documents these events, it also follows a pair of detectives who are closing in on Génessier and his experiments.

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I was quite impressed with Eyes Without a Face and can easily understand why it’s regarded these days as a masterpiece; in its own way, it is. It shames the current crop of ‘edgy’ gore films that studios have been puking out. Recent genre pictures have insisted on giving us a level of detail and cruelty so great, that it becomes questionable if the experience is really any different than what one would get from watching a snuff film. Still, those films wear down their viewers, forcing them to dull their senses and blunt their conscience, and they become boring as a result. Franju’s film develops a disturbing hyper-reality that never allows the viewer to become comfortable or acclimated to its tone. The result is far more abrasive than simple shock tactics.

Eyes has a terrifying and harrowing–though visually outdated–surgery scene in the middle of the film where the doctor removes the face of one of his sleeping victims. But the scene is played for what it is; a surgery scene, not a grand guignol gore bath where a sadistic loon cackles merrily. The discomfort and cruelty in the scene are not derived from how explicit it is (it really isn’t) but by the callous and unfeeling way in which Génessier takes what he thinks his daughter needs. In fact, the poor girls who lose their identities–and usually their lives–aren’t the only ones trapped and victimized by the mad prof. Christaine herself longs to be free of this cage in which she is trapped, but the price of innocents to procure her freedom is too much.

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By the time the film ends, she has achieved a certain sense of cosmic release from her plight, and all of the remaining characters recieve more or less what they have coming to them. That inexcorable sense of ‘justice’ is what adds a few layers to Eyes Without a Face. The film develops everyone as a fully rounded character with needs, wants and fears and each one behaves according to these qualities. The doctor is plagued with a guilt that only compounds his own self-absorbed madness, Christaine battles personal demons that peer out at her through her physical face, and even the ‘secretary’ has remorse over her part in these events.

From a visual standpoint, this is one of the most unique horror movies I have ever seen. It is never less than riveting and often excessively creepy and often there is nothing going on except characters conversing or Christaine wandering about her father’s house. The dark, catacomb-like kennel and the austere laboratory are amazing set pieces and the evocative mask that Christaine wears is singularly iconic. I’ve not seen another image quite like it anywhere else. This movie is a feast, not just for the eyes, but the senses too. Franju compiles every element of the production in such a way that when we look back at it the seams are gone; it has transformed into an organic whole that feels like a living-breathing entity that was not created but has always just been, lurking there in the dark waiting to take a bite.

and just for fun:

Oct 5th–AMAD: Sauna

Oct 6th– AMAD: Night of the Demon

Oct 7th–AMAD: Kaidan

Oct 8th- AMAD: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark 

Oct 9th-AMAD: In A Spiral State

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6 Responses to “AMAD-Horror Edition: Eyes Without A Face”

  1. hagiblog October 5, 2009 at 10:59 am #

    Sounds good! I’ll have to put this on my viewing list for Halloween. It really is time to bust out the scary movies.

  2. Xiphos October 5, 2009 at 12:38 pm #

    nice review, I’ve never heard of it but I’m going to give it go as soon as I can.

  3. The Great Fatsby October 5, 2009 at 5:28 pm #

    This film sounds completely awesome, even though I don’t really love Billy Idol.

  4. koutchboom October 6, 2009 at 4:03 pm #

    Nathan I have an assignment for you.

    http://www.crispinglover.com/slideshow.htm

    Look at the last stop, you better clear your calender.

    • Nathan Bartlebaugh October 6, 2009 at 4:17 pm #

      Holy crap….that’s gonna be weird…

      Thanks Koutchboom…I’ll see if I can make this and what the cost is, etc. Glover is a madman. I think I was more comfortable with last year’s Bruce Campbell appearance than I’ll be with this. His clown song still flips me out.

  5. Continentalop October 7, 2009 at 11:11 pm #

    Nathan, I love this film. It is both realistic and incredibly dreamlike. The documentary feel of the surgery and the straight forward style of the movie is combined with dream like imagery and an idea that seems to have been concocted in someone’s sleep state. Love it (especially the poetic and beautiful ending with the daughter).

    On a side note, did you see this on DVD and was a documentary by Georges Franju included called “Blood of the Beast”? If not, check it out. Not because of the subject matter (it is about the Paris slaughterhouses) but because it is a disturbing film and I am convinced it was a huge inspiration for Tobe Hooper when he made THE TEXAS CHAIN-SAW MASSACRE.

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