Eyes Without A Face
When it was released on American screens, Georges Franju's elegant 1960 horror film Eyes Without A Face was re-titled The Horror Chamber Of Dr. Faustus and paired with something called The Manster, the macabre tale of a half-man/half-beast with two heads. Beyond the fact that Franju's film includes neither a horror chamber nor a villain named Dr. Faustus, the double feature must have seemed curious to the drive-in crowd, who had to wonder what these two films could possibly have in common. Yet Eyes Without A Face owes more to the American horror tradition than to French art cinema, which was slow to acknowledge the genre's legitimacy, much less its potential. Caught between cultures, the film was greeted with scandal in its home country and mistreatment in the U.S., but it endures as a gorgeous fusion of opposing sensibilities, a lyrical monster movie with visceral thrills and moments of unforgettable visual poetry.
Set to a score that sounds like a deranged carnival rendition of the zither music in The Third Man, Eyes opens with the chilling image of a matron in pearls careening down the road with a corpse slumped in the back seat. When the body later emerges from a watery grave with its facial features removed, respected doctor Pierre Brasseur falsely identifies it as his missing daughter and arranges for a funeral. In truth, his daughter's face was horribly mangled in a car accident, and the dead woman is merely the first guinea pig in a radical facelift procedure. With devoted secretary Alida Valli employed as the heavy, Brasseur abducts women for his experimental "heterograft" surgery, but the Frankenstein stitches don't hold on his daughter's porcelain visage.
Mad scientists are a staple of the monster-movie genre, but Brasseur's evil has a slippery quality, with genuine feelings of love and guilt overwhelmed by astonishing arrogance and hubris. With a featureless mask covering her ravaged face, his daughter haunts the screen like a wispy specter, provoking either terror or pity from whomever she encounters. Franju's unique ability to graft horror with tragedy gives Eyes its special allure: If Jean Cocteau had been tapped to direct a Universal horror movie, it might have looked like this.
The DVD comes with a strong assortment of behind-the-scenes clips, interviews, and production materials, but the main feature, Franju's shocking 1949 documentary short Blood Of The Beasts, goes a long way toward explaining the stark juxtapositions in Eyes. By intercutting picture-postcard shots of the Paris outskirts with stark footage from inside its slaughterhouses, Franju makes an obscure point about how the community functions, but the queasily beautiful images predict the peculiar tone he adopts in Eyes Without A Face. As to whether the film's legacy will outlast The Manster's, only time will tell.