For many years, the horror movie was closely associated with crumbling castles, gas-lit streets, mobs with torches and pitchforks, and the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, the Mummy and the Wolf Man. Nowadays, when most people think of horror movies none of these things initially come to mind. The exact point where everything changed is difficult to find, but many people point to George Romero's Night of the Living Dead as being the turning point. As much as I love that movie and appreciate its enormous influence and importance to the genre, I think we have to look almost a decade earlier and well away from America to see where the horror movie really got it on with the 20th century.
Dracula, Eyes Without a Face gave us the modern horror movie in all its glory, perhaps for the first time. It's a beautifully made movie that would be a classic even if it were not such an important work in the history of the genre, and despite being a black and white movie over fifty years old, it still works its magic today. Or should I say its science? This is a movie that takes place resolutely in the real world, for all its poetic beauty and allegorical qualities. And yet in its way, it is absolutely a Gothic horror story: the shade of a dead girl wanders the corridors of an isolated mansion while a mad scientist performs hideous experiments in the basement. Eyes Without a Face straddles "classic horror" and "modern horror" so perfectly, it could have been designed specifically to demarcate the line between the two.
The movie opens with a woman (Alida Valli, somewhere between The Third Man and Suspiria) covertly driving a corpse to the river for disposal. All we can see at first is that there is something terribly wrong with its face beneath a pulled-down hat; when she drags it out of the car we see that under the man's raincoat is a naked female body. When the body is subsequently found by the police, Dr. Génessier (Pierre Brausseur) identifies it as his daughter Christiane, who had gone missing after her face was disfigured in a car accident. But the woman accompanying Génessier at the funeral, Louise, is the same one who disposed of the body, and when they return home we find that Christiane (Edith Scob) is kept hidden there, her face behind a white porcelain mask. It transpires that Génessier, who was responsible for the accident which disfigured his daughter, has been attempting experimental skin grafts to restore her face and that the dead woman at the beginning was the unwilling donor for the latest attempt.
All of this is played in an interesting combination of strict realism and fairy-tale poetics. Christiane is played as a princess locked in an ivory tower; Scob essays the role with a very theatrical body language. Meanwhile, Dr. Génessier and Louise go about the business of finding donors with a cold efficiency. Louise is the one who goes out and finds them - in a chilling sequence of events we see her calculatedly approach and seduce a student called Edna, taking her time to gain the young woman's trust before luring her to Génessier's house. Louise is most certainly portrayed as being a lesbian, and not just in these scenes; although she is deeply loyal to Génessier, who has apparently saved her own face at some point in the past, she is even more devoted to Christiane. She is also very troubled by her conscience; she is upset at the deception when they are burying one of their victims in the family tomb as if it were Christiane, and even more so when Génessier deposits yet another victim in the tomb as if he were throwing away a bag of rubbish.
Génessier is far less sympathetic. He is cold and controlling, and the scenes which show him as a competent physician with a pleasant bedside manner only serve to show that he is capable of faking human emotion when he needs to. Although he does really seem to love his daughter, and is a little upset by the difficulty there will be in reconciling her with her fiance (who also happens to be his young colleague and probably his disciple) when she is supposed to be dead, he seems more annoyed that he has damaged his "possession" than that he has caused her pain and grief. In fact, he seems barely to notice her extreme depression.
Christiane is more difficult to pin down. It is unclear just how complicit she really is in her father's schemes - she does seem aware that he is transplanting other women's faces onto her own, but at the same time she doesn't seem to have processed what this actually means. This may simply be a result of how introverted and self-involved she has become since the accident - she does not seem to be wholly in her right mind, and the movie does seem to portray her as being an innocent. The scene where she wanders through the kennels where her father keeps the constantly-barking dogs he uses for experiments and calms them is a case in point. In any case, Scob's very expressive eyes often seem to hint at barely-restrained madness even as she drifts wraith-like through the enormous house. In a very real sense she is a ghost; the world believes she is dead, and yet there she is.
The way that these Gothic tropes are relocated to contemporary Paris is what makes Eyes Without a Face the first really modern horror movie. Realistic performances by most of the cast dovetail perfectly with Scob's more traditional horror-movie role. And then there is the surgery scene, where we actually see - in significant detail and graphic close-up - as Génessier first marks out, then cuts, and finally removes a woman's face. The special effects have dated in the last fifty-odd years, but the scene still packs a punch. Meanwhile we only catch a glimpse of Christiane's disfigurement, but the impression it gives is enough.
Outside of the cloistered and stifling world Génessier has built for Christiane and Louise, we get to see an extremely inefficient police inquiry that is the closest the movie gets to traditional B-movie territory. The idea of coercing a young woman caught shoplifting into being used as bait is completely hare-brained, and the police seem to have no idea how this is going to work. All that they manage to accomplish is to get another young woman onto Génessier's operating table with a minimum of fuss, which finally prompts Christiane into decisive action. After being a passive victim for the entire movie, Christiane sets the woman free, stabs Louise to death with a scalpel (Louise's puzzled reaction to this is quite affecting), and sets the dogs on her father before finally wandering out into the night, presumably to her own death.
The realism of the movie is contrasted (but not undercut) by the dreamy mise-en-scène; much of the photography, especially those establishing place, have a hazy, dreamlike quality which contrasts with the more hard-edged scenes inside the clinic and Génessier's house. Director Georges Franju would later use a similar style for his much more surreal Judex, a homage to the silent movie serials of Louis Feuillade. It also contrasts nicely with the potboiler elements of the script, which is written by the team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who had previously provided source material for Les Diaboliques and Vertigo.
This movie would be copied many times over the years. It is worth making a direct comparison with what was probably the first imitator, Jess Franco's 1961 film The Awful Dr. Orlof, which takes the exact same situation (a surgeon attempting to graft other women's faces onto that of his disfigured daughter) and turns it into a complete sleaze-fest, focusing on the evil Doctor and his monstrous assistant Morpho as they kidnap drunken prostitutes and cabaret performers to drag back to their remote crumbling castle. Franco keeps the atmosphere dark and dank, inserts possibly the first ever gratuitous nude body-doubling in movies, denies the equivalent of the Christiane character any dialogue or agency (in fact she spends the whole movie locked in a dungeon and doesn't even get to stand up), makes the police even stupider, and generally avoids art in favour of exploitation at every turn.
Although it was a critical disaster at the time and was released as exploitation (in the US it was retitled The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus and put on a double bill with the gonzo Japanese/American monster movie The Manster), Eyes Without a Face has gone on to be admired as a masterpiece of world cinema. And so, modern horror - and in particular, what we now think of as Euro-horror - began.
Here's the double-bill trailer:
Here's some highlights from the movie set to Portishead's music:
Here's the Billy Idol song of the same name, which actually features the movie's original French title in its background vocals: