Horror movies, once, were for adults as well as teenagers. Directors used black and white, evocative lighting, minimal make-up, and great acting to create rich, personally expressive images that frightened audiences. Now the Criterion Collection gives us another chance to see these kinds of movies, releasing a new print of the 1959 French classic Eyes Without a Face on DVD.
Director Georges Franju puts your heart in your throat right from the start - hounds howling through the night; the evil eyes of a masked surgeon coming at you with a scalpel; dead young girls dumped in rivers and dug-out crypts at midnight - and the sinister tension never breaks. The story is about an esteemed plastic surgeon, Professeur Genessier (Pierre Brasseur), who has his nurse, secretary, and lover Louise (Alida Valli, well-known for her role in The Third Man) abduct young women off the Parisian streets and take them back to his dungeon-like basement where he grafts the skin off their faces. He's attempting to restore his daughter's mutilated face, a life-destroying disfigurement that he caused in a car accident. The scenes of seduction, abduction, and burying bodies are cold and calculating. Franju reveals just enough stimulate our imaginations and still show enough to curl our spines - as in the skin graft operation at the center of the movie where he lays bare the Professeur's cruel, egomaniacal eyes as a face is lifted off a fresh victim.
The daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob), has nothing to do but wait between operations, wearing a molded mask with holes for her eyes. Walking through the Professeur's eerie, gothic home, nightgown flowing as she rushes about, head turning, her eyes become charged behind the passive plastic. This alluring, haunting sequence, showing the fear and dread in Christiane's eyes, yet her wish to be whole again, calls back a similar scene in Beauty and the Beast.
Eyes Without A Face is a uniquely lyrical and affecting horror movie in the manner of that Cocteau masterpiece. Franju creates a palpable sense of fear with lurking shadows, noises in the woods, and screams and howling dogs echoing from the dungeon instead of using open, graphic brutality. Like Jacques Tourneur, the director of so many understated horror classics in the '40s and '50s (Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, Curse of the Demon) he knows that restrained, yet deliberate, less-is-more technique is what really scares people.
This Criterion DVD has a beautiful print and, unlike the video, has clear, readable subtitles. It also includes Franju's first film made in 1949, Blood of the Beasts, a documentary short about the brutal methods Paris slaughterhouses used to butcher meat.
Aka Les Yeux sans Visage.
Run time: 88 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 24th October 1962
Distributed by: Criterion Collection
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 98%
Fresh: 49 Rotten: 1
IMDB: 7.8 / 10
Director: Georges Franju
Producer: Jules Borkon
Starring: Pierre Brasseur as Doctor Génessier, Alida Valli as Louise, Édith Scob as Christiane Génessier, François Guérin as Jacques Vernon, Juliette Mayniel as Edna Gruber, Alexandre Rignault as Inspector Parot, Béatrice Altariba as Paulette Mérodon, Charles Blavette as l'homme de la fourrière, Claude Brasseur as un inspecteur, Michel Etcheverry as le docteur Lherminier
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