On a rare occasion, the passage of time helps a film age like a fine wine. Such a rare example of this phenomenon is best observed in the case of Georges Franju’s French horror film, Eyes Without a Face (1960). Released the same year that Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) was criticized for its “vulgar” shot of a flushing toilet, Eyes Without a Face is a movie that phenomenally blends emotional turmoil with the grotesque into a simple story whose unnerving aura transcends time and language. With four screenings of the film scheduled for this week thanks to the Secret Celluloid Society, now is an opportune time to sit back and re-examine a classic that deserves more mainstream attention than it currently has.
After a car accident leaves his daughter horribly disfigured, Doctor Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) and his loyal assistant Louise (Alida Valli) start a quest to get Christiane Génessier (Edith Scob) a new and beautiful face – by any means necessary. One of the elements that makes this movie so effective is the understanding of what makes all great horror stories effective: the horror of this film is balanced by another, less horrific element. Commonly, some of the best horror stories incorporate elements of mysteries, romances, comedies, or tragedies into their narrative, weaving a tale that manages to both attract and repel. Without this balance, a horror movie risks turning into little more than an exploitation film. In the case of Eyes Without a Face, there’s an inherent tragedy in a father trying to undo the damage that he’s inadvertently afflicted onto his child that makes Doctor Génessier’s emotional plight almost understandable.
It’s part of human nature to want to protect and care for the people you love, regardless of the consequences you may face in the process. The true horror comes not from Doctor Génessier’s mere existence, but how he takes the audience’s empathy towards an understandable feeling of unbelievable guilt and twists it into disgust and abjection through his irreprehensible actions throughout the film. This juxtaposition is also reflected in Christiane and her own struggles, though unlike her father, her role in the story is one of a victim rather than a transgressor. After the suffering caused by the car accident that her father is responsible for, Christiane effectively becomes a prisoner to her father’s will as he tries desperately to undo what can’t be undone. When you add Christiane’s physical affliction with her own psychological struggles, it turns her existence into something utterly horrific in nature.
This understanding of the balance of horror is by no means to say that the film isn’t frightening on a more primal level. The mask worn by the disfigured Christiane is said to have been the inspiration behind Michael Myers’ iconic costume in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), and it’s easy to see why. There’s something inherently uncanny about a smooth, featureless face with big, sparkling eyes, and it makes Christiane as close to a living doll as you can possibly get. And keep in mind, this all goes without mentioning what lies underneath the mask. Between the horrors beneath Christiane’s mask and the results of Doctor Génessier’s experiments, the violence and gore in this film is enough to give some of the classic slasher films of the 80s a run for their money. Quite frankly, it’s fairly shocking that a film that’s over fifty years old manages to be as cringe-inducing as the many movies that participated in the resurgence of splatter films throughout the 2000s.
The overall creepy atmosphere of this movie is additionally amplified by the limitations of the era it was made in. The black and white aesthetic of the film is already commonly associated as being from a “different” time by many mainstream audiences, which synergizes well with the film’s haunting soundtrack, and a cinematic style that gladly uses unfocused shots to make certain scenes all the more unnerving.
Plainly put, Eyes Without a Face is a piece of simple and effective horror. There’s no better way to describe a movie that understands how to balance its straightforward story with both powerful emotions and impressive horror more effectively than the sea of recent films that’ve gained their notoriety solely through their shock value.
You can purchase tickets to screenings of Eyes Without a Face at the Night Owl Theater for Friday the 9th, Saturday the 10th, and Sunday the 11th here.
George Ibarra is a Senior at Florida International University, pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in English with a minor in Sociology, along with Certificates in Exile Studies and Film Studies.