“My face frightens me. My mask frightens me even more.”
The uncanny valley is a powerful tool, one that I wouldn’t mind seeing explored a bit more in the horror genre. For me, the most unsettling figures have never been the mischievous ghosts or heartless serial killers, but I find that I’m most unsettled by the almost humans. The creepy thing about Eyes Without A Face, a terrific French-Italian thriller from 1960, is that its characters are human. There’s nothing too fantastical about this story; it’s just an eerie, heartbreaking piece of medical horror that leaves you both intrigued and disturbed.
The film tells of Doctor Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), a toned down mad scientist type who is responsible for a car accident that severely damages his daughter Christiane’s (Edith Scob) face. Génessier engages in skin grafting research and becomes driven to restore his daughter’s beautiful features by whatever means necessary. The film explores various fascinating perspectives, mostly focusing on the doctor himself but also incorporating the struggles of the victims, the police, and Christiane herself, along with several other figures tied into the mess.
There’s nothing astonishing about the film’s presentation; it takes clear inspiration from the American horror thrillers and monster movies of the 50s, and it’s also disappointing to see how toned down the film can be at times, really playing it safe amid fears of censorship. Even so, the film sparked considerable outrage and didn’t find peak success until years later when prominent directors began citing it as an influence. The premise is really exciting, and the film hits a lot of high points, but I always felt it was a little constrained. There’s a lot to explore with this concept both morally and visually, and it just never feels complete enough to meet all of its promises.
That being said, there’s a lot of clear talent behind every scene of this movie. One of my favorite motifs was the twisted melody that foreshadows action. It drones on playfully like a twisted carnival procession, and it really sets the mood for the film. The film also hits a lot of clever thematic images, with Christiane’s mask being an endless source of fascination. You can’t get enough of Edith Scob in this movie, and all of her scenes mark a relative high point in the story’s progression. She look almost perfect with her artificial face, and you can see in her eyes that she knows it’s not quite right. There’s a lot of cliché directions this kind of story could take, but it always focuses on an honest, personal sort of focus that keeps a sense of humanity at the core of the film.
You don’t see a lot of horror movies about skin grafting, but this is just one piece of another element I really admire about Eyes Without A Face: its grounding in reality. I’ve hinted at this already, but this is one of the most honest horror movies you’ll ever find. The mad scientist archetype is brought down to size, driven by human desire instead of screenwriter necessity. The scariest villain isn’t the doctor himself but his assistant Louise (Alida Valli) who gives you chills with her cold, unwavering commitment to Génessier’s evil deeds that adds a quiet sense of danger to all of her scenes. None of these characters feel like horror tropes, and it helps you sympathize with the film’s victims in a way a lot of modern horror can’t quit manage.
It’s not going to top any personal favorites lists, but Eyes Without A Face is an impressive work of horror that was sadly restrained by conventions of its time and place. While I wouldn’t recommend a remake necessarily, I’d like to see some of these themes and situations recycled in something new. While it’s a piece I really enjoyed, there’s definitely potential here for something greater.
As of right now, this film is streaming here on YouTube for those interested.
Films Left to Watch: 885