Monday, December 29, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Eyes Without a Face" (1960)

"Eyes Without a Face" is revered as a seminal bit of proto-horror, but not by me. The French classic's influences on other movies and pop culture are quite evident, most notably in the main character's eerie featureless white mask, which John Carpenter says inspired the one he used for his "Halloween" character. Billy Idol even recorded one of his most famous songs based on the movie.

But being influential is not the same thing as being good, and "Eyes" is a rather shoddy piece of filmmaking.

The story is incredibly slow and dull, with tons of "filler" often seen in low-budget flicks to help pad out the running time: people driving up to places, getting out of cars, walking in doors, etc. With the right mood and music, these sorts of mundane actions can be used to build tension. But director Georges Franju just feels like he's treading water.

There are some arresting visuals in the movie, and the black-and-white photography is often arresting and beautiful in an off-kilter way. But these assets are offset by the goofy storyline, stiff acting and turgid pacing. A quartet of screenwriters can't do much interesting with Jean Redon's novel, including Redon himself, who was one of them.

The story is pretty straightforward and falls firmly in the 'mad scientist' category -- though Pierre Brasseur as Dr. Génessier is rather stoic and plodding, notable more for his gravely voice and stern visage than ever being truly frightening. His daughter and secretary both had their faces severely damaged in a car accident -- though apparently without affecting the rest of their bodies -- and the good doctor is using his pioneering work in "heterografting" to transplant live tissue.

Of course, putting a new face on someone means somebody else has to lose theirs. Génessier was apparently successful with his secretary, Louise (Alida Valli), who shows only a scar on her throat that she keeps covered with a choker of pearls. But fixing his daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob), has proved harder, with multiple attempts having failed.

As the story opens Génessier has faked Christiane's death by removing the face of another girl and disposing of the body. But the new facial tissue was rejected, and Christiane now lounges around their country manor wearing that creepy mask, which fits her skull so tightly I suspect the effect was achieved with makeup rather than an actual prosthetic.

Anyway, over the course of the movie a couple more girls are captured and used as unwilling face donors. One of them escapes and kills herself by jumping out a window.

The scene depicting the surgical removal of her face is probably the standout of the film, and the special effects are still fairly impressive more than 50 years later. The filmmakers had to be very careful about how much gore they showed in order to get he movie past  European and American censors, so the only shot we see of Christiane's unmasked face is highly distorted.

Oddly, the police investigating the disappearances of the girls note that only blue-eyed women are kidnapped, which makes little sense since the doctor is only removing the flesh on their face, not the eyeballs.

The film's soundscape is interesting, and off-putting. The great Maurice Jarre provided the haunting musical score. But there are long stretches without any background score, and Franju fills these spaces with a lot of clicks and clacks, rendering a scuffling cacophony that echoes the character's movements. The sound of their shoes is particularly invasive.

Normally you don't notice this sort of tertiary stuff in a movie, because the director has more going on to hold your attention. Not here.

There's a great idea for a movie inside "Eyes Without a Face," but the one they actually made is ham-handed and stilted. The resulting movie is not scary, or emotionally affecting, or intellectually stimulating. Take away that cool white mask and I suspect this film would have been quickly forgotten.

1 comment:

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