Escape aboard your rickety ship from the Island of Lost Souls. Go on, sail right into the storm, what can be worse? By the time your ship wrecks, you’ve blown so far of course you stumble ashore in an unknown land. You wander for days, or is it months, until a castle looms on the horizon. A quick tap on your iPhone and Siri tells you the castle belongs to a Victor Frankenstein. The name sends a jolt up your spine and you flee. Soon you’re near Paris. Near, but still not quite there, and it’s dark and you’re so tired. An elegant suburban chateau beckons. A girl looks down from an upstairs window. You hear dogs barking from inside. The sights and sounds of comfortable domesticity. Just knock on the door. You’re safe at last.
“Eyes Without a Face” (1960) might be the ultimate creepy-generating machine, flawlessly evocative in both setting and premise. The great surgeon Dr. Genessier (Pierre Brasseur) runs a cutting-edge (yes, darnit, pun intended!) clinic on the grounds of his sprawling mansion. The house is vast and obviously designed for multiple uses with its palatial upstairs bedrooms, an operating room in the basement (who doesn’t have one of those?), and a kennel full of barking dogs out back. But he lives there only with his assistant Louise (Alida Valli) and his daughter Christiane (Edith Scob). Occasionally the doctor ventures out to lecture on the potential uses of skin grafts and always packs in a morbidly curious crowd. His work also happens to be his hobby.
We soon learn that Christiane was horribly disfigured in a driving accident caused by the overconfident doctor. She spends her days wandering the mostly-empty but magnificently decorated mansion wearing a plain white mask over the face she no longer has. The good doctor promises to restore her beauty. He periodically sends Louise, who happens to be deeply indebted to him, to Paris to identify and procure suitable young woman for his ongoing experiments. Because he’s forging into new territory his work requires an awful lot of trial and error. And oh, the errors. Heck, this could be the set-up for an ongoing franchise.
So many sins have been justified by parental duty. Presidents of both major parties have sold the nation on war in the name of “protecting our children’s future.” Heck, Melissa Leo won an Oscar and audience sympathy for playing a mother who takes up human trafficking so she canupgrade to a nice double-wide trailer for her kids. Still, it’s unlikely even Dr. Genessier believes he’s motivated primarily by his desire to be a good father. It’s not even guilt, even though Christiane’s accident was his fault, it’s sheer hubris and his daughter’s accident provides him the perfect excuse to ignore any moral concerns in his selfish quest to be a pioneering surgeon (in horror code, this translates as “mad scientist”). Sometimes his body language all but screams, “Yes, I’m a monster, and I’d feel bad if I wasn’t so damned close to making this work.”
“Eyes Without a Face” made audiences faint and critics bristly with some of its grisly depictions. Director George Franju had no interest in playing coy. When a poor young thing named Edna (Juliette Mayniel) becomes the first (living) patient we see, Franju takes guilt-free pleasure in showing Genessier drawing a pencil line around her face (circles around the eyes and mouth, just so), slicing with a scalpel that sends blood gushing, and then removing the flesh mask all in one flabby, floppy piece.
Yet it’s not the goriest moments that produce the real horror. Franju began his career as a documentarian and the movie is at its most unnerving when at its most dispassionately clinical. After Christiane receives her newest face, her system rejects it and a series of stills showing her gradual deterioration accompanied with cold objective narration (“Necrosis,” “Nodules”) delivers chills to anyone afraid of what their bodies might do to them one day.
The film is every bit as effective in its least overtly dramatic moments. Christiane, her expressionless white mask locked firmly in place, has little to do during the day but meander from one deserted room to the next. In one of the most moving scenes, she’s so desperate for companionship she sneaks downstairs and slips out back to hug several of those constantly barking dogs, each housed in a separate cramped wrought-iron cage. What’s the doctor going to do with these poor mutts? Don’t ask.
“Eyes Without A Face” is adapted from a novel by Jean Redon with a screenplay by the team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (whose own published work provided the source material for “Vertigo” and “Les Diaboliques”) among others, and its basic story could easily have provided the framework for a boilerplate B-movie and its Frankenstein-based structure is hardly ground-breaking. Indeed, “Eyes” was marketed in the U.S. with the pulpy title “The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus” on a double bill with “The Manster.” But in the hands of Franju and cinematographer Eugen Schufftan, it has quite properly been received as a poetic masterpiece, a sculpture of unnerving atmosphere worthy of an esteemed place in the pantheon of French cinema, not just in the horror genre. This reception took a while to consolidate as the film was initially too overwhelming for a critical and commerical audience still steeped in the French “tradition of quality” and unwilling to praise a modern horror film as great art. Its reputation continues to grow.
There are so many strange and brilliant touches that mark “Eyes” as something unique. A whole subplot with the Parisian police who turn out to be completely ineffective (what exactly was their plan?), the bizarre theme music which is more jangling at its most incongruously festive, and that unforgettable mask. Edith Scob shuffling wraith-like through the lonely country chateau with only her eyes peeking through somehow becomes one of the most enduring and affective performances of the era, one so memorable that Leos Carax felt obliged to memorialize it in last year’s wonderful “Holy Motors.”
The blurb on the Blu-ray claims that “There are images here… that once seen are never forgotten.” Consider that a case of truth in advertising. “Eyes Without a Face” is one of the essential horror films, and it’s not difficult to understand why it was so disturbing in 1960 because it’s every bit as disturbing today.
The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio.
Criterion’s 2004 SD release (this Blu-ray retains the old Spine Number 260) was the first North American DVD release of the film in its original cut; it had been edited for its U.S. release as “The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus.” This 2013 Blu-ray retains the original cut with an improved 1080p transfer. I don’t have the SD as a reference point, but this high-def treatment is fairly strong throughout. Some damage from the source print is evdient in earlier scenes but it’s relatively clean overall. The image quality is very sharp but looks just a tad soft in places, enough to suggest the possibility of more digital buffing and boosting than usual. But the fine-grained image is very pleasing as is the inky black-and-white contrast.
The linear PCM Mono track is consistenttly clean and does sufficient justice to Maurice Jarre’s eccentric score. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.
If “Eyes Without a Face” made audiences faint in 1960, they should have been thankful it wasn’t featured on a double bill with Franju’s jarring documentary, “Blood of the Beasts” (1949, 22 min.) which Criterion includes on the disc. This was Franju’s calling card and is not easy viewing. The film depicts a typical day in the French slaughterhouses with grueling sequences of animals being hustled into position and methodically butchered. What makes the film even more disturbing is that Franju shoots it so matter-of-factly, just another day at work. He also names several of the workers (one of who is identified as “the best pole-ax man in Paris”) just before they perform their meaty duties. It’s an amazing movie, but you’ve been warned about the content. We also get a three minute interview with Franju about the film.
The Blu-ray also includes a short interview with Franju (5 min.) from an episode of the French TV show “Cine-parade” (no date provided) and another short interview with co-writers Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, a seven-minute excerpt from the documentary “Les grands-peres du crime.” We also two trailers, one for the French release and one for the U.S. release, an amusing trailer pairing the re-christened “The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus” on a double-bill with the not-so-terrifying “The Manster.”
All of these features are imported from the 2004 SD release. Criterion has added one brand new feature, a 2013 interview (8 min.) with actress Edith Scob who discusses some of the unique challenges of wearing a mask all day long on set.
The 20-page insert booklet includes essays by novelist Patrick McGrath and film historian David Kalat.
“Eyes Without A Face” is one of the great horror films.This Blu-ray provides a strong 1080p transfer and a decent if not spectacular collection of extras. A short interview with Edith Scob is the only new feature, so take that into account if you own the old SD release and are considering a double dip. If you don’t own the film yet, here’s your opportunity. And if you haven’t seen it yet, luck you. You’ve got something special waiting for you.