A horror picture that’s creepy and cerebral, not too terrifying but immensely chilling and disturbing, beautiful and even touching.
Eyes Without a Face, aka Les Yeux sans Visage (1960), is directed by Georges Franju and tells the story of a Doctor (Pierre Brasseur) who is responsible for the car crash that horribly disfigured his beautiful daughter (Edith Scob). Driven by equal parts guilt and mad ambition, he sets out to rebuild her face by kidnapping beautiful girls, sedating them and operating on them in the basement of his palatial home/private clinic in the Paris suburbs. He (squeamish reader warning) carefully slices into and peels off their faces for transplant onto Scob. But he keeps failing, as the flesh doesn’t graft properly, cracks, rots and falls off. To help in these experiments, Brasseur has a loyal assistant, played by Alida Valli (The Third Man), who owes him big time and does anything for him. She was disfigured and rebuilt by his plastic surgery wizardry (a pearl choker hides her scars) so she has no qualms about trolling Paris for pretty, lonely looking girls, befriending them and then finding some excuse to invite them to the clinic. This classy looking, seemingly trustworthy, even motherly female predator is an especially creepy villain, and the movie even opens with her driving one faceless, lifeless, fedora-topped girl to the river in her Citroen, dragging and dumping her body.
When that poor girl’s body is found, Brasseur’s daughter is still assumed missing, so he’s called in to identify. This is one of the first scenes you get where you see what a complex creature the Doctor is. He falsely identifies this girl, that he’s experimented on and killed, as his own, to put an end to the search for Scob. Meanwhile the dead girl’s real father is right there, denied the chance to take a look since Brasseur is so sure. As if this is not indignity enough, Brasseur is rude to the devastated man when he questions if the i.d. was beyond doubt, and despairs that his girl is still missing. Brasseur plays the Doctor with a good combination of arrogance, obsession, madness, numbness, disappointment and guilt. He makes the Doctor seem human in that you can understand his motivation to give his daughter a better face than the one he destroyed. But he’s also so thoroughly disturbing, objectionable and unlikable in every way.
Brasseur keeps dozens of dogs caged up in the room right next to the surgical quarters (dungeon), so their barking is always heard in the background, another unsettling touch. It also serves to depict character, because when Scob goes to the visit the dogs, they calm down and are kind to her as she goes from cage to cage petting and kissing them; animals don’t need to see a face to recognize goodness. Scob is angelic (as Valli calls her) yet also ghostly and frightening. Her terrible disfigurement is never clearly shown, exposed to the viewer only through the hazy point of view of one drugged-out victim strapped to the operating table. But that’s enough for us to see that all Scob has is eyes and tissue something like red smeared clay, sort of like the Twilight Zone “The Eye of the Beholder” episode, only worse. Brasseur has blacked out all the mirrors in the place and fashioned for Scob a porcelain mask that goes on like glasses, and has a bit of a pout that makes her big eyes peer out with the most haunting look (inspiration for the mask in the Halloween movies). She also wears an over sized puffy gown that makes her seem more like a perfect doll wheeling around the mansion, than anything human. All these elements make Eyes Without a Face so surreal and disorienting. Then come the shocking images that snap you back to reality and make you shudder, like a body being tossed into a crypt, or the photos documenting the degradation of the latest new face, or the (squeamish warning again) disgusting way that face is removed, twisted to and fro, jiggled and worked off like a stubborn price sticker. (I found a gif of it! but I’ll be kind and spare you).
The whole business starts to fall apart when the police, already having heard a witness describe Valli’s unique pearl necklace, also get a visit from Scob’s fiance (she phones him to whisper when she’s depressed) who believes she’s still alive. They use a decoy girl to see what’s up at the clinic and in their bumbling almost lose her to the surgery dungeon. Scob’s the one that saves her. Tired of all the crime and murder and poor girls who bring her new faces, Scob puts an end to it all in another shocker of a moment that also has the weird beauty characteristic of the whole movie. All the goings on are gorgeously shot and it’s a deliberately, carefully paced classic of horror, for the less squeamish among you.