I pride myself on my ability to recall specific moments from nearly every movie I’ve ever seen. Certain images, shots, and moments are burned into my brain. It’s a weird talent, but when movies are your favorite thing, it’s nice to be able to exactly picture something that blew you away, expanded your definition of art, took your breath away, made you laugh until it hurt, at will, so I’m glad to deal with it. But, there’s a flip-side to that trick: a French horror movie from 1960, called Eyes Without a Face.
I only saw it because a college roommate pushed it on me, after we compared the classics we had seen and he found a gap in my horror education, and it is always the first one that comes to mind when people ask which movie scared me the most. Since an understandably small amount of people have seen it, I’ll give a quick rundown.
The basic plot centers around an obsessive doctor, Genessier (played by Pierre Brasseur) in France who seems to be weirder than your garden variety eccentric, even in the medical profession. Turns out he’s a man who’s been driven mad following the horribly disfiguring accident his once-beautiful daughter Louise (played by Alida Valli in a disturbingly emotional performance for someone wearing a mask for nearly every frame of the film) was in years ago. Since that day, he’s been kidnapping and … operating on beautiful young women in an effort to restore his child to normalcy, so she can be beautiful once more.
The process doesn’t work, and that’s being positively antiseptic in regard to the grisliness of the failures. The poor girl(s).
Taking center stage is a surgery sequence that is more horrific, to me at least, than anything in the fifty-plus years of horror movies since. Watching it feels wrong. It made me wonder (in those seconds that somehow manage to span years when you’ve been truly scared) if this was real footage, somehow spliced into the work of fiction. I would have looked to my roommate for confirmation or negation of that suspicion, had I been able to look away.
Without spoiling anything, there’s a moment during the “transplant” of such remarkable craftsmanship in terms of camerawork, makeup, effects work, and acting, that I think established my high-watermark when it comes to a horror film. It hasn’t been bested since that day, although I’ve noticed myself thinking a few shots were close (the end of The Witch, the hallway in Repulsion, the first time Leatherface plants himself firmly in the doorway in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre).
Directed by Georges Franju with such visual skill that the idiosyncrasies and language barrier that come with any foreign film-watching experience disappear, leaving only the imagery as his storytelling tool of choice. He made a documentary in 1949 about the slaughterhouses of Paris, called Blood of the Beasts. That’s where he learned how to photograph the horrors of flesh being cut, and what happens after.
While writing this article, I stopped at the end of this sentence, and watched the film again.
I picked the article back up right here after finishing my second-ever viewing of the film, and taking a brisk walk around the roof of my apartment to shake off Franju’s film. It’s just as horrifying, just as beautiful as I remembered. Exactly.
Maybe even more so.
The closing shot of Eyes Without a Face will never leave my brain, and I want to take back what I said in the beginning about that being a bad thing.
Watch it, and try to prove me wrong – unless you’re too scared?