A surgeon kidnaps young women and removes their faces in hopes of successfully transplanting one on his horribly disfigured daughter in Eyes Without a Face. Released the same season as Hitchcock’s Psycho and years before Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, this French film from Georges Franju has earned an interesting place on the timeline of horror film history.
Coming after decades of supernatural horror and at the forefront of the serial killer wave, Eyes Without a Face isn’t just one of the earliest ‘human horror’ flicks, it’s one of the more sophisticated presentations of it. Franju depicts the surgeon and his dutiful assistant as guilt-ridden and emotionally conflicted about the terrible things they do. And the monstrous daughter, who wears a smooth, form-fitted mask through most of the film, wants only to be loved. If her disfigurement denies her that, she’d rather die. As ‘human horror’ films would flourish in the coming decades, identification with the killers would become more superficial and rare. Franju, perhaps because he came from a background in documentary filmmaking, presents a more complex take on the sub-genre — one I would argue places at least as much attention on substance as it does style.
Not that Eyes Without a Face is lacking in style. Far from it. Franju uses fog-filled locations (or sets? I couldn’t tell which sometimes) and stark lighting to creepy, expressionistic effect. There’s a poetry — perhaps not so subtle — in some of his imagery around the film’s climax, marrying the fate of caged animals to humans imprisoned by their own choices and misdeeds. Some may object to how long Franju lingers upon shots and scenes, but there’s no question it helps immerse you in the movie’s atmosphere.
There’s one protracted surgery sequence — a face removal — that was surely designed to attract notoriety, but it doesn’t age well. Maurice Jarre’s music is ill-suited as well. But in these criticisms, it’s interesting to remember Franju had no well-established tropes to fall back on. Pioneering can be messy. Eyes Without a Face is very interesting, if for no other reason, than to watch a filmmaker with a unique voice advancing a genre to see what else it can become.