(Georges Franju, Fr, 1959)
This notorious French horror film, long banned because of its graphic violence, has finally been re-released on video, in a new, uncut print. Wildly uneven in tone, the film contrives to exceed the high expectations engendered by its cult following, while simultaneously falling far short of them. A doctor lures a young girl back to his house with the promise of inexpensive lodgings. Once there, he first drugs her, then operates on her, removing the skin from her face. The skin is grafted onto the horrendously mutilated face of his daughter, the victim of a car crash. But as with the doctor's previous attempts to restore his daughter's beauty, the operation proves unsuccessful. Distraught, the doctor seeks new victims. Meanwhile, his daughter roams the house, silently observing the human inhabitants, or descending to the basement to pet the vicious, mutated dogs that are kept there. All the time her scarred features remain obscured behind the smooth lines of a mask, and only her large, liquid eyes are visible.
As director, Georges Franju employs several different styles to tell his strange story, with very variable results. The medical scenes remain chilling, the intervening years having done little to blunt the impact of their visceral imagery. The camera is kept static, offering no escape from the glaringly bright black and white images. Likewise, when the operation fails, Franju does not flinch, showing the unpleasant effects that follow 'necrosis' of the skin graft. Elsewhere, when the daughter is alone, wandering introspectively, Franju's style alters radically, losing its harshness, employing a range of soft, grey tones. When concentrating on the girl's loneliness, the film achieves a poetic grace, and evokes a somnambulant fairytale world with such skill that comparisons with James Wales' Bride of Frankenstein, or Jean Cocteau's Orphée do not seem excessive. Unfortunately, away from the cold brutality of the operating table and the dreamy Gothic of the daughter's life, (both of which are largely bereft of dialogue) the film becomes crushingly boring. Mundane settings such as a police station are evoked with poverty row cheapness (there are only three files on the shelves), while the acting ranges from the merely uninspired, all the way down to the depths of stilted, B-movie incompetence. In these scenes, Franju's flair disappears, in its place slow, awkward pans: following a character up a flight of stairs, following a walking character. Stubbornly refusing to slip into amusing camp, these scenes are simply tedious. Despite the film's failing, the character of the daughter alone is enough to qualify Eyes Without A Face as a genre classic, while the film's final scenes, combining her dazed innocence with bloody carnage to create an indelible image, rank amongst the finest in fantastic cinema.