Eyes Without a Face is scary in a realistic yet fanciful way. With modern medical advancements and the uneasy feeling of a world gone mad, the medical procedures and the sequence of events played out in this film may cease to be fantasy. The story is about Doctor Genessier (Pierre Brasseur) and his daughter Christiane (Edith Scob). Christiane was involved in an accident and it leaves her horribly disfigured. The Doctor tries to atone by gifting her a new face. He kidnaps young girls and cuts off their faces and places them on his daughter’s head. This occurs while Christiane’s fiancée attempts to find out the truth of what is happening and enlists the help of two police detectives to help him solve it, which culminates in a gory, expressionistic, ambiguous, and ultimately satisfying conclusion.
As with many artful horror films from the 1960’s, fantastic cinematography is paramount to generating the full, horrifying effect of the film. The calculated, inching camera often highlights the subtle beauty and the feeling of dread and worry in each scene. The mercurial and sullen lighting reveals an extra layer of emotion and horror. The way in which the light catches the sweat on the brow of Doctor Genessier and reveals the pristine features of Christiane’s mask give the film an added sense of tension and anxiety. The cinematography combines two opposing effects and shrouds the film with an odd sense disturbing, poetic beauty.
The performances found in this film are staggering and brilliant. Pierre Brasseur is the true star of the film. Doctor Genessier is a hard-nosed, gruff, brilliant, and amoral man who only wants to help his daughter, he just pursues this endeavor in the wrong way. Pierre portrays this complex man in such a way you feel sympathy even though his list of terrible deeds gets increasingly longer. He is a man damaged by his past mistakes yet still overflowing with ambition and intelligence that he doesn’t mind making more mistakes as long as he succeeds. Despite him being a monster of a man, his gruesome end, and knowing he earned it through his misdeeds, he is an intriguing and complex character. Christiane is also a character torn apart by the past, the future, and her own personal feelings. Christiane is a woman who wishes to return to the world of the living, she wants to be with her fiancée and live happily ever after as most people would. However, her disfigurement prevents her from achieving this simple happiness. She is delicate and has sympathy for the dogs her father does experiments on and the poor women her father kidnaps. She must participate in her father’s scheme if she wishes to truly live again. It invites sympathy and compassion and Scob’s subtle and nuanced performance is among the major reasons why.
In terms of a horror film and the amount of horror found in Eyes Without a Face, it creates its own sense and doesn’t remind you of many other films. There are no ghouls and ghosts. You won’t find serial killers or werewolves. The only monsters present are the ones found in man’s soul and in man’s desire to succeed. As with Carnival of Souls, this film relies on building an intense and disorienting atmosphere. It doesn’t scare, it unnerves and unsettles. However, it has its fair share of body horror and gory scenes. The nerve-wrecking, intense scenes in which Doctor Genessier removes the faces are highly bloody and the camera lingers on the scene. There are no edits and the entire procedure is laid out before us in excruciating detail. Eyes Without a Face wasn’t made for the squeamish and the faint of heart. It is effectively scary and is a horror masterpiece.