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Georges Franju’s Movie Is Scary, but the Real Horror Lies in Reality
The Criterion Collection 260
Tired of watching the same old titles for Halloween entertainment? Just in the nick of time, Criterion has released a rare oldie (1960) that ought to chill you to the bone, along with an extra feature that is positively horrifying. Eyes Without a Face was dubbed in English and released in the US as The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus. This is the first time I've seen the French original.
The movie opens with an ugly little scarab-like car speeding down a lonely road on a miserable, dark, and rainy night. We see that a beautiful woman (Alida Valli) is driving, and she looks anxious and disturbed. As she looks in the rearview mirror, we see a rumpled pile of clothing that could only hide a corpse. When she reaches an appropriate place out of view, our fears are confirmed as she pulls the body out of the car and dumps it.
We soon learn that the woman is Louise and that she is an assistant to Dr. Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), a doctor and surgeon. It turns out that the good doctor was driving when his daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob), was disfigured in an automobile accident. He now keeps a mask over her face while he kills young women in an effort to do a face transplant. He has been successful in doing this for Louise, but Christiane has apparently caused quite a body count of young French women, one of whom Louise disposes of in the opening scene.
Director Georges Franju creates moods of horror in many ways, often by using an odd camera angle or a particular music cue. But the main terror is the matter-of-fact way in which the doctor goes about his business. On the exterior he seems fairly normal, and when he operates, it's as if he's doing any life-saving operation. When a new girl is brought to his lab, he has to sit down with Louise and Christiane and have dinner before working. He's a real family man. But in his lab he is doing horrible things -- things that give the term "facelift" a whole different meaning.
It is finally Christiane herself who finds a solution. She floats around like a ballet dancer, but with her mask she looks like a mannequin come to life. Radiating an unearthly beauty, she's one of the spookiest women to be seen on a movie screen.
Criterion has created a beautifully contrasted black-and-white transfer for this movie that couldn't be better. There's lots of shadow and light in this film, and all of the images are crisp and clear. The mono soundtrack is quite impressive, too, in its accurate delivery of one of Maurice Jarre's early scores.
Ever questing for appropriate extras, Criterion presents a restoration of a 1949 documentary by Franju on the slaughterhouses of Paris. For my money, it should have come with a viewer warning. The killing of a beautiful white horse early in the film turned me away from the rest of it. As scary as Eyes Without a Face had been, this was far more horrible. Though the film has been praised, Franju himself said that it would have been repulsive in color. For my money, it's repulsive enough in black-and-white, but everyone will have their own view and many will no doubt declare it great art.
More sedate yet interesting extras include a new interview with Edith Scob, period interviews with Franju, and two essays in the disc's accompanying booklet, one by novelist Patrick McGrath and the other by film historian David Kalat.
Be sure to watch for: There are many memorable scenes in this very visual film, but my favorite is the point where Christiane releases the dogs. It's not just that she does it, but the way she does it, as if she were releasing her own soul. But what about those birds in a gilded cage?
. . . Rad Bennett