Blog Directory CineVerse: A closer look behind the mask

A closer look behind the mask

Thursday, October 23, 2014

"Eyes Without a Face" is that rare breed of horror flick that makes you think for a change, linger on its characters and ponder the motivations for their actions. Such was the conclusion our group reached after viewing and discussing this 1960 French movie of the macabre. Here are several other key observations we touched upon:

·       American horror films of this period were cheap, quickie B films that primarily focused on monsters and science fiction/atomic age terrors, while European horror was in the Hammer horror vein, where classic monster tales were updated with color, blood, and sex. Almost all fright films were not taken seriously.
·       This picture, by contrast, is a thinking man’s thriller, and, like Psycho in the same year, a major stepping stone into the era of the modern psychological horror movie.
·       It’s also a poetic horror film that uses powerful visuals, timeless themes and suggestion to provoke ideas and memorable imagery, much as fantasy/horror French predecessors like Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast” and “Orpheus,” and Carl Theodore Dreyer’s “Vampyr.”
·       The story and its characters are a cut above typical scenarios and caricatures found in horror movies of this time period: the plot presents a moral and ethical dilemma (the doctor feels guilty for disfiguring his daughter and will go to any length to bring back her beauty), and multidimensional characters that we care about or are at least interested in.
·       Although it is visually poetic and artfully crafted, “Eyes Without a Face” was shocking for its time, however, especially its mid-film depiction of the inhumane surgery where an innocent girl has her facial tissues removed, and the suggestion that dogs are tortured. While there is virtually no blood or gore, what we see and what is insinuated terrified and disgusted many Europeans as well as Americans.
·       Nevertheless, it did get approved by censors because the filmmakers were very careful to refrain from exploitation and cheap shocks and delicately balance the tone, which can shift from gruesome horror to poignant drama to even a hint of black humor.
·       According to the Criterion Collection essay on this film, director Georges Franju had to be careful not to include excessive blood (which would have angered French censors), show cruelty to animals (which would have touched a nerve with English censors) and make the lead a mad scientist type character (which German censors wouldn’t like). To solve a lot of these issues, the writers cleverly changed the story’s primary focus from the doctor to his daughter, which arguably made both characters more sympathetic.
·       According to reviewer Glenn Erickson, “critics in 1959 were probably most offended by Eyes Without a Face because it refuses to make moral judgments. Louise and Genessier pay for their crimes but it doesn't seem enough to balance the suffering they've caused. Their utter disregard for the basic rights of others is monstrous.”
·       Dr. Genessier is depicted as both inhumane and humane at the same time, creating a conundrum for viewers: his actions are despicable, but at least half of his motivation for mutilation and murder is understandable—he loves his daughter and wants to give her a new face.
·       This film also treats its audience intelligently and causes us to think harder about things rather than provide explanations for everything; for example, is it possible the scar on Louise’s neck is proof that her doctor lover has changed her face? And could it be that this was done to change her identity because the two of them had killed his wife?

·       Identity: the search for it (Christiane and her father are seeking a new facial identity for her), and the ability to have multiple identities (consider how the doctor is both killer and benefactor, butcher and innovator; Christiane is a damsel in distress as well as a monster in appearance and a silent witness to her father’s crimes; Louise is a lover, accomplice in crime and an assistant; Jacques is a past lover, business partner and aid to the authorities).
·       Masks, both real and figurative, and how each of us wears one to hide our true natures from others.
·       Guilt: the doctor’s guilt over causing his daughter’s facial deformity drives him to commit terrible crimes.
·       Man’s inhumanity to his fellow man and his choice to exploit others for a reason he may think is morally justified but which society would not.
·       Patriarchal control and its repercussions
·       The dangers of science run amok and out-of-control ambitions
·       Prometheus, Frankenstein and man’s attempt to become a God-like creator. Think about how Genessier resembled the word “Genesis.”
·       Surface textures, from the smoothness of Christiane’s blank white mask to the shiny plastic raincoats worn by Louise and Edna to the corrugated surface of Louise’s car.

·       “Diabolique” and “Vertigo,” also both written by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who authored this screenplay
·       “The Island of Dr. Moreau” (book) and “Island of Lost Souls” (movie)
·       Jean Cocteau’s “Blood of a Poet” and “Beauty and the Beast”
·       Cheap imitators like “Circus of Horrors,” “The Awful Dr. Orloff,” “Corruption” and Mansion of the Doomed”

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