When the stoic Dr. Génessier’s daughter, Christiane, is hideously disfigured in a car accident (caused by his own reckless driving), he becomes obsessed with restoring her former beauty. This involves some highly experimental skin graft surgery on unwilling face donors but hey, guilt does strange things to a guy, right?
At the risk of committing cinematic blasphemy, Eyes Without A Face is one of those movies that sounds better when you read a synopsis surrounded by stills and mystery. Indeed, I first discovered its then-obscure existence many years ago in (if my memory serves me well) Video Watchdog magazine. The incredibly macabre storyline coupled with just one grainy still of the infamous mask haunted me and really stuck in my mind. It even made me slightly scared of Billy Idol every time his Eyes Without A Face music video came onto MTV, although a fear of Billy Idol is probably a healthy thing for any growing boy to cultivate.
Sometime in the mid-90s, the film (made in 1959) finally got a proper video release in the UK and I snapped it up for £17.99 or whatever the inflated cost of films was at the time. I watched it and loved it. I’d been waiting so long that it would’ve been difficult not to love finally seeing the image that had spooked me for so long actually moving around on the screen.
Now, thanks to Second Sight, the film gets its (some would say) long overdue UK DVD release.
From a technical point of view, it’s fine; the transfer seems smooth enough and I have no complaints there. The extras are scant, however. Whilst the American Criterion edition has at least given it a good shot by adding a short film, a bunch of cool stills and a Patrick McGrath essay, Second Sight offer only a brief (and badly edited) excerpt from a longer documentary about director Georges Franju. This is basically just ten minutes of him, in an editing suite, smoking gitanes and talking about two shots in the movie. It’s all a bit pretentious and pointless to be honest.
In terms of the film itself, well, in the cold light of maturity, it’s not as good as I remember it. It’s based on a pulp novel and is, for the most part, a very basic pulp potboiler. There’s about half the film wasted on some questionable police procedurals that lead nowhere and just play like a dated, contrived mystery plot. It’s a shame this time couldn’t’ve been better spent on developing the principal characters; the ones that are actually of some interest. Instead, we get scenes of brilliance interspersed with some fairly lacklustre Keystone Kops stuff, which makes for a very odd pace and tone (as well as providing some embarrassingly bad dialogue).
That said, there is still unquestionably strong material here. For anyone interested in the history of horror (and, for that matter, prosthetic make-up effects), you can’t fail to spot the influence this film had on the genre. The face transplant scene remains shockingly realistic and the iconic shots of Christiane wandering through the empty mansion in her mask are haunting and beautiful. The film’s bleak final shots, likewise, stick in the mind like a splinter.
I hate to say it but, if handled sensitively, this could be begging for a remake. Just don’t get Alexandre Aja to do it and stamp “EXTREEEEEME VERSION!” all over the front or I’ll hunt you down and feed you to the dogs. In the meantime, the original remains occasionally powerful, frequently dated but always interesting so you could do a lot worse than picking it up (although the R1 Criterion edition is better value for money).