Round & Shiny: Steal Your Face Right Off Your Head
It's unlikely that the primary audience for today's slash 'n' stalk horror flicks – teenagers and twentysomethings who delight in date-night jolts and CGI gore – will be drawn to Criterion's gorgeous DVD of the 1959 film "Eyes Without a Face," even though the subject matter is extremely grisly and the storytelling masterful.
For one thing, the film is in black-and-white. For another, it's in French with subtitles. There was a dubbed English version once; released in 1962 and given the unwieldy title "The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus," it tickled a few teens on a double-bill with a shlockfest called "The Manster." Thankfully, the original is now available on a crisp transfer that captures the sick poetry of director Georges Franju's vision.
"Les Yeux sans visage," as the film is actually titled, follows Doctor Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), a haunted but brilliant surgeon who has developed a radical skin-graft procedure. Despite his sterling reputation in medical circles, however, the doc is secretly engaging in a most ghastly enterprise. With the help of his amanuensis, Louise (Alida Valli), he abducts young girls and removes their faces. It's all to restore the mutilated punim of his daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob), who was disfigured in an accident for which Doc G. is to blame.
Christiane, presumed dead and hidden away in her father's house, pines for her fiancé behind a featureless mask, her eyes peering soulfully through the holes in its abysmal white surface. Christiane's ghostly vigil gives Franju a means to express a poignancy that recalls the silent era – and provides an emotional counterweight to the damp fear of her father's victims. Yet the doctor's guilt and fatherly compassion complicate his misdeeds in ways that will give all but the stoniest viewers pause.
It should come as no surprise that things don't go swimmingly in the face-transplant department. Suffice to say that the violent catharsis of the climax gives way to one of the most strangely beautiful tableaux in the history of the horror film. Anyone interested in the genre should peep "Les Yeux" post haste.
The DVD also boasts some tasty extras, including a bizarre but illuminating TV interview with Franju , a feature on writers Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, Franju's documentary short "Le Sang des bêtes," trailers (including some goofy "Faustus"/"Manster" double-feature teasers) and more.
Oh, and the flick's got nothing to do with the Billy Idol song of the same name. But you should see it anyway.