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Daily film recommendation: 'Eyes Without a Face' (1960)

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Streaming on Hulu Plus as part of the Criterion Collection

The French-Italian horror film “Eyes Without a Face” is a prime example of how opinions on films can change drastically over time. At the time it was made, British horror films from Hammer Studios were quite popular, and French produced Jules Borken decided to capitalize on this by bringing in Georges Franju—primarily a documentary filmmaker—to direct a film adaptation of Jean Redon’s novel.

The story centers around a physician named Dr. Genessier (Pierre Brasseur). Genessier’s daughter Christiane’s (Edith Scob) face was horribly disfigured in a car accident. Genessier and his assistant Louise (Alida Valli) faked her death and began kidnapping girls who bore similar features. Genessier would attempt to graft these girls’ faces onto Christiane’s, but each time was met with failure. Meanwhile, Christiane remained a prisoner in her own home, wearing a white, featureless mask to hide her deformity.

“Eyes Without a Face” has all the elements of a B horror movie: a mad scientist, a disfigured character, kidnapping, murder, and intrigue. But Franju takes a familiar plot and turns it into poetry. The music, cinematography, and characters go hand-in-hand. The misguided Genessier is contrasted by the sympathetic Christiane, whose physical ugliness plays against her true nature. Inspired by early French filmmakers like Georges Melies and contemporary ones like Jean Cocteau, Franju made “Eyes Without a Face” less of a horror film and more of a fairy tale. Franju himself never believed the movie was a horror film, but more of a film about anguish.

But, although it made it past the censors, there are quite a few gruesome elements to “Eyes Without a Face” that were unique from other films made around the same time. The facial transplant scene shocked many audiences; several people at the 1960 Edinburgh Film Festival fainted. The film itself came and went with little fanfare; reviews ranged from negative to mediocre. In 1962 a further censored version of the film was released in a double bill opposite “The Manster” until the title “The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus”, despite the fact that there is no character by that name in the movie.

Fortunately, “Eyes Without a Face” was rereleased in 1986 at the National Theatre in London to great acclaim. A 2003 American rerelease of the full version of the movie was also greatly popular. It has been reevaluated since then thanks to these rereleases and is now considered one of the greatest horror films of all time.

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