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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Eyes Without A Face

In the mood of FrankenFEST, this seemed like a good time to digress a bit to an earlier horror/sci-fi hybrid with somewhat similar themes. Eyes Without A Face (EWAF) was released in France in 1960. (French title being: "Les yeux sans visage") As with many such hybrids, it was more horror than sci-fi, but then, so were most Frankenstein films. So, inclusion seemed within bounds. EWAF was released in America in 1962, dubbed into English, under the misleading title of The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus

Quick Plot Synopsis
Louise drives to a river by night. She dumps in a young woman's body. Later, the police find the body, but her face is missing. They ask Dr. Genessier to identify the body, since his daughter has been missing too (following a car crash that disfigured her face.) Doc says it's his daughter, but the dead girl was really Simone Tassot. A funeral is held for Christiane. Doc's daughter, Christiane is alive and hidden in his chateau. Simone was the dead face donor, but it failed. Louise scopes out a lonely parisian student named Edna who also resembles Christiane. She befriends Edna over several days, then says she found a room for her. At the chateau, Doc chloroforms her. He removes her face and puts it onto Christiane. Edna wakes up eventually, is terrified by it all and jumps out a window to her death. Doc and Louise bury her in the crypt for Christiane. The new face looks great, but her body eventually rejects it. She just wants to die, but her father says he will succeed. The police enlist the aide of Paulette, a girl Christiane's size, caught shoplifting. They have her check into a clinic complaining of headaches. Doc scopes her out, but releases her as not sick. Louise gives her a ride. Now Paulette is on the operating table. He is interrupted by the police inspectors coming to ask about Paulette. Doc plays innocent. They leave. Meanwhile, Paulette wakes from the anesthesia. Christiane cuts her straps. She also stabs Louise. She dies. Paulette flees. Christiane releases all the dogs in the kennel. They attack Dr. Genessier as he walks back from the clinic. She also releases some white doves from a cage. She walks past he dead father, his face chewed up, and walks on into the night. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Horror films are seldom "fun" per se, but EWAF carries itself like a somber poetic version of the familiar Frankenstein tale. The director, Georges Franju, provides some rich and compelling visuals, even in black and white.

Cultural Take
Horror films were beginning to be popular in Europe (Hammer Films, for example). They had a tougher crowd to satisfy, however. The French disliked too much blood. The British disliked harm to animals (but didn't mind blood as much). The Germans (understandably) were sensitive to mad scientist portrayals. EWAF manages to avoid all those obstacles.

French-enstein -- The basics of EWAF are quite familiar. You have a noble-minded, but ethically-challenged doctor. You have people going missing as they supply parts for the doctor's project. You have a "horrible monster" that he just can't quite get right. The "monster" kills the bad doctor in the end. All very familiar Frankenstein ground. Yet, in EWAF the mood is notably different. The doctor is "mad" in quiet, methodical and stoic way. His monster is still a social outcast, though she is a sort of anti-monster. She is delicate, almost fragile and "floats"from room to room in lieu of lumbering. In this, she takes James Whale's monster's pathos even further.

Artsy Touches -- Showing that the film was not just gore for the sake of gore (that would come by the late 60s), Franju included artsy elements, such as Christiane having her artificial mask, and the face of Edna being lifted off as just another make, though made of flesh. Aren't we all hiding behind masks, in a way? Then there was the long scene of the doctor walking up all those stairs, with many long up-camera angles, contrasted with Christiane's descent of those many same stairs, with many long down-camera angles. Then too, there was her painted portrait in the study, before the accident, all pretty, with a white dove on her hand. The film ends with her freeing some white doves from a cage, and carrying one of them on her hand as she walked off into the dark woods. All very artsy.

Ironic Art -- Modern viewers will note the prescient irony in EWAF, in that in 2006, it was in France that doctors performed the first real face transplant on a woman. To prevent tissue rejection, Isabelle Dinoire must take anti-rejection drugs for the rest of her life, or her new face will decay just like Christiane's did in EWAF. For added irony, given how Dr. Genessier died in the movie (face mauled by dogs), Dinoire's face was mauled by her dog.

Marketing to the Masses -- The english dubbed version
was released in 1962. The distributors decided to give it a more sensational title: The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus, even though Dr. GĂ©nessier was never referred to as "Dr. Faustus". The dubbed track followed the french pretty closely. Of course, over-hyped movie posters were nothing new. Anything to sell a ticket. EWAF was double-billed with The Manster, another dubbed horror/monster film.

Bottom line? EWAF is well worth watching as a closet classic. The cinematography is engaging, as is the contrast between the horrific "realities" and the stately manner in which they're carried out. EWAF is not strong on the science in its fiction, but no less so than many other hybrids tagged as sci-fi. EWAF is a much better film than most of the usual hybrids.

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