Opening for Halloween in a new print, Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1959) is a masterpiece of poetic horror and tactful, tactile brutality. In the movie’s sinister first scene, anxious-looking Alida Valli drives by night through the deserted suburbs of Paris, searching for a place to dump the inert humanoid passenger slumped in the backseat. The look is black on black, with gleaming highlights; the musical accompaniment is gleefully carnivalesque.
Franju, best known for the 1949 abattoir doc Blood of the Beasts, was a surrealist fellow traveler and Eyes Without a Face has a beyond-lurid premise. Plastic surgeon Professeur Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) attempts to restore his daughter’s mutilated face with skin obtained from young women abducted by his zombified lover (Valli). In between grafts, Génessier’s birdlike daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob), flits about the château, eyes peering through the sockets of a molded plastic mask. In the end, Christiane regains her humanity—although perhaps not in precisely the way we might expect, vanishing into the darkness in a cloud of doves.
On the one hand, Eyes Without a Face is a mad-scientist fairy tale in the tradition of Professor Cyclops or Island of Lost Souls; on the other, it’s one of the three movies (along with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, both 1960) that created the modern slasher-shocker. Like Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus, Eyes Without a Face is enriched by free-floating allusions to then-recent European history. It takes no stretch of the imagination to hear the hounds of “night and fog” or see the coldly psychopathic Génessier as a Nazi scientist. Even crueler than the operation at the movie’s center is the utter callousness with which he buries someone else’s daughter, pretending she’s his own.