The Horror. The Horror!

Eyes Without a Face

What was jarring in 1959 is tame today, yet Eyes Without a Face, Georges Franju’s patient, low-key French horror film from that year, retains a creepy power even though its central images look nearly tasteful by 21st Century standards.

Tasteful, and beautiful in their surreal, dreamy, immensely disturbing way. Skin being gently lifted from the flesh. A drug-fogged glimpse of disfigurement. A young woman with unblinking eyes wearing a blank, impassive white mask. A series of photographs showing the woman’s visage rotting away even as she lives and breathes.

Let’s not talk about the clunky investigation plot, the inept police work, the artless dialogue, or the hilariously uptight central performance of Pierre Brasseur as the mad scientist. (That’s “mad” as in “insane”; in terms of disposition, he’s more self-flagellating and frustrated than angry.) You shan’t be mistaking this film for perfection, no matter your tastes.

But as flawed as it is and even though its freshness and shock value have been diminished by imitation and time, Eyes Without a Face still works amazingly well. Much of the credit must go to those signature images, but beyond that, Franju’s second feature film feels primal, raw, troubling, and real. Its authenticity makes it superior to 95 percent of horror movies, and it illustrates how horror operates even when it’s not terrifying.

The film’s situation is extreme — a brilliant doctor is trying to make his mutilated daughter beautiful (or perhaps just normal) again by grafting someone else’s face onto hers — but it is psychologically plausible. While the doctor is not sympathetic in any way, he, his wife, and their daughter are empathetic in their goal, their focus, their hope, and their despair. Only the means are troubling — you know, kidnapping, stealing other people’s faces, dumping their bodies.

The doctor is not evil, exactly; he’s too clearly driven by common, basic feelings and motives. His primary flaw is that his selfish desperation has led him astray ethically — putting what he perceives to be the good of his family above the well-being of anybody else. He has such tunnel vision when it comes to getting a new face for his daughter that he has lost his moral compass.

We’ve all known people who’ve been so racked with grief or anger that they no longer behave rationally. The doctor is one such person, and his recognizable human traits elevate the character and make him feel genuine, somewhat affecting, and tangibly frightening.

The women in the family also ring true. The faceless, downtrodden daughter speaks through her mask of her father’s past and almost-certain future failures, and says she wants only to die. She blames him, aloud but vaguely, for the car accident that robbed her of her face, yet when she’s given a new one, all seems forgiven.

The wife is an enabler, kidnapping and disposing of bodies for her husband’s use. She’s also the beneficiary of his cosmetic-surgery skills, and she holds tightly her hope that he can work an even greater miracle with their daughter.

Eyes Without a Face has at its core this well-observed portrayal of individual and familial dysfunction, and it’s the movie’s primary source of resonance. The film is relatable, and because you understand the characters on a mortal (rather than merely narrative) level, it becomes chilling rather than simply bizarre.

Franju resisted classifying Eyes Without a Face as horror; he called the movie “an anguish film”: “It’s a quieter mood than horror,” he said, “more internal, more penetrating. It’s horror in homeopathic doses.”

Yet with its subdued mood and languorous pace, the movie is among the purest expressions of cinematic horror, because it isn’t intermingled with the genre’s frequent collaborator: terror. In the same vein is Guillermo del Toro’s 1993 Cronos, in which a vampiric trinket corrupts an old man by giving him a taste of eternal youth.

I’ve long argued that few “horror” movies are actually horrific. They’re terror films, creating suspense through imminent danger and looming unpleasant ends. Slasher movies are inevitably about terror, and Halloween, to cite one example, has very little horrific in it. (It must be noted, however, that The Shape’s mask looks awfully familiar in the context of Eyes Without a Face.)

The most easily discernible difference between terror and horror is visceral: Terror attacks your chest, while horror festers sourly in your belly and grows. Horror is not about intense fear but loathing, disgust, and revulsion; it’s baser, dirtier, and deeper than terror, and it lingers in the system far longer.

In ways audiences don’t expect, rarely recognize, and would rather not consider, horror’s potency stems largely from an unwelcome identification with the characters and behaviors a person finds most revolting. The best horror connects us psychologically not with the victim but the monster. It shows us the dark things of which we might be capable.

In The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, for instance, the victims are faceless and without personality, and the audience doesn’t care what happens to them. But there’s something captivating about the Sawyer family — Leatherface, Grandpa, The Hitchhiker, et al.

I don’t mean that we understand them or sympathize with them. But we see in them remnants of civilization: They eat their meals as a family, protect their property from intruders, and even in his depleted state Grandpa gets to participate in the head-bashing. The family that kills together ... .

Further, the Sawyer’s house — filled with bones and feathers — reminds us of the squalid homes of people who have stopped interacting with the outside world. Isolation atrophies and mutates mores.

And underlying the movie is the theme of the displaced worker. When the Sawyers lose their jobs because of the mechanization of the slaughterhouse, their last tether to society is severed, along with the social contract.

What horrifies us about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is not that Leatherface might kill us, but that under the right circumstances we might come to resemble him, however slightly.

Many people, of course, will resist this way of looking at horror movies, and admittedly it doesn’t always work.

But most good horror flicks force you to confront the terrible things that people are capable of. In Psycho, Hitchcock had the audacity to strip away the audience’s natural alliance with Marion Crane, leaving it with Norman Bates. In David Cronenberg’s re-make of The Fly, you get attached to the brilliance, energy, and good intentions of Seth Brundle before watching a transformation sparked by a man’s easily understood greed, jealousy, and possessiveness.

Yet those films have their terror moments that let the audience off the hook. Suspense becomes a convenient distraction from the distressing subtext.

Eyes Without a Face doesn’t offer that escape hatch. It’s all horror, and in its quietness I pondered to what lengths I would go if I had a disfigured daughter and a guilty conscience. And I wondered what I would do if all that was left of my face was muscle and bone.

The subject of the movie — and of many of the great horror films — is a line that we hope to never cross, the one that separates us from the monsters.

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