Eyes Without a Face (1960)
The only real flaw in this French classic is that at no point does Billy Idol ride a motorcycle through the rain into an obscurely Satanic ring of fire. Beyond that one obvious problem, Eyes Without a Face is a pretty great flick.
The circus music score that opens the film and shadows it throughout subtly works on your nerves as sort of a cross between a child’s toybox tune and an absurd joke. We first hear those freaky notes as a handsome woman nervously drives a tiny European car with someone in the backseat. Eventually she dumps the young passenger – nude except for a trench coat and oversized hat that obscures her face – into the river and drives away.
From this dialogue-free opening scene, with its sparkling black and white photography and immediate, mysterious tension, you realize that Eyes Without a Face is stylish in that effortlessly French way.
The formula behind Eyes Without a Face has been stolen and reformulated for dozens of lurid, low-brow exploitation films since 1960. In each, there is a mad doctor who sees his experiments as being of a higher order than the lowly lives they ruin; the doctor is assisted by a loyal, often non-traditionally attractive (some might say handsome) nurse; there are nubile young women who will soon be victimized, as well as a cellar full of the already victimized.
But somehow, in this originator of that particular line of horror, the plot works seamlessly.
An awful lot of that success lies in the performances. Pierre Brasseur, as the stoic surgeon torn by guilt and weighed down by insecurities about his particular genius, brings a believable, subtle egomania to the part seldom seen in a mad scientist role.
Alida Valli, in particular, makes all other “devoted beyond reason nurse helpmates” look ridiculous by comparison. She lets both devotion and guilt flavor her performance, allowing it to be surprisingly empathetic given her duties (to lure young victims and support their subsequent butchering).
Still, the power in the film is in the striking visuals that are the trademark of giant French filmmaker Georges Franju. His particular genius in this film gave us the elegantly haunting image of Dr. Genessier’s daughter Christiane (Edith Scob).
Christiane is the image of dainty innocence, a waif-like apparition hiding her monstrousness behind the most divinely spooky, blank mask. Her graceful, damaged presence haunts the entire film and elevates those final scenes to something wickedly sublime.