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Eyes Without a Face (Blu-ray Review)

28 Oct, 2013 By: Mike Clark

$39.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
In French with English subtitles.
Stars Pierre Brasseur, Alida Valli, Juliette Mayniel, Edith Scob.

When this all but unique French chiller opened in America around Halloween time and nearly three years late (just after the Cuban Missile Crisis), the distributor here renamed it The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus — a cheeky conceit, given that it’s a “Docteur Geneisser” who’s orchestrating all the mayhem. I vividly remember the radio ads for this version blaring away during the top-40 countdown on a local rock radio station during my mid-teen years, and between spinnings of The Orlons’ “Don’t Hang Up” and “Little Eva’s Keep Your Hands Off My Baby,” a carny-barker type of announcer implored us all to head out to the drive-in (where those in-car heaters really worked) to see what this Doc Faustus dude was up to. I don’t remember what the co-feature was, though according to a David Kalat essay that’s part of the Criterion package here, it was frequently paired with The Manster, which dealt with a half-man and half … well, you get the idea. Though given the not infrequent dementedness of the film bookers in my hometown, an Elvis pic wouldn’t have been out of the question.

What audiences ended up getting was a methodically paced under-your-skin chiller (and literally so, matter of fact) with so little graphic gore that even its most explicit shot is purposely out of focus. I never got to see this rendition but imagine that the English dubbing probably killed with the few sophisticates a drive-in expedition was able to attract and that the absence of many icky visual specifics did the same with the bloodthirsty yahoo demographic. And worldwide, director Georges Franju was handicapped by working in a genre not conducive to the tastemakers of the day, so it took a while for Eyes Without a Face (the original title) to see its reputation secured with sharper noggins. Aside from one key new extra, this new Blu-ray is an upgrade from Criterion’s 2004 standard DVD, and I have never seen the picture looking this good, even though I programmed it myself on the big screen for the AFI Theater back in my other life.

Surgeon Geneisser (Pierre Brasseur) is a creep and social menace of the first order, though one can probably argue that his motives are pure, assuming we use the word loosely. Having been responsible for his beautiful daughter’s facial mangling in an auto mishap, he collaborates with a gratefully successful former patient (Alida Valli) to abduct comely young women from the streets of Paris and whisk them away to a clinic on the outskirts where something exotically new on the medical horizon (something called skin grafts) is the order of the day. The premise, down to the use of chloroform on victims, has something in common with William Wyler’s 1965 version of John Fowles’ The Collector, and I had never put it together that Maurice Jarre did the semi-carnival-sounding scores for both — making me wonder if Wyler was a fan of this earlier film. In any event, Geneisser fails to succeed in his attempts to “lift” the faces of multiple victims and graft them to his daughter’s head. What’s more, those abducted must be disposed, and the investigating police are so slow on the uptake that they belong in a Hitchcock movie.

The soul of the movie is Edith Scob as daughter Christiane, a pathetic presence whose hunting eyes dominate the porcelain-like mask that obscures her dreadful facial scars. The singularity of the role didn’t lead to as many high-profile future projects for actress Scob, who turned 76 recently — though she did work several times with Franju, an experience she recalls in the Blu-ray’s one new supplement. The carryovers include the director’s famous but (you can imagine) infrequently shown Blood of the Beasts from 1949, a 22-minute documentary that redefines the word “clinical” in its no-holds-barred look at a Parisian slaughterhouse and everything that entails. A short subject one can imagine being shown at social mixers during fund-raising drives for the vegan cause, it portrays the scalpel-like precision of the workers (many of whom smoke; man, I bet they died young) that has an A-to-B correlation with the bad doctor’s own less successful professional prowess. When all is said and done — and let no one ever say that Face lacks a bravura finale, about the only thing you can say in the latter’s behalf is that he loves his daughter and is ahead of his time in anticipating a future medical procedure.

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