Criterion has released a true oddity: a French horror film from 1960 by director Georges Franju titled Eyes Without a Face. The B&W film was notable in its day for being a rare excursion into a genre that most New Wave French filmmakers had studiously avoided. The intriguing plot centers on Dr. Genessier (Pierre Brasseur), a notable plastic surgeon who is pioneering breakthrough methods of reconstructing the faces of people who have suffered grievous injuries and disfigurements. On the surface, Genessier follows the norms of traditional medical research: publishing papers and giving lectures relating to his findings. However, the painstaking process of getting formal acceptance and approval of new medical theories is not for him. He has an urgent need to pursue his theories outside of accepted medical practices. His daughter Christiana (Edit Scob) was severely injured in a car crash that he was responsible for. Wracked by guilt, Genessier has been practicing his controversial methods on his young female assistant Louise (Alida Valli), who had also required plastic surgery. The results have been successful and he has transformed her back into the beautiful woman she once was. The only fly in the ointment is that Genessier's methods require the kidnapping of other young, healthy women who he tortures brutally by literally removing their faces while they writhe in agony, awaiting certain death. Meanwhile, Christiana has been declared dead and no one- not even her fiancee who works as Genessier's protege- suspects otherwise. Genessier and Louise cater to Christina, who is kept in total isolation inside Genessier's country home that adjoins his clinic. Here, clad in a disturbing face mask that is devoid of any emotional features, she wanders the rooms and halls in loneliness and frustration, even as her doting father assures her that he will restore her natural beauty. To do so, he prepares for the operation by systematically planning more kidnappings so that he has a fresh supply of human flesh. When things go awry with one of his kidnapped victims, Genessier faces disaster at the very moment of his long-sought triumph.
While Eyes Without a Face wouldn't meet the definition of a contemporary horror film (it is leisurely paced and caters to sophisticated viewers), the film is dripping with atmosphere and director Franju engages the audience from the very first disturbing frames of Genessier and Louise en route to dispose of the body of yet another innocent female victim. As with many memorable movie villains, Genessier is a cultured man who is more misguided than evil. His crimes are committed only because of his overwhelming sense of guilt and they are a symptom of his obsession with righting a terrible wrong. Nevertheless, he gets carried away by his emotions and loses sight of the fact that, as a doctor committed to helping injured people, he is ensuring their demise.
Eyes Without a Face is a genuinely eerie cinematic experience and the fact that it was made in France gives the film an even more unique atmosphere. Still, this artfully crafted film was dumped on U.S. audiences in a dubbed version that was absurdly re-titled The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus, which also suffered severe edits. Criterion had released an impressive DVD version of the original French cut about ten years ago. The Blu-ray, which is up to the company's usual top-notch standards, carries over the original bonus extras and includes some new additions. They are:
Archival interviews with Georges Franju.
A new interview with actress Edith Scob.
A 1985 French documentary about the making of the film
Franju's controversial 1949 documentary Blood of the Beasts which was one of the first cinematic attempts to argue against animal cruelty. The still-powerful film depicts the horrendous conditions inside slaughterhouses and still packs an emotional wallop today.
A gallery of trailers including the American release
An informative illustrated booklet featuring essays by novelist Patrick McGrath and film historian David Kalat.
The movie is a mesmerizing experience with superb performances and direction and the Criterion Blu-ray finally does justice to this long-overlooked masterwork of the European horror genre.