Support Us!
Powered by
Got any friends who might like this scary horror stuff? GO AHEAD AND SHARE, SHARE!



Thursday, April 8, 2021

‘Eyes Without a Face’: Squeamishly Poetic Body Horror Even in the 21st Century

Spoilers ahead for Eyes Without a Face. Proceed at your own risk.

A sleek and elegantly presented woman is seen behind the wheel of a car in the dead of night, completely transfixed on the road as an unknown person sits slumped in the backseat. Fitted with a long coat and hat to cover their face, they appear to be sleeping. The woman still pivots her focus to the road, showing signs of concern and fear on her face. It is the face of guilt. A face that hides a deeply rooted secret.

The woman stops on the edge of a riverbank, pulling the person out of the backseat and at this point, it’s frighteningly obvious that the person is nothing more than a corpse. With haste, the woman dumps the body in the riverbank, their face never shown, before scurrying out of there. The look of complete guilt and shame is still present on her face knowing what transpired to cause this late-night drive in the first place.

5 minutes into Eyes Without a Face and one of the main recurring elements is made crystal clear, setting the tone for the larger narrative to come into play. The superficial beauty of the ‘face’ and the length some will go to preserve this specific idea of beauty and happiness. The hollow core of it all and the ripple effect of such extremes may ultimately outweigh the momentary bliss of a gorgeous face.

This is something that 21st century onlookers like ourselves still associate with Georges Franju’s 1960 horror classic. It wouldn’t surprise me if you have at least glanced at the most infamous image of the film: the shot of a woman’s face being surgically and meticulously peeled off of the meat beyond. It’s what a number of you may have scrolled by in YouTube thumbnails describing “Most Controversial Films of the 1960s!” or something along those lines.

It is undoubtedly a gruesome image to behold even by today’s standards, yet the film itself never seems to enter the conversation of violent and disturbing horror films, which is generally reserved for more modern and overtly gory films. It came out towards the beginning of the slasher subgenre; releasing in France the same year that Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho made a splash in the US, and three years before Blood Feast disgusted audiences as an innovator of splatter horror. Between the twisty murder mystery of the former and the use of gore and practical effects for the latter, Eyes Without a Face failed to make a big impact upon initial release. It caused a stir, but not enough to capture the world’s attention right away.

Even today, Eyes Without a Face has been granted a Criterion re-release and undergone a gradual reevaluation as a bold and influential horror film, yet there’s still an air of silence to the discourse surrounding the film. It’s been left to fight its way to relevancy while the conversation of horror often switches between the now and more recognizable areas of nostalgia for the 80s and 90s. No doubt fresher in our minds, but there is just something about Franju’s classic that encourages a proper look-back.

Eyes Without a Face is a film that has often been described as “poetic”, especially upon reevaluation, and it’s not without reason. The story of a skilled surgeon who is willing to kidnap women to use their faces as the model for his daughter’s horrifically scarred face feels like another hack example of the mad scientist trope. But its patient use of time and the framing of Christiane (the surgeon’s daughter) pulls the film out of purely genre territory.

A woman who simply wants to have a face of beauty again, Christiane is desperate enough to allow her father to continue the experiments and is freely able to wander their gigantic home. Some of the film’s most riveting moments involve her feeling out her home, all under a human-looking mask that only reveals her eyes. Under this mask, she doesn’t even feel like the same person, completely detached from her previous humanity and left a cold shell of her former self.

In many ways, the body horror of Eyes Without a Face is most prevalent in these scenes, showing a woman at odds with the heavily scarred and damaged face she currently has and accepting of the idea of other women being experimented on for her own gain. When one of the film’s earliest victims awakens early from her drug-induced sleep tied to the surgeon’s bed, Christiane is right there watching over her sans mask, but all she can do is look on knowing that the other woman’s face may become a part of her.

Categorizing Eyes Without a Face as a pure body horror is very much reductive, ignoring the tragedy of lost humanity and the drama of the gloom situation, but it would be criminal to ignore the elements present that serve as one of the earlier examples of body horror in film. Famous examples like The Blob and The Fly came before this in the previous decade, but Franju’s film plays around with body horror in a contemplative manner, unafraid to linger on the gore even whilst the action is being implemented.

The infamous face removal scene is still largely effective at unnerving the viewer not from copious amounts of blood and gore, but the pure process of it all. The anticipation of Dr. Genessier drawing the lines on her face which he will slice open, the slow and methodical incision that soon spreads to the entire face, all of it simply feels wrong because of how normally the film presents it. We are essentially watching uncensored surgery and the context of the woman being kidnapped makes the lines around my face sting a little more from it.

This was released 3 years before Blood Feast, but the dissection and decay of the human body feels like body horror at its most primal. Even with her new face, Christiane cannot enjoy that luxury for long, with a brief slideshow documenting her body rejecting the face and gradually looking scarred and moldy. The consequences of achieving this distorted idea of beauty rear their ugly heads. What is more body horror than a dead woman’s face rotting on top of your own face?

In the years following the 1960s, the human body has undergone a hellish punishment in films that loosened up a little more with each passing decade. Horrors, thrillers, dramas, and even comedies have experimented with using the body as a vehicle for communicating desired emotional responses. For horror, even tamer films will show examples of bodies being mutilated, distorted, and damaged in some manner. It’s a natural evolution as codes of conduct changed themselves up with time.

Amidst all of that, Eyes Without a Face still strikes a nerve as a result of it treating the human body like the delicate composition of flesh and organs that it is. No matter how healthy we think ourselves, it can still be relatively easy to bruise or suffer a paper cut that proves to be more of a nuisance than we’d like. If we’re given a certain combination of gasses to help put us under, it would be quite simple for our bodies and us to suffer massive life-altering damage. In this film, the victims of the face transplants don’t even notice the deed until well after it has been done. We are all fragile to some extent and Eyes Without a Face communicates that with horrific beauty.

The body horror is amplified once we accept how truly powerless we can be in some situations. That is where the true terror of Franju’s film becomes apparent. Perhaps this is why audience members reportedly fainted during the initial screening of the film. Not just because this level of onscreen gore was rare at the time, but because of the grim realism behind the gore. Perhaps it is why the infamous face removal has still stuck with people despite it being one of the only truly graphic images in the film.

As a 21st century person, there was still a level of squeamishness that I felt watching Eyes Without a Face and I would be hard-pressed to name a film off the top of my head that left me with a similar feeling. The closest I can come to is Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In, which is essentially a modern reinterpretation of Franju’s film and one that delves down another unsettling road. Each film tells its own story, but they’re both framed around the complex nature of the human body and how we can be driven to change it however we please.

But Franju’s film is one that will likely not be lost to time, likewise with The Skin I Live In. Aspects of Eyes Without a Face have continued to live on in the decades of horror films proceeding it. Whether intentionally or unknowingly, films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the countless slashers that followed have borrowed the elements surrounding the destruction of the human body, twisting them to fit their own standards for years to come.

New French Extremity has dialed up the intensity of the violence, but the body remains the focus and though categorizing Eyes Without a Face as such would feel disingenuous, there is no doubting the effects that the film had on French cinema. Not to mention the previously mentioned The Skin I Live In. Much like the film itself, the impact has taken its sweet time, but that has only made it hit harder after years of retrospection.

I’d like to think that the film may still enter film conversations another half century from now, but obviously time will be the factor to consider. Media consumption operates on a vastly different level compared to the 1960s and it’ll be interesting to note how that will influence our perception of the media we are used to consuming. 

Whatever the case, the fragile humanity in Eyes Without a Face has helped elevate this sleeper French hit into one of the most quietly prevalent horror films even today. The body horror may not match the sheer visceral level that we’ve grown accustomed to, but on a thematic level the film has somehow managed to become all the more existentially terrifying as a result.

It is the sheer power of the weak human body.

The Skin I Live In

‘The Skin I Live In’


No comments:

Post a Comment

Support Us!
Powered by
Got any friends who might like this scary horror stuff? GO AHEAD AND SHARE, SHARE!

The Top 10 Streaming Scary Movies of Today (According to Netflix)

Given that Netflix really is the master of their own data, how many times a viewer streams The Ridiculous 6, or what films don't get watched all the way straight through, or how many times someone watches an episode of Bill Nye Saves the World, it was easy for them to come up with the list based on just one percentage: 70 percent.

Got any friends who might like this scary horror stuff? GO AHEAD AND SHARE, SHARE!

Top 5 Original Horror Movies of 2020 (Even During a Pandemic)

3 Frightening Clowns Not from the Underworld or Magical Hell

3 Viral Videos Proving Spiders Are Still Scary as Hell

Stephen King Adores These 22 Horror Films

3 Super Stories on 'Halloween' and Horror That'll Make You Want to Wear the Mask