Eyes Without a Face [Les Yeux Sans Visage] (1960)

Click here to visit our movie review section for more!

Eyes Without a Face [Les Yeux Sans Visage] (1960)

~Review by Grawlix (October 2019)

The mad scientist is a science fiction and horror standard that predates the motion picture medium. The mad doctor, however, is a more recent, more modern invention. While a mad scientist often achieves a wild breakthrough that is in clear violation of natural law, the mad doctor’s achievements are usually more modest and, if not demonstrably realistic, than at least objectively plausible. A mad scientist is prone to fits of maudlin regret when things go wrong, but a mad doctor is steadfast in his resolve, determined to see things through to their logical conclusion no matter the cost. A mad scientist dares to dream. A mad doctor dares to act. A mad scientist is scary because of what he creates. A mad doctor is scary because of what he is.

Eyes Without a Face’s Dr. Génessier is an early example of the mad doctor. Génessier is a surgeon, a pioneer in skin grafts and transplants, respected by his peers and well-liked by his patients. Prior to the events of the film, Génessier was involved in an automobile accident. He escaped unharmed, but his teenage daughter, Christiane, was horribly scarred to the point that she effectively has no face. The doctor believes that he has the skills to repair his daughter via a full-face transplant, but since there’s a shortage of willing donors, Génessier and his assistant Louise resort to kidnapping. But the doctor is hardly a master criminal, and even his surgical efforts fall frustratingly short. Génessier is willing to do whatever it takes to succeed, but Christiane begins to suspect that her father’s determination is more about himself than her.

Eyes Without a Face is rightly classified as horror, but its goal is not to scare or thrill, but to unnerve. There are no stingers or jump scares. Scenes move at a natural, unhurried pace and much of the horror comes from “oh, man, he’s really going to do it” realizations as the film states its course of action and then unswervingly follows through. Considering Génessier’s surgical profession, this follow through was apparently too much for some early audiences, members of which reportedly wailed and fainted at early showings. I’ve seen clips from this movie make it to top ten lists for gory scenes, and while I think that’s a bit much, this thing isn’t Hostel, I will admit that some of the effects still look mighty good for being some sixty years old.

This is not a movie that lives by a specific visual aesthetic, but rather deploys its flourishes with deft precision. One of its most striking and notorious is the mask worn by Christiane, a blank white shell that approximates her features but lacks detail and, of course, articulation. There’s some debate over whether or not the look was cribbed for Halloween’s Michael Myers, but regardless, the image of Christiane’s eyes alive behind the otherwise expressionless mask is a striking one indeed. Christiane dons the mask for the first time after an extended scene without it, skillful camerawork keeping her ruined face from view. In fact, we only see the extent of her injuries once, and then they’re out of focus. The movie’s initial coyness and seeming contentedness with leaving the worst of its images to the audience’s imagination make its later, more graphic scenes that much more powerful.

Sound is another area where the movie shines. Its most common recurring musical theme is a jangly waltz that wouldn’t be out of place in a carnival sideshow. It makes for a jarring contrast to the somber visuals, as if the movie is trying and failing to lighten its own mood, though there were times when it felt a little too out of place. More common are scenes conducted in total silence or, whenever we’re at Génessier’s home laboratory, amid a cacophony of barking dogs from the kennel he keeps on premises for a ready supply of experimental subjects.

Like all good horror, Eyes Without a Face is ultimately a tragic story for everyone. Christiane, through no fault of her own, is condemned to a literally faceless unlife as another experimental subject of her father. Louise, Génessier’s assistant, once had her own facial injuries repaired by the doctor, and her unwavering loyalty to him in gratitude is enough to overcome her compunctions about the crimes she helps him commit. And Génessier himself is in the singular position of not only being the cause of his daughter’s suffering, but knowing with certainty that he is the only person with the skill to have any hope of alleviating it. Weighed against the life of his daughter, the lives of strangers become easier to dismiss.

Eyes Without a Face is a masterpiece of mood and atmosphere and later movies like The Shining owe much to its approach of quiet melancholy that’s occasionally punctuated by shocking but matter-of-fact violence. An early US release was retitled The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus and besides redubbing the picture in English also snipped a few scenes. Supposedly later US releases kept everything intact but, as usual, I’d recommend watching the original French to get the full experience.

Final Score: A    

Highly influential in both story and presentation, the years have not diminished its power. Eyes Without a Face is essential viewing for any horror fan.


More About Eyes Without a Face


Leave a Comment