When looking back over the years at the truly defining moments of the horror genre, one will generally encounter the usual titles; `Psycho', `Night of the Living Dead', `The Exorcist', `The Shining', `Halloween', etc. Each of these films has achieved enormous iconic status within popular culture as well as among horror fans, often the subject of parody and pastiche in comedy, TV and commercials. Even today, one is reminded of the terrifying `here's Johnny' moment from `The Shining' by Lenny Henry in the equally disturbing Premier Inn campaign. Yet many will be unaware of George Franju's 1959 cult classic `Eyes Without a Face', a film which has been criminally overlooked and forgotten since its release five decades ago. A film that is both mesmeric and disturbing in its tone and subject matter, it's hard to define why `Eyes Without a Face' has missed out on the notoriety and success of these other classic titles.
The film is centred on Dr Genessier, a crazed surgeon obsessed with trying to find a new face for his disfigured daughter Christiane, following a car crash for which he was responsible. His attempts to do so involve the kidnapping of young women and the subsequent removal of their face. Meanwhile, Christiane is forced to wear a white, featureless mask to cover her horrendous facial injuries, giving her a haunting, ghostly presence. This darkly sinister premise makes for deeply suspenseful viewing, creating enough tension to easily rival many of those famous horror classics. One of the most important factors in producing this atmosphere is Franju's technique of not revealing the face of Christiane straight away, and when the shocking moment comes, it is still partially blurred and distorted, leaving the viewer to imagine what her face looks like only through the terrified shrieks of the girl who sees her for the first time.
Franju's intelligent use of suspense and his skill in allowing the audience's imagination to provide the horror are expertly offset by the moment in which we witness the graphic removal of one of his victims' face; an unflinching scene which still has the power to disturb, despite the progression in visual effects and graphic imagery since its release. The cold, surgical manner by which he goes about this appalling procedure is equally as effective as any of the typically over-the-top, gruesome murder scenes from most slasher films. In fact, the clinical, emotionless way in which the Genessier conducts this act is probably what makes it all the more unsettling. It is possible that this scene was one of the reasons to the film's lack of exposure and success, being simply too explicit in its depiction of facial desecration and therefore turning audiences away rather than drawing them in.
Whatever the reason may be, `Eyes Without a Face' absolutely deserves to be considered alongside the true greats of the genre. It's utilisation of suspense, atmosphere and cold brutality make for a superb example of how horror movies should be made. Although it may be over fifty years old, `Eyes Without a Face' has certainly lost none of its power or ability to shock and terrify.