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

A Woman’s Face

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Eyes Without  A Face is the type of horror film which earns more respect than your average film of the genre, thanks in part to its class and sophistication. It’s essentially a glorified B-movie but one which turns archetypes found in the mad scientist genre on its head. After all, horror stereotypes are not actually scary; normal people acting in an abnormal way is what’s truly frightening.

Doctor Genessier (Pierre Brasseur) has the look of a potential madman even resembling the maniac John Barrymore yet remains subdue throughout the film as a man wrestling with his conscience. His assistant isn’t a hunchback but rather a manipulative woman Louise (Alida Valli) who kidnaps young girls of the doctor’s behalf; much like in William Wyler’s The Collector, in which victims can be so easily kidnapped and taken to a secluded house without a trace. Without the creepy carnival like music she would appear a different character – not so manipulative and eerie; ah the power of editing.

Eyes Without a Face presents by far the best combination I’ve ever seen of a movie which is unsettling yet beautiful at the same time; the two keywords which sum up the viewing experience. I’m not a massively squeamish person yet the thought of plastic surgery makes my body muscles tighten. Watching any scene with the facially disfigured Christiane (Edith Scob) makes me feel uneasy but simultaneously enraptured at the same time creating a unique combination of viewer emotion. Even with the absence of a woman’s most important physical asset, Edith Scob is the pinnacle of femininity in Eyes Without a Face. The manner in which she walks and moves in that white coat-like dress couldn’t be more angelic and I haven’t even mentioned the mask.  If there is ever a cinematic image more implanted into one’s mind, it’s Edith Scob wearing that mask. It’s creepy, it’s unsettling, it’s emotionless, yet it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen more so than most flesh and blood faces. The masks used in the film where moulded to fit Edith Scob’s own face, could that be the contributing factor to its beauty? Or is it the angelic figure which carries the mask, whose surrogate mother still brushes her hair despite the disfigurement.

Equally as eerie and hauntingly beautiful is the only scene in which Christiane appears without the mask. Out of context it wouldn’t entirely seem this way but the very idea that this face has been transplanted onto her from another girl is so uncanny to watch. This is also helped in part of Scob’s stunning piece of facial acting in which the Christiane is not yet used to her new face with the limited, almost robotic like display of facial movements.

My only issue with Eyes Without  Face are two plot contrivances. At the beginning of the film when Dr Genessier identifies the remains of a recovered body as those of his missing daughter, the authorities at the morgue don’t even bother asking the other man they asked to come along to look at the remains to view the body for himself. Likewise when the character of Paulette goes missing after leaving the hospital to investigate Dr Genessier on their behalf, the police don’t follow up on her disappearance. Are these plot contrivances for the connivance of the plot or did the filmmakers deliberately set out to portray the authorities as being that incompetent?

Regardless, such plot contrivances are only minor annoyance in a movie with such startling scenes, imagery and set design from the painting of Christiane’s mother to Dr Genessier’s chamber. I’ve long felt that a medical or laboratory like aesthetic is one of the most effective surroundings to capture in glorious black and white. This beauty culminates in the film’s ending in which Christiane performs a simple undoing of everything her father has been working on. This is not a Charles Foster Kane style destruction of a room but rather she gracefully stabs her surrogate mother and symbolically sets dogs and birds used for Genessier’s experiments free. Aside from the doctor getting mauled by the dogs, the ending is intense yet peaceful. Some films stick with you more than others: Eyes Without a Face is one of those which I found myself thinking about its visual images for days after seeing and they won’t be leaving me soon.

The Mad Genius (1931)

Emphasis on the Word Mad

I feel like no other decade seems to have as many obscure gems lost to time as the 1930’s; case in point, The Mad Genius. Coming out in the same year as the iconic adaptations of Frankenstein, Dracula and Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde; but in my humble opinion, The Mad Genius is a better and more intriguing film than any of those.

The opening of The Mad Genius does a superb job at setting a time and place; central Europe in the early 20th century. There is an impeccable level of detail in creating the world of a travelling performer; with the falling of the rain, the wind and the sound of horse and carriage taking full advantage of sound technology to create a world. Equally as impressive is Vladimar Ivan Tsarakov’s (John Barrymore) Berlin theatre and the large scale stage set with hints of German expressionism throughout and the wide spread use of music in the soundtrack, unlike other early talkies.

John Barrymore is (unsurprisingly) mesmerising as Vladimar Ivan Tsarakov (quite a name), one of the most repulsive characters he ever played as he spends the movie spewing pompous and at times mad scientist like dialogue. He has a misogynistic attitude towards women and is even seen ogling up the skirts of his dancers, in one of the film’s very pre-code elements. He is even a drug dealer, although the word drug is never used in the film nor is it indentified what substances appear in the film. In one scene in which he refuses to deal drugs with the stage director played by Luis Alberni, I love his summary on drugs when he throws them into the fire; “If I drop this, you will be free, but you will suffer of course, but in the end, you will be happier than you could ever dream”. Likewise In one of the movie’s comic highlights there is an early use of profanity in film; “It’s unbelievable that there’s any human being living, who should be such a stupid ass”.

One of the many interesting observations in The Mad Genius is the combination of elements from other movies. The plot itself is derivative of Barrymore’s previous horror outing Svengali, while Tsarakov’s desire to create a great ballet dancer out of a young boy is a variation on Dr Frankenstein (which the movie itself alludes to). When Tsarakov is wearing on overcoat he is bent over like Quasimodo; Barrymore’s facial appearance is very similar to that of Bela Lugosi in White Zombie, likewise his voice is reminiscent of Lugosi’s Dracula. The theatre setting has vibes of The Phantom of the Opera and perhaps most interestingly are the elements of The Red Shoes with the film’s inclusion of ballet and the themes of going to extremes for one’s art. Could Powell and Pressburger have taken inspiration from The Mad Genius?

The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)

The Wrath of Genghis Kahn

 

Talk about a trashy film, just how trashy? Boris Karloff plays a sort of Asian Hitler hell bent on exterminating the white race, or how about the scene which involves Myrna Loy having a sexual fetish from seeing a man being whipped. Man, pre-code Hollywood was not right in the head. The film’s plot is like an Indiana Jones film which never got made (or more importantly could never be made), like Indiana Jones getting an artifact before the Nazis to avoid them harnessing its power to take over the world expect here its Asian Nazis. This is the kind of film which is so off the wall that its fun describing it in one of the purest pieces of pulp escapism to come out of the 1930’s.

In today’s politically correct world where everything offends everyone and people are obsessed with racism (like seriously, what well known movie doesn’t have an “This movie is racist” topic on IMDB) I find there’s a certain joy that comes from watching something as shocking and politically incorrect as The Mask of Fu Manchu; like a kid watching R rated movies behind their parent’s back. Even as late as the 90’s scenes from The Mask of Fu Manchu had to be cut for a VHS release (thankfully now in it’s fully restored original version on DVD) – notice for example how picture quality degrades for the line “A china man beat me? He couldn’t do it”.

Old Hollywood had an odd fascination with East Asia and Eastern Asian mysticism as Lewis Stone’s characters states, “Will we ever understand these eastern races, will he ever learn anything?”. Is it right to simply dismiss The Mask of Fu Manchu as a “racist” film. Is there a malicious intent with the film to demonize a race and culture with Dr Fu Manchu being the anthises to Judeo Christian values, or is it merely the representation of the perversion of a foreign culture and race.

No expense is spared on Fu Manchu’s layer. This is the bad guy layer that would make James Bond villains jealous. Complete with torture devices, crocodile pits, an assortment of mad scientist gizmos of topped with all round luscious deco making The Mask of Fu Manchu one of the most visually sumptuous films of the pre-code era. Like any Bond villain Fu Manchu could kill his opponents with a simple gunshot but instead puts them on devices which will kill them at a slow pace, and yes, they’re able to escape and halt the bad guy’s evil plans.

Boris Karloff prevents the character of Fu Manchu coming off a total caricature, showing he is a man of taste and culture and one who puts the genius in evil genius, boasting that he is a doctor three times over having graduating from three different universities. Likewise it amazes me how Myrna Loy transformed her image from an exotic to something as far from that as possible within such a short period of time; thankfully she didn’t do these kinds of roles for too long a period of time. I delight at that stoic dialogue she delivers and her ever menacing presence.

Glen or Glenda (1953)

Misunderstood

Note: This is the earliest film review of mine which I still have. While my other early attempts make me cringe in how amateurish they are, this one I find has an appealing innocence to it, therefore I present it as I originally wrote it back in 2011.

 

I might sound insane, but I’m giving an Ed Wood movie a positive score from an artistic point of view. Glen or Glenda marked Wood’s first film, which he not only written and directed, but also starred in. The film was originally slated to be an biopic on Christine Jorgensen, the propriety of the first publicly known sex change operation (in this case from male to female) Wood however took over production and instead turned it into a film about his own transvestism.

Weather you’re conservative or liberal on issue of cross-dressing and trans-sexuality, Glen Or Glenda manages to do something which I’ve seen many sacred cows fail to do, create emotional interest in its main characters, and succeeds to raise question on what it means to be normal, with an issue which is just as relevant today as it was in 1953.

The movie’s production values are surprisingly good for a film of this caliber. The surreal dream like sequence in the 2nd half of the movie features some impressive film making techniques and manages to engage you in the character’s descent into insanity. Even the film’s acting is decent, certainly better than in the likes of Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Lugosi’s character is widely regarded to be a scientist representing God. At first I didn’t understand the character’s role in the movie (plus the use of stock of footage is completely random). However I was impressed with how his catch phrase which he utters throughout the course of the movie actually finds its way to having relevance with the plot.

I’m not the type of person who over analyzes movies looking for their deeper meaning, but in Glen or Glenda it really came through quite obviously, and did leave an impression on me, as well as changing my opinions on Wood as a director. I can defiantly sense Ed Wood put alot legitimate feeling into this movie, and certainly comes through in the finished product.