30. Eyes Without a Face

Schlocktoberfest #30: Eyes Without a Face

This classic from 60’s France is quite different and merges the dreamy world of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast with the familiar mad scientist genre. Dr. Genessier’s daughter Christiane was grievously injured in a car accident; she lives upstairs, wearing a creepy blank mask where her face once was. Her face gone, and her mind is slowly following, as the toll of her isolation and injury weigh more heavily on her. The only contact she gets is with the dogs her father performs medical experiments on, as he tries to develop a face transplant to make her whole again.

We’re introduced to this sordid situation as a luxury motorcar pulls over by the river, and a woman in a fur coat walks out in the snow to dump a body. Hitchcock wishes he opened a movie like this; it really draws you in, especially as horror of the bizarre obsession of a father for his child sinks in. For he’s not merely experimenting on dogs, but kidnapping patients from his clinic and using their faces! Unfortunately, he just can’t get it right.

Much of our time is spent with Christiane, who pines for her lost beau- who thinks she perished in the crash. She wanders the upper floors, hidden from view, wearing her plain blank mask. It gives her a doll-like quality, and she seems to glide like an apparition. We begin to feel the deep sadness of her state, the utter loneliness of her isolation and the deep emotional wound that her brutal injury has given her. And as for her father- he is portrayed as a normal doctor, which makes his horrific obsession all the more disturbing. When he peels the face off an anesthetized victim with cold surgical precision, it is more akin to the experiments of the Nazis than a serial killer, and all the more chilling.

For 1960, seeing a doctor scalpel a woman’s face off is pretty intense; it’s not as gory as Face/Off but it’s handled in a much more horrifying way. The film definitely influenced Tim Burton for the Joker’s mutilated girlfriend in Batman (1989). The chilling ending, when Christiane decides she can take this no more, is handled fantastically. The brutal comeuppance of the obsessed butcher juxtaposed with the haunting imagery of Christiane and her mask, walking into the night wearing a white dress with a dove on her hand, is quite memorable. And while the horror here isn’t of the shock variety, our brief glimpse of Christiane’s face, and the final shot, are enough to give this creepy classic a dash of gore. More arthouse than grindhouse, but a must see for horror fans.

And we know it also influenced one sneering ’80s fellow:

What the girl sings in the background is the title of the movie in the original French, Les Yeux sans Visage.


Criterion Collection: The Naked Prey

Before there was Apocalypto, there was The Naked Prey. A man chased by a group of warriors through the jungle, with only his wits and perseverance to help him survive; it’s a great premise for an action film, and both Mel Gibson’s version and Cornel Wilde’s are excellent pictures. They’re both in part based on the experiences of one John Colter, known as the first “mountain man” of the American frontier. He began as a guide for the Lewis and Clark expedition, helping them discover passes in the mountains, and he was their best hunter, keeping them fed with wild game. After he was discharged from the Army, he became a trapper and is believed to be the first white man to find what would become Yellowstone National Park, and his tales of geysers and bubbling mud pits were laughed at, at the time.

Not-so-great white hunters

Later in life he was trapping with a companion was killed by Blackfeet warriors; Colter was instead stripped naked and told to run. They gave chase, and but Colter was able to kill one with his own spear, and eventually fled to the river, where he hid under logs until they assumed he’d drowned. It took him 11 days to walk 200 miles back to the nearest fort, with only a stolen blanket for warmth. That’s a little less exciting than being chased for days by armed warriors, but still one hell of an survival tale.

You need three fiddy, you say? Poppycock!

The Naked Prey moves the action to Africa, mostly because it was cheaper to film there. For this, the film gets decried as racist, because his savage pursuers are quite brutal in their methods. But the story felt more sympathetic to them, to me. Cornel Wilde plays the prey- an unnamed man working as a safari guide for a rich, pompous ass. When they come to hunt on the land of a local tribe, he tells him to give the natives a gift of tribute, in respect of using their hunting grounds. He refuses, and insultingly pushes past the lead warrior, to Wilde’s dismay. He even calls it a hand-out, making an oblique criticism to those who disdained LBJ’s recent societal welfare.

You can choose death… or unga-bunga!

Later, when they are hunting elephants, they are set upon by the tribe in full force. Their carriers are beaten and butchered, and soon overwhelmed, they are all dragged back to the tribe’s encampment, where they are tortured. This is probably what generates automatic revulsion to us; seeing the white hunters treated brutally, we expect it is to make us hate the “savages.” But I see it as outside of our “civilized” rules; this is the law of the land. The invaders have insulted their hosts, and this is their punishment. I really felt no sympathy for the rude guy when he’s put in the way of a cobra’s only escape route; another man is covered in clay and baked alive. Our guide fellow, the only one who showed them any respect, is given a chance to live- stripped naked, like Colter, and given a head start of a hundred yards, a warrior is chosen to kill him.

The chase begins

I don’t think the Lead Warrior (Ken Gampu- Zulu Dawn, The Gods Must Be Crazy, Kill and Kill Again) believed this was anything more than target practice for a young, untested warrior, and he’s shocked when Wilde kills him with his own spear. We cannot understand anything the tribesmen say, but from the emotions on the dead boy’s face and the leader’s, I assume he was his kinsman, or even his son- or maybe just one of the tribe’s young warriors that he was training. The chase begins, now fueled by revenge.

The enemies are consistently humanized.

I’ve said before that films without much dialogue, like Wall*E and silent films, tend to engage you more deeply, if you give them the chance. The Naked Prey is no exception. The fugitive’s adventures in the African sveldt, between five murderous men and the jungle’s menagerie of hungry beasts, makes it easy to keep us on the edge of our seats. He has only his skills as a hunter, and perhaps the inexperience of his pursuers to help him.

The blood is off-camera but feels visceral through smart direction.

Like Apocalypto, the stunning scenery is almost a character in the film. Our protagonist uses it to his advantage, hiding, hunting, and tricking those behind him every way he can. He gets a lucky break here and there, but there is nothing that says he triumphs because of any innate superiority. Later, when he sees a neighboring tribe being attacked by what seem to be slavers, he even helps fight them until they are overwhelmed. He narrowly escapes, and meets an orphaned child from the village, who saves his life; they wander together for a while. He even manages to garner a mutual respect with the Warrior Leader chasing him.

And now you decide to step on a mamba? Thanks, man.

The film is still engaging and exciting, and there’s not much a remake could add; Apocalypto has more insane stunts, but those can take you out of the spell a movie casts. The Naked Prey’s influence reaches further still- when I finally watched Duel, the little driver’s triumphant jig is a lot like Wilde’s when he pulls a fast one on his enemies. The film revels in its natural surroundings and uses them for allegory; there’s an extended sequence of a baboon and a cheetah fighting to a standstill; we’d expect the baboon to be an easy meal, but like Wilde, it’s a surprisingly formidable foe. The tribesmen are never looked down upon as savages; the hero is transformed by the land to behave just as they do. Their deaths are never as throw-away cannon fodder; they are formidable, and their obsessed leader mourns them, and treats them with value. When one is bitten by a snake, they stay behind and tend to him, whereas in your typical action picture he would be killed as a burden. And no one says “bwana.”

And let us never speak of this again.

While it’s still a pulpy type of story, it still manages to be a great survival story, and and a great action movie. The Criterion Collection DVD has a stunning picture except for some grainy wildlife shots which is due to the source material. The extras include Paul Giamatti reading the story of John Colter, commentary, and music cues created by the director for the film.