Director: Georges Franju
Even now there’s still something bracing about that scene. I remember first seeing this film on SBS probably about 20 years ago—before I was particularly into horror; I wasn’t approaching it then as a “horror classic” but a general foreign classic—and the surgery scene left me kind of dry-mouthed and quivering. And then I got to the end of the scene as they start to peel the face off and JESUS FUCK NO HOW COULD THEY GET AWAY WITH THAT IN A FILM OF THIS AGE CHRIST THAT’S FUCKED etc… and it mercifully faded just as the face peel started. And then a bit over a decade later, your humble scribe invested in the Criterion DVD, and got to that scene, and JESUS FUCK NO CRITERION’S PRINT DOESN’T FADE OUT AT THAT POINT IT SHOWS MORE CHRIST THAT’S EVEN MORE FUCKED THAN I THOUGHT IT WAS AT FIRST I MEAN REALLY FOR A FILM RELEASED IN 1960 ONLY A FEW SECONDS LONGER BUT IT MAKES SUCH A HORRIBLE DIFFERENCE WHERE IS MY GOD NOW etc. And on re-viewing again this afternoon, I still kind of felt that way at the crucial moment; knowing what to expect doesn’t necessarily make a thing easier to bear… That’s not bad for a film of this vintage.
Of course, my reaction was much the same as the general reaction seems to have been back in the day, and the French critical reaction was even more stunned; what was a French filmmaker doing making horror at all, and why this particular one? Georges Franju, the documentarian and co-founder of the Cinematheque Francaise, lowering himself to make a nasty cash-in on the recent rise of Hammer? But the film wasn’t just that in the end; Franju liked his pulp fiction (cf. Judex and Nuits rouges), but his documentary background meant he took a different approach to it, as the DVD notes helpfully remind us. It’s more detached, not played for luridness, and the film uses music in an extremely careful way by not using it in the surgery scene to underline the horror of it all (only a few bits of the film are underlined thus). Similarly, as Patrick McGrath’s essay observes, a “normal” horror film would’ve had the police or the lover save the day at the end of proceedings, which this one notably doesn’t; they completely fail to solve the mystery. The bafflement with which some greeted the film back in the early 60s isn’t hard to understand, and there’s still something a bit “other” about it now; a “mad doctor” film that mostly avoids exploitation and successfully demands to be taken seriously, driven by some lovely performances, especially Edith Scob, who spends most of her screen time masked, but also Pierre Brasseur as the doctor whose foolishness (he caused the car crash that disfigured his daughter) drives him to atone by resorting to kidnapping other young women for their faces. Remarkable stuff all round.