IAB’s Night Terrors: “Eyes Without a Face”(1960) & “The Skin I Live In”(2011) IAB’s Night Terrors: “Eyes Without a Face”(1960) & “The Skin I Live In”(2011)
A double-feature of "plastic surgery gone mad"-thrillers were on the menu this time in "Night Terrors". IAB’s Night Terrors: “Eyes Without a Face”(1960) & “The Skin I Live In”(2011)

For this episode of “Night Terrors” there is once again a unifying theme between the two films reviewed – I reckon you could call it “plastic surgery gone mad”. Or “bad”…but then again, the “bad” can usually be seen on Hollywood red carpets on a usual basis. And I guess you could put both of them into the “psychological thriller”-slot more than “horror”, but…my column, my rules. Anywhoo – on with the show:

 

Eyes Without a Face [“Les yeux sans visage”] (1960)
Dir. Georges Franju
Scr. Georges Franju, Jean Redon, Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac, Claude Sautet (based on a novel by Jean Redon)

So, the reasons I picked “Eyes Without a Face” as the one to finally watch are various; first off it’s a movie I have been hearing and/or reading about for forever. Whenever there is some listing of the “greatest horror films ever made”, it’s pretty much guaranteed that this film is gonna be on that list. Second, it’s influences are many; John Carpenter has said many times, that the Michael Myers-mask in “Halloween” is directly influenced by the mask worn by the tragic figure of Christiane in this film. Scenes from John Woo‘s “Face/Off” are clearly inspired by certain scenes here (there are even doves!). Heck – Billy Idol‘s hit song from 1984 got it’s inspiration (and title) from this film too. And also, for the past couple years I have been on a kinda quest to see more of these classics that appear on the “all time best”-lists anyway; for example I saw “Don’t Look Now” for the first time only about a MONTH ago, for Pete’s sake! So there you go.

The movie begins with a long, dialogue-less scene where a woman (Alida Valli) is driving along a riverbank with a body of a young woman in the backseat. She dumps the body – with a visibly mangled face – into the river and drives away. The body is identified by Doctor Genessier (Pierre Brasseur) as his daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob), who disappeared some time ago after her face got destroyed in a car accident. Another father was also in line to identify the body, as we learn that young girls with similar identification-marks have been disappearing. We soon learn, that the woman dumping the body in the beginning was Genessier’s nurse Louise (who feels she has a lifetime debt to pay as a helper since the Doctor has fixed her face too). The doctor, who was responsible for the accident that destroyed his daughter’s face, has gone insane and is kidnapping young girls resembling his daughter – who is alive, of course. And walking around wearing a creepy featureless mask – in attempt to find a successful way to make a face-transplant on her without the body beginning to reject the tissue. He is also testing his mad methods on stray dogs of which the mansion’s pound is full of. As another young girl becomes missing, the local authorities are getting suspicious, while Christiane becomes more and more distressed by the situation…

Talk about “mind blown”. I have been almost kicking myself for not seeing this one until now. It’s amazing how a film that’s filmed in black & white and in a very low-key, non-flashy way (no cheap “boo!” scares in this one, for sure) can crawl under your skin in this fashion. All the kudos to director Franju and the director of photography Eugen Schüfftan for that. And also composer Maurice Jarre for composing a score which definitely does NOT sound like a horror-score – it’s  actually almost upbeat at times, but with some slightly off-key quality hiding in between the lines (I’m not sure if this was intentional, but a certain theme that plays while Louise is on screen, sounds very similar to the “Third Man”-score). Or notes. I’m not very savvy on the French cinema, so the actors are not very familiar to me, with the exception of Alida Valli who was Anna in “The Third Man” and Mrs. Tanner in “Suspiria“. As I understand, the writers were worried about the more outrageous elements of the novel, so instead of a clearly Mad Scientist, Genessier (and Nurse Louise) are portrayed as emotionless, totally clinical in their methods. This makes the creep-factor rise even higher as they are clearly doing these horrible things with absolutely zero remorse. Edith Scob does a wonderful job with the unquestionably most difficult part in the film, as for the most part of the movie she has only her eyes and voice to use. In the one scene where she gets to play a scene without a mask (after one transplant that works, for a little while) she acts the moment in a way that makes you think the mask is still there, and that just makes all the hair in your arms stand up. Great work, from everybody.

And I totally get the use of black & white too, as the scene where a young woman gets her face removed is STILL one of the most disgusting and horrible-looking moments I have seen in a movie. Ever. In a movie 57 years old. That’s no mean feat. I think most modern directors would even this day choose to cut away from such a moment, but not here – no, sir. Another very powerful moment is the one glimpse of Christiane’s disfigured face, seen through the POV of a half-conscious girl, and that also looks incredibly effective. More effective, after learning it’s pretty much body-paint; no prosthetics there. But as it’s filmed slightly out-of-focus way, it works like gangbusters. One other very effective scene is where the slow rejection of a face transplant is shown through a process of slides and the Doctor’s clinical narration.

Well done. I guess all those “all time best”-lists get it right on occasion…

 

The Skin I Live In [“La Piel Que Habito”] (2011)
Dir. Pedro Almodovar
Scr. Pedro Almodovar (from novel “Mygale” by Thierry Jonquet)

I will go right off the bat by saying that I am completely unfamiliar with Pedro Almodovar‘s work. I might have seen some bits and pieces of his previous films on TV once in a while but this one is the first I’ve watched from beginning to end. What picked my interest was the fact that Almodovar has openly admitted the movie being largely influenced by the former “Eyes Without a Face”, so that was the major selling point. The other was that it’s a rare entry into the horror genre from the director. And also it features a return from Antonio Banderas to work with the writer/director (after 21 years) who was extremely influential to his whole rise to fame back in the day. I was interested in seeing how Banderas fares in a very different role than the animated/live action “Puss in Boots“-variations he’s mostly been doing lately…

In the beginning, we are shown a young woman, Vera (Elena Anaya), who is living in a locked living space inside a high-tech estate. She is wearing a complete body-suit and despite being seemingly imprisoned, she seems to cope with the situation and is being fed and most of her commodities fulfilled by the service staff led by Marilia (Marisa Peredes). Turns out, the estate is owned by a celebrated plastic surgeon Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), who is experimenting in cultivating a new artificial skin that would help burn victims (turns out the doctor’s wife burned badly and killed herself soon after). But that’s not the end of it; this new skin, called “Gal” after his late wife, is also partially fireproof – and also rejects insect-stings, which would make diseases like Malaria a thing of the past. The doctor tells his colleagues he’s been experimenting with only mice, but it’s pretty clear that Vera is the true subject of this experiments. As Marilia’s petty criminal son Zeca (Roberto Alamo) hides from the Police in the estate, he recognizes that Vera is actually molded to be a perfect lookalike of the doctor’s late wife – who Zeca had an affair with and was in fact the culprit in the car crash that burned her. Mistaking her identity, he frees and assaults Vera, only to be stopped and killed by the doctor. As the story goes on, all sorts of hidden truths are revealed…

Well, “inspired by” pretty much hold true only to the first act of this film. There ARE a lot of similarities: a disturbed doctor going about on his real job while making secret experiments in his own property, his loyal helper-woman, a kidnap victim, car crash, disfigurement… But that’s about the limit of the similarities – unless you count one fact: the acting from Banderas and Peredes. They are very much approaching the same level of detached matter-of-factness that the actors in same type of roles did in “Eyes Without a Face” did (during my little research-period in the web I stumbled on a fact that after a few days of filming, Almodovar actually told Banderas to completely drop ALL of his usual acting mannerisms. I gotta say that that truly goddamn shows in the film). But – I guess this could be expected from Almodovar, at least based on his previous work – after the first act, things take an interesting twist in the middle act where we are told the whole backstory in two lengthy flashback-scenes. And the twist is pretty out-there. In fact – this might be the first time I’m doing this here; I won’t even put any spoilers under “spoiler”-tags – I’m simply NOT gonna tell where things go after that basic setup. What I AM going to say is that this movie does work under several other genre types than simple “psychological thriller”. Only after the middle-act reveal can you begin to appreciate how brilliant Elena Anaya‘s work in this is – it’s incredibly layered AND disturbing. It’s actually one of those rare times when I’ve gotten completely sideswiped by a film in this age of Internet-spoilers. I had NO idea of the depths of madness this thing was going to go to. Absolutely brilliant work. It’s definitely not the Cronenbergian “body horror” type of thing, as the promo-artwork and other stills would suggest, I’ll say that much. Although there is a LOT of influences of Cronenberg’s visual style in it.

I think Almodovar also toned down his usual outrageous visual bravado in this film. It IS very colorful – don’t get me wrong – but his approach seems to be to sort of emulate the understated visuals of Franju’s film. Okay – as it IS an Almodovar-film, there is a certain amount of nudity and sex injected into this; THAT was certainly not something that was a part of the original one. And as in “Eyes Without a Face“, the music is also played against the genre here. Instead of the usual horror/thriller music, Alberto Iglesias‘ score sounds almost like Chamber Music performed by a quintet or something (I’m not too familiar with official musical terms, so I’m really just talking out of my ass here). The film ends up being SO different, that it certainly can’t be labeled as a remake. But THIS is kinda the perfect way to remake something actually; just take the basic IDEA, and go to town on it.

 

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I Am Better

Coming from the frozen wastelands of Finnish tundra. Mr. Better seeks warmth from his television & home theater and all the wonders they provide. He occasionally dabbles in the arts of drawing and photography.