I’m going to run the horrible risk of coming across as the worst sort of “in my day” fuddy duddy this week. Oh well, he said, with a philosophical shrug of the shoulders.
So we’re a mere matter of weeks away from the release of Hostel: Part II, and no doubt another round of handwringing and analysis in the mainstream media about the popularity of the torture film (if the movie does well) or a celebration and analysis of its demise (if the flick bombs). Now, let’s be clear, I had a hoot at the first f…lm (laughing rather more than my companions were entirely comfortable with), and I’m cautiously looking forward to the second (Eli Roth is a talented filmmaker, but I’m not yet convinced he has sound judgment in all things, and his treatment of female characters in the new film will be something of an acid test).
But let’s look back to the year 1959, and to a film that can be seen as being an important ancestor of the current torture movie: Georges Franju’s masterful Eyes Without a Face. The film’s story has been imitated many and many a time (most frequently by Jess Franco): a talented surgeon seeks to restored his daughter’s beauty by kidnapping young women, removing their faces and grafting them onto his daughter’s mutilated features. The film was denounced upon its initial release. People fainted. It received the kind of response that makes the reaction to the likes of Hostel seem welcoming.
This reaction was largely the result of a single scene. The film is not a perpetual bloodbath. There are really only three instances of violence in the film, and only one moment that really pushes the audience. But boy does it push. The sequence is surgical and clinical in every sense of the terms. Dr. Genesssier (Pierre Brasseur) operates on a young woman. We watch every careful step as he draws lines on her face where he will cut. We continue to watch as he cuts. We are still watching as he works the face off the skull. The camera’s gaze is impassive. There is no dramatic music. There is nothing sensationalistic about the scene. But it goes on, and on, and on. In 1959. It is still enormously powerful. When I taught the movie in a horror film course a couple of years ago, students were still flinching and averting their eyes from the screen.
Why is the scene so powerful? Partly because of the aforementioned lack of sensationalism. One might almost be watching a documentary (and let us recall that Franju was responsible for the slaughterhouse documentary Le sang des bêtes). Thus, there is a terrible reality to the scene. It has none of the distancing Grand Guignol aspects of Hostel, which grant the audience a certain level of relief.
But context is crucial, too. The scene stands out because of the restraint of the rest of the film. There is more than restraint, though. There is enormous beauty. Eyes Without a Face is anchored in both realism and fantasy, and is one of the most poetic and beautiful horror films ever made. The scenes of Edith Scob (the disfigured daughter) floating through her father’s mansion in her white robe and white, expressionless (but eerily gorgeous) mask make as powerful an impression on the viewer as the surgery. Extreme beauty and extreme horror: a combination the produces something sublime. Yo, Roth, are you listening?