On a yearly basis, October brings eerie films and the challenge presented to me this month is a fine addition to that theme. Kristina of Speakeasy has assigned to me this French film from Georges Fanju which one could classify as an artistic venture while I on the other hand assigned her something more akin to a campy (ad)venture by way of director Kinji Fukasaku.
Admittedly, the only two names that jumped at me from the opening credits with any kind of familiarity were Alida Valli who had previously worked with Hitchcock and Welles and the composer for the film, Maurice Jarre who had a long association of Oscar winning work with David Lean.
Knowing I was about to watch a horror themed film, the music playing over the opening credits gives the impression of a creepy carousel ride in vivid black and white. It’s a great way to set the tone for the horrors that lay ahead in this rather somber tale of a not necessarily mad doctor engaging in Boris Karloff like experiments. The tale begins with Miss Valli dragging the body of a woman to a waterway and letting her slide into the raging river. Cut to a noted doctor portrayed by Pierre Brasseur giving a lecture on the grafting of skin known as Heterograft. Pierre gives the impression of a cold man with very little feeling or empathy which will become more evident as the plot moves along.
We are soon to learn that the police have been investigating the disappearances of young women with very little success. When the body that Valli dumped in the river is discovered, Brasseur is called in to identify it as the victim has a badly mutilated face as does his own missing daughter. Upon positive identification, it would seem as if his daughter’s case has been closed. Far from it. Brasseur retreats to his country side estate that is as cold and empty as he himself seems to be. Ascending stairways to the top of the estate he attempts to comfort his daughter who is not dead at all but hidden away while he attempts to graft her a new face. While he may not be the mad raving scientist that we are accustomed to, he’s committing the most gruesome of experiments and murders as he and Valli lure young women to their estate, drugging them and performing a stomach tunring operation leaving the victims faceless. Valli herself possesses secrets leading to the reasons why she serves as Brasseurs accomplice in luring young women to certain death.
I’d rather not go any farther on the plot points so you might discover the film for yourself if you already haven’t.
Like most films of the horror/scientist genre, not all experiments are going to prove successful. Some may initially appear to be only to have the results implode over time. Upon thinking his work a triumph, there is a great line spoken from Brasseur that caught my ear, “I’ve done so much wrong to perform this miracle.” It’s really a double sided statement. One could assume he’s referring to the women he’s killed and mutilated but I on the other hand take it as if he’s professing to the amount of failures he’s had on the operating table and not the unspeakable horrors he has served up to his victims. That emptiness he displays is due to the underplaying of the character by the actor. He never strays into the accepted territory of Colin Clive and company.
Edith Scob as Brasseur’s daughter Christiane is an unforgettable image. Not because of the face she has been left with but because of the emotionless mask she wears. Having said that, it’s a dynamic performance from Miss Scob as she uses her eyes and body language to deliver an impactful presence raging with emotion on camera. She’s like a porcelain doll come to life performing in mime. One look at the mask she wears should conjure images of director John Carpenter’s creation and one he apparently admits to being an influence upon him. What Brasseur fails to realize is that her scars run far deeper than the surface of her skin.
While the music from Jarre is jolting, it’s the quiet that is frequently interrupted by breathing and the constant whimpering and barking of dogs that Brasseur has below the estate that cuts like a knife. There’s even a hint of Dr. Moreau as the film comes to a close.
Not for the squeamish by 1960 standards but so beautiful at times to look at, this one should be moved up your viewing list. Thankfully TCM just played it with an intro from guest host Ron Perlman.
Now you need to head over to see what campy fun by way of Japan Kristina was assigned to watch that actually features one of my all time favorite character players.
Sure. He played Sergeant Bowren in The Dirty Dozen.