Halloween Horror: Carnival of Souls and Eyes Without a Face
Carnival of Soulsand Eyes Without a Face are two classic horror films, one French the other American, released in 1960 and 1962. Both films remain classics of the genre despite their different methods of establishing a feeling of horror. Both films also contain some similarities beyond their era and their striking black & white cinematography. Given that the escalation of shocks in cinema has forced the horror genre (perhaps more than any other) to keep upping the ante in terms of gore and extreme content, what continues to scare us about the best horror films in cinema history? In each film, the eyes of the films’ respective lead actresses, Edith Scob and Candace Hilligoss, act as the portals through which the viewer is invited to feel the horror of the uncanny, moral revulsion, or pure suspense.
Eyes Without a Face, directed by former documentary filmmaker Georges Franju, was heavily influenced by French impressionism. Its horror is not of the cheap jump-shock variety. In fact, its stately direction and gorgeous black and white cinematography has more in common with the Poetic Realism of Renoir than most other horror films.
Franju’s film tells the story of a doctor (Pierre Brasseur) and his attempts to repair the face of his beloved daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob), who was deformed in a car accident and wears a plastic, featureless mask for the majority of the film. The film opens with Dr. Génessier’s assistant dumping a body in a river after driving along a riverbank. While the doctor and the assistant, Louise (Alida Valli), identify the body to the authorities as that of his daughter, we soon learn that it is infact the body of a woman who died when Génessier attempted to graft her face onto his daughter. What then ensues is a tale of a mad scientist bent on fixing Christiane’s face. However, over the course of the film it becomes unclear to whose benefit the mad operations are intended, as Christiane questions her father’s methods.
The film’s central, and most memorable, sequence is the “heterograft” scene, where Génnessier removes a female victim’s face to be grafted onto Christiane’s. It is here that the film moves beyond an unsettling portrayal of moral transgression and into pure body horror. As the doctor traces the outline of his cut and plunges his scalpel into his victim’s skin you can hardly believe what you’re seeing. What is more shocking is that the sequence remains as graphic as anything seen in contemporary horror films, making it in one sense even more terrifying today as it stands out from what we have become accustomed to from the horror films of the era; one usually doesn’t pick up a film from 1960 expecting to see this kind of graphic material. It’s not hard to understand why the film took fire from censors in France and was released in America in an edited version.
But what makes Eyes Without a Face more than a gorgeous film with one notorious sequence of horror is Edith Scob’s performance as Christiane. Scob, who still acts today and was seen most recently in Holy Motors (where she wears a mask that is a callback to her mask in this film), manages to communicate so much through the only visible aspect of her face: her eyes. The titular eyes of Christiane are both how she communicates her emotions through her otherwise unmoving mask and the one part of her face that remains the same through the various face grafts.
Scob manages to take the horrifying visual of this faceless girl with an unsettling mask and instill her with pathos. Though her father ostensibly is committing his mutilations for the sake of Christiane, we come to realize that she is also somewhat trapped. Both a monstrous figure and one of supreme empathy, like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, Christiane lends the film a poetic tone amidst the horror.
But a classic doesn’t have to be either highbrow or boundary pushing to remain influential. The low-budget 1962 horror film, Carnival of Souls, manages to rise above and beyond the limitations of its budget and its at times clunky acting and dialogue, showing how such conventional standards of quality can at times inhibit us from recognizing something truly original.
The film opens with two cars full of teenagers squaring off in a drag race, shot with energy and reminiscent of Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause. When one of the cars, the one with the female racers, goes off a narrow bridge, the police dredge the river for the car, but the only survivor is one Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss). Mary seems unfazed, and rather than mourning her dead friends insists that she just needs to leave the town and proceed to her new job in Salt Lake City as a church organist. Mary’s job may just be an unneeded excuse to provide the film with its haunting, pervasive organ soundtrack. However, the strangeness of her job lends the film an added sense of the transgressive, matching Mary Henry’s insistence that she harbours no religious feeling and that the church position is merely a job that she does for money.
Mary leaves town, but on the drive there she is haunted by a frightening, goulish apparition (The Man, played uncredited by the director Herk Harvey), and finds herself mysteriously fascinated with a massive pavillion just outside her new home town. After taking up room in a boarding house, Mary asks her new employer, the town minister, to take her to the pavillion outside town, which turns out to be a massive abandoned carnival on the site of a very old bath house. Soon after, while practicing on the church organ at her new job, Mary slips into a trance, playing a eerie dirge rather than hymns, as she sees The Man and other white-faced figures dancing in the pavillion. Put off by the music she played, the minister asks for Mary’s resignation.
The film builds a sense of pervasive horror as Mary Henry returns to the boarding house, where only her landlady and the companionship of her uncomfortably interested neighbour, John Linden (scenes that probably weren’t seen as abnormal at the time play like outright sexual harassment today), offer her respite from the continued presence of The Man. Like Christiane in Eyes Without a Face trapped by her doctor father as the object of his obsession, much of Carnival of Souls’ horror comes from Mary’s sense of helplessness in the face of her ostensible male protectors. Fired by the minister, not believed by anyone, Mary is faced with either being stalked by a ghoulish monster or a sexual predator. Either prospect is frankly horrifying.
Mary’s continued visions of this frightening figure drive her to the counsel of a psychiatrist. In the end Mary comes to believe that only by leaving town can she escape the haunting figures pursuing her. The film climaxes in a twist ending that while perhaps predictable, nonetheless works effectively to seal the film’s unsettling tone. While some might compare Carnival of Souls to a particularly drawn out episode of the Twilight Zone, it’s an obvious influence on later films, from George A. Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead to David Lynch’s twisted vision of small town, mid-twentieth century normalcy in Blue Velvet. Furthermore, the film’s stunning black and white cinematography makes great use of negative space and has a strong sense of framing. It has a few genuinely great images: some beautiful and others genuinely creepy.
I began by noting that the film transcends its clunky dialogue and conventionally bad acting and actually makes a strong cinematic impact. In part the film works in generating genuine fear through the performance of lead actress, Catherine Hilligoss. Hilligoss relies mostly on her expressive eyes, striking looks, and ability to project fear to make the most out of the film’s atmosphere. It’s a truly effective performance, communicated most forcefully through looks.
While Carnival of Souls is not a masterpiece, it is a great example of a film that works through the creativity of its makers to get the most out of what they have to work with. Though at times it comes across as unintentionally funny, it would make a perfect film to play in the background at your next Halloween party, letting the images and Hilligoss’s performance help set the mood.
Both Eyes Without a Face and Carnival of Souls have left their mark on the horror film, through their unsettling violence and nightmarish atmosphere respectively. Each film goes beyond either mad scientists or ghouls and portrays a terror that can be felt in many people’s normal lives: the legacy of trauma in each female protagonist’s lives has marked them in different ways, and made them the target of dark forces—scientific or supernatural. In each case, the performances of the lead actresses is central to the film’s horror; their terror is clearly seen in their eyes.
8 out of 10
Eyes Without a Face (Les yeux sans visage) (1960, France/Italy)
Directed by Georges Franju; screenplay by Boileau-Narcejac, Jean Redon & Claude Sautet based on the novel by Jean Redon; starring Pierre Brasseur, Edith Scob, Alida Valli, Juliette Mayniel.
7 out of 10
Carnival of Souls (1962, USA)
Directed by Herk Harvey; written by John Clifford; starring Catherine Hilligoss, Francis Feist, Sidney Berger, Art Ellison, Stan Levitt.