The Wasp Woman: A Celebration of 1960 Retrospective

The Wasp WomanTHE WASP WOMAN was producer-director Roger Corman’s attempt to cash in on the success of THE FLY (1958), and although it looks cheap and chintzy, having been shot in five days on a $50,000 budget, it nevertheless has aspects of interest. Historically, it is significant because it is the first film Corman directed for Filmgroup, his then newly formed production and distribution company. Corman had been the primary supplier of films for American International Pictures, which had grown wealthy catering to the drive-in market across the country, and he realized that he needed to get into distribution if he hoped to gain a larger share of the spoils. (While Filmgroup was consistently profitable, it never had a big time success, and Corman wound up abandoning it by 1966).
Secondly, THE WASP WOMAN, like some other early Corman films, raises feminist issues. The story concerns Janice Starlin (Susan Cabot) who runs her own beauty products company. In a board meeting, Starlin asks for an explanation as to why her company’s sales have fallen. The film’s protagonist, Bill Lane (Anthony Eisley), who points out that sales fell after Starlin’s face was removed from the company product line (it is implied this occurred recently when Janice turned 40), and the public did not trust the face of the model selected to replace her. Starlin begins to feel desperate as she imagines her life’s work collapsing due to the loss of her looks.
The third significant aspect of THE WASP WOMAN is the fine performance by Susan Cabot (herself 32 at the time). She convincingly portrays the elder Janice by wearing glasses, her hair in a severely pinned back hairstyle, and expressing herself more slowly and deliberately. However, her deliverance seems at hand with the appearance of a scientist named Zinthrop (Michael Mark) who avers the rejuvenating properties of enzymes derived from a wasp’s royal jelly (there were similar beliefs about the property’s of royal jelly from bees at the time). Zinthrop proves his work by injecting a guinea pig with his serum so that it turns into a younger, slimmer guinea pig (actually, Corman used a white mouse which makes this aspect a bit less convincing).
The WASP WOMAN’s script is by actor-writer, and long-time Corman associate, Leo Gordon, based on an idea by Kinta Zettuche.  Gordon makes Bill a bit of a cheapskate who tosses a coin to determine whether he or his date, Janice’s secretary Mary Dennison (Barboura Morris from THE DUNWICH HORROR),  will pay for dinner; she winds up paying, another extension of the exploitation of women theme in the film. Gordon reprises this gag during a scene when the couple are dining out with Bill’s boss Arthur Cooper (William Roerick), whom we see lose the toss and pick up the check. Cooper at first thinks Zinthrop is a con man, but then decides he is something more dangerous—a quack. Mary again gets taken advantage of when she shows the pair Zinthrop’s journal of his experiments, which she has taken without permission from her boss’s desk. Cooper takes the journal with him to study, leaving her vulnerable to her boss’s wrath once the theft has been discovered.
When Zinthrop’s formula has transformed a cat back into a kitten, Starlin is anxious to try it on herself, but after three weeks she is disappointed that she only looks five years younger and suggests upping the dose to accelerate the process. Zinthrop warns her that this would be dangerous, and becomes even more concerned when the kitten changes back into a cat with odd lumps on its back and attacks him with such ferocity that he feels forced to finish off the feline.
Unaware of this, Starlin injects herself with the formula and appears startlingly youthful the next day. Cabot sells this rejuvenation not only by removing her glasses and wearing a more flattering hairstyle (some Hollywood clichés never disappear), but also by acting more youthful and zesty. She announces a plan for a new campaign, though Cooper warns her of the dangers of conflating make-up and medicine in the public’s mind.
Corman’s limited budget and approach shows particularly during a sequence in which Zinthrop is hit by a moving vehicle – which almost takes a page out of Ed Wood’s playbook. We see Zinthrop step off a curb and walk out of frame, followed by the sound of a screeching tires with Zinthrop falling back into frame with a bruise on his noggin. Corman was skilled at blocking his actors to keep his static visuals lively, but he keeps reusing the same few angles on the same few sets over and over again, giving the movie something of a claustrophobic feel.
The Wasp Woman (1960)Naturally, since this was sold as a monster movie (with a highly misleading but delightfully outré poster), it’s time for the Wasp Woman to appear. Unfortunately, the make-up by Grant R. Keats proves grossly inadequate (a common failing in many of Corman’s early films). Corman wisely keeps the lighting level low to prevent giving the audience a really good look at the Wasp Woman, which consists of a black-furred mask with multi-faceted, bulging eyes and a pair of furry hands that have stingers on the thumbs. Cabot moves quickly and wears a black catsuit when wearing this outfit, but it is clear the transformation does not extend below her chin as her neck is normal. There is no explanation given why the formula sometimes makes her younger and more beautiful and at other times turns her into this monstrosity.
Her first victim is a night watchman played by Bruno Ve Sota (ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES). As Cabot told Tom Weaver and John Brunas, “I was supposed to bite their necks and draw blood. Roger wanted to see blood. And so when I attacked everybody, I had Hershey’s Chocolate syrup in my mouth—which I proceeded to blurp, right on their necks! What we did for Roger Corman!” Her victims, once killed, are never seen again (and just what she did with the bodies is never established).
THE WASP WOMAN’s score is by Fred Katz, who also did the score for Corman’s LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. But while his comical, jazzy score suited a film about a talking, carnivorous plant, it seems out of place here – jaunty and jovial at times that call for a more dark and exciting approach.
Zinthrop is discovered lying in a hospital bed, having suffered from brain damage. The scene provides a rare opportunity for Corman to have a cameo in one of his own productions, as Zinthrop’s doctor. Running out of the formula and planning the launch of her new line of rejuvenating cosmetics, a desperate Starlin arranges for Zinthrop to be taken to a bed at her business with an accompanying nurse, whom she attacks when she suddenly transforms right in front of the recovering Zinthrop.
The climax of THE WASP WOMAN proved particularly trying for Cabot. According to Mark McGee in his book Roger Corman, The Best of the Cheap Acts, Corman wanted to film the action climax of the film in a single take. Michael Mark was to pick up and throw a bottle marked carbolic acid at the wasp woman, and then Cabot was to duck down while a technician applied some smoke on her mask, after which she would pop up and then fall backwards through a window. Unfortunately for Cabot, Corman neglected to have Mark toss a break-away glass bottle; the real thing hit the actress like a rock, making her feel as if her lower teeth had been forced through her nose.*  Trooper that she was, she kept on, but the technician applied too much smoke, which quickly went inside the only opening in the mask, Cabot’s breathing passageso that she inhaled it into her lungs. She clawed and scratched at the mask on the mattress on the other side of the broken window, finally tearing it off but taking some of her skin in the process.
THE WASP WOMAN marked Cabot’s final film in Hollywood. She had previously worked on such epics as CARNIVAL ROCK, SORORITY GIRL, WAR OF THE SATELLITES, MACHINE-GUN KELLY and the infamous THE SAGA OF THE VIKING WOMEN AND THEIR VOYAGE TO THE WATERS OF THE GREAT SEA SERPENT. Sadly, she ended tragically when she was murdered by her own son, Timothy Scott Roman, at the age of 59. Her co-star Anthony Eisley would go on to star in Sam Fuller’s THE NAKED KISS, “The Brain of Colonel Barham” episode of THE OUTER LIMITS, NAVY VS. THE NIGHT MONSTERS, JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF TIME, and THE MIGHTY GORGA.
When Allied Artists picked up Filmgroup films for television syndication, they wanted THE WASP WOMAN to run longer, so director Jack Hill was hired to shoot additional footage, including an opening in which Michael Mark, wearing a beekeeper outfit, picks up a branch with a wasp’s nest on it; a scene in which Mark shows his prior boss a full grown Doberman and a Doberman puppy, claiming both are the same age, which results in his getting fired; and a sequence in which a flunky searches town for the missing scientist. These scenes added another 7 minutes to the original 66 minute running time, and most public domain copies of the film are from this television version.
wasp_woman_poster_02cropCorman has been revered for both promoting women. Gale Anne Hurd has said that she didn’t know sexism existed in Hollywood until after she stopped working for Corman, and Roger has given many talented female writers and directors their first opportunities to make a movie. His wife Julie Corman has herself become a respected producer, many of whose films have a feminist message. At the same time, Corman also understands the exploitation market.  THE WASP WOMAN reflects its maker with its combination of some cleverness and social consciousness with cost-cutting approach and meeting the basic needs of the marketplace.
THE WASP WOMAN (1960). Director-producer: Roger Coman. Screenplay: Leo Gordon from a story by Kinuta Zertuche. Art direction: Daniel Haller. Photography: Harry C. Newman. Music: Fred Katz. Editor: Carlo Lodato. Make-up: Grant R. Keats. Cast: Susan Cabot, Anthony Eisley, Michael Mark, Barboura Morris, William Roerick, Frank Gerstle, Bruno Ve Sota, Roy Gordon, Frank Wolff, Carolyn Hughes, Lynn Cartwright, Lani Mars
FOOTNOTE:

  • According to journalist Tom Weaver, who interviewed Susan Cabot, the bottle was made of break-away glass and would not have hurt Cabot if it had been empty. The problem was that the bottle was filled with water, which added mass to the impact when it hit her face.

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The Time Machine: A Celebration of 1960 Review

A colorful Hollywood adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel.

The Time Machine (1960)I cannot recall when I first heard of George Pal’s 1960 production of THE TIME MACHINE, but it must have been in one of the many books about science fiction cinema that I read as a teenager in the 1970s. At a very tender age, I had seen the first part of Pal’s WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953) on television; it was a school night, so I had to go to be before the conclusion, but the sight of the Martian death ray rising up out of the mysterious meteor and blasting three helpless humans left an indelible impression. Consequently, learning that Pal had produced another adaptation of an H.G. Wells novel was more than enough to pique my interest. I probably caught some or all of the film on television, but in the days before widescreen, high-def televisions and cable stations that show movies uncut and uninterrupted, I did not reckon a television viewing as really “seeing” a film. Fortunately, I got a chance to experience THE TIME MACHINE on the big screen in 1979, thanks to science fiction film festival at the old Tiffany Theatre on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Did it live up to my enthusiastic expectations? Yes and no.
I found THE TIME MACHINE to be a lavish and entertaining production, but at that time I was a film student rapturously enamored of modern cinematic technique, and THE TIME MACHINE was a bit too old-fashioned for my taste. Also, the special effects, although colorful, were sometimes transparent in their phoniness; I recall with disappointment noting the visible matte lines as the Time Traveller (Rod Taylor) walks through a future world with a stone idol in the background.
To some extent, I was also a bit disappointed with the divergence from Wells’ 1895 novel, which I had read in grade school. Although I did not know it at the time, Wells had written two versions of The Time Macine: the first was serialized in a magazine; the second was published in book form, and there were significant alterations between the two. In retrospect, I realize that, if there were elements missing from the film, it was not necessarily because a Hollywood screenwriter deleted them; the real reason might have been that Wells himself had removed them during his second pass of the novel. (For example, the original version has an episode near the end, set in the distant future, when the unnamed Time Traveler finds small mammals that – it is clearly implied – are the last evolutionary descendants of humanity. These creatures are missing from the version published in book form.)

Weena (Yvette Mimieux) menaced by a Morlock
Weena (Yvette Mimieux) menaced by a Morlock

Looking back, I am more willing to forgive THE TIME MACHINE for expanding and updating the source material to make it work in the film medium and to bring its concerns up to date for the audiences of 1960. The result is a film that is an interesting time capsule in its own right, in some ways quaint, even naive, but nevertheless entertaining, though perhaps not always for the reason originally intended. For example, the futuristic Eloi (mostly inarticulate in the book) speak perfectly good (albeit simple-minded) English; their childlike size has been increased to adult dimensions, and they are given blonde sugar-bowl hairstyles, so that they resemble apathetic California beach bums. On the one hand, this also allows for a captivating romantic interest in the form of the charming Yvette Mimieux (a more child-like character in the original). On the other hand, it feels very much like parental finger-wagging, with the Old World Pal using the Eloi to make a snide comment on the hedonistic “younger generation,” who are portrayed as lazy and ignorant, living the good life without lifting a finger to work or create. As the Time Traveler (here named George) says:

What have you done? Thousands of years of building and rebuilding, creating and recreating so you can let it crumble to dust. A million years of sensitive men dying for their dreams… FOR WHAT? So you can swim and dance and play.

The most interesting aspect of this, for me anyway, is that the appearance of the Eloi seems so clearly to be of 1960s. The decade has barely started, and Pal is presenting this image as if it will be instantly recognized by the target audience of presumably disapproving adults. I would have expected something that was a bit more of a holdover from the 1950s. Oh well, perhaps Pal, like Rod Taylor’s character, was able to see what the future would bring.

Rod Taylor as the time traveler, trying out his machine
Rod Taylor as the time traveler, trying out his machine

More important than the film’s attitude toward the youth of 1960, THE TIME MACHINE jettisons Wells’ evolutionary angle and the social criticism that went with it. In the book, the sun-dwelling Eloi and the cave-dwelling cannibalistic Morlocks are portrayed as the inevitable if unpleasant result of the schism between the affluent ruling class and the downtrodden workers. In the movie, mankind devolves into the Eloi and the Morlocks not because of unstoppable forces of biology and economics but because of a nuclear holocaust. The end result in the year 802,701 may seem almost the same, but there is a major difference: what has gone wrong in the movie, we are left in no doubt, can be undone.
Consequently, when the George disappears from his own era, never to return, we are not left to speculate that he may have been devoured by “the huge reptilian brutes of the Jurassic times”; instead, we know that he has gone back to the future to lift mankind back up from its dismal situation. Again, this may disappoint those who desire a faithful version of Wells, but the nuclear element gives the film its own context. Whether this is better or worse than the original is less important than the fact that, fifty years later, it renders THE TIME MACHINE as an interesting time capsule of an earlier era, its fears and concerns expressed in a popular artistic medium, in the same manner that Wells expressed the zeitgeist of his era in the novel.
Morlocks, cannibals living below ground
Morlocks, cannibals living below ground

Seen today, THE TIME MACHINE remains a reasonably elaborate affair, with impressive production values and fine special effects (even if these are somewhat dated, they do not undermine the movie.) The old-fashioned cinematic style, which previously disappointed me, now seems part of the film’s charm – a sort of look back at how movies used to be made. The Moorlock makeup is reasonably frightening (in part because their scenes are filmed mostly in underground darkness), turning them into memorable movie-monsters. And there is a decent amount of spectacle for the eye (e.g., exploding volcanoes, nuclear bombs). The film even has a fair degree of visual poetry, as when the Time Traveler asks to learn more about the Eloi by looking at their books: an Eloi takes George to a dilapidated library and hands him an ancient volume, which promptly crumble into dust in his fingers. George concludes ruefully that the books do, indeed, tell him all he needs to know about the Eloi.
Overall, while perhaps not a masterpiece, George Pal’s version of THE TIME MACHINE deserves to be considered a classic of science fiction cinema – a piece of old-fashoined filmmaking expressing a decent amount of intellectual ambition in the context of a rousing adventure story.
THE TIME MACHINE (1960). Produced and directed by George Pal. Screenplay by David Duncan, based on the novel by H.G. Wells. Cast: Rod Taylor, Alan Young, Yvette Mimieux, Sebastian Cabot, Tom Helmore, Whit Bissell, Doris Lloyd.
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The Vampire and the Ballerina: A Celebration of 1960 Review

The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960)Although THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA (originally L’amanti del Vampiro [“The Vampire’s Lover]) is certainly not the most important continental European or even Italian horror film made in 1960, it is nevertheless of significance for a number of reasons. In the first place, it marks the directorial debut of Renato Polselli. Polselli is one of the more intriguing and under-examined figures in European cinefantastique. A philosophy graduate whose films express a distinctive, personal take on psychology, sexuality and morality, striving for freedom from convention and hypocrisy, he continually explored and pushed the boundaries of acceptability.
Though THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA is relatively tame today, it nevertheless part of a continuum that saw Polselli gravitate towards ever weirder and wilder reaches of erotic and even outright pornographic horror over the next two decades. This is apparent from the fact that the film, like many of the director’s later works, suffered from distribution difficulties, not being released in Italy until 1962. Unfortunately by this time, THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA’s impact was inevitably diluted, given that both Mario Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY and Piero Regnoli’s (decidedly similar) THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE had been released during the interim.
THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA also gave prolific screenwriter and occasional director Ernesto Gastaldi his first credit in both capacities, co-writing the script and serving as assistant director.
The film co-stars Walter Brandi. His period as a leading Italian genre actor was short-lived; his other key appearances are in PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE (also 1960) and SLAUGHTER OF THE VAMPIRES (1962). He nevertheless maintained an association with the filone cinema, working as production manager on a number of Bruno Mattei’s productions in the 1980s, including the notorious zombie entry HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD.
The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960)Much like BLACK SUNDAY and THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE, THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA itself presents an early working through of the modern Gothic formula established a few years earlier Freda’s I VAMPIRI and Hammer’s CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HORROR OF DRACULA. Like Freda and Regnoli’s films, THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA is shot in black-and-white yet has a contemporary setting, in which the very existence of vampire seems an absurd, atavistic throwback.
This is accentuated in the opening sequences, which contrast the fatalistic world of the rural peasants (“Another victim; nothing can help her now”) with the scepticism of ballet-cum-burlesque dance troupe from the city (“Vampires seem so romantic in a way.” “Sure, you would think so, except that they only exist in movies.”)
Failing to heed the locals’ advice, some of the troupe stop at the supposedly deserted castle to take shelter from a storm. Predictably, they ignore the hints dropped by the Countess (“I don’t care for the world you live in – it is not my world”) and her striking resemblance to a 400 year old ancestress depicted in a portrait, precipitating the usual stalking and staking scenarios and confusions over who is what.
While things are eventually resolved in favour of the living over the undead and good over evil, Polselli nevertheless throws some provocative things our way.
Unlike the classic Dracula scenario, in which the Count is clearly dominant over his non-aristocratic female brides-slaves, THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA presents a cross-cutting of class and gender dynamics: Countess Alda was turned into a vampire by her servant, Herman, but seeks an escape from her unlife that he refuses to grant. Their relationship is thus characterised by a certain perversity born of mutual dependency, each alternately the master and slave and in need of the other’s recognition in a fundamentally sado-masochistic manner. (Hegel relevant to Italian schlock horror shock!)

The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960)
A reworking of the burial scene from VAMPYR, complete with coffins-eye view shot

The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960)The director also gives us a reworking of the famous burial scene from Dreyer’s VAMPYR, complete with coffins-eye view shot. Besides being a powerful image in its own right, it also serves as a reminder of the longer tradition of the European fantastique cinema and the impossibility of clearly delineating the better of its products as either ‘art’ or ‘trash’.
Here it’s also about knowing how to make a ‘proper’ film, one that follows the rules, but of making a choice not to. Though THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA is certainly more classical and conventional than Polselli’s later work, the traces are there. The film can also thereby be related to wider developments in the cinema around 1960. This was, after all, also the time of Godard’s BREATHLESS, Antonioni’s L’AVVENTURA, and other more self-consciously modernist films.
THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA (a.k.a. L’amanti del Vampiro [“The Vampire’s Lover], 1960). Directed by Renato Polselli. Written by Ernesto Gastaldi, Giuseppe Pellegrini, Renato Polselli. Cast, Helene Remy, Tina Gloriani, Water Brandi, Isarco Ravaioli, Gino Turini, Pier Ugo Gragnani, Brigitte Castor, Lut Maryk, Maria Luisa Rolando.
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House of Usher: A Celebration of 1960 Review

House of Usher (1960)Although many younger television and movie fans may think that the 1970s represent an archaic time in entertainment, there were certain advantages to growing up during this period. One was that television was all about local markets, and this made it necessary for local stations to find programming that would keep the viewer’s attention. One reservoir often tapped during this period was horror films, not only as late night fare, but also as afternoon and weekend entertainment. This television broadcasting circumstance worked to my advantage as a young fan of the wondrous and horrific: it opened a world of horror cinema that is hard to find today, short of rare videos at specialty stores or online. One such film that holds a special place in my heart is HOUSE OF USHER, which I knew by its alternative title in the U.S. and U.K. (as well as on the DVD cover I hold in my hand as I write this article), THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER.
I first saw this film as a teenager, and it came with a sense of great anticipation. At an early age, I had gravitated toward all things fantastic and the horrific, and this included the writings of Edgar Allen Poe. I developed a habit of searching each week’s TV Guide and circling the fantasy, science fiction, and horror film, so that I could watch as many as my parents would allow me to see. In past programming searches, I had learned of a series of horror films based upon Poe’s writings. I had already seen THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964) and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961), and enjoyed those immensely. Now HOUSE OF USHER was soon to air, and I was sure it would deliver the same cinematic frights. Thankfully, I was not disappointed.

Phillip (Mark Damon) demands that Roderick (Vincent Price) allow his sister to leave the House of Usher
Phillip (Mark Damon) demands that Roderick (Vincent Price) allow his sister to leave the House of Usher

HOUSE OF USHER tells the story of Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon), who has traveled to the house owned by the Usher family in search of his fiancé, Madeline Usher (Myrna Fahey). He is anxious for her to leave with him in order to be married, but Madeline’s brooding brother, Roderick Usher (Vincent Price), desperately desires that she stay in the home. He is convinced that she is tainted by the family curse, which Roderick feels he shares as well, as does the Usher house that is literally fracturing around them. After some conflict between these characters over Madeline’s fate, she apparently dies following an argument with her brother and is buried in the family crypt, located in the basement. Winthrop eventually discovers that Madeline was buried alive, with the full awareness of her brother, but has escaped her tomb to prowl the grounds as a mad woman intent on seeking vengeance for her death. Eventually, the last two remaining Ushers meet their tragic end, as does their house, fulfilling the alternative title of this film both metaphorically and literally.
Much critical analysis has been devoted to director Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations, often to the neglect of his other films, but this is not without good reason. Corman had himself been inspired by Poe as a young person, and was able to adapt this source material for a popular audience of the period. Although the Poe films were produced on modest budgets, Corman was able to maximize the investment in order to produce atmospheric and frightening films without recourse to lavish special effects or gory makeup, which would become popular in the 1970s and which dominate contemporary trends in horror.
British poster (note the X certificate) with the film's full title
British poster (note the X certificate) with the film's full title

HOUSE OF USHER, and the other series of Poe films directed by Corman, have the distinction of being part of the brief revival of American gothic horror that had been fueled by television broadcasts of the Universal Studios horror films of the 1930s and 1940s, as well as the fresh interpretations of these classics by Britain’s Hammer Films. While this classification has some merit, HOUSE OF USHER may also be understood as a hybrid in keeping with another trend in horror from the period. HOUSE OF USHER is in a sense Gothic, in that it takes place against the backdrop of a mansion that appears at first glance to be a haunted house; however, it is not haunted in typical supernatural fashion by ghosts or poltergeists. Instead, the haunting of the Usher House takes place through the troubled psyches of the homeowners who wrestle with their family legacy. In this sense it is similar to another classic of 1960 cinema, PSYCHO, which signaled a shift from supernatural horror in the 1930s and 1940s, and the science-fiction-horror of the 1950s, to an internalization of horror (horror is not the supernatural other; it is us) that would later take a quantum leap forward with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.
HOUSE OF USHER was well received by audiences in 1960. One of the “fun facts” included with the DVD release, as part of the MGM Presents Midnite Movies series, states that it “scored among the top 5 box office hits of 1960.” But how well does it hold up today? That depends upon what one is looking for in a horror film. If one is a fan of much of the drivel seen in contemporary horror cinema, then you are likely to find HOUSE OF USHER disappointing. Fortunately, if you have a broader appreciation for horror, you will likely find this film of continued value.
Roderick (PRice) at the funeral of his sister Medline (Myrna Fahey)
Roderick (PRice) at the funeral of his sister Medline (Myrna Fahey)

Beyond the rich atmosphere emodied by the Usher House, and the great performance of Vincent Price (who would continue to build on his work as the horror actor successor of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff), HOUSE OF USHER provides something for viewers who want to probe a little more deeply into horror. One of the film’s interesting facets is its treatment of the struggles of personal identity within the context of family legacy, particularly a dysfunctional one. Roderick Usher is convinced that he is doomed by the Usher curse, and that neither he nor his sister can escape. Rather than engaging in a flight of fancy and illusion by trying to flee, he has consigned not only himself but also his sister to what he sees as an inevitable outcome. Contemporary audiences are perhaps more aware of the dysfunctional nature of all families (to some degree) than were audiences of the 1960s, and this self-awareness – coupled with the realization that, despite a problematic family history, it may still be possible to transcend the “curse” of the lineage and the past – makes this film relevant for the present day, and an item for self-reflection.
If you are a horror fan who hails from my generation, then a new viewing of HOUSE OF USHER will provide a nice trip down memory lane. If you are a younger fan interested in considering a solid piece of horror filmmaking now celebrating its 50th  anniversary, then this film is worth adding to your library.
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Blood and Roses: A Celebration of 1960 Review

Blood and Roses (1960)I didn’t see BLOOD AND ROSES when it was originally released; I first encountered it while reading early books on genre films, where it was  mentioned very favorably, and I was particularly haunted by the image of a man in a bat-mask with spread wings bending over a beautiful woman, which appeared in the book The Seal of Dracula. The director was Roger Vadim, a French filmmaker whose work I would come to know well, both for its positive attributes (Vadim specialized in featuring the most beautiful women in Europe, and his work tended to have a lush look) and for its failings (consistently, he was an awkward storyteller with threadbare characters and not much substance). For those who view films for their storytelling, Vadim consistently disappoints, but for those who view movies for their indelible imagery, his work has many delights, and BLOOD AND ROSES remains one of his strongest features.
I was not impressed by Vadim’s other cinefantastique offerings (the first — and worst — part of SPIRITS OF THE DEAD and the Jane Fonda vehicle, BARBARELLA). Though BLOOD AND ROSES shares the same pros and cons, it is by far the best of Vadim’s genre films, and it is significant and important in its own right. Once more, the words are often stilted, the characters underdeveloped, and the plot barely coherent, but this film has images that will haunt you and become part of our collective consciousness.
Vadim’s original title for the film was ET MOURIR DE PLASIR, which translates as “To Die With Pleasure,” and the European version was 13 minutes longer than the 74-minute re-edit that made it to U.S. shores . Still, to see Americanized BLOOD AND ROSES is to see the origin of  so-called Eurotrash horror; much of the basic imagery would be mined in that particular sub-genre for decades to come, including the pioneering effort to feature a lesbian subtext.
Blood and Roses poster
Since BLOOD AND ROSES is difficult to see, I will provide some details concerning its plot and characters. The film is narrated by the spirit of Millarca, a member of the Karnstein family, who kept a villa in Italy and were rumored to be vampires. Though set in what was then contemporary times, Millarca identifies with the world of the spirit, which she says is the Old World. She begins relating the story of her current incarnation.
At Karnstein Castle, Carmilla Karnstein (Elsa Martinelli) from Austria has come to visit her beloved cousin Leopoldo (Mel Ferrer) before his wedding to Georgia (Annette Vadim). Leopoldo has hired a premier pyrotechnician Carlo Ruggieri (Alberto Bonucci) to put on a fireworks display for the engagement party, which he intends to set up at the site of a ruined abbey nearby, along with its adjacent cemetery.
Gradually we discover that Carmilla has fallen deeply in love with her cousin Leopoldo and has become bipolar — one minute deliriously happy and the next hopelessly depressed. Ruggieri’s fireworks set off a hidden cache of German explosives, frightening the crowd and loosening Millarca’s sepulcher. Dressed in a white wedding dress, Carmilla wanders through the smoke-drenched abbey, drawn by the presence of Millarca, who takes possession of her body.
The next morning Carmilla walks back to the castle and falls asleep on a bed, where Leopoldo and Georgia find her. Georgia watches as Leopoldo takes Carmilla to her room, observing, “I ought to be jealous of her, but I’m not.” Later, Georgia bends over Carmilla only for Carmilla to suddenly grab her by the wrist with an ice-cold hand. This bit of entrapment becomes linked to a subsequent scene in which groundskeeper Guiseppe (Serge Marquand) has captured a fox and put it on a leash for Georgia, only for it to break away from her at the approach of Carmilla.
BLOOD AND ROSES then delights in giving hints that Carmilla has become a vampire, as when Georgia asks her if she likes the sun, and Carmilla replies, “No, it burns.” There is a dream-like scene of Guiseppe standing next to a fire, and through the flames we see the approaching figure of Carmilla in a white dress, only for her to appear on the other side of him, moving away. Carmilla recalls the abdication of the Hapsburgs as if it were a recent event, and suddenly knows how to dance to classical music, connecting her to another time. Once a talented equestrienne, Carmilla now finds horses start and shy away in her presence.
Millarca, having taken possession of Carmilla, announces that she has to return to her grave and that she needs “nourishment — blood!” as she eyes Lisa (Gabriella Farinon), the family’s servant girl who lives in a cottage nearby. Carmilla pursues her, and Lisa is later found dead by two young girls who tend the sheep. The doctor who examines the body pronounces her death an accident, though Guiseppe tells the girls that a vampire is to blame, and the girls later take to wearing garlands of garlic.
Blood and Roses (1960)There follows a few set pieces that BLOOD AND ROSES is most famous for. During a rainstorm, Georgia confronts Carmilla, telling her that she knows Carmilla is in love with Leopoldo. Carmilla tells her that she’s wrong as Carmilla is dead. Georgia gives Carmilla a red rose and promises to always be her friend. A thorn of the rose pricks Georgia’s lip and Carmilla kisses the blood away, thinking, “One drop is not enough. I must have more, much more.” (How much more is probably part of what was excised from the American release). Per vampire legend, the rose quickly loses its color once Carmilla touches it.
Complicating matters, Leopoldo invites Carmilla to join them on their honeymoon to the Caribbean, but when Carmilla sees herself in a mirror, she sees a spreading bloodstain on her white blouse near her heart — the stain only visible in the mirror image. This panics her, causing her to flee to her bedroom and rend her dress. Concerned, Leopoldo comes to her and begins kissing her on her bed.
The final great setpiece is a dream sequence reminiscent of the work of Cocteau. The dream is Georgia’s and is presented in black and white with color vividly intruding in two instances. The first is of Carmilla with a white scarf around her neck from which spurts crimson blood. The dead Lisa swims by the window and Georgia follows her by opening the window and diving into the water – wandering past dancers at the estate, a gateway to the real world (with color and a man on a horse carrying a woman), a corridor with many women, and finally two nurses escorting her to an operating room with all the nurses wearing bright ruby gloves. There she sees Millarca as the surgeon and Carmilla as the patient on the operating table. The two women seem to embrace and spin as Georgia wakes up screaming.
The cinematography is by Claude Renoir, who worked with Renoir on THE GOLDEN COACH and THE RIVER, and later shot SPIRITS OF THE DEAD and BARBARELLA for Vadim, as well as the James Bond adventure THE SPY WHO LOVED ME. The great costumes, including that haunting bat mask, are by Marcel Escoffier, and Juan Andre and Robert Guisgand handled the memorable production design.
Blood and Roses (1960)As in Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, near the end a doctor offers a rational explanation of what has been transpiring. He says that Carmilla has been sick for some time now and, given the impossibility of her love for Leopoldo, retreated into a world of fantasy, living like a child in a dream where she could take Georgia’s place and have Leopoldo all to herself. Overhearing the explanation, Carmilla wanders off toward the abbey, where the army is detonating remaining explosives, and she is killed, with blood dripping down her blouse as in the dream when her body lands on some barbed wire.
However, Millarca gets the last word: as Leopoldo and Georgia return from their honeymoon and travel from Paris to Rome by plane, Leopoldo fails to notice that the rose he gives to Georgia suddenly fades at her touch. Millarca has finally claimed her elusive lover by possessing yet another victim.
Though talky and slow at the start, BLOOD AND ROSES features ripe imagery that would keep other filmmakers such as Mario Bava and Roger Corman very busy over the rest of the decade, doing their own variations of the tropes Vadim presents here.

A nightmare image snipped from the American version
An excised image we would love to se restored on DVD.

While BLOOD AND ROSES was lensed in Technicolor and the Technirama widescreen process, thus far Paramount has seen fit to release only a faded pan & scan presentation on VHS in the ep mode, and then only in its dubbed and shortened American version. Now if only dedicated cultists could convince Paramount that this rarely screened classic deserves to be seen on video in this country in its original and complete form.
BLOOD AND ROSES (Et Mourir de Plasir [“To Die with Pleasure], 1960). Directed by Roger Vadim. Screenplay by Claude Brule, adaptation and dialogue by Roger Vadim and Roger Vailland; based on “Carmilla” by J. Sheridan LeFanu. Cast: Mel Ferrer, Elsa Martinelli, Annette Vadim, Rene-Jean Chauffard, marc Allegret, Alberto Bonucci, Serge Marquand, Gabriella Farinon, Renato Speziali, Edith Peters, Giovanni Di Benedetto.
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Atom Age Vampire: A Celebration of 1960 Review

ATOM AGE VAMPIRE was a film that haunted me as a youngster. It seemed a very modern nightmare, a science fiction variation on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. A well-meaning doctor who willingly turned himself into a monster to both prove his theories and possess the woman of his obsessive desire. The dark, oppressive atmosphere, seedy locations, and dream-like transformations made many appearances in my own dreams. After local New York stations stopped showing horror films on a weekly basis, I didn’t see it for many years.
I was not an early adopter of DVDs, but joined the ranks when I bought my second Windows PC (I had an Amiga originally, used mostly for video work.) Since it has two DVD drives, I picked up a couple of cheap DVDs, figuring “what the heck, why not?” One of them was ATOM AGE VAMPIRE.
Did it hold up after all those years? Well, yes and no. It’s still an atmospheric little B&W flick, but it’s also pretty cheesey. However, that’s not a damning flaw, to me — but I have to admit it’s not nearly as good as I remembered.

atom_age_vampire_poster_02
Poster for the original Italian version

ATOM AGE VAMPIRE was a 1960 Italian production originally titled Seddok, l’erede di Satana, which means something along the lines of Seddok, the Heir (or Inheritor) of Satan. Directed and co-written (with the award winning Alberto Bevilacqua [EYE OF THE CAT]) by film and TV veteran Anton Guilio Majano, it was not released in a big way in the U.S. until 1963. (By Topaz Film Corporation, though IMDB says there was a 1961 release by Manson Distributing Corporation, which seems to have specialized in importing Italian films.)
It must have made it into TV syndication packages pretty quickly, because I first saw it around 1969-70.
The film features generally good low-key photography by Aldo Giordani (MY NAME IS TRINITY), which becomes strikingly chiaroscuro in some of the “horror” scenes. That points to one of the film’s problems; it suffers from some slight inconsistencies of style and pacing. Some of the material, such as the exposition and soap opera-ish scenes fall flat or appear rushed. It’s clear that certain sequences received more time and attention than others. This of course is not at all unusual in modestly budgeted films.
It’s hard to judge the writing and acting, as ATOM AGE VAMPIRE film is a dubbed film. I happen to be one of those ‘philistines’ who actually prefers dubbed horror/sci-fi imports, as I see them as dreams transcribed onto celluloid, and reading is inimical to dreaming — I hold them to be different aesthetic and cognitive processes.
Perhaps more importantly, dubbed is how I saw these films in my youth and nostalgia is an important factor in my enjoyment of them. As Italian films of this period were nearly always post-synched, English dubbing probably detracts little from their cinematic values.
atom_age_vampire_poster_01
Poster for the English-language version

AAV’s credits list Richard McNamara as “Director of English Language Version” (McNamara, according to IMDB. was a US solider who stayed in Italy, and became an actor  mainly doing dubbing work, eventually becoming a dubbing director).
“English Dialog” is credited to John Hart (not the Lone Ranger actor). To some extent, they are responsible for the story line (which may be slightly different from the original) and the occasionally awkward phrasing.
Nevertheless, I suspect the dialog and acting were always florid and theatrical. There’s quite a lot of hysterical energy underlying most of the performances, which can be quite entertaining in its own right. Everyone seems to feel everything so intensely.
Alberto Lupo is quite good as the brilliant but obsessive Dr. Levin, and Susanne Loret is well cast as disfigured exoctic dancer Jeanette Moreneau. Roberto Berta is effective as the doctor’s loyal, mute servant Sacha, and Ivo Garrani underplays everyone as the slightly humorous police investigator.
Monster of the Id?
Monster of the Id?

The transformations I mentioned before still retain that odd, dream-like quality. They seem to use an unusual mix of lap dissolves and animated changes to the make-up, and possibly some skip-frame printing. This imparts an unrealistic and slightly queasy-feeling kinesthetic to the healing of the dancer’s scars — and especially the monster transmorgifications.
The rationale for said transformations is interesting. The doctor discovers he finds killing to obtain the glands he needs to cure the object of his experiments disfigurement too much against his professed essential nature — and fears to be identified and caught. He feels that if he uses his mutagenic ‘Derma 25’ to become a monster, he will be capable of any monstrous act, without regret. (A somewhat medieval view for a man of science.)
As we see, what it really does is release his inner brute, strips away his thin veneer of compassion and civilization. Like Stevenson’s Hyde is often portrayed, Levin’s other self is vaguely ape-like savage, cunning and furtive. He’s the Id set loose, and as always in films of this era, once freed he will eventually prove dominant.
Many have carped that ATOM AGE VAMPIRE features no vampire (despite the animated bat of the titles), but the monster is indeed engaged in a vampiric activity: stealing the vital essences of young women. And the fact that Dr. Levin’s formula was originally created to cure radiation burns places it firmly in the atom age.
Others hold that it’s a rip-off of EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1959), a charge with some merit. However, one could argue that both films owe something to 1956’s I, VAMPRI (THE DEVIL’S COMMANDMENT).
Buy DVD
Buy DVD

The DVD I viewed (a DVD Alpha video of the now public domain film) runs about 69 minutes, though it’s listed as 87 minutes on the box. I believe this is a TV print, and it’s definitely missing some footage from the TV run time. Possibly a little as a minute, as 70-72 mins. was sufficent for most time slots back then. I’m sure the strip-tease sequence in the trailer never made it to US Television.
However, there’s a fragmentary shot of Dr. Levin sitting at his desk, and it may have been a cut transformation scene, as it precedes the first ‘outside’ murder. I seem to recall more action with the Atom Age Vampire itself in its broadcast TV days, and the trailer appears to support this notion.
Though possibly, a larger focus on the murder monster and less emphasis on angst-ridden soap could easily be an artifact of the rather better film I built in my memory. For what are half-remembered horrors but fuel for the dream machine?
Atom Age Vampire (1960)ATOM AGE VAMPIRE (Seddok, l’erede di Satana, 1960)
Starring Alberto Lupo, Susanne Loret, Sergio Fantoni, Franca Parisi, Andrea Scotti
Directed by Anton Giulio Majano
Screenplay by Anton Giulio Majano, Alberto Bevilacqua, Gino De Santis, Piero Monviso
Format: Black & White, DVD, NTSC
Language: English
Region: Region 1
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Number of discs: 1
Running Time: Listed as 87 minutes, timed at slightly more than 69 minutes.
No Extras on the Alpha Video Disc.
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Sense of Wonder: Celebrating 1960's Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Films

Barbara Steele in BLACK SUNDAY, one of the great horror films of 1960
Barbara Steele in BLACK SUNDAY, one of the great horror films of 1960

PSYCHO, which opened on June 16, 1960, recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, leading to numerous retrospectives on the Internet, including this week’s Cinefantastique Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Podcast 1:20. The accolades were well deserved, because five decades later, Alfred Hitchcock’s film still stands as one of the towering achievements in the horror genre; however, it is worth remembering that other great genre films were released the same year, including PEEPING TOM and HOUSE OF USHER (also covered in the podcast). In fact, 1960 was something of a banner year: although the number of titles released was relatively small (about half as many as last year, for example), many have endured as classics worthy of inclusion on any all-time best list: BLACK SUNDAY, THE BRIDES OF DRACULA, CITY OF THE DEAD, EYES WITHOUT A FACE, JIGOKU, THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL.
With that in mind, it seems like a nice idea to launch a blog-a-thon celebration of 1960’s horror, fantasy, and science fiction films. We have invited our contributors to cast their minds back through the mists of time and summon forth their memories and impressions of these classic efforts, with an eye toward defining why these films have endured and why, fifty years later, they are still worth watching. As with our previous blog-a-thon (Favorite Nightmares from Elm Street), the posts will be serialized, meaning that each entry will contain, at the bottom, a linked list of all other posts in the series, making it easy for you to navigate back and forth.
Being Cinefantastique, we already have a head-start on the theme, with several reviews and retrospectives already in our archives. Unfortunately, our Serial Posts feature, which automatically links the series together, allows a post to belong to only one series; consequently, these pre-existing posts may not show up, if they were already assigned to some other series. In order to avoid any omissions, I am manually including links to relevant articles that already exist in our archives:

  • BLACK SUNDAY – retrospective article: Mario Bava’s classic black-and-white nightmare of vampirism and witchcraft, starring the Queen of Horror, Barbara Steele
  • BLOOD AND ROSES – retrospective look at director Roger Vadim’s adaptation of “Carmilla.”
  • THE BRIDES OF DRACULA – review
  • CITY OF THE DEAD – DVD review: great moody piece set in a spooky New England town, with a structure that parallels PSYCHO
  • EYES WITHOUT A FACE – retrospective review: French director George Franju’s art house horror film, one of the genre’s greats
  • PSYCHO – review: the Hitchcock classic
  • PSYCHO – Interview with Anthony Perkins: the actor who brought Norman Bates to life
  • PSYCHO – interview with Joseph Stefano: the screenwriter who adapted Robert Bloch’s novel
  • THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL – review: under-rated but very inventive variation on Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale, from Hammer Films

Over the coming days and weeks, we will be adding more, so check back from time to time as we add entries on everything from DINOSAURUS to THE TIME MACHINE, from THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER to o THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, from BRIDES OF DRACULA to JIGOKU to TERROR OF THE TONGS .
All in all, 1960 was a very good year.
[serialposts]

The Cinefantastique Post-Mortem Podcast 1:20.1

post-mortem podcast graphi copy

This week features a bold new experiment in podcasting, the likes of which have seldom if ever been seen in our lifetimes! At the end of this week’s Cinefantastique Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Podcast 1:20, we let the recorder run on just to see what happened. The result is the Cinefantastique Post-Mortem Podcast, a free-form chat among Dan Persons, Lawrence French, and Steve Biodrowski, who hash over uber-geek details and issues too esoteric to be included in the regular podcast.
For this week’s debut, they follow up on the Cinefantastique Podcast 1:20, which delivered 50th anniversary tributes to a trio of classic horror films from 1960. The Post-Mortem Podcast delves into some of the myths and legends surrounding Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO. Also on the menu: a discussion of whether the legacy of STAR WARS and JAWS can be held responsible for today’s summer blockbusters, an issue addressed in this previous Sense of Wonder editorial.


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Psycho, Peeping Tom, House of Usher: Cinefantastique Podcast

Anthony Perkins in PSYCHO, Carl Boem in PEEPING TOM, Vincent Price in HOUSE OF USHER
Anthony Perkins in PSYCHO, Carl Boehm in PEEPING TOM, Vincent Price in HOUSE OF USHER

With no new horror, fantasy, and science fiction films opening nationwide this week, the Cinefantastique Podcast turns its eye on the 50th anniversary of a trio of terror from the year 1960: Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, Michael Powell’s PEEPING TOM, and Roger Corman’s HOUSE OF USHER. Relax and sit back in your time machine as Dan Persons, Lawrence French, and Steve Biodrowski offer their retrospective analysis of these classic films. Also this week: an interview with Richard Clabaugh, director of EYEBORGS, due on home video on July 6. Plus the usual compilation of news, events, and upcoming releases.

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Eyes without a Face (1960) – 50th Anniversary Retrospective

“The future, Madame, is something we should have started on a long time ago.” – Doctor Genessier (Pierre Brasseur) in EYES WITHOUT A FACE.

Imagine a beautiful dream of lyrical black-and-white images, of a lonely young woman, flitting through her home like a silent spectre, calling her fiance on the phone to listen to his voice but not speaking herself – because that would reveal she is still alive, when the world thinks her dead. Her home is also her prison. Her face, hidden behind a mask that makes her resemble a mannequin, is a ruined mess, the result of an automobile accident. Her father is a brilliant surgeon who has faked her death and is trying to restore her beauty – a process that involves kidnapping look-alike victims and transplanting their faces onto hers. When you see the operation in full view of the unblinking camera, you realize that your dream has erupted into a nightmare whose shock derives from the way the graphic imagery violates the poetic beauty of the rest of the film.
This is the brilliant strategy used by director Georges Franju in EYES WITHOUT A FACE (Les Yeux sans Visage), a compelling and clinically brilliant combination of French art film and shock horror. The plot reads like little more than conventional B-movie schlock: Doctor Genessier, driven by guilt (for he was driving the car during the accident that disfigured his daughter), is the archetypal mad scientist who will stop at nothing to see his scheme succeed. His is aided and abetted by his faithful servant, in this case a beautiful nurse, Louise (Alida Valli), rather than a deformed hunchback. Beautiful young women are kidnapped to be used as fodder for his experiments, but their faces bring only temporary respite, the transplanted tissue inevitably succumbing to necrosis and dying away on the face of the wounded Christiane Genessier (Edith Scob). Alerted by Christiane’s suspicious fiance Jacques (Francois Guerin), the police hatch a scheme to see what Dr. Genessie is really up to, but their plans go awry, placing another victim in danger and precipitating a final, violent confrontation that brings the horror to a climax.
What raises EYES WITHOUT A FACE to the level of a masterpiece is the thorough conviction with which the story is treated, at all levels: the performances, direction, photography, and art direction – all combine to create a world in which fragile, poetic beauty is periodically shattered by clinical horror. The juxtaposition of the contrasting imagery is, in some miraculous fashion, entirely seamless, all part and parcel of the same picture, never feeling gratuitously grafted on. In effect, it is as if Christiane’s enigmatic, mysterious masks were periodically peeled away to reveal the hidden ugliness beneath the beautiful facade. The result is not merely frightening but also genuinely disturbing – and thoroughly engrossing from start to finish. This is the first “art” horror film, and it’s cross-over appeal between the art house and the grindhouse should not be overestimated.

THE HISTORY

Edith Scob as Christiane Genessier

EYES WITHOUT A FACE was made at a time when recent box office trends had revealed at audience apetite for graphic horror. At the end of the 1950s, after nearly a decade of sci-fi monster movies (usually involving atomic radiation and/or interstellar aliens), Gothic films had made a resurgence, thanks largely to England’s Hammer Productions, which released such titles as Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958). Although the choice of subject matter was old-fashioned, the approach was new and bold – and unafraid of the occasional application of blood.
French producer Jules Borkon wanted to ride this new bandwagon to success, and he hired Franju to create the first French horror film. The closest that refined French cinema had come to the genre was Henri-Georges Clouzot’s1955 Diaboliques, which features a horrifying resurrection sequence at the climax; however, the script ultimately explained away the horror as trickery, and the film works mostly as a mystery thriller in the Alfred Hitchcock mold.
Franju eschewed any attempt to hide behind the “mystery-thriller” label. Working with the Diaboliqueswriting team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (whose other credits include the novel on which Hitchcock based his film Vertigo), Franju crafted a film that was not afraid to shock. Curiously, EYES WITHOUT A FACE was designed specifically to avoid censorship expected problems, yet Franju never seems to be suffering from undue restraint or directing with one arm tied behind his back.
The director’s most famous previous work had been The Blood of Beasts, a documentary that intercut pleasant scenes of everyday in France with the carnage of a slaughterhouse – presumably to make some kind of statement about the bloody horrors that are a secret, hidden part of civilized society – usually kept out of sight and out of mind.
“I’m led to give documentary realism the appearance of fiction,” he once explained of his work, and one could say that he employed a similar to great effect – lending fiction the appearance of a documentary – in EYES WITHOUT A FACE. For despite the artistic trappings that surround Christiane and her plight, the majority of the film is actually devoted to her father’s quest to cure her – which is presented with the clinical detachment of a documentary, emotionless medical jargon and antiseptic surgical procedure underlining the appalling horror of Dr. Gessenier’s actions.
The result led to quite a few shocked reactions when the film was originally released. EYES WITHOUT A FACE was the first full-blown French horror film, and French critics did not know what to make of it. Some were outraged and dismissive; those who liked it had to rationalize it, pretending it was not a horror film but something else, such as a film noir masquerading the genre label.
The shocking surgery scene, featuring full-frontal face removal

And it was not only the French who were caught by surprise; in fact, initial reactions to the film seem to have predated The Exorcist(1973) by over a decade: At the Edinburgh Film Festival, seven viewers reportedly fainted during the infamous surgery scene. Apparently pleased with the reaction, Franju remarked, “Now I know why Scotsmen wear skirts.”
Unfortunately, the U.S. distributor did not quite know what to do with the film, which was retitled The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus and dubbed into English for stateside distribution in 1960, when it was. released on double bill with the rather more conventional monster flick, The Manster. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine what teen-aged drive-in audiences made of this unusual French film, but it’s safe to say that, in its English form, it never earned a reputation as a beloved horror classic.
Fortunately, the reputation of EYES WITHOUT A FACE has only grown with the passing of years, especially with art house screenings in its original un-dubbed form, under its original title, followed by a Criterion Collection DVD release, loaded with bonus features. The film is now often regarded as a unique masterpiece, so much so that including it in a list of the Top 100 Horror Films of all time is hardly controversial, despite the film’s art house approach to what is, basically, a grizzly mad scientist’s tale.

THE HORROR! THE HORROR!

As in Hammer’s Curse of Frankenstein, much of the horror in EYES WITHOUT A FACE is moral and/or psychological. Both films deal with a brilliant surgeon who is figuratively blind to the horror he leaves in his wake while pursuing his goals.(Ironically, Peter Cushing, who played the Baron in Curse, would go on to star in Corruption, which is more or less a remake of EYES WITHOUT A FACE). Dr. Genessier has a streak of kindness in him, but he is also the ultimate authoritarian, who is seeking to repair his daughter less because he loves her than because he needs to undo his own mistake. This clinical detachment is underlined in his nurse, Louise, who (like the enablers of the holocaust) obediently follows orders, never doubting the superior wisdom of the Doctor. The psychological impact of this on Christiane is never explored in depth; we merely project it onto that frozen rubber face she wears, and her actions at the end eventually spell it out for us.
So much for the intangible horror. What does EYES WITHOUT A FACE actually show?

Christiane prepares to turn the dogs loose.
Christiane prepares to turn the dogs loose.

We never really see Christiane’s ruined face, except in a series of still photographs that chart the decay of her latest transplant. However, the film is far from reticent when it comes to graphic horror.

  • The most famous sequence is the skin graft operation, which is handled in a single, uninterrupted shot. The imagery – a face literally being dissected from a head – is guaranteed to send even modern audiences into paroxysms of loathing and disgust, squirming and averting their eyes from the screen. (To be completetly honest, if you overcome your fear long enough to watch closely, you can more or less see through the effect, yet the overall seriousness of the approach manages to sell the scene, regardless.)
  • At the climax, when Christiane decides enough is enough, she takes a scalpel and cuts her father’s latest intended victim loose. Louise appears and demands that Christiane give her the scalpel. Christiane gives it to her all right – burying it deep in her neck! The shock of the scene derives from its matter-of-fact presentation, which is utterly convincing. The real kicker, however, is Louise’s reaction. Instead of the expected scream of pain, she offers up only a tear of sadness and the plaintive question “Why?” Ever the loyal servant, she cannot understand Christiane’s homicidal rebellion against her father’s plans.
  • Somewhat less graphic, but equally cathartic, Christiane then lets loose the dogs that her father keeps around as guinea pigs (apparently, he performs vivesection experiments on the side) and sets them upon her father.

As the vengeful dogs tear their breathren’s tormentor to pieces (rather like the human animal hybrids do to Dr. Moreau in 1932’s Island of Lost Souls), Christiane wanders from her house out into the nearby woods, a lost soul still, but at least now free, accompanied by doves that flit like the Holy Spirit above her, making us see her as some kind of strange angel. Where will she go? What kind of future, realistically, is there for her? Will she reunite with her fiance? It doesn’t matter. The poetry of the image is ending enough to satisfy the eye and the mind. Anything that might or might not happen afterwards is irrelevant.

TRIVIA

In the J-horror film Ring 0: Birthday (a prequel to Ring), troubled psychic girl Sadako works as part of a theatre group in Tokyo that is presenting a stage version of EYES WITHOUT A FACE. Although the title is not mentioned (at least in the English subtitles), the dialogue leaves no doubt about the identity of the play.
EYES WITHOUT A FACE (Les Yeux sans Visage, 1960). Directed by George Franju. Screenplay by Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac, Claude Sautet, and Jean Redon, from the novel by Redon; dialogue by Pierre Gascar. Cast: Pierre Brasseur – Docteur Genessier; Alida Valli – Louise; Juliette Mayniel – Edna; Edith Scob – Christiane Genessier; Francois Guerin – Jacques Vernon; Alexandre Rignault – Inspector Parot; Beatrice Altariba – Paulette.
[serialposts]

This article originally identified EYES WITHOUT A FACE as a 1959 film; however, IMDB lists it as 1960.