Directors: Georges Franju/Terence Fisher
By Roderick Heath
What’s the greatest horror film ever made?
Everyone will have a different answer to that, of course. Some will even say it’s an oxymoron. Lately, I caught up with two films that present themselves effectively for the nomination.
In many ways, they couldn’t be more different. Eyes Without a Face was a slow, unnerving, arty one-off for Georges Franju, a French filmmaker with a single previous credit—a documentary about slaughterhouses called L’Sang des Bêtes (1946). The Devil Rides Out is rocket-paced, entertaining, and artful. One is made by a French poet slumming and rising up with a pearl, the other by an English professional presenting his sleekest piece of craftsmanship. And yet they also share some qualities. Both films make the fantastic plausible and enthralling with solid settings, realistic detail, and minimalism in their special effects and mise en scène. Both films tell tales that involve a slow dive from a world of the everyday into bottomless pits of depravity. Both were unpopular at the time of their releases.
It’s virtually impossible to see Eyes Without a Face without prior knowledge as to what it’s about, and yet the way it introduces its audience to its grisly tale as a starkly unfolding mystery is cinematic narrative intelligence defined. The introductory scene instantly grabs attention, raising dozens of questions as it presents them. We see a woman (Alida Valli, in fact) driving a car—her face a map of anxiety—keeping an eye on the suited, hatted figure resting on the backseat and becoming electric with fear when a pair of headlights speed up behind her vehicle. It proves to be just an overtaking van. What is she afraid of? The answer comes in the subtlest, deftest of shots—the figure in the back of the car slumps over slightly, unmistakably a corpse. Soon, Valli is dragging this body, which proves to be that of a young woman, to dump in a lake.
The police cannot identify the corpse, so they call in two men who both have missing daughters, one of whom, Dr. Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), a reputed surgeon, immediately identifies it as his girl. But it isn’t. His daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob), was horrendously injured in a car accident and disappeared from the hospital. She lives in his villa up the road from the small hospital he runs, and is so disfigured she weard an eerie mask that mimics her proper face and yet travesties it. The discovered corpse was actually the result of a botched attempt by her father to perform a complete facial graft. The murdered girl is laid to rest in the cemetery under the stern eye of the doctor, his assistant Louise (Valli), whom he rescued from disfigurement, and Jacques (François Guérin), Christiane’s fiancé. Christiane places the blame for both the accident and his sickening quest on her father’s relentless desire for control. Indeed, for all Génessier and Valli’s “caring” motives, their icy savagery is revealed as all the more appalling as Valli tricks a young Swiss student (Juliette Mayniel) into their lair, where Génessier, with surgical skill and precision, slices off her face.
The long operation sequence, which Franju’s camera observes in fixated shots, were highly daring in 1959. Some have suggested Fanju’s film, along with Psycho and La Maschera del Demonio (both 1960), initiated the drift toward splatter-gore movies. But the scene is utterly functional, and quite sensitizing, providing an ideal counterpoint to the shallow showiness of modern equivalents. It does prefigure and well outclass elements of Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005) in exploiting the terror in the notion of awakening in a basement to find someone slicing bits off you. Franju’s approach to gore is interesting. He presents the surgery scene with uncompromising directness, but avoids properly showing Christiane’s disfigurement, for which we have been well prepped by the police discussions (“…and the rats,” mentions one cop disquietingly in discussing her injuries) and the reaction of Mayniel when she sees her.
The taut realism of most of Eyes Without a Face, carefully etched by Eugen Schufftan’s barren cinematography, stands in effective contrast to the potential silliness of its story, not so far from The Raven (1936) or Circus of Horrors (1959), as well as to the carefully placed flourishes of fairytale poeticism that punctuate the tale in which it anticipates Argento’s Suspiria. Christiane is associated with white doves (a pre-accident portrait of her shows her with one seated on her hand) and is confirmed as an innocent for whom life both without her face is impossible but for whom the process of getting a new one is even worse. With her doll-like mask, childish clothes, essential fragility, and friendship with birds and the dogs caged in the basement (which her father uses for his torturous grafting experiments), she evokes a Snow White, Gretel, or Rapunzel at the mercy of an evil sorcerer and stepmother. It’s also not so fantastic as we’d like to think: in her control-freak father seen by the world as a gravely responsible authority figure, keeping his daughter in a state of perpetual juvenility in a home/prison, her beauty spoilt by his actions and henceforth in his hands, it’s not hard to see parallels with the recent Josef Fritzl case in Austria.
The turns of the story’s screws are careful and relentless. The graft of the Swiss girl’s face is apparently successful, Christiane restored to radiant beauty for a time, hoping to live a life for the girls who have been sacrificed as well as for herself. But cell necrosis sets in, and her father has to cut her new face off again, a tale baldly told in a series of photographs he’s taken of her new, then slowly rotting visage. A police investigation proves incredibly half-hearted and only succeeds in placing in danger a pretty, young shoplifter (Beatrice Altariba), who volunteers as bait. Therefore, the film can only end in a kind of familial apocalypse. To save this potential victim, Christiane stabs her evil pseudo-stepmother in the throat and releases her animal friends, the baying dogs to tear her father to pieces before she wanders out into a dark world, her face still a waxen mystery, a dove perched on her hand once more.
Franju’s poised camera is aided by a world-class set of collaborators—within a few years, DP Schufftan and composer Maurice Jarre, whose creepy-carnival score ties the film together with sickly romanticism, would have Oscars. The team of writers adapting Jean Redon’s novel include future director Claude Sautet and the famed writing duo Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who also provided the source material for Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques and Hitchcock’s Vertigo; like those films Eyes Without a Face retains a mysterious poise between the familiar, even seedy, and the fantastic, the threatening. Brasseur, best known for his delightfully charismatic performance in Les Enfants du Paradis, is the total antithesis here, as a dour, obsessive patriarch who keeps his emotions so deeply buried they only find proper expression in obscene activity. Scob effectively embodies a brittle innocence.
* * *
The Devil Rides Out apparently was the idea of Christopher Lee, who was and is something of a fantasy literature freak and who prodded Hammer Films to tackle Dennis Wheatley’s large canon. Wheatley, a skilled adventure writer with a gift for plot and pace, beloved of crackpots and counterculture acolytes as well as blood-and-thunder fans, contrived a fantastically broad conflation in his Black Magic novels, many of which featured the heroic Duc de Richlieu, in a kind of new-age wonderland that placed all religions and superstitions on a roughly equal footing. This mystical egalitarianism was undercut by Wheatley’s tendencies to racial stereotyping and cultural cliché. His terrific, if uneven, novel The Devil Rides Out (1934) was the first of these and a huge success. For the screenplay, Richard Matheson offered a stripped-down version of the novel’s narrative that cleaned off all the fat and the spiritualist mumbo-jumbo, leaving a tale that suited director Terence Fisher’s no-nonsense aesthetics perfectly.
Fisher had been on the outs with Hammer since the flop of his version of The Phantom of the Opera (1962), and fought his way through with the impressive The Gorgon (1963) and the delightfully tacky Island of Terror and Island of the Burning Doomed (both 1966). Along with the deliciously weird The Lost Continent (1966), Devil began a short-lived Wheatley cycle. As happened several times to Hammer when it became ambitious, the film flopped. The studio template would limp along in the future with soft-core teases like The Vampire Lovers (1970) and more lame Dracula films. The Devil Rides Out then might be considered the high water mark of Hammer Films: its production values are high, the cast generally excellent, and the sets and effects markedly improved from the pasteboard delights of the early films, making for a general lack of cheesy moments. Not that they’re entirely lacking. What fun would a Hammer film be without a little cheese?
Technically, Wheatley’s novel was a sequel, utilising characters set up in his earlier adventure novels. Matheson disposes of these background elements entirely, reducing the relationship between de Richlieu (Lee), Rex van Rijn (Leon Greene), and Simon Aron (Patrick Mower) to a simple basis—the Duc and Rex served with Simon’s father in the Lafayette Escadrille. Rex flies in from America to visit his old chums, meeting the Duc at the airport, but when they proceed to Simon’s house, they find he has been co-opted into a mysterious group of strangers, including the dark-haired beauty Tanith (Nike Arrighi) and the silver-haired, charismatic Mocata (Charles Gray). His suspicions stirred, the Duc discovers telltale signs that Simon has become involved with black magic. Rex knocks their friend out, and they carry him to the Duc’s London house, but a baleful influence causes Simon to almost strangle himself with the totemic crucifix the Duc places around his neck. Then it is removed to save his life, Simon immediately runs off. Returning to Simon’s house, the Duc and Rex narrowly avoid falling under the influence of an evil spirit Mocata has invoked—a short, tubby, black guy with glowing eyes.
To dig up a lead (and other things), Rex tracks down Tanith and takes her for a drive in the country. He encourages her to leave the coven and Mocata’s influence, but his plea falls on deaf ears, literally, as Tanith is mesmerised by Mocata in the rearview mirror. Tanith steals his car and drives into the yard of a white mansion with a creepy, multiheaded bird-serpent-thing guarding the front gate. It’s the base for the coven, which then proceeds to an invocation/orgy in the woods where Mocata plans to initiate Simon and Tanith into Satanism. They summon The Goat of Mendes, or, as only Christopher Lee can pronounce it properly, “The Devil himself!” But Rex and the Duc aren’t cowered by the prince of darkness. They drive Rex’s car into the midst of the coven, deliver a few good socks on the jaw, steal away their friends, and hole up in the country manor of de Richlieu’s niece Marie (Sarah Lawson) her husband Richard (Paul “Yes Minister” Eddington), and their child Peggy (Rosalyn Landor).
Fisher’s core contribution to the horror genre was an insistence on cliché-free villainy, the superior attractiveness of on-screen evil today considered axiomatic best defined in Fisher’s Dracula (1958) when the beast that descends the stairs proves not to be a fanged weirdo, but the rakishly handsome Lee. Fisher deftly provides more attractive evil in the form of Gray’s Mocata, described in the book as a pale, bloated creep, but here a lean, charismatic opposite to Lee’s rigorous de Richlieu. Gray’s Mocata, with jolly arrogance, visits the house when the Duc is absent, at first presenting himself as criminally misunderstood and helpful, and then slowly, in a rather brilliantly shot and edited sequence, asserting mesmeric influence over Marie, and driving Simon and Tanith to attack their guardians. Only the interruption by Peggy breaks Mocata’s grip on the household, and he is forced to leave, but with the grim promise that “something will come” in the night.
The Duc knows too well what this entails. Whilst Tanith insists that Rex keep her tied up well away from the others and remain with her in a barn, the Duc clears out Richard and Marie’s living room and sketches a mammoth magic circle on the floor within which they spend the night. They are assailed by psychological assaults, poisoned water, illusions of Peggy in danger, giant tarantulas in one of the genre’s greatest sequences, building in pace with a sleekly mobile camera by DP Arthur Grant, working in widescreen and tight editing. After they have resisted all these torments, eerie silence reigns, to be broken by the distant clatter of a horse’s hooves approaching. This is the Angel of Death himself called by Mocata to cart them all off to hell. The Duc warns them all not to look on his face, but when the armoured Angel lifts the beaver on his helmet, it reveals a grinning skull. Only the Duc’s shouting an obscure spell, the powerful but dangerous Susumar Ritual, seems to drive away the beast—but at a cost. Rex stumbles in with Tanith’s corpse, her soul having been stolen away by the Angel, and Peggy has been seized by Mocata for sacrifice.
From here on the novel rambles a bit, so Matheson and Fisher pare it back. The Duc summons Tanith’s spirit from the underworld, using Marie as the medium, to find where Mocata has take Peggy. Tanith’s fear of a guarding “winged serpent” tips Rex that they are at the white mansion. Simon, having already realised this, has rushed there, but finds he is powerless against Mocata. When the Duc and others arrive, Rex’s two-fisted approach doesn’t exactly cut it, and the Duc is too afraid to use the Susumar Ritual again. But Tanith takes possession of Marie again, and the possessed woman proceeds harmlessly through the coven. She gets the innocent Peggy to repeat the Ritual, and all hell literally breaks lose—the coven bursts into flames, and Mocata collapses when a huge crucifix is revealed behind a curtain. Suddenly, our heroes awaken, still resting within the magic chalk circle. When Rex brings in a very alive and clingy Tanith, the Duc realises that time has been reversed. Tthey have won their battle against Evil, and the reward is that the Angel stole back to Hades with Mocata rather than Tanith. Now that’s a deus ex machina ending.
If The Devil Rides Out largely lacks the bleakly ironic subtexts of Fisher’s initial Frankenstein and Dracula films, it does extend both his love of attractive evil and stern good, which become mutually destructive forces, using and consuming people between them. As in Eyes Without a Face, only the inarguable innocence of young women—here Tanith and Peggy— properly strike down Evil. By stripping away both the background details of the Duc and Mocata, they both become menacing combatants in an eternal, cosmic war. With its serial-like linearity and zippy Jazz-era stylisation, the film seems to have made enough of a mark on pop culture despite underperforming at the box office. I’ve seen it echoed through The Avengers TV series and episodes of Doctor Who, satirised in The Goodies, and possibly even impacted upon those fated fans of both Hammer and the old serials, Spielberg and Lucas, whose Indiana Jones films may just owe something to this film.