Towards the end of the eighties, exploitation guru Jess Franco attempted several forays into the realm of commercial horror cinema. Out of these, the French production "Faceless" is the most notable -- mainly because of its intriguing cast, which combined ex-porn actress (and Jean Rollin regular) Brigitte Lahaie with, among many others, seventies US TV and film superstar, Telly Savalas! Although still a decidedly low budget affair, the film achieves a much slicker, often quite glamorous, "eighties" look — much more so than anything Franco had been responsible for previously.
This is something which has always counted against it among Franco fans who appreciate the auteur for his "homemade" approach to film making and the originality of his blurry, dreamlike celluloid tone-poems. "Faceless" forgoes all this in favour of a straightforward thriller narrative and a visual style that falls somewhere between a late-period Lucio Fulci movie and an episode of "Dynasty"! Consequently, the film has never enjoyed much of a reputation with Francophiles who sometimes dismiss it as a bland, commercial venture. Now Shriek Show have produced an extras-laden new DVD edition which gives newer fans a chance to reassess this unexpected, and rather peculiar, chapter in the career of euro-horror's most prolific son.
Dr Frank Flamand (Helmut Berger) runs a posh clinic that specialises in expensive beauty treatments and quack "youth-enhancing" therapies for the excessively rich and vain. What his pampered clients do not know though is that many of their treatments are developed at the expense of kidnapped experimental subjects who are kept prisoner in the soundproof padded cells behind a locked door deep within the labyrinthine corridors of the clinic!
When a dissatisfied patient (who was horribly scarred during bungled plastic surgery) attempts to gain revenge by throwing acid in Flamand's face, she instead hits his beautiful sister, Ingrid (Christiane Jean) and badly disfigures her. Flamand vows to restore the beauty of his beloved sister and, together with his ice-cold assistant (and lover) Nathalie (Brigitte Lahaie), organises the kidnapping of coke-addicted model Barbara Hallen (Caroline Munro) with the intention of using her in a new face-transplant operation he intends to develop for his sisters benefit. Barbara is the daughter of wealthy industrialist Terry Hallen (Telly Savalas) and after his daughter's disappearance, Hallen hires American private detective Sam Morgan (Chris Mitchum) to find her. Meanwhile, Flamand and Nathalie consult Dr. Karl Heinz Mozer (Anton Diffring), an ex-Nazi associate of Flamand's mentor Dr Orloff (Howard Vernon), and employ him to help them experiment on more kidnapped victims in their attempts to perfect the complicated operation.
"Faceless" was written and produced by the French producer Rene Chateau, with Franco allowed to flesh out the script with his own ideas during shooting. The story is actually a retelling of Franco's own "The Awful Dr. Orlof" (1963) with the posthumous influence of Georges Franju's "Eyes Without A Face" also much apparent. Although shot very quickly in Paris during the Christmas holidays (hence the Christmas lights in the opening sequence), the film's much criticised cut-price glamour actually functions rather well as a deftly ironic comment on the superficial eighties' obsession with appearance and wealth -- a comment unwittingly aided by the soundtrack which is blighted by cheesy, middle-of-the-road, pop songs written by someone called Romano Musumarra, who actually refused to finish composing the incidental cues for the movie once he got to see the gore-soaked results of Franco's labours — thus forcing the director to once again employ the services of his regular musical collaborator Daniel White to finish the job! The film was made almost entirely on location in a recently abandoned clinic, and also the posh hotel where the cast were staying during the shoot: their expensive hotel rooms even doubling as sets to save money! The glossy, antiseptic appearances of the locations and the faded neon glamour of the Parisian nightlife portrayed in the film all date the film considerably; but Franco's original ironic intent is now much harder to miss.
Along with the slick look, the film differs from much of Franco's output in it's lack of explicit nudity and the noticeable increase in explicit gore which Franco usually avoids in his films: limbs are chain-sawed off, eyeballs are punctured, and throats are slit while the blood flows freely throughout; but, as Franco himself admits, the special effects were so rushed that the finished results are usually not that impressive! The most successful scenes in this area are the macabre face-transplant operations which are conducted in a perverse, blackly comedic fashion. Although there is not much explicit nudity in the film, twisted sexuality plays a big role: a weird love triangle involving Flamand, Nathalie and Flamand's own sister Ingrid helps drum home the complete moral decadence of these main antagonists; but the pampered patients in the clinic are really not much better! Even the apparent heroine -- the kidnapped model, Barbara -- is a drug addicted hedonist!
Although the film's deliberate irony — when combined with the very real limitations imposed by the constraints of the film's low-budget — makes it very hard sometimes to tell which parts are intended to be amusing and which are not, thankfully, the excellent cast largely manage to save the day! There are some great performances from all the main players: Helmut Berger conveys Dr. Flamand's suave, sophisticated appearance and detached callousness with an ironic and subtly humorous performance which is perfectly in-keeping with the film's mood, while Brigitte Lahaie is a revelation as Flamand's kinky but murderous assistant, Nathalie. Her character organises kidnappings and murders for Flamand and sleeps with his clients and even his sister!! All while Flamand watches on a video-link! Her blank, doll-like appearance is often quite unnerving, and although she keeps her clothes on in this film, she is still involved in some fairly pervy couplings which Franco simply cuts away from before they get too steamy! The blond, ex-porn actress very effectively portrays the epitome of chilly, surface glamour disguising a corrupted core.
Christopher Mitchum's role as the private detective Sam Morgan may not have much depth: he mainly just has to chew gum and act out a parody of the typical American gumshoe, but the actor makes a good job of re-creating his father's persona which is obviously what he was employed to do! The American Scream Queen Caroline Munro has another one-dimensional role and spends the whole film scantily clad and locked up in a cell. But the role does require her to act out a fairly brutal rape scene (handled by Franco with unusual sensitivity for once!) and she does so very convincingly. (Incidentally, Munro took the role without knowing anything about Franco's films and was almost scared off by a friend who warned her to beware of Franco's "funny" camera angles! The actress made sure she wore industrial-strength knickers for the role -- just in case, and this definitely pays off: the director's prowling camera often attempts a few risqué positionings, but to no avail!) Unfortunately, Telly Savalas has little more than a cameo role in the film despite his name getting top billing! All of his scenes were filmed in two days, and were shot in the actor's hotel room, which doubles as his character's office in the film! Although hardly requiring much effort from the actor, it's always good to see Savalas (who gave a mesmerising performance in Bava's "Lisa and the Devil" ) and it's certainly a kick to see him appearing in a Franco film!
This is by no means a top-draw effort by Franco but it's better than it's reputation suggests and it looks incredible on this DVD! Shriek Show have excelled themselves, and produced one of the best transfers of a Franco film to have appeared on DVD so far! When you look at some of the work done by Blue Underground that's quite some trick to have pulled off! There is little hint of any grain to be found, and the picture is always sharp — with vibrant colours leaping of the screen!
The disc comes crammed with extras: top of the list is a commentary track by Franco and his actress partner Lina Romay. This is only the second commentary track by the director; the first, for the Synapse release of "Exorcism", was slightly marred by Franco's heavily accented English which made it rather hard to understand him sometimes. This time Franco speaks in Spanish with English subtitles provided. He manages to keep the commentary running without moderation for most of the film's run time; there are very few pauses in the flow of anecdotes. Lina Romay though, only interjects occasionally!
Also included is a partial commentary by actor Christopher Mitchum. A menu of the portions of the film which contain his commentary is included, with an option to play them all. Mitchum answers questions from a un-introduced moderator and is full of anecdotes concerning his time on the film. The only drawback is that the final portion which contains Mitchum's summing up on working with Franco is drowned out because the film's soundtrack hasn't been turned down!
The disc also contains three video interviews with Franco, Mitchum and Caroline Munro. Altogether these run for nearly an hour-and-a-half! Franco's interview is the shortest and clocks in at just over twenty-minutes. Some of the information from the commentary is inevitably repeated but the director is as loquacious and as modest as ever, and always a pleasure to listen to. The interviews with Chris Mitchum and Caroline Munro follow similar formats: each give a summary of their careers, peppered with interesting anecdotes, and then move on to their thoughts on Franco and their experiences making the film. Both interviews run for just over half-an-hour each.
The disc is rounded off with a large collection of stills, behind the scenes photos and posters for the film, along with a collection of shots of Munro which cover her entire career. This runs automatically and takes about fifteen minutes to play through. The Caroline Munro theme continues with the packaging: the disc comes with a fold-out insert featuring an extensive interview with the actress.
Not the best Franco film by any means, but this disc is simply a must-have for any Franco fan!