Proving fiction to be stranger than truth, the story of the outrageous Shockumentary that spawned sequels, imitations and a cultural phenomenon.
By the end of the 1970s, the Mondo movie appeared to have run its course. The once sensational genre pioneered by the hugely popular Mondo Cane remained controversial and often shocking, with occasional new films like Savage Man, Savage Beast pushing the content ever further in terms of extreme content (and also further blurring the boundaries between the genuine and the staged), but the heyday of the ‘shockumentary’ seemed over. Then, in 1978, a film appeared that helped bring new life into the genre – a film that would ultimately become the most infamous Mondo movie of them all, spawning multiple sequels, imitations and knock-offs, and becoming both a pop culture phenomenon and a symbol of everything depraved about modern cinema for the censoriously inclined. Faces of Death made the official list of Video Nasties in Britain, despite being shorn of over twenty minutes by the UK video distributor (admittedly, for reasons of timing rather than taste). In Japan, it was said to have made more money than Star Wars at the box office. In America, it was initially withdrawn from sale by the original distributor after scores of complaints from angry parents but soon found its way back into circulation and would become a mainstay of frat house initiation rituals and teenage parties where everyone clamoured to sit through what was said to be the most violent and shocking film ever made – all the more horrific because it was real.
Hosted by the fantastically named Dr Francis B. Gross, the film purports to be his personal odyssey to find out why death is so feared. That’s the excuse used to fill the screen with a collection of scenes showing violent death in (almost) all forms. There’s a plethora of animal abuse, from slaughterhouses to the film’s most infamous scene, which has a monkey being battered to death by ‘gourmets’ in a restaurant that caters to exotic tastes; after literally beating the poor creature’s brains out, the diners dip their spoons into the skull and squeamishly nibble on the grey matter. There is plenty of human death too – a slew of disaster victims and bodies burned to a crisp (which Gross tells us is “one of the most horrifying faces of death”, his catch-phrase of sorts), an interview with a masked and barely audible assassin, the electric chair execution shown on the poster art, weird sexual rites of cannibalism, autopsies and various vehicular crashes. By the end, Dr Gross doesn’t seem a great deal more informed than he was at the start but ultimately finds reassurance in the reality of life after death, via a seance that comes complete with echoing voices and dodgy optical effects. He vows to appreciate life more, and there’s a wholesome song to see us off as the closing credits play.
If this sounds utterly unbearable, you can take comfort in the fact that most of this material is staged – and the infamous monkey bashing was also the result of special effects (though the real monkey used for much of the footage seems genuinely distressed throughout). Dr Gross is in fact actor Michael Carr and the exotically-named director, Conan Le Cilaire, is in fact jobbing filmmaker John Alan Schwartz. Shot for less than half a million dollars, the film managed to make a virtue out of its low budget – any technical crudeness could be passed off as verisimilitude. To be fair, outside of an alligator attack that is entirely unconvincing (though even this has been taken as real by many viewers), most of the footage is passable, especially for audiences who might not be particularly cine-literate and are already primed to believe that what they are seeing is real – expectation is a great way of tricking the senses.
Faces of Death vanished without trace on its initial US release but raked in the yen in Japan, where bloodthirsty Mondo always scored big. In Britain, the truncated version became something of a VHS sensation before rocketing to the top of the police seizure list. As with Snuff, the film’s claims of authenticity fed into tabloid fantasies about what the Video Nasties were – films so depraved that they would offer actual death up as entertainment.
By 1981, the film had become successful enough on home video to ensure that there would be a Japanese-financed sequel. Of all the Faces of Death films, this second instalment is probably the only one to have any serious claims of being ‘genuine’. Gone for the most part in this film are the blatantly staged sequences, as Dr Gross (Carr again) instead takes us on a tour of news-report out-takes, stunts gone wrong and executions captured on film. The good doctor seems to have lost much of the optimism shown at the end of the first film and is now searching for another answer – do we depart the Earth knowing and fearing that we are about to die, or are we content in our final moments? Heavy philosophical stuff that, of course, remains unanswered as Dr Gross takes us on a globe-trotting exploration of air and rail disasters, stunts that go wrong, war victims and animal slaughter – this time represented by Japanese whalers and dolphin slaughterers. Gross makes a few points about the rape of the Earth by mankind here and, for a few brief moments, the film becomes an ahead-of-its-time standard-bearer for environmentalism. There’s no light relief at the end this time around – the film concludes with slow-motion footage of the public execution of corrupt Liberian government officials.
Faces of Death fans (and yes, the series does have a fan base) seem split over the value of Part Two – the use of more authentic newsreel material makes it a more valid documentary, but also makes it less entertaining. It’s hard to chortle your way through scenes of burned and broken bodies being removed from bomb sites unless you are a complete ghoul. For people watching the Faces of Death films as outrageously trashy cinema, the second film is a bit much.
The fans are generally much more satisfied with Faces of Death III, which was rushed out in 1985 for the home viewing market after the US video popularity of the first two films. With the exception of a few ragged clips of air crashes and motorway accidents, everything here is fake. What’s even worse, it looks fake. There are mind-numbingly long sequences showing police chasing drug smugglers through the Everglades, and burglars being attacked by a guard dog. The whole film is a mess. Schwartz’s direction – here needing to be more than just cobbling together stock footage – is clumsy and lacklustre, and perhaps as a reaction to the criticism of Faces of Death II, it makes no effort to look remotely real. Even British fans, by this point reduced to watching the films on nth generation VHS bootlegs, could hardly have been fooled. Faces of Death III seemed to be as bad as the series could get, and surely the end of the line. Sadly, such a belief was to be proved dead wrong.
The Worst of Faces of Death was a 1987 compilation that gathered together highlights from the first three films. While intended as a coda to the series, it proved popular enough to suggest that there was still life in the format, and so in 1990, Faces of Death IV appeared.
By this time, Michael Carr had clearly had enough – perhaps being the face of Faces of Death was not the great career move that he had anticipated. The film opens by telling us that Dr Gross has died. In fact, The Worst of Faces of Death had already killed him off, with a ‘Dr Lewis Flellis’ telling us that Gross had expired on his operating table a week earlier. Messing up continuity, Part Four instead tells us that Gross offed himself, driven to despair by all the death he’d seen in the first three films. We could all sympathise, frankly. Nevertheless, Flellis is back as host. Played by John Alan Schwartz’s brother James, Flellis is a wild-eyed crazy who tells us that he keeps a gun handy just in case he comes across a patient that can’t be saved. From then on, it’s downhill all the way. Everything here is quite ludicrously fake, though that doesn’t stop the makers from throwing in some wanton lip-smacking cruelty such as puppy mutilation. Scenes that compete for the title of Most Idiotic are those featuring a swimmer attacked by a mutated leech, and the final sequence, in which FBI agents raid a house where Satanic murders have taken place. In amongst the rubber limbs, they find a videotape containing snuff movie footage, which of course we get to see. Spoiler alert: it isn’t genuine.
This would be Schwartz’s last time directing – and this time he is joined by Susumu Saegusa and Andrew Theopolis to help fill out the increasingly episodic content. By this point, any pretence of a narrative arc has gone – the google-eyed Flellis is simply the presenter of as many staged atrocities as the creators could think of. After four films, exhaustion had clearly set in and the series was finally put to rest. Faces of Death was dead.
There was still money to be made and so Faces of Death V and VI are further compilations, this time simply taking chunks of earlier films and bolting them together, Frankenstein style. Things start to get very confusing around this time, as assorted versions of these films exist, using different cuts. To make it even harder to track which edition is which, a Hong Kong release that is presented as being the original Faces of Death actually features the first half of the first film and the second half of Part Two – whatever integrity the films had was long cast aside by this point as people realised that you could simply keep recycling this content almost indefinitely.
Confusing things even further, there is also an entirely different Faces of Death VI, made in Germany by Uwe Schier, an opportunist who also put together two unofficial sequels to Mondo Cane. Lacking a narrator to even pretend that the film is anything more than a cobbled-together collection of clips, the film at least has a dubious claim to authenticity – the footage here is mostly authentic, ripped off (probably without permission) from other documentaries and news sources.
By now, the title was well-known enough to be used by any distributor out to make a quick buck. Faces of Death VII is actually a re-cut version of the crime scenes documentary Death Scenes; Faces of Death VIII is another anonymous collection of news stock footage. Faces of Death 2000 is a Japanese collection of genuinely horrific death and traffic accident clips. None of these films has any value as either entertainment or documentary. The same could be said of copycat titles like 1980s cash-ins Death Faces, Todd Tjersland’s repulsively leering Faces of Gore (featuring lip-smacking commentary on car crashes, murders and accidents) or the Traces of Death movies that compile similar footage. These are the sort of films that people used to think Faces of Death was – dehumanised celebrations and mockeries of violent death.
The ‘truth’ about Faces of Death is well known now – and there’s even a documentary on the DVD that (sort of) tells the full story while still maintaining the myth of Cilaire and Gross. News that Faces of Death is being rebooted as a straight horror movie continues to baffle us but shows that the name – if not the films themselves – remains the stuff of legend.
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