From among the Video Nasties

"BANNED IN 40+ COUNTRIES!" shrieks the irritatingly over-designed (and now-defunct) website for the 1978 feature Faces of Death, though it rather innocently fails to provide a list of which countries those were, exactly. It doesn't matter either way: for the film was of course banned all over the place, most famously in the United Kingdom, where it ended up on the Video Nasties list (and thence it made its way to this very weblog). Yet it simply must be the case that the film's reputation preceded it, and a good number of those bannings weren't because of the content of Faces of Death, but because of the legend of Faces of Death: banning it was just one of those things you did in the '80s, like giving awards to James L. Brooks movies.

The film's distributors, being canny (exploitation distributors that weren't canny didn't last long), knew that this flurry of censorship was a godsend , for if there's one thing that will draw horror fans like an electromagnet, it's a banned movie. And if it's super-double-plus-mega-banned, all the better! In hardly any time, Faces of Death gained a level of cult infamy unequaled by all but the most lurid and notorious films of the era - films like I Spit on Your Grave and Cannibal Holocaust and Cannibal Ferox and other pictures with "cannibal" in the title - and has remained a film best known for being well-known. There's a reason why even among the exploitation and horror cognoscenti, Faces of Death is known as "the movie that's nothing but footage of dead people" (untrue) and "the movie that was banned a lot" (truer), and not "the movie in which [Scene X] happened": there's not a god-damned interesting moment in the whole feature, which clocks in at a wildly unjustified 105 minutes. Without the carrot of controversy to draw in viewers, Faces of Death would have only the stick of unconvincing faux-documentary footage. AND THAT IS NOT A GOOD STICK.

The movie was a U.S. production, made for a Japanese audience apparently; but its genealogy was strictly Italian. In 1962, a film came out, Mondo cane; consisting of nothing but footage of crazy customs throughout the world, most of which involved nudity and/or violence against animals, and a large amount of which was 100% fiction. It's a tedious watch, but it was ridiculously popular, and led to the flowering of the "mondo" subgenre, documentaries that were little more than geek shows (it also gave rise to the slang term "mondo" - an adjective meaning "huge", or an adverb meaning "very". Mondo cane is Italian for "A Dog's World"). Faces of Death is nothing but a mondo film about death.

I don't know how the film was pitched before it was BANNED IN 40+ COUNTRIES, but I imagine it was the same way that it describes itself: a meditation on the mortality of animals, humans included, that considers several different ways that those animals can be violently killed; with documentary footage of those killings, for, y'know, extra meditative potency. To this end, writer-director John Alan Schwartz, writing as "Alan Black" (ooh, clever) and directing as Conan Le Cilaire, does as much as he possibly can to manipulate his created footage to look like genuine archival material, and if I may give credit where it's due, this is readily the most accomplished element of Faces of Death: honest-to-God newsreel footage is blended with staged material and legitimate documentary scenes in a way that it all looks like a real collage of found material.

Still, it's never terribly easy to take the reality of the film seriously; though certain shots, of starving children, or images of dead people in a morgue, are clearly legitimate, they're close to the only moments that can make that claim. More often, the film suffers from remarkably unconvincing "re-enactments" that use continuity editing in a way that no actual documentary could ever manage. This is most clear in a scene of a bear eating a tourist: the narration actually explains why there are two perspectives of a man throwing bread and helpfully saying "Come here, bear", and then the film does some "film skipping" effects, and then we see a bear with stage blood on its muzzle. Another priceless moment finds a Florida policeman pitching himself into shallow water and splashing about; if you did not hear the narrator explaining that he was being devoured by an alligator (this moment is, for some unclear reason, declared "ironic"), you might well assume that he's having an epileptic fit.

Realising that his faked documentary lacked anything regarding structural integrity (remember how some people allegedly thought that The Blair Witch Project was actually legitimate? Those people would still see right through Faces of Death), Schwartz helpfully came up with a fig leaf in the end credits:
"Exiguous scenes within this motion picture have been reconstructed to document and further clarify their factual origin."

The sense of that statement is clear enough: "we staged some of the scenes to repeat an actual event that wasn't captured on film - honest!" Still, I can't tell you how the hell to parse the actual sentence, including the word "exiguous", which means meager or scanty. Maybe it's true; maybe every moment in Faces of Death is actually based on a real report.That doesn't alter the fact that a movie marketed and banned for its depiction of real dead bodies includes precious few of them.

Maybe we're meant to pick up on this? One of the opening credits - after a real open-heart surgery is given a fake tragic ending by the exigency of slowing down the footage to a freeze-frame - proclaims the film's "creative consultant and narrator" to be a certain Dr. Francis B. Gröss (Prof. Winston Disgüsting presumably being in rights limbo as the proposed name for a new David Bowie side project, or something). Dr. Gröss - it's the umlaut that totally cracks me up - is revealed in the end credits to be portrayed by Michael Carr, but I can't imagine anyone encountering that name and not instantly getting that it's a gag. So maybe, just maybe, we're meant to take the whole movie as a gag? That would explain a hell of a lot: the unimaginably shitty editing tricks, for one. And I can't imagine that if the film wasn't just a big old punking, that nobody would have raised an objection over the incompetent use of library music cues in the most random places, my favorite example being the use of a jazzy instrumental with a prominent marimba line as the underscore to footage of a death-row inmate being executed in an electric chair. Or the ludicrous folk song, "Jesus Doesn't Live Here Anymore", playing over a nuclear power protester who set himself on fire.

There's also Dr. Gröss's narration itself, which starts out mired in stupefying profundity:
I know what I have witnessed, now it is your turn. Prepare yourself for a journey into a world where each new step may give you a better understanding of you own reality. For I am sure you will gain a new perspective from the many faces of death."

That's from the very beginning, and it only gets more over-the-top and bizarre; by the time that Gröss is ranting in measured, scholarly tones, about how every time you travel in a vehicle, you're dancing with death, or when he disdains "cautionary measures" like parachutes, or refers to seal clubbing as maintaining the "natural balance" of the animal population, it's hard not to wonder if we're meant to agree with his old friends who, by his own admission, considered him insane (not to mention, stupid enough to refer to the "country of Africa").

Incidentally, if every time that Gröss says "face(s) of death", you had a sip of your drink, you would in short order become a face of death yourself.

I was certainly laughing at the film's grand incompetence, so if Schwartz was telling a joke, it was an effective one. With exceptions: the running time is unforgivable, whether it's serious or not. This is the kind of movie that ought to clock in around 65 or 70 minutes, not a solid half-hour and change beyond that.

And I haven't even touched on the reasons the film was actually banned, and admitted to the Nasty list. Sure, I imagine some people though the copious faked footage was real (there are still debates on the internet, incredibly), and there's certainly a taste issue involved in throwing footage of dead bodies on the screen as "entertainment" (which re-raises the possibility that this is sincerely a meditation on death). But the big sticking points for most people started with the animal cruelty. We might not see people die in Faces of Death, but we absolutely see animals die. Never in staged scenarios: the notorious scene of a monkey with its head caught in a vice being clubbed to death so that wealthy white people could eat its brains is so plainly staged that I can't imagine how anybody ever thought otherwise (though the monkey is in a vice, and plainly not happy about it). Most of what we see is slaughterhouse footage, animals in the wild devouring each other, or shots of a Mexican dog fight; the latter in particular is hugely problematic, but you could never say that the filmmakers were killing animals for the hell of it. It puts the film squarely in the camp of "no emotionally healthy person would ever desire to see this" (and pretty effectively quashed my wan notion that it's all a joke), but that's not a banning offense, necessarily. The list of movies with onscreen animal death is longer and more prestigious than you might guess. God knows the film is ugly and distasteful for doing it, though.

The really unfortunate material, though, comes near the end. Having talked about any number of ways that people die, Dr. Gröss comes at last to war, and Schwartz throws up some WWII newsreel footage. The film's treatment of the material is perfunctory and ethically dubious (1943-1945 are summarised as "The threat of Nazism was soon erased"), but it's the minute or so of death camp footage that brings Faces of Death down to the most objectionable, grotesque level of trash cinema. Night and Fog it aint; while that film used photographs of dead human beings piled like firewood as part of a soul-shattering dissertation on the evil that men can do, Faces of Death makes no real effort to differentiate that footage from the rest of its shocking, exploitative material. Even the ever-sober Gröss manages to trivialise the most horrifying period in recorded history:
"35 years have passed since the first concentration camp was liberated. Time may heal many wounds. I wonder if this kind of atrocity will ever happen again. Those who've survived the Holocaust belief that it will."

Coming in after idiotically staged bear scenes, and interviews with fake assassins, and a listless tour of the Los Angeles County coroner's office that crawls by like a a snail on hot asphalt, even the brief snippet of camp footage that we see is unforgivable. It's all well and good to poke as much fun as we want to at inept films with bullshit philosophy to spare, but there are certain things that you just can't forgive, and the moment that Schwartz got his hands on footage of soldiers exhuming mass graves, Faces of Death became exactly the insidious, inexcusable filth that its critics declaimed it as being, though for the most part their reasons were wildly far off the mark.

Body Count: Very high. It might be possible to come up with a number if you only include the staged human deaths, but if we include those, plus the footage of real human corpses, plus all faked and non-faked animal deaths... I lost count in the teens, and the movie was less than five minutes old, let's put it that way.

Nastiness Rating: 3/5, a little Nasty. I'm hedging madly in saying that; while most of the film is so goofy and incompetent that I'd show it to a 5-year-old, that Holocaust footage leaves a foul aftertaste that won't wash out. So it's really more of an average of two extremes, than a proper rating of the movie itself.