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Faces of Death

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Release Date: 
Screen Entertainment
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Conan Le Cilaire
aka: John Schwartz
Francis B. Gross
Bottom Line: 

Looking for something suitable to show the whole family while they're all gathered together at this festive time of year? Maybe something that displays the more nobel and humane qualities of the human spirit? Well, ... you've come to the wrong place! "Faces of Death" was the first in a controversial series of pseudo-documentaries to appear on video in the eighties, and was at the forefront of the video-nasty hysteria that gripped the UK at that time. The selling point of the video was its claim to gather together footage of real deaths caught on film and serve them all up for the dubious entertainment of the viewing public. To that effect, we are treated to footage of a public beheading, an execution by electrocution, a political assassination, lots and lots of animal abuse, a woman committing suicide by jumping from a tower block, and some very detailed autopsy footage -- among many other delights! Naturally, the new powers granted to the UK's certification body -- the BBFC -- in the wake of the video-nasty media campaign meant that "Faces of Death" was quickly banned, and it has been denied certification ever since ... until now! In a totally unexpected move the BBFC recently granted the film an 18 certificate (with a few cuts) when Screen Entertainment submitted it this year, and now the film finds it's self thrust out of the shady world of blurry multi-generation video bootlegs and into every major store in the High Street courtesy of this DVD from Screen Entertainment's Hard Gore Collection.

The film presents its self as an anthropological investigation into the phenomena of death and is narrated by a pathologist called Francis B. Gross. Gross introduces the film which, he claims, is compiled from footage he has shot himself during his travels around the world. It is Gross's anecdotes and thoughts on the footage that link all the disparate sequences together. At the end of this grueling world-wide tour of the unpalatable, Gross finishes on a "positive" note with some speculations on the afterlife inspired by an interview with some guy who has photographed the spirit forms of his deceased wife and child; and the whole thing ends with an unconvincing stab at affirmation by way of a drippy montage of scenes of mothers hugging babies, flowers budding, and dewy forests at dawn. All rather peculiar!

In fact, it turns out that this supposed mondo film is more fiction than fact. As if you hadn't already guessed from the name, Francis B. Gross the pathologist is really Michael Carr the actor, and his self-filmed footage of atrocities from around the world is really an elaborate mosaic of library footage and faked set-pieces filmed by director John Schwartz. The video was originally made for the Japanese market in 1979 but found it's way to America where it became a notorious "rites-of-passage" for youths at adolescent slumber parties. Some sequences are so clearly faked that it's hard to believe anyone ever took them seriously: an alligator attack supposedly caught on film by a local news crew is laughably unconvincing. The status of other pieces of footage is less clear, an electric chair execution looks like it might be plausible (in fact, it is faked) as does footage of a murdered family with their throats cut (probably faked). Then there are sequences that appear to be an amalgamation of real footage and added faked scenes that have been especially filmed to match: the library footage of a woman committing suicide by jumping from a tower block was actually filmed from some distance away, so Schwartz shot some faked close-ups of the woman's crumpled body to make the sequence more compelling. Perhaps the most infamous scene is the monkey bashing scene. Diners in a restaurant bash a live monkey's skull with hammers and then eat it's warm brains directly from it's bleeding head! A real monkey does seem to have been involved in some scenes but the actual shots of the monkey having it's brains scooped out are faked. This is one of the scenes that has been censored in this UK edition. The parts of the scene involving a real monkey have been cut but the actual brain eating shots are still intact!

There is still plenty of real animal decimation that has made it into the UK disc intact though (probably because it comes from library footage and counts as documentary material): we get to see more than enough of what goes on inside abattoirs, such as cattle having their throats slit and sheep being skinned, etc. It's probably not a good idea to watch this while you're munching on your hamburgers! There is also film of seals being culled for their skins, and a chicken's decapitated body continuing to run around a yard while it's head remains pinned to a wooden block! But perhaps the most hard-to-stomach of all the reality footage in the film are the shots of human cadavers and some pretty grueling autopsy footage. It is this stuff which will really continue to sell this DVD incarnation to a new generation of adolescents hoping to gross out their friends with these shocking taboo-busting scenes of unpleasantness. Schwartz, meanwhile, now proudly includes "Faces of Death" on his resume along with his work as a writer on shows such as Night Rider, Street Hawk and The Fall Guy!

The DVD from Screen Entertainment comes in two editions. The standard edition, on which I've based this review, is an extra-less affair but gives us a fairly decent full-screen transfer which, although it contains plenty of print damage, is still far better than any previous blurry video versions. My press release for the film tells me that there is also a Special Edition DVD which is exclusive to Virgin stores. This will give you a bunch of extras along with the film; you get, "Faces of Death: Fact or Fiction? 40 minute documentary; FODTV Song, and a film series overview by Genre expert Jay Slater. This is clearly the version to go for if you are a major fan of this eccentric series but the casual viewer, who is just looking for something to outrage and disgust friends and family this X-mas, will find more than enough material for the job with the standard version!

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