I remember seeing Faces of Death when I was around thirteen years old. At the time (early 80’s), it was all the rage, with politicians throwing gasoline on the fire, condemning the film with almost religious fervor, making it all the more irresistible to little punks like me. I remember the cover of the VHS tape – an embossed skull, with flaming eyes and a serpent tongue – as I held it in my hand and walked up to the counter at the local video store (no Blockbuster’s back then, son). Despite the warnings on the box, the clerk had no problem renting it to me, and, soon, my friends and I were back at my house watching what we were all certain would be the vilest, most reprehensible, and completely irresponsible film ever made. It wasn’t long, however, before tension and fear gave way to much laughter, as it was obvious that most of what we were seeing was faked.
Yes, a bunch of stoned teenagers were able to tell that Faces of Death was 90% fake, despite the fact that hundreds of lawmakers, politicos, and newsmen were convinced otherwise. What made it worse was that it was so apparent to us. Even the newsreel footage of actual suicides and riots were obviously “enhanced” by the filmmakers, adding aftermath shots that didn’t quite match up to what came before. It was actually quite a relief, to be honest, as, despite the fact that we rented the film, none of us really wanted to see any actual death. It was just natural morbid curiosity, and, at the time, it was a bit of a badge of honor to be able to tell your friends you’d seen this infamous flick.
With Faces of Death, Dr. Francis B. Gross (Michael Carr) leads us on a journey through death, using the aforementioned newsreel footage of everything from mummies to scenes of genocide, interspersed with staged executions, animal attacks, and even a satanic ritual. The most disturbing stuff in the film comes in the guise of man’s cruelty to animals, with the clubbing of seals and notorious “monkey brains” scene (which, I’ve since found out, was also faked) serving as the most grueling.
Ultimately, Faces of Death was one of those rare “welcome” letdowns in that it didn’t deliver on its promise of actual death, and, after many years and many viewings, I’ve come to think of it as a fairly sly and darkly humorous mockumentary; a classic bit of mondo extremist filmmaking that, when compared to the films of Gualtiero Jacopetti and Paolo Cavara (Mondo Cane/Goodbye Uncle Tom), looks quite tame. Still, it’s a fascinating social experiment, and while I’ve never really considered it a great movie, it’s definitely one of the best of its genre, and horror fans owe it to themselves to see this curiosity at least once.
Faces of Death oozes onto Blu-ray sporting its original Gorgon Video label; a moniker revived by MPI (the folks behind the wonderful Dark Sky Films imprint). The transfer is quite remarkable, given the film’s low budget and mixed media make-up. The scenes shot specifically for the film, of course, look the best, with a very defined image, solid detail, and minimal grain. The newsreel footage takes a bit of a hit, quality-wise, but that’s to be expected. Overall, Faces of Death looks much better than I expected, especially when one considers the source.
The film’s Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is a bit flat, but the dialogue is clear and the film’s creepy score and sound effects are expressive and rich. This isn’t a film where one would expect a ton of surround effects, but, surprisingly enough, there’s ample action in the back of the house, albeit nothing that will show off your system’s capabilities. Once again, considering the source, the audio here is pretty solid.
Faces of Death comes with a host of extras that should finally dispel any notions that this film is authentic. The most compelling extra comes in the guise of director Conan LeCilaire’s feature-length commentary track, in which he goes into great detail regarding how each of the scenes were created, what footage is real and what isn’t, and how some of the newsreel footage was tinkered with. Other supplements include “The Death Makers” featurette, that includes interviews with FX artists, Allan A. Apone and Douglas J. White, as well as deleted scenes, trailers, and outtakes.
Whether or not you will enjoy Faces of Death is truly subjective. If you like mondo cinema, or are a fan of those morbid “unfiltered” news shows that feature car accidents, police shootouts, or stunts gone awry, chances are you’ll actually dig this. The Blu-ray presentation isn’t reference quality stuff, but it’s actually a lot better than I expected, and the quality extras make this well worth a rental at the very least.