Judge Christopher Kulik has a face to die for.
The ultimate taboo that was banned in 46 countries!
"You'll be witness to what I have discovered. May you be the jury, but your verdict will be one of self-conviction. I know what I have witnessed; now it's your turn. Prepare yourself for a journey into a world where each new step may give you a better understanding for your own reality. For I'm sure you shall gain a new perspective for the many faces of death!"—-- Dr. Francis B. Gross, Narrator & Creative Consultant
Facts of the Case
In a prologue, a hospital intensive care unit is performing open heart surgery in a last ditch effort to save a patient's life. Then we see the actual heart stop beating, the flat line indicating death has come and dealt its inconvenient hand. Over the opening credits, we then see an actual autopsy, with the body being carved open, and the organs being cut and removed.
After the dissection, we meet Dr. Francis B. Gross, who says he's ready to share with the world his research in experiencing many "faces of death." His journey has taken him everywhere from Europe to South America to Africa, and his subjects have included cult worshippers, suicide victims, slaughterhouse workers, plane crash victims, African tribes, and even Hitler.
Why are we so afraid of death? The mere thought of it seems to tap into our greatest fears, raise our anxiety levels to the boiling point, making us want to run away and bask into life's many pleasures. According to photographer Aimee Mann, "Americans are weird about death. They think it's gross and disgusting, and they get freaked out, and they want to put it away as far as possible, and keep it out of sight, and keep it in the nursing homes and close the coffin. They don't want to see it as an organic part of life." In that sense, the legendary cult film Faces Of Death would be the ultimate test, as it presents nothing more than a series of episodes where death is coming or has come to both humans and animals. While surely not a horror film, it's grotesque and haunting nature has made it a word-of-mouth phenomenon, a staple of Halloween tradition.
For thirty years, Faces Of Death has had an authentic vibe which many viewers have accepted, questioned, or rebutted altogether. Like the Patterson-Gimlin film allegedly showing Bigfoot crossing a creek in a North American forest, one debate has raged on about the movie: was everything real or fake? The answer, my friends, is finally revealed—but the question should first be changed to how much of the film was real or fake?
According to director Conan le Cilaire—who comes out of hiding to do an audio commentary—roughly 50% is real footage (taken from countless news sources) and the rest is staged or "re-enacted," Unsolved Mysteries-style. So, while the filmmakers indeed use manipulation in major doses, with le Cilaire admitting himself the film is a "shockumentary," the staged footage is still grounded in reality. For example, there's actual Super-8 footage of a woman jumping out of a window and committing suicide, though the close-ups of her body lying on the pavement was staged. It was a brilliant maneuver on the part of the filmmakers, because if you buy the real footage then you buy the fake footage as well.
To us, Faces Of Death has long been the product of private video sellers, with the VHS languishing in the back room or back corner, its jet-black box with red letters suggesting something forbidden, even illegal. Gorgon Video, who has been the long-time distributor, has proudly boasted for years its banned reputation, the pinnacle of cinematic notoriety. Few are aware, however, that Faces Of Death was made by some young folks who were being financed by Japanese investors; the film was never intended for initial release in North America, and in Japan it was released in 1978 under the title Junk, making bigger profits than Star Wars in some cases!
While theatrical showings have been sporadic, Faces Of Death became a powerful force on video, with bootlegs being made like hotcakes. The reason is obvious: it showed the public stuff which had never been seen before, and it continues to dare consumers to take part in its madness. So, while it will never be considered a great cinema, its historical significance cannot be denied, even though its impact is not as profound or effective as it once was. Much of this material you can find on the Discovery Channel or Internet now and not even think twice about the similarities.
Does Faces Of Death show gruesome images just for the sake of grossing out its audience? Yes, but it's all merely a hook, as the film also wants us to think about our own mortality, our relationship with death and why it's continuously avoided. The filmmakers don't hesitate to throw at the audience footage of animals being killed or slaughtered, and much it will no doubt upset animal rights activists. Still, the context of the footage is constantly misinterpreted in that the hacking of a chicken's head, the beating of the seals on an island off the coast of Alaska, and the slaughtering of cows for human consumption are all things which happen every day, we just never think of them. (In fact, no deaths were conducted specifically for the film during production.)
This was the first time I've ever seen Faces Of Death and the three sequences which affected me the most were the infamous monkey-brains sequence (which, for the record, was staged but based on actual restaurant practices), the religious cult who eats human organs and follows it up with orgies (which is based on a real cult in California), and the San Diego plane crash where body parts rained on suburbia (all of which was genuine footage). Everything else I had already seen in literally some shape or form on television, in movies, or on the Internet and thus didn't pack as much of an emotional punch. Still, anything that deals with the Holocaust will certainly be uncomfortable to digest, and its inclusion in Faces Of Death is more than appropriate.
So, I suppose the final question is should Faces Of Death be viewed? This is one instance where "has to be seen to be believed," is tempting to put forth and, honestly, the film proves to be a harmonious—even healthy (!)—experience, with the final sequence not only totally unexpected but perfectly complimentary, bringing everything full circle in a startling way. This is an age-old example of a negative reputation outweighing something more profound under the surface, and it's kind of a shame that this film—-- along with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and I Spit On Your Grave—are maligned without being seen. Plus, since much of this material has been seen from other sources, Faces Of Death should be more widely accepted and embraced now, and Gorgon Video's brand new digital treatment is an ideal opportunity to do so.
To celebrate the film's 30th anniversary, Gorgon has released Faces Of Death on standard DVD and Blu-ray with some grand special features. For a film that was shot mostly in 16mm and utilized a lot of stock footage, the restored, 1.85:1 anamorphic picture (from extremely rare vault materials) is outstanding. Naturally, there's still a generous amount of grain and damage depending on the state of the footage itself, making it impossible to mask the age. It's still exquisite under the circumstances, and taking it with a grain of salt is a requirement; it is what it is. On the audio side, we have DD 5.1 track, but for some reason it doesn't sound all that different than the optional 2.0 track. Dr. Gross' lucid, no-nonsense narration, Gene Kauer's eerie music, and the songs all sound pretty good, but they don't have the sonic spark which should come in surround sound. Subtitles are provided in English only.
The audio commentary with director Conan Le Cilaire will be one of the most anticipated ones of the year, and those who listen to it will not be disappointed. Moderated by Red Shirt Pictures' Michael Felsher, the track is everything a great commentary should be: entertaining, informative, funny, revealing and, most of all, always moving. These two guys never, not once, stop talking, and the director is beyond willing to discuss and address the film's surreal, controversial nature and finally put to rest all the myths and misperceptions which have grown since the original release. Whether you pick up the film on standard or Blu-ray, this track is an absolute must-listen.
Following up the commentary are two equally fascinating featurettes. The first, "Choice Cuts" runs sixteen minutes and features editor Glenn Turner, who was credited under the pseudonym James Roy. More of the film's production is covered, with some interesting tidbits on how much of the footage was legally acquired, the relationship with the Japanese producers, and Turner's brief hesitance in continuing work. This excellent piece is matched by "The Death Makers" which has special make-up FX creators Allan A. Apone & Douglas J. White, talking about their work on the film, especially when it came to the complexity of "re-creating" footage. Over the course of 22 minutes, the monkey sequence is carved out (yes, pun intended), along with the family massacre, the alligator attack, the execution, and the cannibalistic cult. Like the commentary, these shouldn't be missed.
Rounding out the bonus features is an anamorphic trailer, eleven minutes of outtakes, and a deleted scene which never appeared on the theatrical version, but was on the video. Essentially a companion piece to the electric chair sequence, this one showcases a man going to the gas chamber, and while it's not nearly as substantial as the other extras, it's still watchable.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I would be lying if I didn't say that Faces Of Death does drag at times. The narration occasionally gets a bit too repetitive, especially when many of the images speak for themselves. In retrospect, the points where I felt the film dragged was during the more hokey re-enactments, such as the alligator and grizzly attacks. The latter, especially, looks more like behind-the-scenes footage taken from 1976's Grizzly and comes off as a joke. The segments covering war and disease go on longer than necessary, even when they provide a nice break from the carnage. Finally, it's hard not to miss obvious mistakes which should have been cleaned up in the editing stage; early in the film, Dr. Gross refers to Africa as a country.
All of those complaints are minor compared to the film's biggest problem, however. I said before the film has historical importance (and it does), but its relevance was more recognized in 1978 than the present day. The YouTube generation will be unable to comprehend what purpose the film served thirty years ago, and thus it's difficult to ignore how hopelessly dated Faces Of Death really is. In short, it's a cinematic experiment which has long outlived its effects, although it remains compelling for film and horror buffs viewing the film in the proper perspective. For the curious virgins, I say give it a shot only if you can handle what has been described up until this point; if you can get through Faces Of Death, then you can get through just about anything. Feel free to judge for yourself.
Dark Sky Films and Red Shirt Pictures both contributed immensely to Gorgon Video's resurrection, and Faces Of Death: 30th Anniversary Edition is really their first foray in digital dementia. It's an impressive debut, and now the court is looking forward to special editions of other films in their library…including this Judge's favorite, Massacre At Central High. Until then, keep those lights on.
Director Conan Le Cilaire and his film are found not guilty. The court gives Gorgon Video a special commendation for their special edition treatment of this morbid relic. Court is adjourned!
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