I have never felt this uncomfortable watching a film. Which is quite an accomplishment. Faces of Death sets out to do exactly what it does, disturb the fuck out of you with death. I don’t know what part of me thought I might enjoy this film. I think more than anything, I watched this film for its notoriety. As a horror movie completionist I had to know if Faces of Death had earned its spot in the most notorious echelons of the genre. It has earned that spot.
This film made an impact. There was a time when people believed this was, in fact, a documentary film that had real people dying on camera. I don’t think anyone was stupid to think that either. The way the film is shot and presented is very real. So much so that the film does contain actual footage of animals being killed. That’s where I draw the line. I understand animals get killed for food and products every day. If that fact isn’t hard enough to deal with already, it’s even harder watching the death of an animal like it’s some kind of fucked up circus. I can’t appreciate that on any level. But is it art?
Faces of Death was part of a film movement in the ‘70s known as “Mondo” from the Italian word for “World”. These films, presented as pseudo-documentaries or “Shockumentaries” often focused on salacious topics like sex and death. They were often shot in exotic locations and were easy to sell to international markets. Even if some of these films made fun of the exotic “countries” they depicted, more on that in a bit. Most of these films were Italian but there were a few breakout Mondo films from the US the most notable being our film today.
In the film, we are introduced to Dr. Francis B. Gröss (Michael Carr) who speaks about his compulsion to understand death. Dr. Gröss is also the film’s narrator, speaking over graphic depictions of animal slaughter, human execution, and a human autopsy. Many of these scenes are staged through elaborate makeup. Perhaps the film’s most memorable sequence is a group dining at a middle eastern restaurant who order monkey brains. They pop the monkey’s head through the table, lock it in place, hit it to death with hammers and then scoop out its brains. With well-timed cuts and realistic gore effects, it might seem real to the unsuspecting viewer.
Scenes like that are gross but it’s the real stuff that upsets me. The first scene I couldn’t watch was the inside of a slaughterhouse. I was hoping that would be as bad as the film gets but then we watch a group of men club seals for their pelts. Regardless of what’s real and fake, it’s not fun or educational. An example of how much research this film did? When they follow a group of blood-drinking cannibals they say the crew has travelled to “the county of Africa”. Yes, they call Africa a country.
It is admirable that forty years later Faces of Death is a film shrouded in mystery. A quick glance at the credits doesn’t even tell you who made the film. Directing credit is given to Conan LeCilaire and writing to Alan Black when in actuality those are both pseudonyms for filmmaker John Alan Schwartz who to this day is coy about the film’s production. Faces of Death was a financial success and a huge hit in Hong Kong. It was also one of the most infamous and sought after horror videotapes of the early ‘80s. That being said I hate it. It’s a successful experiment but that doesn’t make it right. Earlier I asked the question “Is this art?” and I think simply for the craft and aura behind the film it is but art is subjective and I never want to subject myself to this film again.
How I felt after watching this film.