Back Comments (12) Share:

Feature


Since High School I’ve had an affection for the most macabre and most exploitative filmmaking I could get my hands on. In college I found my limits when I started renting Mondo and Mondo inspired ‘real death’ movies. I found that I could take just about any level of violence or gore as long as I knew it was fake, but the second I knew (or thought I knew) it was real I was turned off, as was the television. I ended up giving up the entire ‘real death’ endeavour after seeing only two films ( The Amazing Shocking Asia and Death Faces, for those of you keeping score). Later I developed the ability to deal with atrocity reels, and I discovered that almost all of the really gory close-up stuff in Mondo films was faked. I’ve since rented several of the original Mondo films of the ‘60s thanks to Blue Underground and Synapse DVD releases, and finally saw the most notorious of all the genre— Faces of Death.

Faces of Death is really only the most notorious of the bunch through a series of good marketing decisions, because it’s not really all that shocking, even compared to some of the earliest films in the official Mondo canon (I’m thinking Africa Addio specifically). I’m sure every reader near my age has a childhood story concerning Faces of Death, and I frankly pity all you young ones that have had the film’s reputation ruined by the information age. Personally I was way to squeamish a lad to have ever sat down with the film, but I heard stories from friends with less protective parents than my own. From what I could ascertain, Faces of Death was so terrifying it would actually kill you on the spot and steal your soul.

You kids today are all too desensitized for your own good these days thanks to the internet and reality TV. This kind of notoriety is never going to surround any motion picture ever again in the day and age of rotten.com and viral videos of hostages being beheaded. I pity you guys. I mean, I’m desensitized, don’t get me wrong, but at least I had a good twelve years of ‘innocence’. Besides the desensitization issue, there’s also an issue of availability. These days bootleg video means something downloaded off a torrent site, but you had to really go out of your way in the VHS days, whether it meant driving across state lines to a video store that actually carried something, or trusting some other horror fan with five dollars shipping and handling.

There isn’t a whole lot I can say about Faces of Death from a genuinely critical point of view, because the film is its notoriety, rather than the sum of its parts. Faces of Death isn’t a good movie or a particularly horrifying one. The mockumentary style is so ingrained in the culture at this point that it’s hard to naturally acknowledge the film’s biggest contribution, but it should be noted that despite a lot of corn and cheese the filmmakers do effectively recreate the look of amateur filmmaking. The make-up effects don’t stand up all that well, but have the benefit of being framed among real gore, which usually creates a more convincing illusion.

Structurally speaking Faces of Death is one of the best Mondo films, simply because it’s structure has actually been thought out. The footage is divided into thematic sections, and utilizes some reasonably effective segues. The editing could use a tweak, though. I’m sad to say that my attention span can only take about ninety minutes of shockumentary before I get bored.

Video


There is something inherently wrong about Faces of Death on Blu-ray, especially considering the age of the format, but this is really just another step on the ladder to maintaining the film’s status as the ultimate and enduring exploitation movie. And all us old school horror fans will probably grin at the Gorgon logo in hi-def.

Really, though, there’s no cause for alarm, this disc doesn’t exactly look like Planet Earth. The print is still thoroughly worn, displaying regular and chunky flecks of film artefacts, uneven colours within the frame, some minor frame shifts, and a whole freakin’ lot of grain. The majority of the film is made up of 16mm footage, either culled from libraries dated from the ‘50s, or filmed in the late ‘70s. The film is old, and 16mm isn’t going to work fully in HD. These are just the facts. The transfer’s details are pushed to their breaking point, which in this case isn’t too far, and compression noise is prevalent throughout.

However, there aren’t many obvious compression artefacts. More or less all the problems with the print are clearly the cause of the original material’s shortcomings. The transfer works because it turns your high definition television into a relatively clean screen in someone’s basement. It really does look like a really good 16mm print, and the problem with even the best DVD remaster is that the digital compression artefacts are something that aren’t going to appear on a projected print. The new DVD release probably features just as many vibrant colours and deep blacks, but you’re probably going to notice the digital blow-up. Short of buying an actual print for your projector, this is the closest you’re going to get to experiencing the film as audiences did in 1979.

And I should probably warn fans that this is, in fact, the Japanese version of the film, which is uncut except for optically blurred genitals.

Audio


There’s no reason for this disc to feature anything but mono sound, but we get a choice of 5.1 or 2.0 surround. The 5.1 track isn’t the total waste I’d assumed it would be, as the producers have managed to actually separate some of on screen sound, and there is a sort of vague sense of spatial soundscape (the cop shoot out scene actually features many front to back gunshot effects). The 5.1 tracks advantage over the 2.0 track is the true centring of the narrative track. I don’t know the film well enough to say if any of the sound effects have been augmented with new ones, but many of the stereo and surround effects are made from easily recreated sounds. The original score was probably originally recorded as a stereo track, so it’s pretty well separated throughout the channels, though the sound quality doesn’t match. The clarity of the track is a bit muddled, but this mostly just adds to the charm (the narration sounds as if it were recorded on a ‘70s 8-track and presented as a book-on-tape via cassette Walkman), and is almost always clear enough to understand, though the on-screen dialogue is sometimes lost.

Extras


This isn’t quite the amazingly detailed special edition I was expecting from the original press release, but I think the fans will still definitely want to pick up even the DVD release. This is the first time in thirty years that the filmmakers have officially described exactly how the film was made, including admittance of all the fakery. Things begin with a commentary with director (real director) Conan LeCilaire and moderator Michael Felcher, and all the facts come right out. LeCilaire freely and articulately runs things down scene by scene. The director also happens to be an affectingly charming guy, who offers up plenty of personal slant. He’s also proud of himself without ever coming off as even a little conceited. The track does demystify the film quite a bit, but I also find myself respecting the craft of the film, which was a genuine trailblazer for mockumentary filmmaking.

As an exploitation fan that has learned to accept the brutality of wholesale animal slaughter in my most violent Italian Mondo and cannibal flicks, but LeCilaire reveals that even the majority of the animal death has been either faked, collected from stock footage from the late 1950s, or simply slaughterhouse footage (which is gross and uncomfortable viewing, but not really very shocking). Of course this does have an effect on the film’s already diminished ability to shock, and just makes the Italian’s seem that much more hard core (or evil, depending on your position). Another interesting revel from the track concerns the notorious monkey brain eating scene (faked), which was contextually changed at the behest of the Japanese producers, who didn’t want to be perceived as monkey brains eaters (even though it actually happens there), so they asked that the setting of the scene be changed to an unnamed Middle Eastern country (where monkey brains are not eaten). The biggest shock of the entire commentary track is the one ‘face of death’ that is actually real. I won’t spoil that one.

Next are the first two honest making-of documentary about the film. 1999’s DVD doc, ‘Faces of Death: Fact or Fiction’ was mostly a mockumentary about a mockumentary. ‘Choice Cuts’ is a sixteen minute discussion with editor Glenn Turner, who offers his take on the making of the entire film, not just the editing phase. There’s quite a bit here that isn’t in the commentary, including more specific descriptions of the early production of the film, including the fact that the re-enactment footage was mostly suggested by the Japanese producers who weren’t quite happy with a bunch of context-less death. We also learn a bit more about actor Michael Carr, who portrayed Dr. Francis B. Gröss.‘The Death Makers’ concerns FX artists Akan A. Apone and Douglas J. White. For about twenty-two minutes the guys run down three of their more spectacular sequences, the one real body filmed just for the movie, and offer up a few thoughts on the production overall.

The extras are completed by a single deleted scene, culled from a video master (but looking pretty good anyway), eleven and a half minutes of outtakes, and a trailer. The deleted scene was obviously removed for its pacing issues rather than its shock value, and concerns a gas chamber death (an obvious re-enactment).

Overall


If you’re like me and don’t actually like watching Mondo films, but find them fascinating from a historical and intellectual point of view, you might actually want to catch this new release. The commentary track alone is worth a viewing. Fans in love with watching the film in pristine 1080p are going to be disappointed, because it still looks like a cheap 16mm documentary, but the extras should make for happy Death-Heads. If you’re interested in continuing your Mondo education I recommend getting your hands on ‘Killing for Culture’ by David Kerekes and David Slater, which has everything, including a chapter that reveals the fakery of various Mondo films.


Links: