Faces of Death
Review Date: October 15, 2008
Released by: Gorgon Video
Release date: 10/07/2008
Region A, NTSC
Widescreen 1.85:1 | 16x9: Yes
. That sort of “is it real?” film experiment in depravity, attempted before with films like Snuff
and Cannibal Holocaust
, and after with the Guinea Pig
films and countless others. While all obtained a level of notoriety because of their exploitative gimmicks, Faces of Death
reaped the most reward, with an estimated 35 million on a 450 thousand dollar investment, and five sequels and counting. If we are to take those IMDb figures as fact, I’d assume the bulk of that would be on video. With found footage of varying levels of quality, this isn’t the sort of thing that would work in a structured theatrical environment. It would seem too fake and “establishment” to truly convince. No, this would have to be found. Found on dusty VHS racks in the corners of dingy old mom and pop shops. Something that must have slipped under the gaze of authorities.
It worked, and it worked well all throughout the video rental era. With Blockbuster continually posting losses, and virtually every independent rental outlet closing shop, that era is virtually dead. Now that it is, it may finally be the right time to explore the myth behind the series. Dark Sky affiliate, Gorgon Video, sure hopes so, as they celebrate the 30th anniversary (a year early?) of the film. They’ve outfitted this new release with hours of extras, but even more surprising is that it’s presented in HD. Who ever thought, one of the pinnacle horror releases to kick off the new medium would be Faces of Death
? Whatever the resolution though, the question is: Does this “shockumentary” still shock?
We see the inside of a human chest. The heart is beating, blood is gushing, and then the sound. A flatline. Tragic, yes, but it is one of a thousand different deaths that happen every second. Some by choice, some by force, some against humans and some against animals. There are many faces of death. Out to prove this is renowned pathologist Dr. Frances B. Gross. In his thesis on mortality and its many forms, he goes across the world in investigating the bizarre and the brutal. His documentary here is organized into a number of subject (be-)headings: drowning, suicide, slaughterhouses, gang violence, disease, disasters, tribal conflict, genocide, death sentences, animal attacks and even crime against animals. In a particularly shocking scene, a small monkey is placed in a guillotine, where he is clubbed repeatedly so his brains can be eaten for religious gain.
What these segments all have in common is, of course, death. More than just a parade of the perverse, though, it’s narrated with the intent of exploring the eternal questions of the things we do. Dr. Gross is outspoken in his condemnation of many of the events on screen, from the unjust methods of electric chair execution to the cruel roundup and clubbing of seals for their fur. Sometimes, too, he sits in silence as a shootout ends with a family massacred or a bear attack goes awry. It’s times like this when a picture is worth a thousand words. The pathologist goes on quite a harrowing journey of found footage and commissioned reality, but his conclusion isn’t quite what you’d expect. Through death he finds its opposite: Life.
Now, if this intrigues you in any way and you know nothing of the history of Faces of Death
, then I’ll make this easy for you: See it. It’s one of those essential video nasties that you need to see to mark your evolution from horror fan of the Freddy-Jason-Pinhead ilk to full fledged horror connoisseur. There aren’t many movies where you can say you’ve seen a woman jump off a building and have her body scraped off the pavement. But it’s more than that. Director Conan Le Cilaire knows to pack the film in a container that doesn’t merely exploit the subject matter like The Devils Experiment
does. He recognizes the curiosity value in the subject, and treats it a chance to educate rather than depress like in Cannibal Holocaust
. No knock against the great Deodato film, but this is the first pseudo-snuff film I’ve seen where I didn’t leave feeling a certain guilt or moral dilemma for having watched it. In its display of death and its many forms across cultures, species and time, it manages to both provoke and inform with a mandate to educate. It’s sometimes hokey, but most always intriguing, and without question, I recommend checking it out. Now stop reading if you want to go into this one fresh, and I recommend you do.
I went into Faces of Death
intentionally ignorant. I didn’t want know what material was staged, and what wasn’t. Hell, I wanted to believe it was all real. As one continuously striving for knowledge, the idea of seeing death uncensored by media seemed a great opportunity for unbiased insight from one of society’s most taboo subjects. After finally viewing the film, I certainly felt enlightenment and an increased understanding with our preoccupation with death. Of course, in watching, it was pretty clear that a number of sequences were staged. The grizzly attack was truly laughable (yeah, two different vehicles of tourists would both be outfitted with high quality 16mm film cameras, and the grunts of the bears and cries of the women would be perfectly captured in glorious stereo) and the crocodile attack not much better. Yet there were several sequences, still, that still managed to shock.
For all the fuss we have over our own mortality, it’s ironic that what usually disturbs us most is the death of an animal. Faces of Death
is no exception, and the sequences with the seal clubbing, the lamb slaughtering and most brutally, the cracking of a small monkey’s skull definitely left the greatest impact. While the reasoning behind seal clubbing or lamb slaughter has been known for ages, the monkey’s tale, and how his brain is seen in many tribal cultures as a connection to God, was an insight I had never seen. Both fascinating and frightening stuff. Then I learn that it’s all been staged. That an extremely competent effects crew was brought in to create a number of the notorious sequences from the film, and that even the doctor was being played by someone else. But you know what, in film we always go in hoping to buy into a fictional reality. If we continue that suspension of disbelief throughout the film, then the makers have succeeded, and the film is effective. It may, by many accounts, be fake, but Faces of Death
is certainly effective.
The filmmakers here truly understood the nature of the film medium, and how we buy into certain aesthetics and approaches as reality. Years before The Blair Witch Project
, the people behind Faces of Death
were conscious not only with the documentary style, but more importantly the mediums that use it. Much of the footage is real, culled from newsreel footage, stills and home video equipment, and in order to give each segment a history above and beyond mere death, the filmmakers expanded on the real. They looked at how each individual segment was shot – from the camera technique and the recording format to the lighting and the setting, and recreated it with an almost flawless duplicity. For the skill they put into matching up the building suicide or the train wreckage with their additional footage, they deserve for the film to be shown without pretense. We owe them that.
Are they liars? Yeah, maybe. But their intention is generally honorable – taking real footage or real scenarios and fleshing them out with staged sequences to give them greater impact. In reality, it’s probably a much better film because of the additional footage – since the focus isn’t just on the aftermath, but from the events leading up to it. We see gators being bred, exploited and poached before we see their rotting carcass in the reeds. There’s means to an end, “the end” is not simply the end. As someone who could hardly make it though the endless display of torture and death in The Devils Experiment
, I found myself surprisingly intrigued and even entertained by what I was watching in Faces of Death
. For me, it was a revealing look into the reality of death that so entices us as horror fans. And then, on second viewing, it was a wonderful experiment in the illusion of reality.
Unbelievably, the film is presented 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen in glorious 1080p. The footage natively comes from an abundance of different sources, from Super8 or still 35mm to Betacam video or Super16. It was all transferred to film though, so thankfully it has all preserved with the grain, blemishes and print damage that help make film such a convincing medium for the truth. The added resolution and color space no doubt makes the footage that much clearer and involving, and this transfer proves that once again there are definite benefits to using high definition with lesser sources. Will there ever be that “3D” effect that clear high definition can convey? Hell no. But considering how shaky and damaged much of the film is, digital artifacting on a compressed digital medium like DVD would certainly have its toll on the film. Indeed, you can see this in the NTSC outtakes included on this disc. As presented here in progressive high definition, all the cobbled material looks as natural as it ever could. There’s no worry of it looking too good – it looks like film (and bad film, at that) and that’s the best compliment I can give for this fine transfer of troubling source material.
Okay, now this is a little silly. Gorgon Video boasts a Dolby Digital 5.1 track for a movie that passes itself off as a documentary of found footage. That’s excess if I’ve ever seen it. In fact, it probably harms the film in theory, since adding in surround effects would truly remove the illusion of reality. In practice, though, the track is really nothing more than the Dolby Digital 2.0 track also included – everything stuck up at the front and without any directionality. The majority of the film, I’d say, has ADR, with actors dubbing in sounds after the fact to fill the sound space. There’s actually quite a bit done with the music too, including the amazingly awful “Jesus Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” folk song to a montage of pollution. Like the film, it’s a technically accomplished mix passing itself off effectively as shoddy reality. Because all the sound elements were nicely isolated, they come through sharp and ever audible here. It’s a very nice mono mix. Calling is 5.1 is a real stretch, though.
Whether you pickup the Blu-ray or the standard DVD, there’s a wealth of essential extras here that really work hand in hand with the film. So much of the film’s success depends on believing it to be reality, and these extras are like a film school deconstruction of every sequence to show the heart of the filmmaking process. Again, like I said before, it’s best to watch the film first knowing nothing at all, and then to watch it once more after you ingest all the supplemental knowledge. In both cases, it’s a great experience for differing reasons. To kick things off, there’s a commentary with Red Shirt Productions’ Michael Felsher and the director Conan LeCilaire (wrongly amalgamated with John Alan Schwartz on IMDb). Michael’s a fan just like all of us, and he doesn’t waste any time in getting LeCilaire to reveal all the facts about nearly every scene. It’s a great track that really starts to pull away the veil of film to reveal the truth about the production.
The first video extra is “Choice Cuts”, which is a twenty minute interview with the editor, Glenn Gurner. Gurner helps put the genesis of the film in context, how he and his friends started off making nature documentaries, were propositioned by a Japanese company for a real look into death, and then commissioned to shoot extra footage when it was revealed that the simple display of real death footage was not strong enough. Gurner is quick to share his experiences throughout the production, including their methodology used to get the various footage and his continual moral dilemma throughout.
In the next featurette, “The Death Makers”, the two special effects men (Allan A. Apone and Douglas J. White) responsible for all the staged sequences go into great depth at deconstructing every scene they helped create. Over thirty minutes, they reveal how the beheading was done with a midget with a shoulder and head mold applied above his own head and how the gutting of a sacrifice victim was done overtop of an emaciated man’s torso. The effects men really loved what they did, and remembered with laughs all the fun times they had in recreating these realities. The biggest shock, though, was that the drowning footage they were commissioned to recreate actually came naturally when a dead body was found only meters away from where they were originally filming. That’s serendipity.
There’s a nice chunk of excised footage included on this disc as well. In the outtakes section there’s over 11 minutes of unused footage, most of it real. There’s plenty more in the slaughter house, and in some shots where a sheep is running around covered in the blood of all the others that were slaughtered before him, it’s even more shocking than the footage in the film. There’s also plenty more footage of the aforementioned man who washed up on shore, as well as a playful picture montage of shots snapped on the staged sequences. The other bit of excised footage is a four minute clip that was on the home video release but not the theatrical cut. Since it wasn’t preserved on film, it wasn’t used in the transfer, but the remastered video footage here looks quite good. It’s basically another addition to the staged electric chair sequence, this time with a man gassed to death.
This very healthy encyclopedia of supplements is rounded off with the ever enticing trailer that first created all the furor. Blue Underground went an effective route in presenting Snuff
as if it were truly something underground – without even a menu or a logo to suggest any company were behind it. Gorgon Video has gone the opposite route, and in deconstructing all the illusion behind this controversial shocker, they’ve turned the film from a grindhouse taboo into an essential document on the power and mystery that comes with the film medium.
Faces of Death
deserves to be watched twice. The first time, without pretense, so the power of each image, and the insight of each bit of narration registers will full enlightening provocation. Then, after viewing all the amazingly expansive and informative extras on this disc, it should be seen again as a powerful testament to film’s ability to fool and to stretch the limits of truth. The extras are all stellar, and so too the sound and video, considering the source material. Dark Sky has picked two very unorthodox films to pioneer the Blu-ray medium (Faces of Death
and the 16mm The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
), but both prove that HD can make even the poorest of sources come to vivid life. For both the film and the transfer, the end is life, and this is a bastard that should be adopted into the collection of every devout horror fan. It’s essential.
*Because of the quality of the HD format, the clarity, resolution and color depth are inherently a major leap over DVD. Since any Blu-ray will naturally have better characteristics than DVDs, the rating is therefore only in comparison with other Blu-ray titles, rather than home video in general. So while a Blu-ray film may only get a C, it will likely be much better than a DVD with an A.
Movie - A-
Image Quality - A-*
Sound - B+
Supplements - A
- Running time - 1 hour 45 minutes
- Not Rated
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English Dolby Digital 5.1
- English Dolby Digital 2.0
- English subtitles
- Audio commentary with director Conan LeCilaire
- "Choice Cuts" featurette with editor Glenn Turner
- "The Death Makers" featurette with FX creators Allan A. Apone and Douglas J. White
- Deleted Scene