Faces of Death
|Faces of Death|
|Directed by||John Alan Schwartz|
|Written by||John Alan Schwartz|
|Edited by||James Roy|
|Music by||Gene Kauer Sloter|
|Distributed by||Aquarius Releasing|
|Box office||$35 million|
Faces of Death (later re-released as The Original Faces of Death) is a 1978 American mondo horror film written and directed by John Alan Schwartz, credited under the pseudonyms "Conan LeCilaire" and "Alan Black" respectively.
The film, shown in a documentary-like style, centers on pathologist Francis B. Gröss, played by actor Michael Carr. The narrator presents the viewer with a variety of footage showing different gruesome ways of dying, from a variety of sources. Some scenes were faked for the film, while others are preexisting video footage.
Faces of Death received generally negative reviews, but was a huge success at the box office, reportedly grossing over $35 million worldwide. It gained a cult following and also spawned several sequels, the first of which, Faces of Death II, was released in 1981.
On an operating table, an unnamed patient undergoes open heart surgery that saves his life. Pathologist Francis B. Gröss states to the viewer that he has become interested with the transitional periods of life and death thanks to a recurring dream. He has accrued footage from several parts of the world in an effort to better understand and study the many "faces of death". In Mexico, Gröss has captured the mummified corpses of the deceased inhabitants of Guanajuato, as well as footage of a dog fight between two pit bulls. He next examines the natural predators of the Amazon rainforest and the ways in which they kill their prey. Footage of a monkey being killed and its brain being eaten by guests of a banquet is also shown. A man is killed by an alligator, an act that Gröss calls a "violent retaliation from a creature who has suffered continued abuse from mankind".
Gröss next narrates over recordings of human deaths, the only species who kill for "greed". Assassin François Jordan is interviewed, admitting that he kills solely for payment, not for "political" or "social value". However, Gröss next introduces "another type of killer", "the one who kills for no apparent reason". A gunfight ensues between an armed murderer and a SWAT team, ending in the murderer being shot, the SWAT team entering the killer's house to find his family stabbed to death; Gröss questions if the man's actions were caused by society. Soon after, Gröss exhibits video footage of criminal Larry DeSilva being executed by electric chair.
Footage of several more tragic accidents is shown, both animal and human, culminating in a segment focusing on vehicle accidents, including a scene in which a wing walker attempts a parachute jump from his plane, but dies after the parachute fails to open properly. Gröss disputes the notion that this death was quick and painless, as the jumper would have been conscious and aware for the entire fall to the ground. The segment ends with photographs, footage and air traffic control audio from the crash of PSA Flight 182 and its aftermath.
Gröss introduces his next topic, the idea that supernatural forces could exist. He meets with architect Joseph Binder, whose wife and son both died under tragic circumstances. He confides in the viewer that he believes that his deceased family remain as ghosts in his house and attempt to communicate with him. Gröss enlists the services of parapsychologists to verify this, and the team later manages to spot footprints and take photographs of the two apparitions. Binder later communicates with the spirits of his family through a medium, seemingly confirming the existence of life after death.
Gröss remarks that after studying Binder's case, he has concluded even "when we die, it isn't really the end", "the soul in each of us remains a traveller forever". Gröss ends by questioning if death is "the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end" and leaves the footage that he has shown to the viewer's interpretation. Immediately after Gröss's final dialogue, footage of a baby's birth & photos of the child growing with a happy life plays with peaceful music as the film comes to an end.
- Michael Carr as Francis B. Gröss
- Samuel Berkowitz as victim
- Mary Ellen Brighton as suicide victim
- Thomas Noguchi as Chief Medical Examiner Coroner
The movie was written and directed by John Alan Schwartz (credited as "Alan Black" for writing and as "Conan LeCilaire" for directing). Schwartz also took credit as second unit director, this time as "Johnny Getyerkokov". He also appears in one of the segments of the film, as the leader of the alleged flesh eating cult in San Francisco and has brief appearances in several other movies of this series. This movie features Michael Carr as the narrator, and 'creative consultant' called "Dr. Francis B. Gröss", whose voice is reminiscent of Leonard Nimoy in the popular TV show In Search of.... John Alan Schwartz has said that this movie's budget was $450,000 and there are estimates that it has grossed more than $35 million worldwide in theatrical releases, not including rentals.
Although several of the human death scenes and one depicting a monkey being killed are obvious fakes (with Allan A. Apone, make-up and special effects artists for the movie saying that about 40% of it is fake), most of the remaining footage is genuine (approx. 60%). In their book Killing for Culture, authors David Kerekes and David Slater note that the nadir of the movie is the inclusion of an extreme fatal accident; "the shattered remains of a cyclist are seen under a semi-tractor trailer. The camera pans long enough to capture paramedics scooping up blood clots, brain matter, and clumps of hair from the tarmac – this incident is authentic and culled from newsreels."
According to Schwartz, the scene in the film wherein a murderer is executed by electric chair was achieved with the use of a fake chair built in a friend's loft and toothpaste to emulate saliva. Electric "zapping" sounds were added in post-production.
Due to its graphic content, Faces of Death was banned and censored in many countries. The movie is often billed as "Banned in 40+ Countries", but this claim is doubtful. In the United Kingdom, the film was prosecuted and added to the "video nasty" list, as it was deemed to violate the Obscene Publications Act 1959. In 2003, the film was allowed to be released on DVD in the UK, however cuts of 2 minutes and 19 seconds were required by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) to remove scenes of "fighting dogs and [a] monkey being cruelly beaten to death in accordance with Cinematograph Films (Animals Act) 1937 and BBFC Guidelines." In 1980, Faces of Death was refused classification by the Australian Classification Board. Despite the ban, several bootleg VHS tapes were released in the country, and the film was unbanned and released uncut on DVD in 2007. However, its sequels remain banned in the country. The film was also banned in New Zealand in 1989. In Germany, the film was edited for a VHS release, with the removal of some graphic scenes.
Despite the film's popularity, it was received relatively poorly by critics. Review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reports that Faces of Death received a 25% critical approval rating of 12 surveyed critics; the average rating was 4.00/10. Writing for the Kansas City Kansan, reviewer Steve Crum denounced the film as "crude, tasteless exploitation footage. Filmed carnage." He ended his review urging the viewer to "be ashamed to watch this garbage."
Joshua Siebalt of Dread Central had mixed feelings about the film: "as a curiosity piece, Faces of Death is well worth a look, especially if you've not seen it in a very long time. As for its place in horror cinema history, well, that remains to be seen. As I said it's not a film that holds up very well at all, but considering how groundbreaking it was for its time, I doubt anyone will ever forget it. And while it is nice to have all of the myths about Faces finally addressed by the people who created it, it also takes some of the fun out if it, too."
Christopher Kulik of DVD Verdict wrote, "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."
In his review, Screen Anarchy's Ard Vijn was dismissive of the film, remarking that "many of the segments have lost their ability to shock, or can easily be recognized as fake by today's more media-savvy audience. Interesting as a curious bit of film history, but nothing more."
A number of sequels were made. Faces of Death II, Faces of Death III, and Faces of Death IV, as well as Faces of Death: Fact or Fiction? (a "documentary" on the making of the series) were written and at least partially directed by John Alan Schwartz. Faces of Death V and Faces of Death VI were released in the mid-90s, and are compilations made up entirely of highlights from the first four movies, with no new footage, released in some countries where the original movies were banned. The first three featured Carr as "Dr. Gröss", although The Worst of Faces of Death (released between installments III and IV and consisting of highlights from the first three installments) instead featured Schwartz's brother, James Schwartz, as "Dr. Louis Flellis". Flellis explains that he accidentally killed "Dr. Gröss" while operating on him the prior week. However, in Faces of Death IV, Flellis explains the absence of Dr. Gröss by stating that he had killed himself, having been driven insane as a result of witnessing so much death.
Also released with the title Faces of Death VII, was a condensed version of Anton LaVey's 1989 film Death Scenes; and another assemblage of stock footage titled Faces of Death part 7 was released as an online file sometime during the late 1990s.
Faces of Death 8 followed soon after. Released only in Germany, and made by unknown individuals, it is a collection of mostly unrelated gore scenes from around the world, with no narration, and no on-screen credits, aside from its title.
In May 2021, it was reported that Legendary Entertainment had purchased the rights to the film, and a remake was in development, with filmmakers Isa Mazzei and Daniel Goldhauber attached to direct.
In June 1985, mathematics teacher Bart Schwarz showed the film to his class at Escondido High School in Escondido, California. Two of his students, Diane Feese and Sherry Forget, claimed they were so traumatised by the film that they both "developed an unnatural fear of dying and suffered emotional distress." The families of the two girls sued the school district and received a combined $100,000 settlement ($57,500 for Feese and $42,500 for Forget). Schwarz was suspended from the school for 15 days without pay, but was not fired.
In November 1986, 14-year-old Rod Matthews bludgeoned his classmate Shaun Ouilett to death with a baseball bat. Matthews claimed the idea to kill Ouilette was conceived after he viewed Faces of Death, and was curious about what it would be like if he were to actually kill someone.
Faces of Death and its sequels were released in boxset form on DVD by MPI Home Video in July 2002. Australian distributor Umbrella Entertainment released the film on DVD in 2007. In 2008, Gorgon Video released the movie on DVD and Blu-ray for its 30th anniversary. A brand new high definition transfer was made with new material and a 5.1 digital soundtrack.
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