• Faces Of Death (Gorgon Video) Blu-ray Review

    Released by: Gorgon Video
    Released on: October 7th, 2008.
    Director: John Alan Schwartz (as Conan Le Cilaire)
    Cast: Michael Carr, Thomas Noguchi, John Alan Schwartz
    Year: 1978
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    Faces Of Death – Movie Review:

    The gentleman in the last screen shot of this review, you seem him down there? His name is Dr. Francis B. Gross, and he's the host of one of the most notorious mondo/schockumentary films of all time, Faces Of Death. Cut by the BBFC of almost thirty minutes on its initial UK release and still a film of controversy and debate, Faces Of Death even out-grossed Star Wars during its theatrical release in Japan and spawned countless imitators and six sequels (five if you don't include the documentary Faces of Death - Fact Or Fiction?).

    Many of us first heard of the film as kids - it was whispered about in lunchrooms and schoolyards as one of the ultimate cinematic taboos. Many of us, myself included, wouldn't dare watch it because of its much ballyhooed use of actual death footage. Little did we know then what we know now - that most (though not all) of it is obviously quite fake. As a kid, you don't look for goofs and mistakes - it's just not natural. If you revisit the film though, especially on DVD, and now Blu-ray, where the picture quality is cleaner and clearer than those VHS bootlegs most of us first experienced the film on, it's quite obvious that many of the film's most notorious scenes are not real.

    Anyway, on to the content of the film. If you suffer from the same sort of morbid curiosity as I do, you've probably already heard tell of the many sights that Dr. Gross and company will show you during the film's eighty-five minute running time. Do you want to see a parks worker trying to retrieve an alligator only to fall into the lake and be eaten himself? That's exactly what happens when, as the illustrious Dr. Gross states, “the hunter becomes the hunted.” How about some folks chowing down on some monkey brains, almost like that scene out of Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom? That's here too. Let's not forget the flesh eating cult of devil worshippers either, led by none other than the film’s director 'Conan Le Cilaire' himself (his real name is John Alan Schwartz but that isn’t nearly as exotic sounding).

    Throw some snake handling church goers into the mix, spice it liberally with actual footage of real corpses shot in hospitals and morgues as well as some grisly clips from actual autopsies and you've got yourself a movie that's all held together by the most ridiculous and poorly read narration this side of that chain smoking guy in the wood paneled room from Blood Freak.

    Despite all the bogus footage, the film still has a certain air of 'taboo' to it. Probably because it's been so notorious for so long (it still remains banned outright in a few countries around the world) and was widely reputed to be an actual snuff film by those who don't actually understand what a snuff film is. Regardless of the whys and wherefores, the film is darkly interesting despite the bad puns and clichéd rhetoric spouted out by narrator Gross from time to time, an attempt to provide some sort of cohesiveness to the proceedings. Human beings seem to have a natural inclination to be curious about what happens when we die - why else would traffic slow down to a crawl every time there's an accident on the highway? People slow down to look, much the same way millions of people have sought out this movie to satiate their curiosity.

    Once you've seen it and digested it, the film actually does hold up well in its own unusual way. Not only can you spend more time looking for the less obvious slip ups that tell you what's fake and what isn't, but you'll probably find more humor in Gross' antics than you did the first time if you were taken aback by any of the visuals. The strange soundtrack, which runs the gamut from upbeat Dixieland style jazz music to morose funeral music, adds to the surreal atmosphere that the film conjures up. This tends to provide some likely intentional reprieves and instinctive laughter during some scenes which really should be outright disgusting to even the most soured viewers.

    So, while it claims to be a legitimate documentary, it treads that line very carefully and plays much more like an exploitation film than anything else (which, when you get right down to it, is what the film really is). Mondo fans who haven't checked it out yet owe it to themselves to see one of the most controversial films of all time and decide for themselves where they stand on the moral issues the film and its ilk conjure up. If nothing else, it's a fascinating look at death, even if a lot of times we're not seeing the real thing.

    Faces Of Death – Blu-ray Review:

    Gorgon Video brings Faces Of Death to Blu-ray in a VC-1 encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed at 1.85.1 widescreen (“transferred in HD from EXTREMELY RARE vault materials,” we’re told!), taking up just under 21GBs of space on the 25GB disc, that looks considerably better than the old DVD release but which still accurately reflects the nature of the production. Given that this was taken from a bunch of different sources, it makes sense that video quality would vary from one scene to the next, and it does quite a bit. There’s print damage here and there but for the most part the elements used were in decent enough shape. Still, there’s only so much detail you’re going to be able to get out of a movie like this – don’t expect miracles.

    Audio options are provided in Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono and Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound. The 5.1 mix spreads out the score a bit and places some occasional sound effects in the surround channels but is otherwise nothing to write home about. The 2.0 mix is definitely the more ‘authentic’ sounding of the two options. It may be a bit flat but the dialogue and the score sound just fine and the levels are balanced well enough. Optional subtitles are provided in English.

    The best extra on the disc is a full-length commentary with ‘Conan Le Cilaire’ moderated by Michael Felsher of Red Shirt Pictures. They start by talking about the use of stock footage from an actual heart surgery used in the opening, which sets up the character of Dr. Gross. He then talks about how the success of an Italian made film called The Great Hunt, about animals being slaughtered, was a huge hit in Japan which inspired the Japanese investors to come to the company he worked for to ask him to make a similar film about humans. They shot an autopsy as a teaser, which solidified the investors’ interest, and then they went ahead and started making the film. ‘Conan’ talks about the effects work in the film, where actual footage was used as opposed to where the fake footage was used, the use of pseudonyms by many of the crew members, how the audio was tweaked to create an international flair in certain scenes, how the dog fighting scene is actually a precursor to the two dogs in the scene mating, whether or not the movie qualifies as a horror picture, shooting the notorious monkey brain sequence and why the location was changed to the Middle East (where they don’t actually eat monkey brains), the American distribution deal that was put together for the film, how the film uses one hundred percent original music and no library tracks at all, how he himself stood in as the French assassin in the film and his father’s cameo in the scene and how making the film demystified death a bit for him while working on it. As the track progresses into the second half of the movie, it covers the electric chair scene, the concern over the film falling into the hands of children, how people really bought into the film when it was first released, how the film has been seen by pretty much every cop and firefighter on the planet, the concept of cryogenics, the comic relief used in the film, his parents’ thoughts on the film, the stock footage used in the parachute sequence, and why they used a scene about hope and rebirth to finish the film. This is an excellent track, both interesting and sometimes a bit humorous, packed full of great information and a seriously worthwhile talk about the history of the picture.

    There are also two interesting featurettes here, starting with Choice Cuts with editor Glenn Gurner. This sixteen-minute piece lets Turner speak about how he was approached by Conan to work on the film while working at a documentary film company, discussions with the director about the content of the film as well as his own thoughts on the content of the film, how and why he used an alias in the film, how it was difficult for him to work on the picture at the beginning, where some of the footage came from, the film's Japanese financing and showing a rough cut to the financiers (who wanted it to be stronger), the unexpected success of the film around the world, Michael Carr's performance in the film as Dr. Gross and his career as a filmmaker and as an actor and quite a bit more.

    The second featurette is The Death Makers with special make-up FX creators Allan A. Apone and Douglas J. White. Here, over the span of twenty-two-minutes, the interviewees (and a cat who makes a cameo early on) talk about how their FX company was very new when they were approached to work on the picture, interviewing with the producers and director, having to watch 'hours and hours and hours' of death footage as research and how unsettling some of this material was, and putting together the budget for the shoot. They also cover what was involved in some of the set pieces that they created - like the monkey brains sequence - and how some of the effects work was accomplished. They also cover creating the effects for the scene where the SWAT team finds the dead family inside the house, the alligator sequence, having to work fast in certain scenes to make sure props wouldn't melt, how the Arabian execution scene was put together and having to use a lot of extras in the scene and how they feel about the film after all these years.

    The disc also includes a four-minute deleted scene, which was cut from the theatrical version (though included in the home video version) sourced from a tape (film elements no longer exist for it) that shows off photos from criminal executions and footage from a prison execution using cyanide. Additionally, the Gorgon provides eleven-minutes of random outtakes from the feature (footage from the dead body at the beach scene, the shootout sequence with the cops, some slaughterhouse footage and an assortment of stills that document some behind the scenes action - all of this is presented with music over top, there's no live sound for any of it).

    Rounding out the extras are the film’s original three-minute theatrical trailer, menus and chapter selection options.

    Faces Of Death – The Final Word:

    I don't know if 'cult classic' is really the right term to use, but Faces Of Death does hold a unique spot in bizarro movie history as one of the more notorious Mondo style films to ever hit the market. Gorgon has done a fine job bringing this to Blu-ray, with a nice presentation and some great extra features, highlighted by the fascinating director’s commentary track.

    Click on the images below for full sized Faces Of Death Blu-ray screen caps!